One of the best discoveries I experienced while researching my guidebook on the Owyhee Canyonlands was Sage Creek canyon near Succor Creek State Park, just across the border in Eastern Oregon.
Sage Creek is a hidden canyon less than a mile before the park. But if you’re not watching for it, you could easily blow right past it.
But it’s a great find because it’s not only scenic treasure, packed with geologic wonders, it’s also very accessible year-round via the well-graveled, compacted Succor Creek dirt road. The best time to visit is in the fall, winter and spring.
On a recent Saturday in early February, Wendy and I visited Sage Creek canyon. We parked our SUV at the beginning of a two-track road that snakes up Sage Creek on the flats for about a mile or so before reaching the gateway of the canyon. With water running down the middle of the road, it was obviously too muddy to try to drive up-canyon with our medium-sized SUV.
But hiking the road works fine. The two track road serves as your trail for about a mile until it disappears at the beginning of Sage Creek canyon. You also can walk up the creek or next to the creek — your choice.
Wendy and I brought our knee-high muck/duck boots for walking in the creek-bottom, encountering muddy spots and cruising through the sagebrush into the canyon. That was the perfect call for the day’s adventure. My feet stayed dry all day, and I had excellent footing the whole way.
At the opening of the yawning canyon, the two track disappears, and you follow the creek-bottom or game trails up the narrow draw. The scenery changes almost with every step from this point forward for the next couple of miles. Take your time.
Incidentally, this is a great hike for families and kids. It’s not very steep, easy to moderate difficulty, and it’s a place where your kids will thrive in the natural world. Lots of rocks, water and sticks.
Towering reddish-orange rhyolite spires, fins and phallic-type rocks jut into the sky as you’re walking up the draw. A few small caves come into view. What’s inside? And then more rock walls come into view, this time more recent basalt lava flows.
Watch your footing but keep your eyes ahead because this whole canyon is full of spectacular volcanic rock and ash formations.
According to geologists, the rhyolite volcanic eruptions that created the colorful display in the canyon occurred 8-12 million years ago. They were explosive events similar to the impressive blast of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Repeated eruptions laid down extensive layers of rhyolite that were later carved into cathedral-like shapes by wind, weather and water.
The dark-brown or black basalt lava flows came much later, 2-5 million years ago, according to geologic experts. In many places in Sage Creek, you’ll see some areas where basalt lava rock caps volcanic ash deposits that had been laid down by events millions of years previous. Kind of a sandwich-effect, you might say, in the most simplistic terms.
The Ancient Lake Idaho also may have influenced the rock formations you see in Sage Creek canyon and nearby Succor Creek State Park. About 2 million years ago, Lake Idaho — an immense body of water that covered much of the western Snake Plain from Eastern Oregon to Twin Falls — drained through Hells Canyon. The down-cutting forces of water draining out of the Owyhee Plateau played a role in forming the spires, hoo doos and unique rocks in the canyons such as Sage Creek.
About a half-mile up Sage Creek Canyon, there’s a small rock-climbing move required to climb a small waterfall. Continuing up the canyon, more of the white, blond and green volcanic ash-flow tuff layers come into view on both sides of the creek. Try to nick the rock with your fingernail, and you’ll see how soft and erosive it is. Teachable moment for kids.
A little farther up-canyon, you’ll see some balance-rock features, with basalt caps perched on top of ashflow tuff layers. (Please don’t touch!) About 2.5 miles up-canyon, there’s a left-side draw that has several vertical balance-rock features that resemble phallic symbols. Let your imagination be your guide.
The upper end of Sage Creek can be reached via the McIntyre Springs primitive 4WD road, if you’d ever like to do a shuttle or try out the upper end by road. I have approached the canyon from both directions, and there is a pretty cool place to car-camp off the McIntyre Springs road at the top of the canyon. But as I mentioned before, the Succor Creek Road is by far the best way to access the canyon in the winter and early spring (no muddy road issues).
I recommend packing snacks or a lunch and hanging out by the balance-rock wonderland about 2.5 miles up-canyon. You can do a short side hike to the top of the canyon to the north, or a much more extensive side hike on the south side of the canyon to the top of McIntyre Ridge.
Otherwise, this is your turn-around spot to return to your rig, retracing your steps the way you came.