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Top Owyhee Country Trips For A Day Or A Week!
Planning a trip into the unknown Owyhee desert country can be daunting. Before I started rafting and chukar hunting in this vast and often remote area I heard horror stories about the roads, the general inaccessibility of the area and conventional wisdom that told you… “Don’t go after it rains or you will never be seen again”, I assumed this was how the ghost towns came to be. As it turns out after 15 years I have yet to get so lost I did not find my way back, I only lost one hunting companion and that was only for 6 hours. Only once have I slid off the road into a barb wire fence! The Owyhee’s seem to be full of first’s, just the one time did I return to my truck to find out that we parked in a goop puddle, as the ground thawed, my truck sunk, right up to the rear axle! Needless to say, along the way from the old stage stop on the hill above Indian Springs on the Bruneau (yes it is in Owyhee County), to the Baumshelter Cave on the main Owyhee river, the Canyonlands (there is a lot more flat than canyons) is largely an untouched place with solitude and beauty. The unique geology lends itself to all sorts of activities from athletic, to artistic and even just a contemplative moment. If you are looking for a piece of heaven to restore your soul look no further.
Bounded by the Bruneau river on the east and some vague line on the west in Oregon, the Owyhee country is sublime and dramatic all at the same time, depending on your location and perspective. It is a year round, world class outdoor recreation area. Experience class 3 to 6 whitewater river trips with unparalleled scenery, dip your toe in hot springs and camp alone in a land that time forgot. Not a rafter but want to experience the canyon lands of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon? Rest assured there is much more than just the newly designated wilderness areas that thread there way along the largest of the water ways? Visit ghost towns and old abandoned homesteads, follow well-worn stage coach roads or explore sections of the Oregon trail. Hunt and fish, some of the largest elk and deer taken in Idaho come from the controlled hunt areas of the Owyhee mountains. Rouckhounding and fossil hunting are popular too. The entire 7000 square miles is loaded with solitude, dispersed camping locations abound and there are a number of campgrounds as well. The rock formations are inspiring and ever present opportunities to go canyoneering and hiking abound. Read on as I highlight 6 great trips in The Owyhee Canyonlands,
Three Forks to Rome. Scenery, rapids and solitude. Yes there is one class V. It can be portaged on the right or you can line down the left bank then jump in for the run out. The run is typically left of center. Trip highlights include the Baumshelter cave, the hot springs near the put in and the solitude. Next best…Bruneau river. Need a guide, I would recommend Far and Away for the Bruneau and Northwest River Expeditions or Barker River trips for the Owyhee.
2. Ghost Towns and Homesteads
Silver City owns the day. Wander the cemetery, visit the museum. Hundreds of old buildings remain, many privately owned. It is a great day trip from Boise. Typically a high clearance 2 wheel drive will get the job done here. However some of my favorite stops are old homesteads and rock houses long since abandoned. I stumbled upon an old Indian village site while chukar hunting between Birch creek and the reservoir several years ago. I had hopped, wound and wended my way through a giant lava flow trying to get to an open hillside where I could hear birds. I came around a small bluff and there below me was a flat about the size of a basketball court. A level dirt area with long grass surrounded by giant boulders, some as big as a house. Protected by a nasty lava field for hundreds of yards in all directions. The first thing that popped into my head was what a great place to hunker down and feel safe from weather, wolves, bears or the nearest war party. I forgot all about the chukars and wandered aimlessly about the boulders. I could almost hear the voices. As I came around one of the boulders I found petroglyphs scratched in the rocks and was dumbfounded that my overactive imagination seems to have been spot on. You just never know what may lie in store for you!
3. Cool Rock Formations- Hiking, Canyoneering, Climbing
There are tons of rhyolite massifs, cliffs and bluffs throughout the Owyhee’s to explore. In Addition there is a lava flow, Jordan Crater’s, that rivals Craters Of The moon in all ways but size. Take Cow Creek road off Highway 95. Make it to Mud Lake Well and you are there and then some! By far, Leslie Gulch has the largest volume and quirkiest rock formations. The rock here is volcanic tuff. The same rock type as is found in western Oregon’s famous Smith Rock climbing area. There is sport climbing as well as traditional climbing routes. There are over 80 established climbing routes in the canyon. Einstein and Asylum walls are two of the more famous walls in the Leslie Gulch area. The area’s rock is multi colored and very pleasing on the eyes. This road does become a greasy mess when wet. There is a gate on the main road at the top of the hill. I am not sure how often the Blm closes the road. A campground and rudimentary boat launch can be found at the roads end at Owyhee reservoir. The bass and crappie fishing is quite good in season. The best way to get there is up Succor Creek. The Canyon up the creek is worth the price of admission alone. Directions, Go west from Homedale. About 4 miles west look for signs to Succor Creek State Park. The road leaves the creek at the campground at the state park. Follow about another 7-8 miles and go right on gravel road going west. Look for sign, get your camera out! Bonus there is wildlife viewing, there is a herd of the rare California Bighorn Sheep numbering more than 200.
