Friday, October 15, 2010

Adventures and Misadventures at Three Forks Warm Springs

Imagine a hotspring oasis in a far-flung, remote river canyon in Oregon's high desert. Here, a warm creek bubbles out from under a rock and flows down a series of natural rock slides into a multitude of crystal clear little pools, big pools, waterfalls and natural 98-degree jacuzzis perched on cliffs overlooking the Owyhee River canyon. Cattails grow in warm marshes along the river bars, redwing blackbirds sing, bass jump in the river, and all the stars come out at night. That, my friends, is Three Forks Warm Springs. I discovered this place in our Hiking Hotsprings in the Pacific Northwest book by Evie Litton about 6 years ago. Our family decided to head out on a desert hotsprings vacation one hot July weekend, and after driving through the lonely desert for hours and hours, following a dusty BLM road for another 30 miles or so, and then braving a sketchy jeep road up over a hill, we dropped down into this green paradise where little streams of hot water wound through the grasses and flowed over the rocks in natural showers. We all agreed that it was one of our favorite places, EVER. Three years later, we made it back on the way to our big Idaho hot spring road trip vacation, and we spent two blissful days in late September with the whole place all to ourselves. We camped out on a river bar, soaked all day, had great campfires at night watching little bats dip and glide, and were just plain content. My kids have been asking to go back ever since. Another three years passed, and we decided another visit was long overdue. We invited two families to go with us, and set off down the road for some serious adventure. Now, I'll tell you that I've been known to be a restless, wander-lust filled sort, and as a result I have been on all kinds of adventures. This one was a BIG adventure. Or misadventure, depending on how you look at it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

We planned to go in early October because our friend is a teacher and had some in-service days, because we have a small homestead farm to take care of and figured the big flurry of activity would be over by then, and because the fall is the absolute best time to go camping. It's spectacular. We planned on cold nights, but didn't think much about wet weather and muddy roads. Here is where the adventure begins. We wanted to break up the long drive across the state into two days to avoid the scene of trying to get in there in the dark.  Our friends  couldn't head out when we did, but they planned to hike in and meet us the first night. There is a two mile trail you can follow in along the river from Three Forks if your vehicle isn't 4-wheel drive to make it over the jeep road. We just happened to have this old Suburban that was the retired surveying vehicle from my husband's office, and opted to drive all the way in because we thought that October camping with kids warranted extra-preparedness with cold weather gear, firewood, a full camp kitchen, and good hearty food. We loaded in some of our friends' extra food and gear, and hit the road to drive as far as we could that first night.

The next day, we made it in on the road before the rainstorm hit. We had no idea the BLM road from Rome to Three Forks was ever anything but a dusty drive. What no one ever told us, and the guidebooks failed to mention, is that this 30 mile stretch of road turns into a muddy mess in the rain. It should never, ever be attempted without 4-wheel drive. We hit one patch of mud on the way in, thinking our friends might have to take that section easy in their vehicles, and apparently the whole thing turned to muddy slush behind us. We didn't know this yet, however, and headed on in to get camp set up and wait for our friends.

Three Forks is an aptly named place on the map where the north fork of the Owyhee River flows into the Main Fork. After coming down a gravel grade of switchbacks off of the canyon rim, you come to an old BLM ranch site, primitive camping areas, and a launch site for river rafters. This spot is easy enough to get to provided the roads are dry (as we now know.) From here, a hiking trail follows the river upstream to the hotsprings two miles. We checked it out, and it's very back-packable. You can also take a very rough jeep road up over the hill provided that you have 4-wheel drive and high clearance. Even in the rain, this road is down to bedrock, and wasn't particularly more nasty than usual.

After bumping and jostling over a very rocky road, we made our descent down into the Warm Springs part of the canyon. Notice the waterfall in the background behind the's a hot creek! Here the road gets a little rougher with some warm rills flowing over it, so it must be taken slowly. Then one can choose to veer right and camp in the grassy campsites directly across the river from the springs, and right down the hill from two small soaking pools with showers flowing out of metal pipes. For the very hardy adventurer who appreciates having the very best campsite all to themselves, one can veer left, drive through some VERY deep mud pits (proceed with caution) and cross the river at a shallow ford to a large gravel bar on the other side with  an old road providing a good path to the hot spring. By camping here, you avoid having to wade the river and climb up a cliff every time you want a soak. It also ensures that you will have some measure of privacy, as the grassy spots across the river do get some other campers from time to time, and a screen of willows completely blocks this gravel bar from sight and sound.

