5 Ways to Explore the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness

Desert plateaus go on forever in parts of the Owyhee Wilderness near Big Jacks Creek.
Desert plateaus go on forever in parts of the Owyhee Wilderness near Big Jacks Creek. Pete Zimowsky
Made Possible by
Curated by

Hiking the canyon rims of the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness, the views are endless. Gray-green sagebrush, junipers, and bunchgrass loom from horizon to horizon. The only sounds are natural ones: wind rustling grasses and brush, the gurgling of small streams. In this remote landscape, where the gravel Owyhee Uplands National Byway cuts through the wilderness areas, hikers and campers are up to 50 miles from the nearest pavement.

The Owyhee Wilderness remains far lesser known—and visited—than other wilderness areas in Idaho like the Sawtooths and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Instead of rivers with rafters bunched up in long lines or trails choked with hikers, in the wilds of Owyhee County, located about 100 miles from Boise in southwest Idaho, the only creatures to meet are pronghorns, hawks, and bull snakes.

Created in 2009, the Owyhee Wilderness Act designated 518,000 acres of public lands in Owyhee County as wilderness, offering a wealth of places to explore all within a few hours of Boise, much of it accessible by foot or horseback on game or cattle paths. Stretching from the Idaho/Oregon border east to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho/Nevada line, the wilderness areas in the massive Owyhee Canyonlands include big chunks of designated wilderness, from the 89,996-acre Bruneau/Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness to the 12,533-acre Pole Creek Wilderness.

Late spring and early summer are prime time for a visit to this often-overlooked wilderness, whether it's a day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, before temperatures really heat up. Here, five ways to explore the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness.

Bruneau Overlook

Views like this are commonplace throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands.
Views like this are commonplace throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands. Bureau of Land Management

Best For: Fantastic Views With Minimal Effort

Instead of hiking, if you’d rather sit on the edge of wilderness and gaze out into a massive basalt canyon, head for the Bruneau Overlook, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the 800-foot deep canyon. The opposite rim is 1,300 feet away, below, 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; 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 three miles. There is gas and food in Bruneau.

More info: Search for Bruneau Overlook at BLM IDAHO.

Owyhee Byway

The Owyhee Byway is a remote gravel road that stretches through the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness.
The Owyhee Byway is a remote gravel road that stretches through the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. Matt Lavin/Creative Commons

Best For: A Weekend Camping or Backpacking Getaway

A gravel road that runs more than 100 miles from Grand View to Jordan Valley, Oregon, the Owyhee National Backcountry Byway offers many places to stop and explore the desert and uplands. The road winds through Little Jacks Creek Wilderness and is adjacent to the Pole Creek and North Fork Owyhee wilderness areas. Camp in undeveloped spots along the way and take short hikes into wilderness areas. One option: the North Fork of the Owyhee River Campground, a developed campsite along the way that offers a solid home base for hiking. For optimal enjoyment and exploration, make plan for at least a two-day trip.

How to do it: Drive out of Grand View on Idaho 78 and take the Mud Flat Road on the right. Head out to Jordan Valley, Oregon and return on U.S. 95 to the Treasure Valley.

Or, you 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 found in Grand View.

More info: Search for Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway at BLM IDAHO.

Parker Trail

Hiking the rim off the Avery Plateau in the Pole Creek section of the Owyhee Wilderness offers spectacular views of juniper country.
Hiking the rim off the Avery Plateau in the Pole Creek section of the Owyhee Wilderness offers spectacular views of juniper country. Pete Zimowsky

Best For: Your First Foray Into the Area Wilderness

This 2.4-mile round trip hike offers a taste of the wilderness around Big Jacks Creek. The short, but steep route comes with beautiful views of the sagebrush expanse; look out for the burned areas, remnants of summer wildfires. However, hikers should be in decent shape and have established navigation skills, as the route involves negotiating steep, rocky terrain and demands good map- and route-finding skills.

How to do it: On Idaho 51, head south from Bruneau 25 miles to milepost 45 and continue .1 miles farther south. Head right (west) on Wickahoney Road, which is unmarked. Reset trip odometer immediately and follow this mileage:

0.0: Wickahoney Road at Idaho 51; 4.8: There's a wilderness kiosk with good information; turn right there (north) onto two-track; 7.4: Trailhead parking is on the left at the rock road barrier. There are a few closed roads on the way to the trailhead; be careful not to take a wrong turn.

For more info: Search for Parker Trail at BLM IDAHO.

Wickahoney Creek

Desert scenes like this one are common throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness.
Desert scenes like this one are common throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. Pete Zimowsky

Best For: A Butt-Kicking But Rewarding Hike

The desert rim where Wickahoney and Big Jacks creeks come together offers unforgettable desert views, including  burned areas from last summer's wildfires. The hike to get there requires moderate-to-strenuous cross-county hiking on rimrock, and the spot where the creeks converge is an ideal spot to stop, refuel, and take in the scenery.

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. You can hike back along the Big Jacks Creek and Duncan Creek rim and then cut cross-country back to your starting place.

For more info: Search for Parker Trail at BLM IDAHO.

Little Jacks Creek

Desert plateaus go on forever in parts of the Owyhee Wilderness near Big Jacks Creek.
Desert plateaus go on forever in parts of the Owyhee Wilderness near Big Jacks Creek. Pete Zimowsky

Best For: Checking Off the Must-Do List

A popular hiking area that has been featured in local trail guides, Little Jacks Creek features rugged desert canyon landscapes and grassy slopes in rimrock country, with options for one- to five-mile hikes along the creek and strenuous hiking up the canyon and side slopes. Make sure to do your navigation homework ahead of time, as it’s a complicated route to reach the area. It’s recommended to map it out on your computer topo program and get coordinates for your GPS beforehand.

How to do it: Head out of Grand View on Idaho 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 three miles, go right at a triangle intersection. The lower trailhead is down in the canyon, and the upper trailhead is 0.3 miles away.

For more info: Trails of Western Idaho, by Margaret Fuller.

Last Updated:

Next Up

Previous

Gearing Up for Cycling Season With the Elephant Rock Ride