4. Rock Hounding
From Succor Creek State Park, upstream and into Idaho there is everything from thunder eggs and geodes, to opal and fossils, even petrified wood. Who knows you just might be the lucky duck who stumbles upon the next vein of fire opal, or more likely jasper. There is lots of agate and a petrified forest so I hear. On a chukar hunt in about 2003 I found a hoodoo with a giant round rock on top of it. It was about half the size of a Volkswagen bus. Later that year I was looking through a rock and gem book when I came across a picture of either a geode or a thunder egg that was about the same size. I wonder, it is in Succor Creek below Pole Creek Top. Go find it and let me know! Further upstream on McBride Creek you will find fossils in the soils that look like talc and again next to Highway 95 near the Oregon-Idaho state line. Consult one of the many guide books to get a little better directions and instructions on what you can find and wear.
Dispersed Camping is everywhere. Take your pick, There are some facilities at remote locations but typically it consists of a vault toilet, but not actual camps with a spot you back in and there is a picnic table and fire ring. There is a “real” old school campground where the Owyhee Back Country byway cross the North Fork of The Owyhee. There are vault toilets at Succor Creek State Park, Leslie Gulch, Three Forks. I am sure there are others, but one of the great things about the Owyhees is the lack of improvements. Often when you get there you feel as if some rancher came by 30 years ago and no one has been there since. A few other spots that are great for camping would be Indian Hot Springs on the Bruneau Cow Lakes area at Jordan Craters.
6. Hunting and Fishing
Bass, Crappie and Trout. In both Owyhee reservoir and the rivers you will find all three species. Rumor has it if you hike down into the canyon between 3 forks and Rome you will catch one every cast. Trout in the riffles, bass in the pools. The reservoir is famous for coolers full of crappie, man they are good eating.
Birds, big game, predators all abound. Believe it or not, every time I have been down at 3 forks chukar hunting or rafting geese have been everywhere. Come around the rock out crop and there is another bunch of geese dropping from some field up on the rim rock down into the canyon.
Birds- Chukars are about everywhere, Quail here and there. East of the reservoir, west of the reservoir, Succor creek has them. Basically anywhere there are rocks and water you will find chukars. Associated with springs, creeks and active water ways early in the season and then later after it has rained they will get water from pockets in the rocks. Chukars love cheat grass shoots and often will scurry up to the least accessible rimrock when they are getting pressured. I have hunted literally hundreds of creeks, buttes, bluffs, tables and hillsides I cannot think of one where I found no chukars or chukar sign. The overall numbers vary, but if you work hard and try multiple spots that look good you will find them.
Deer, elk and antelope hunting for some outstanding trophies can be had. Elk are associated with those areas with tree. There is more timber/cover in the Owyhee’s than most realize. In addition to the crest you see above silver city, south mountain, the North Fork of the Owyhees, Mahogany mountain all have lots of timber. I antelope hunted way south near and past Star ranch and there is timber there too. In many areas it is over grown mountain mahogany, but there are pines mixed in as well at the highest elevations. A friend hunted elk this year above the put in for the Bruneau near the head end of the West Fork of the Bruneau.
In the end just about every type of outdoor activity that Idaho has to offer is there for the taking in the Owyhee mountains and canyonlands. I have not even mentioned riding off-roading or 4 wheeling. Go to the rodeo in Vale or Jordan Valley. Kiteboarding in would be epic in some areas. How about mountain biking. The list goes on. Don’t forget backpacking, horse or llama packing. Here you have your choice of awesome camp sites. Snowmobiles have thousands of square miles and some big hills to
Need a hand? Give me a call. I am happy to share ideas or advise on what might or might not be realistic for you. I will stress that preparation is everything if you are going to push the limits on weather. While generally the danger of the roads and getting stuck is over hyped, they can kick your ass. If it is frozen going in and thaws before you come out it can be tough. The road to 3 forks comes to mind here. The last 300 yards to the rim rock gets really soft, like a sponge and slippery, throw in the switchback corner where you loose speed and getting out can be dicey. On the other hand there is a road I will drive in all conditions. If you had asked me if it was possible before trying I would have said no way. It turned out to be no problem and I drive that road every year. It taught me to use common sense and proceed with caution rather than subscribe to the chicken little mentality of “you will never return”. Build in a safety net. Take some supplies, water, fire, food, a shovel, and let someone know where you are going. That is at least a starting point for a search if things do go wrong. It happens! I like to take my phone and leave it on. I will make a call or send a text if I hit a cell on the top of some lonely mountain, so there is a record for the sheriff to see a last known location. Have fun, be safe, but more than anything go. Oh yeah, almost forgot the wild horses!