The road trip to Succor Creek Natural Area and Leslie Gulch in eastern Oregon has long been a popular day trip for Treasure Valley residents who want to experience deep canyons, tall spires and arches of volcanic ash.
I drove to the area, about two hours from Boise, in part to see how much the Soda Fire had reached into this corner of the largest shrub-steppe ecosystem in western North America. The answer is a lot since the 279,000-acre fire burned in Succor Creek Natural Area and a large expanse around it.
Another fire burned into Leslie Gulch’s backcountry earlier this summer. Neither dramatically changed the stunning scenery that makes these two natural areas oases in a sea of remoteness. But the fires did put more strain on the struggling sage grouse that is the icon of this ecosystem.
The drive begins in Homedale, just west of the Idaho border where Idaho 19 turns into Oregon 201. A sign directs you to the left turn onto Succor Creek Road to Succor Creek State Park. The gravel road crosses a wide expanse of the sagebrush steppe, empty and secluded like it has been since relatives of the Shoshone and Paiute Indians first arrived here 15,000 years ago.
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Then you reach the state park, a canyon lush with trees along the trickling water of Succor Creek. The next leg of the drive takes you 9 miles past a series of ranches until you get to a right turn into Leslie Gulch. The road begins with a panoramic view of the Snake River country and then drops into the canyon, a labyrinth of side canyons, rocky towers and stair-like benches that ends at Owyhee Reservoir.
This day trip took me to the edge of the heart of nowhere — the great Owyhee Canyonlands that stretch from the Jarbidge country on the east into Nevada at the headwaters of the Owyhee River and north to Reynolds Creek and Hard Trigger canyons in Owyhee County.
The western portion is in Oregon, broken only by three paved roads and inhabited by hardy ranchers who graze their cattle in the steep-sided canyons laid down by volcanic activity from the same hotspot that created Yellowstone National Park. I also found motorcyclists, four-wheelers, campers and anglers fishing in the waters of tree-lined Succor Creek.
These two areas are a part of a 2.5 million landscape on the Oregon side of the line that a coalition wants protected the same way as Idaho’s Owyhee uplands and canyons. The proposal would designate 2 million acres as wilderness within a National Conservation Area. This area goes south to the Three Forks area and includes the canyons of the Owyhee River, Edward Abbey, author of the environmental classic “Desert Solitaire,” called the Owyhee one of the great rivers of the world. Floaters love this stretch in the spring.
Hikers and backpackers have hundreds of miles of trails to choose from, including the Little Owyhee River canyon. Leslie Creek has a series of excellent hikes for people of all experience levels.
Already, 518,000 acres are protected as wilderness in the Idaho part of this area that is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. The Oregon side has only three paved roads crossing it.
The Owyhee Canyonlands is the largest undeveloped, unprotected expanse in the lower 48 states. Its red-rock canyons, pristine rivers and intact sagebrush uplands are home to native redband trout and one of the largest herds of California bighorn sheep in the nation. One of the six most important areas in the nation for the survival of sage-grouse lies in the southern reaches of the Owyhee.
“This high-desert country is more fragile than you’d think,” said Walt Van Dyke, a longtime Ontario, Ore., resident and retired wildlife biologist and avid hunter. “I don’t think we can rely on remoteness to keep the sort of impacts we don’t want from happening here.”
Camping is available near Leslie Gulch area by the Owyhee River at Slocum Creek. It has 12 tightly spaced sites with little shade, but there are canopies over the picnic tables. Campsites are congregated in a small space, so don’t expect a lot of privacy. I wouldn’t take a large RV into the gulch because the road is steep.