Rugged Owyhee wilds are vast, green and devoid of people

Idaho StatesmanMay 22, 2013 

— An ocean of grayish-green sagebrush looms from horizon to horizon as you walk the canyon rims of Owyhee wilderness areas.

The only sounds are natural ones -- the wind, rustling grasses and brush, and the gurgling of small streams.

It's not the wilderness like you have on popular rivers where rafters are bunched up in long lines and hikers are continually coming around the bends on trails.

Out in the wilds of Owyhee County in Southwest Idaho, you'll probably only meet pronghorns, hawks and bull snakes.

You can thank the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which designated 518,000 acres of public lands in Owyhee County wilderness and 324 miles of canyon waterways as a National Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

That's a whole lot of places to explore and get away from it all.

You have to look at a map to grasp the vastness of the new wilderness areas.

They go from the Idaho/Oregon border east to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho/Nevada line.

They include the Owyhee River, South Fork Owyhee, Little Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers, and Deep and Battle creeks.

The wilderness areas are near and far from roads and trails. A lot of the wilderness is accessible only through cross-country travel by foot or horseback with few formal trails.

And, it's not just one big contiguous wilderness area. There are big chunks of wilderness dispersed in the massive Owyhee Canyonlands, including: Big Jacks Creek Wilderness, 52,826 acres; Bruneau/Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness, 89,996 acres; Little Jacks Creek Wilderness, 50,929 acres; North Fork Owyhee Wilderness, 43,413 acres; and Pole Creek Wilderness, 12,533 acres.

You can explore the Owyhees and its wilderness areas a few steps from your rig off a gravel road or on a long day hike or backpacking trip. You can sit in your car at the end of some road and just look out at the immense wilderness stretching over the horizon.

It's spring, and time's here to explore the Owyhees.

Here are some easy and difficult ways to explore some wilderness and non-wilderness areas in Owyhee County.

Bruneau Overlook

-- What: If you're not into hiking and just want to sit on the edge of wilderness and gaze out into a massive basalt canyon, head for the Bruneau Overlook.

The overlook gives you a birds-eye view of the 800-foot deep canyon. As you look across the canyon, think about the distance of the opposite rim. It's only 1,300 feet away.

The Bruneau River down there and its sister, the Jarbidge upstream are part of the Wild and Scenic system.

It's an easy walk to the rim overlooking the canyon. You can make your hike more strenuous by taking off south through the sagebrush along the rim.

Photographers love this spot for great shots of the canyonlands.

-- How to do it: Take the Hot Springs Road out of Bruneau for 15.6 miles; turn right and go about 3 miles. There is gas and food in Bruneau.

-- Information: Go to blm.gov/id and search for Bruneau Overlook.

Owyhee Byway

-- What: The Owyhee National Backcountry Byway is a gravel road that runs more than 100 miles from Grand View to Jordan Valley, Ore. It offers many places to stop and head out across the desert and uplands.

The road goes through the Little Jacks Creek Wilderness and is adjacent to the Pole Creek and North Fork Owyhee wilderness areas.

You can camp in undeveloped spots along the way and take short hikes into wilderness areas.

Make this at least a two-day trip and explore different areas.

The North Fork of the Owyhee River Campground, which is along the way, is a good place to camp and hike if you want to stick with a developed campground.

-- How to do it: Drive out of Grand View on Highway 78 and take the Mud Flat Road on the right. Head out to Jordan Valley, Ore., and return on Highway 95 to the Treasure Valley.

You also can go out the Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway from Grand View until you find a good camping and hiking spot and then return the same way back to Grand View. Gas and food are in Grand View.

-- Information: blm.gov/id and search Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway.

Shoofly trail

-- What: Here's an area right off the Owyhee Byway where you can take a short hike or long backpack trek across sage lands and into canyons.

It's usually below snowline and can be done in early spring or in mild winters.

BLM acquired private land here to connect with wild lands.

You can make the hike as easy or tough as you want.