Here we had our first big misadventure. When fording a river in your vehicle, make sure to get out and walk across first, choosing the most shallow spot, and then drive through slowly as to not make a wake come up over the hood to stall you out. Even if you have crossed there before, as we had, don't get overly confident about it. We were stuck in the middle of the river for about an hour. We hauled all of our gear out to make the bed of the Suburban sit higher up in case we should be there for a while. Finally, just as I was beginning to really panic, my husband got it to start. We proceeded across and set up our camp, with great sighs of relief.

Once we made camp, had a soak, and went to bed with no sign of our friends, it started to really rain. It rained all night long. In the morning, we found a bird hunter camped in the grassy area across the river, and we asked him if he had seen our friends on the way in. We gained quite a bit of knowledge from this conversation. First, we realized it was opening weekend for bird hunting in Oregon, and we were going to have a lot of company. Second, we learned that October is a really iffy time to come here, and this guy had experienced snow and zero degree weather in some of his years coming here. Thirdly, we found out that the road had turned to mud behind us, and not only was no one getting in with cars, folks in trucks and Suburbans weren't getting out until it dried out for a couple of days. Still, we hiked the two mile trail down the canyon to ask at Three Forks for news of our friends. No one had seen them, and all had the same news of the road to report. All mud. We realized we were stuck... stuck in paradise, but stuck all the same. All we could do was hope they had found new camping food and a fun place to spend their vacation. I tried not to feel too guilty about having their food, cook stove and a couple of tents in the back of our rig.

In spite of all the wild adventures, the rest of the trip was blissful. The weather was hot and sunny during the days, and chilly only at night. Even then, lows were maybe mid-40's and mornings were in the 50's. Not bad for October camping! We hiked around, soaked, swam, cooked delicious meals, fished and just relaxed for three days. The kids built trails, caught a lizard, and waded in the river. It was a great vacation. We didn't even mind all the hunters zipping about in their quads and doing what hunters do. We were actually feeling a little left out of all the fun! They kept asking us what we were hunting, and looked at us kind of funny when we said, "nothing." We both grew up in hunting families, and we were wishing we could get one of those chukars or ducks for our dinner! The biggest impression left on me was the burning desire for a canvas wall tent...but more about that later.

Here's where the hot creek and waterfalls flow into the Owyhee River. With all that moving water, the pools stay clean and crystal clear.

Here's the big soaking pool. It's about three feet deep with a gravelly bottom, and just right for floating on your back to watch the clouds. All the way up the creek from here are more little pools, and perfect natural water slides. It's better than Wild Waves or Splash any day!

Here's the natural jacuzzi pool. This one is perched on the rocks right above the big waterfall, and a smaller falls flowing in makes a great shower and bubbly soak.

Both of these upper pools achieve an "infinity pool" effect. Who needs fancy mansions with infinity pools when you can have this in the wilderness for free!

The view down the canyon from the hotsprings.

The night before we were supposed to drive home, it rained and thundered all night long. If you've never been in a desert thunderstorm, they're pretty spectacular. The thunder booms and reverberates off of every rock face and canyon wall for miles around. It made for an exciting night! We did make it back across the river, through the mud pits, over the jeep road and up the grade to the canyon rim unscathed. There we found a very muddy 30 miles of road to drive out on. We made it, but realized there was no way our friends could have. It was probably for the best they didn't make it in, because there was no way they would have made it out! A cel-phone message awaited us, saying that the mud would not let them pass, they were alright, and had gone to camp at some Idaho hotsprings north of Boise. They certainly had adventures of their own to tell us about. Hopefully they're up for another adventure with us someday!

The goal was to have a vacation both adventurous and relaxing, and I'd say we met that goal. My annual fall wanderlust has been satisfied, and I am now ready to settle into the cold, rainy Oregon winter. While we set out on our journey well prepared, I see now that we still had a lot to learn about coordinating with friends and the reliability of remote dirt roads. Never take a river crossing lightly. In October camping, the weather can be a serious factor to consider. So can planning around hunting season. The most important thing I was reminded of, is when adventuring, always remain flexible. It's key.

