Descent Into Heaven:
Rafting the Bruneau River

    The most inaccessible river in the United States.— "Understatement," I thought as I bumped over countless miles of quarry-rough road in the inhospitable high desert of southwestern Idaho.

    I scanned the horizon for some sign of the Bruneau River, our destination for a 3-4 day rafting adventure. Just as I was about to decide you'd have to be a bird to find the damned river, I caught a glimpse of the Jarbridge/Bruneau confluence, one of the few spots where the gorge widens enough so that you can see the river.

    Near the river, the ecosystem changed dramatically. All along the banks lush stands of grass, willows and wild flowers flourished in abundance. Indian Hot Springs, one of many points of geothermal activity along the Bruneau, steamed out of the western bank. Though it was late May, light snow fell as we prepared the rafts, the flakes evaporating in the mist from the hot springs. Compared to the bleak desert above, this was heaven....

    The sides of the gorge are vertical for almost 30 miles, so steep that no one would see you on the river unless they crawled to the edge and hung their head over to peer down. A man with a good arm could throw a rock across the slender canyon at some points, where it may be narrow, but more than 2000 feet deep—the deepest gorge, for its width, in the United States.

    The river has cut its way through an enormous basin of rhyolite flows dating back about 12 million years. The high silica content and the homogenous nature of the flows have combined to create such regal cliffs that their beauty is hard to describe. It's a celestial event to travel the river between these smooth giants, which capture the would-be adventurer in more ways than one. I realized that the cliffs were, for the most part, not climbable even if I had brought rock climbing gear with me. Helicopter rescue is not a possibility on the Bruneau. Hell could be just around the corner in this heaven.

    The Bruneau is no river for the indecisive or the timid. A mistake at Kendall's Cave will result in an overturned raft trapped under a logjam. I don't mind swimming an overturned craft to calmer water, or retrieving it downstream, but disentangling one from a logjam is far more dangerous. Luckily, the cliffs encasing the Bruneau reduce the number of downed trees in the river. The jam

at the Cave was the only problematic flotsam we encountered.

    I lost one toenail and took some nasty hits on the shin as I towed my over-turned raft out of a rough spot into calmer water. My brother, who could see that I was safe, called out with high humor, "Swim for all you're worth, this is your last chance!" The river took revenge for me, stranding his raft on a partially submerged boulder. He spent half and hour getting through the section that took me three minutes. I sat on the bank, eating granola bars and offering helpful comments.

    By day three on the river we were old hands, but still nervously checked the topo maps looking for clues to the beginning of Five Mile Rapids, the most famous and roughest water on the Bruneau. The cliffs began to mellow, but in places the walls still forced the river into a narrow, straight path through sudden darkness. For the most part, these were a welcome respite. There were no shallows to avoid, no turns or hidden currents, no shore, just deep almost voiceless water. In the narrowest part of the gorge we saw a golden eagle swimming through the air upstream, his wing beats echoing back to us off the cliffs. We were so close in that confined space that I could see the turbulence from his wings ruffling his tail feathers. "This," I thought, "Is what running the Bruneau is all about."

    We were scouting for a place to camp for our last night on the river when we came on Five Mile Rapids unexpectedly. We'd just rejected a knobby gravel bar on our right as not being up to the standards of the previous nights' camps, and had wearily pushed off into the current. As we came around the corner, the river looked like it was filled with teeth. Big rectangular boulders stuck up everywhere. White water frothed at their bases. We were fighting our way through them before we had a chance to do anything about it.

    Compared to the previous rapids we'd encountered, these seemed to go on forever. I gained a little on Leland at one point and he flashed me a grin and shouted, "I think we found Five Mile Rapids!" I smiled back, then spun myself around backwards as the only logical way to get through two close-set teeth. I whipped my oars out of the way and cleared the boulders with about an inch to spare, then dug hard on the right side to face forward again. We battled through about half of the rapids and my arms were beginning to tire when we spotted a refuge on the left. We both pulled hard for shore and beached our rafts. We stood around for awhile, panting and grinning foolishly. About this gravel bar we had no complaints. We set up camp and slept deeply and well on the rocks.

    Whitewater aficionados often put in just above Five-Mile Rapids, shoot the rough stuff and then climb out. To me, this is a Class VI sin, because they miss the cliffs for which the Bruneau is justifiably famous. The gorge upstream of the long rapids is another world, a house with a thousand rooms and all of them fathomless.


More photos from the Owyhee Canyonlands area are posted below.

Leland Howard taking a photo in Little Jacks Creek Canyon. Photo by Lynna.

Leland Howard’s truck and tent on the rim of Little Jacks Creek Canyon. Photo by Lynna.

We got our boots wading in the narrow confines of Little Jacks Creek Canyon. Photo by Lynna.

Playa near the confluence of Bruneau and Jarbidge River Canyons. This photo was taken about half a mile from the rim of Bruneau Canyon. Photo by Lynna.

© Lynna Howard, 2008, do not copy or use in any way without permission from the author. Thank you.


Bruneau River is hidden in the deepest gorge for its width in the United States.

Photo courtesy of Leland Howard, ©2008, do not copy or use in any way without permission.

PrueHeart the Wanderer’s "office" on the
brink of the Bruneau River chasm.
Photo by Lynna Howard, ©2006

Little Jacks Canyon, a tributary of the Owyhee River, is located in a Wilderness Study Area west of the Bruneau River.

Photo by Lynna Howard.

Geological  Survey marker, 1917,  near Zeno Canyon.

Mud coats Leland’s truck. We slithered through about 50 miles of backcountry roads after a spring rainstorm in the Owyhee Canyonlands. Photo by Lynna.

North Fork of the Owyhee River, near the Idaho/Oregon border.

Photo by Lynna Howard.

Pillars of erosion-resistant rock in Zeno Canyon.

Photo by Lynna Howard.

Desert Indian paintbrush on the rim of Little Jacks Creek Canyon.
Photo by Lynna Howard, ©2006

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An extremely rare sight in the Owyhee Canyonlands desert areas -- an aspen grove thrives near a spring. This view was taken from our campsite above Zeno Canyon.

Photo by Lynna Howard.

Leland Howard sets up to take a photo of an almost free-standing pillar above Zeno Canyon. This view was taken not far from the geological survey marker pictured above. Visitors cannot enter Zeno Canyon from here. You can see the leafless aspen grove near the approach route where one can hike into Zeno Canyon from the other side. This photo was taken in April, before the trees had leafed out. Photo by Lynna Howard.

The two-track road leading to the aspen grove and springs above Zeno Canyon. This road is not signed on the ground. Photo by Lynna Howard.

Original pioneer home built of native rock at Winter Camp.

Photo by Lynna Howard.

The South Fork of the Owyhee River as seen from the ridge above 45 Ranch. Photo by Leland.

A spring storm forms over the South Fork of the Owyhee River in late April. Photo ©Leland Howard.

See for more information on photographer, Leland Howard.