You'll get into canyons along the East and West forks of Shoofly Creek.

-- How to do it: Follow the directions above for the Owyhee Byway. One mile past the Poison Creek Recreation Site, you'll see a fenced area, a gate and some gravel parking on the left (south side of the road).

That's the start of the trail. Use the word trail loosely if you're used to well-worn paths in the Foothills or Forest Service trails.

-- Information: Use the same links to the Owyhee Byway.

Parker Trail

-- What: This is the perfect beginner trail to get a taste of the wilderness around Big Jacks Creek.

It's a 2.4-mile round trip hike. Although the hike is short, it's steep, but you'll be rewarded with great views of the sagebrush expanse. There are some burned areas because of last summer's wildfires, but greenup is starting to come along.

-- Caution: Don't be deceived by the short and relatively accessible trail.

It requires good map- and route-finding skills and demands that travelers have the skills to safely negotiate steep, rocky terrain.

-- How to do it: On Highway 51, head south from Bruneau 25 miles to milepost 45 and continue 0.1 mile farther south. Head right (west) on Wickahoney Road, which is unmarked.

Reset trip odometer immediately and follow this mileage:

-- 0.0: Wickahoney Road at Highway 51.

-- 4.8: There's a wilderness kiosk with good information.

Turn right (north) onto two-track.

-- 7.4: Trailhead parking on left at rock road barrier.

-- Note: There are a few closed roads on the way to the trailhead. Don't take a wrong turn.

-- Information: Go to blm.gov/id and search for Parker Trail.

Wickahoney Creek

-- What: The desert rim where Wickahoney and Big Jacks creeks come together offers unforgettable desert views, however you will see burned areas from last summer's wildfires.

The hike requires moderate-to-strenuous cross-county hiking on rimrock, but the views are expansive.

-- How to do it: Use the same directions as getting to Parker Trail.

However, instead of continuing down the two-track to the Parker Trail, hike out cross-country from the wilderness kiosk.

There is no formal trail. You can head cross country on the rimrock along the rim of Wickahoney Creek to the point where Wickahoney Creek meets Big Jacks Creek.

It's a great place for a lunch stop. You can hike back along the Big Jacks Creek and Duncan Creek rim and then cut across country back to your starting place.

It's like a big triangle. Be sure to take your GPS and mark where your car is located.

-- Information: Same links as Parker Trail.

Little Jacks Creek

-- What: This is a hike in a rugged desert canyon on the Owyhee Front. It features grassy slopes in rimrock country.

You can do 1- to 5-mile hikes along the creek and strenuous hiking up the canyon and side slopes.

This is a popular hiking area that has been featured in local trail guides.

-- How to do it: Head out of Grand View on Highway 78 and take the Mud Flat Road on the right.

At about 7.5 miles, take a left on Shoofly Cutoff Road. At about 2.7 miles, make a right on the Halfway Gulch Road.

Drive another 7.6 miles and take a left at the intersection. In a little more than 3 miles, go right at a triangle intersection. The lower trailhead is down in the canyon, and the upper trailhead is 0.3 mile away.

This is a complicated route and even trekkers who know the area get turned around.

It is best to map this out on your computer topo program and get coordinates for your GPS.

-- Information: Trails of Western Idaho, by Margaret Fuller.

Marys Creek/

Sheep Creek Areas

-- What: You'll find good hiking along Sheep Creek to its confluence with Marys Creek, or on the rimrock overlooking Marys Creek. It's called the Tindall Creek area.

It's a rugged canyon and rimrock hiking. It can be strenuous depending on the distance. There's a short hike at the confluence of Marys and Sheep creeks. Some people just like to hike the roads in this area.

-- How to do it: Take Highway 51 south of Bruneau until you get 0.4 mile south of Grasmere.

Go east on Roland Road and take a left at 5 miles. Drive 0.2 mile to the parking area. There is a wilderness kiosk on Roland Road where it crosses Marys Creek.

-- Information: sagehiker.net and search for Marys Creek in Owyhee County.

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