If you are reading this and thinking that you will never feel truly fulfilled in life until you travel to Three Forks Warm Springs, here are a few words of advice: Plan to go sometime in June through the end of September. October is pushing it for weather and road conditions, and you will compete with many hunters all wanting a soak once hunting season starts. Don't attempt the final jeep road without 4-wheel drive. You can drive in to Three Forks with your car, provided the roads are dry, and backpack in. Plan for very hot weather during the day and pack in obscene amounts of drinking water. Plan for cold weather at night and bring warm sleeping bags and clothing. Let someone know where you're going. Don't do anything reckless or crazy in your vehicle out there. I heard stories of a thousand dollar tow job. Watch for poison ivy around the edge of the pools. It has leaves in clusters of three and turns bright red in the fall. Bring a snake bite kit, since there are rattlesnakes out there. And always be ready for adventures big and small!

Directions to Three Forks Warm Springs:
If you are feeling burly and up for big adventures, travel to the farthest southeastern corner of Oregon to U.S. Highway 95. If you are coming from Burns Junction, continue 30 miles east to a road marked with a sign to "Three Forks" at milepost 36. Follow the dirt road for 30 miles to where it meets up with the other road and proceed another two miles to the canyon rim. If you were coming from Jordan Valley, go east, turning right at a fork after 3 miles. Then bear right at the next fork where the pavement ends in 7 miles past a school. Take another right at a sign marked "three forks."

Once you're at the top of the rim looking down at Three Forks, proceed carefully down the steep gravel switchbacks to the bottom.

Here's some info from Evie Litton's hotspring book:
"This remote spot, traditionally accessed by fishermen and a few hardy river runners, marks the confluence of three tributaries of the Owyhee River, hence the name Three Forks. The Middle and North forks of the Owyhee come together .5 miles to the east and flow into the main fork of the river at the BLM camp and launch site.

A 3-mile jeep road takes a roundabout route from Three Forks Camp to the warm springs. This is the principal access, but when the river level is low, usually from June to October, hike a nice loop by walking up the river canyon to the springs and then following the road back to camp.

The route starts by fording the combined Middle and North forks at the launch site. Jagged walls shadow the deep canyon, and an intermittent path reaches the springs about 2.5 miles upstream. To complete the loop, follow the jeep road up the steep bank and swing east to breathtaking views of the gorge. The track curves around a hill at the high point on the hike, then dips across a sagebrush valley and drops to ford the Middle Fork.

The Warm Springs: Clusters of 95-degree springs are located on both sides of the river, and the rugged Owyhee canyon forms a magnificent backdrop. There's a camping area along the east bank where several warm streams snake through tall grass to the river. Above are two tiny pools each with a sit-down shower provided by a length of pipe. But the best is yet to come.

On the opposite bank, several thermal waterfalls pour into the river at 3,750 liters per minute, all emanating from Warm Springs Canyon. You may spot a rope dangling from a boulder above the largest falls. That's your target. But don't aim for it during the spring runoff or you'll likely end up downstream in Rome. Ford the cold river and climb to a large soaking pool enclosed between two boulders. This gem is a good 3 feet deep and has a gravel bottom. The scouring action of three cascades pouring into it keeps it clean as a whistle; the resulting warm jacuzzi is delightful. There's another pool or two upstream, but beyond the source the side canyon is dry."  -Evie Litton, from Hiking Hotsprings in the Pacific Northwest


  1. Great post and pictures! Amazing hot a little rain can turn the high-desert into a mud hole! Glad you made it in and out safe and sound. Keep up the great blog!

  2. This looks amazing!! I can't wait to go...maybe not in the Fall though!!

  3. Love Three Forks. Glad you enjoyed it, glad you made it out ok. Wasn't long after you left that a bird watcher got stranded down there for a week and a half.

    1. It's a great spot. I'm not surprised someone got stuck down there since we almost did! I haven't been back since 2010, so this is a good reminder that I need to plan another trip!

  4. We are looking forward to visiting these hot springs this summer! Thanks so much for all the insider tips on going. I really appreciate it!

    1. Thanks Andrea and I hope you enjoy it! This is one of my very favorite spots, and definitely worth the trek!