The Honeycombs, Owyhee Reservoir (Oregon)
Let’s just get this out of the way: this is not an easy backpacking trip. If you’re looking for a serene walk through a slot canyon ending in a nice beach with fishing access, look somewhere else. If you’re looking to test your grit, your skill and muscles you didn’t even know existed, then welcome to the post you psycho.
I’ve written about the Owyhee Reservoir before, and still think of our trip to Echo Rock Hot Springs as one of the trails that shaped me as a backpacker. Our unpreparedness for that trip led to an over-preparedness for this one, but I would much rather be ready for anything than stuck in the desert with fewer supplies than needed.
Getting to the trail head
Directions to the trail head are fairly easy to follow. As the area is used for grazing, there are several cattle guards and barbed wire fences to get through on the way there, but most of those were already open for the season when we rolled through. The trouble for us came when our tires got so covered with mud that we couldn’t get any traction on the road. I am not a very experienced back country driver, but I learned a lot about sliding, shifting and gunning it on this road.
Be careful if you make this drive in the rain (or consider saving it for a sunny day), it would be very easy to get stuck in the mud or even flip over in some spots. We were lucky that the ground was just dry enough that we could make it through, but on more than one occasion I definitely thought we were stuck for good. The road is hilly, rocky and treacherous in more than a few places, so proceed with caution.
There is a small marker for the trail head right next to the parking area, and from there it is a slow descent to the top of Honeycombs basin. If you’re familiar with the foothills around Boise, this terrain is similar, sporting lots of sagebrush, cheat grass and indian paintbrush flowers. The trail can be a bit tricky, as it is relatively unmaintained and overgrown in a few places, but if you keep heading in a south-westerly direction and keep your eyes peeled, you’ll find it again. There are a few cairns to mark the way as well, so be on the lookout for those.
You’ll know when you get to the tricky part of the hike, as the sloping hill becomes a steep drop into the dry basin below. We lost the trail and ended up going left when we should have gone right, a detour that led us to an impassable cliff. It was fun climbing around in the canyon for a bit and messing around with echos, but I would recommend taking your pack off and exploring, rather than carrying it around in the hopes of finding the way down.
On the trail map you might notice that there is a large gap in the line marking the trail – that’s because once you’re in the canyon it’s more of a slide down / scramble up
(depending on which way you’re coming from) and although we did find some cairns marking a semi-trail, the best way down is really whatever works best for you. The terrain is sandy, with sparse vegetation and rocky outcroppings along the way, making footing a bit tricky. We ended up descending an exceptionally steep part of the trail, but by cutting our own switchbacks and taking it really slowly, (with frequent rests to give our poor knees a break), we made it down without incident.
Once you’re down the hill and back on the trail, the true beauty of the Honeycombs really starts to take shape. The trail winds along / in a dry riverbed, taking you through the heart of towering golden and red canyon walls. I am a bit of a geology nerd and couldn’t stop talking about the lava flows that created pockets of air and subsequent erosion that led to the honeycomb-esque holes dotting the canyon. Even if rocks aren’t your thing, the natural beauty of the colorful formations create an unforgettable landscape to wander through.
It’s a few miles from the foot of the canyon to Owyhee Lake, and in the desert heat it can seem like a long haul. We were so happy to round a corner and finally see a patch of green trees and the twinkle of the reservoir ahead of us.
The trail led us right to a campsite on the beach, complete with several fire-pits and a nice grove of trees, perfect for hanging hammocks and water filters.
There was a lot of horse manure around the campsite but it was old and dry, nothing stinky to attract bugs. Speaking of bugs, there were surprisingly few of them! I put on bug repellent as a matter of habit, but didn’t get a single mosquito bite which has literally never happened to me before this trip.
WARNING: We did see two spiders that looked like black widows. I haven’t been able to find anything conclusive as to whether or not they were real black widows or false black widows, but both are venomous so just be careful about closing your tent (because that’s where I found one of them, crawling across my sleeping bag) and keep an eye out for creepy crawlies!
Our campsite was perfect and the lake water was decent for drinking, although I was happy we packed extra filtration measures; when the wind picked up it stirred up the water and made it much cloudier. I’m still going to have to replace the filter on my gravity bag, but pre-filtering our water definitely helped keep it cleaner, longer.
After a tough hike and a quick dip in the lake, we were happy to just relax in our hammocks and enjoy the sounds of nature. It was so exceptionally quiet there, although there are lots of fishing boats roaming around the lake. We saw other people at a distance but the only ones we interacted with was a group of bird watchers who wandered along the beach following a golden eagle. An owl took up his post in the trees over our hammocks, cocking his head from side to side and winning every staring contest we challenged him to. A small bull snake found his way under a log near our campfire, and once the sun went down the crickets added their chorus to the sounds of water lapping at the beach and wind whispering through the trees. It was serene and secluded, the perfect camp spot to remind us what being in the wilderness feels like.
On our second day, we hiked back through the canyon to explore more of the rock formations, and in the afternoon hunkered down in our tents as a small thunderstorm rolled over us. That evening we were treated to a beautiful sunset and I got to do the thing where I take a picture of the moon and a planet (Venus in this case) in one shot.
See my post on Padar Island for my all time favorite picture of Jupiter and the moon!
We woke up early on our third day, knowing that the desert heat would pick up and make our trek miserable if we waited too long to get moving. Thankfully some cloud cover showed up and seemed to follow us through the canyon, making the slightly uphill (barely noticeable on the way in, but we felt the incline going out) grind more tolerable. The big challenge of climbing up that steep incline was definitely strenuous, but I felt going up was much easier than coming down. After reaching the top, the hike back to the truck went pretty quickly. We saw another thunderstorm rolling over the hills toward the canyon, but it stayed just to our right, providing cloud cover and deliciously refreshing bursts of cool wind.
This trip was a solid reminder of everything that makes backpacking such an amazing experience. The hike was physically and mentally challenging, the terrain was tough, but the views and the campsite were so worth the effort of getting to the trail head and making the trek in. If you’re looking for a challenging hike in the Owyhee Reservoir region, this is the trail for it!