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August 2007

Perfect Substitutes: Crowd-Free Destinations

You know that the big-name parks draw big-time crowds. But each of those outdoor icons has a lesser-known replacement that offers some of the same classic features and epic scenery–and you get it all to yourself.

Swap out: Grand Canyon National Park
Swap in: Owyhee Uplands, ID/OR

Everyone should visit the Grand Canyon at least once, preferably by hiking below the rim. To suggest that experience can be duplicated elsewhere might sound like heresy, but here goes: For another jaw-dropping desert-canyon adventure, check out the Owyhee Uplands.

Oh-why-what? Exactly. This high-desert region’s obscurity is a big selling point. Spilling out of southwest Idaho into Nevada and Oregon, the Owyhee Uplands comprise one of the least developed areas in the Lower 48. Juniper-covered plateaus set atop sagebrush tablelands create a sense of limitless open space. Snowy mountains line the horizon, and the many-tentacled Owyhee and Bruneau Rivers groove the underlying basalt and rhyolite. "The Owyhee is as good as any desert landscape in the U.S.," says Sheldon Bluestein, author of Exploring Idaho’s High Desert. "It’s national-park-worthy."

Just don’t expect national-park conveniences. With few roads and fewer trails, the Owyhee is not exactly user friendly. Bushwhacking know-how is essential, and departing the few maintained roads requires high-clearance 4-wheel-drive, topo maps and GPS, and a promising forecast in order to avoid Owyhee Gumbo 30 miles from pavement. First-timers often see it by whitewater raft, and even there the level of commitment is elevated a notch. "We run our trips in expeditionary style, with a high guide-to-guest ratio and lots of time spent scouting the rapids," says Peter Grubb, president of River Odysseys West. "We have to be conservative because of the remoteness."

2 Days
The Colorado Plateau doesn’t hold the patent on fantastically sculpted redrock. Backpack the 17-mile Honeycomb Loop on easternmost Oregon’s Lake Owyhee, and you’ll see towers and spires more typical of southern Utah. "Toward sunset, these 400-foot walls, with all of those eroded pockets and caves in them, glow an intense red due to iron oxides in the rhyolite," says Michael Henetz, an Oregon Natural Desert Association volunteer who has hiked the Honeycombs many times.

Follow an abandoned track along Juniper Ridge to access the head of Honeycombs Canyon. Drop down to Bensley Flat, where you can water up and camp at the lake. Continue by rounding Saddle Butte, with impressive views up and down the reservoir, before picking your way up Carlton Canyon and into Painted Canyon’s tight confines. Hike out of the canyon and cross-country through sagebrush back to your car. This route is rugged and trailless, and even the trailhead is difficult to find. Owyhee Lake is the only water source.

Plan It
Bring USGS quads Pelican Point and Three Fingers Rock, and a route description from Doug Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon ($19).

4 Days
In the 37 miles from Three Forks to Rome, the free-flowing Owyhee River disappears into a chasm of 1,000-foot reddish-brown rhyolite cliffs. Between hair-raising class 3 to 5 rapids, you’ll marvel at jagged columns and spires. Bighorn sheep roam the heights, and golden eagles coast on thermals. The rafting season on the middle section runs from mid-March to early June; that’s when snowmelt from distant northern Nevada mountains cranks up rapids like Widowmaker (class 5+), which is almost always portaged. River Odysseys West is one of several outfitters ($1,345;

Plan It
The waterproof Owyhee & Bruneau Rivers Systems Boating Guide ($18, offers mile-by-mile details.

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