The high desert of Idaho is a magical place during spring and early summer, providing a chance to spot wildlife like pronghorns, mule deer, coyotes, and hawks, and to listen to a symphony of meadowlarks, sandhill cranes and blackbirds. The landscape is blooming with green grasses and intricate colors of wildflowers, along with canyonlands brimming with rock hoodoos, rock spires, and huge lava flows.
It’s definitely the time to take a scenic drive out into this high desert that spans southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon, stop at an interesting place, and start hiking. Millions of acres of gray-green sage and black-and-gray basalt across see-forever plateaus and in hidden canyonlands beckon for exploration.
This remote country doesn’t have much traffic aside from occasional rockhounds, ATVers, and ranchers towing stock trailers. Aside from being bumpy and dusty, most roads are good in dry weather, allowing access to vast amounts of wild country that’s between 90 minutes and several hours from Boise.
The key to a trip to the high desert is to get out of the car and soak up the sights, smells and sounds. Walk up a canyon, sit beside a creek in a meadow, or pick a small reservoir, grab a seat, and wait for something to happen. It certainly will, whether it’s a blackbird contesting you for territory, a hawk soaring in the thermals, or a squawking shorebird. And those pronghorns? They may just come back to see what you’re all about, especially if you’re downwind of them.
It takes a little planning to become a full-fledged desert rat. Here, some insider tips on hiking in Idaho’s high desert, including some of our favorite options in the area. Use them as inspiration for your next trip.
High desert hiking and backpacking takes a little more homework than your average jaunt in the outdoors. First, consider the weather. Make sure there’s no rainfall in the forecast, as desert roads can quickly turn into muddy messes.
Visiting now through mid-June is ideal for avoiding the heat. Late September through November is also recommended, depending on snowfall. Before heading out, study topo maps for the area and record your GPS coordinates.
Take plenty of water and a little extra food and clothing. It’s a good idea to stash sleeping bags in your vehicle, too. Hiking sticks are a must, and don’t forget a wildflower guidebook: Nature’s artwork begs to be photographed, and it helps to know what you’re looking at.
Finally, don’t forget to tell relatives or friends exactly where you're headed and when you expect to return. Give them your car make and license plate number.
Part of the fun of high desert exploration is that there are no designated trails. When you pick a spot you want to explore, mark the GPS coordinates for your car before heading out cross country. Know your limitations for walking on lava rock and uneven desert terrain.
Where to Go
It helps to pick a general area to explore before setting off. Here, some main routes in the desert that will take you to nooks and crannies few ever see.
This pastel-colored canyon in the Owyhee Breaks off Owyhee Reservoir brims with breathtaking features like spires and pinnacles. Nature has carved the rock structures in the volcanic ash and soils of the remote canyon. The geology and photography is the main focus for hikers exploring canyons that branch off the Leslie Gulch Road. Wildflowers and wildlife, such as bighorn sheep and chukars, also inhabit the Gulch.
For an overnight excursion, there’s a campground with a restroom near Owyhee Reservoir. From there, it’s easy to get to plenty of off-trail hikes in slot canyons and also on the ridgelines of the Owyhee Breaks.
Getting There: Head south on U.S. 95 from the Marsing, Idaho. At about 8 miles, take the McBride Creek Road to Rockville, then a mile north to Leslie Gulch Road and then 15 miles west.
Succor Creek State Natural Recreation Area
This natural area in a deep, rocky canyon south of Adrian, Oregon, is frequented by rockhounds and wildlife watchers. The road follows a cut in the canyon, and vehicles look miniature among its soaring rock walls. There are 15 primitive, walk-in camping spots and some day-use areas at the state park along Succor Creek. No drinking water is available, but there is a vault toilet. Hikers can take off from the campground to canyon rims above the canyon floor or just walk up the road to gawk at the steep canyon walls. Keep in mind that the Succor Creek Bridge in Succor Creek State Natural Area is open to only pedestrians; it’s closed to vehicles or ATVs.
Getting There: Take the rough 15-mile dirt road off Oregon 201 between Adrian, Ore., and the Idaho border. Information: Oregon State Parks. Search for Succor Creek State Park.
Located southwest of Jordan Valley, Ore., this reservoir is popular among local bird watchers when its waters attract migrating birds in spring. It’s a short distance from pavement and an easily accessible place to get away from it all. There are no trails, but a hike around the reservoir or a cross-country jaunt up on the nearby sage plateaus promises adventure, with antelope and a variety of birds
Getting There: Take U.S. 95 about 12 miles south of Jordan Valley, Ore., and turn on the clearly marked Antelope Reservoir Road. It’s a mile to the campground.
The 100-mile Owyhee Uplands National Back Country Byway is one of the most scenic desert drives in southwest Idaho. It is known locally as Mud Flat Road, and it’s the primary access to the central Owyhee County canyonlands. It winds past rim rock plateaus and through canyons abundant with sagebrush and bunch grass, and climbs to elevations with stands of juniper and mahogany, with views of the Jarbidge, Steens, and Owyhee mountain ranges in the distance. The beauty of this road is that hikers can stop almost anywhere along the way and take a hike across landscapes that few ever see.
Getting There: A round trip on the byway from Boise takes a full day, from dawn to dusk . Start at Grand View, south of Boise. From Idaho 78, just east of Grand View, take off on Mud Flat Road. It travels about 92 miles in Idaho and 12 miles in Oregon to Jordan Valley. From Jordan Valley, you can take U.S. 95 back to Marsing and the Treasure Valley. Keep in mind that there are no services for 100 miles between Grand View at the start of the byway and Jordan Valley at the end.
Northwest of Jordan Valley, the Jordan Craters look like a black shadow on the vast green and brown landscape of southeast Oregon. On the Jordan Craters road from U.S. 95, a huge geological feature called Coffee Pot Crater becomes apparent. The massive crater covers about two-thirds of a square mile and is described as a “well-preserved, steep-sided crater” by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A trail goes around the crater and is ideal for kids or beginner hikers; hike it early, before temperatures start to climb.
Those who want to really explore the craters on foot can head out cross-country to explore the remnants of splatter cones and a vast lava field. But be sure to make the trailhead parking lot on your GPS, as everything looks the same out here.
Getting There: Drive south on U.S. 95 from Marsing. Look for the road to Jordan Craters. It’s about 8 miles before you get to Jordan Valley. Follow BLM Jordan Craters access signs 25 miles to the recreation site.
A remote but scenic area in the Owyhee River Canyon, northwest of Jordan Valley, Birch Creek features two historic ranches at a BLM recreation site in the midst of this dry, rocky landscape. It is also the take out for river trips on the Owyhee River from Rome downstream. The canyon is an oasis of green in the desert with camping available. It’s a good side trip from Jordan Craters, especially to see bighorn sheep, deer, chukars and other wildlife.
Getting There: Use the same directions to Jordan Craters, but take the turnoff to Birch Creek. Follow the BLM signs for 28 miles off U.S. 95.