Newly Protected and Worth the Visit: Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands

Boaters brave rain, snow, hail, long portages and rapids in the short floating season. Photo by John McCarthy.

It took eight years of negotiations, but finally Idaho’s magnificent Owyhee Canyonlands are permanently protected as Wilderness. Explore the splendor of the magical Owyhee Canyonlands in our Wilderness Magazine piece below. And to read more great articles like this one, join The Wilderness Society today and get Wilderness Magazine as a benefit of membership.

A Great Place to Visit: Owyhee Canyonlands

By John McCarthy

Any way to get around the new Owyhee Wilderness in Idaho is slow. But any way you go is worth the effort.

In a world where “getting away from it all” gets tougher by the day, the Owyhee Canyonlands is proof-positive that it is still possible. This new wilderness is a staple on lists of the most remote places in the United States.

Hiking is all off-trail, where a few miles across sagebrush plateaus or in and out of canyons can take all day. Boating — in kayak or canoe — requires long, rough drives to launch and take-out, portages without trails, and rock-hopping in-stream, where 10 river miles in a day can be exhausting. Even driving to the wilderness boundary is painstaking, with high-clearance, four-wheel-drive rigs often needed to creep in low-low granny gear across rocks and along cliffs.

The only relatively easy overview to this wild landscape, the largest and likely the wildest addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) from the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Bill, is on the Mud Flat Road. Also known as the Owyhee Uplands Back Country Byway, the 104 dirt road miles of natural wonders crisscrosses Owyhee County in southwest Idaho and ends just over the Oregon border. While it is passable in a car, leave the low-riders home.

Across the great expanse, you skirt the boundaries of three new wildernesses, drop in and out of one segment of new North Fork Wild and Scenic River with a sheer canyon, see representations of all the high-desert habitats, and experience the full range of topographic gradients, from 2372 feet along the Snake River to views of South Mountain at 7802 feet.

You also get a glimpse of how vast, wild, and empty the Owyhee Canyonlands is and, now, will remain. And you have a good chance to see pronghorns, mule deer, sandhill cranes, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, elk, and mountain blue birds.

Hiker overlooks Little Jacks Creek Wilderness near Mud Flat Road, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.The same week that President Obama signed the bill back in March, one late afternoon I drove an hour and twenty minutes from downtown Boise out the Mud Flat Road to the edge of Little Jacks Wilderness. Leaving the truck at the BLM Poison Creek picnic area, with one of two pit toilets available on the whole road distance, I walked across the road into the three-day-old wilderness. A hare ran up a sand draw, where I followed through the sagebrush and bunchgrass slope leading to a rhyolite rock cliff band overhanging the first new wilderness in Idaho in 29 years.

Our trail to this wilderness victory took eight years of direct negotiations and work in Congress, and another dozen years of struggle beforehand to highlight this great landscape. In fact, the work is still not over; significant components of our cooperative agreements need to be fulfilled through land exchanges, conservation easements, and scientific studies. But now you, I, my kids, and your kids can park and walk across the road and be in wilderness.

Little Jacks is at the eastern end of the Mud Flat Road, near Grandview. At the other end is Jordan Valley, Oregon, with the Pole Creek Wilderness in the middle and the North Fork Owyhee Wilderness on the western side. Some people drive the whole Mud Flat in a long day, but stopping to set up a tent, park a camper, or sleep under the stars is the way to go. Across the juniper forests, mountain mahogany savannahs, sage brush hills, and rocky outcrops lay endless options to set up a camp, take a hike, have a picnic, or fill a memory card — in your head or in your camera.

The brochure produced by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says: “There are no services.” That means no potable water, gas, food, or lodging. You are on your own, outside cell phone range, with no regular patrol from anyone. North Fork crossing, at the edge of the wilderness, is the only official campground. It offers a pit toilet, picnic tables, and fire grates.

Along with the North Fork and its stems, suggestions for hiking jump-offs include (from west to east) Pleasant Valley Creek, Current Creek, Deep Creek, Pole Creek, Battle Creek, and Shoofly Creek. The creeks lead to canyons of varying depths and provide orientation in a land without trails and a precious few road signs. So be sure to take a map and compass, along with provisions.

Another spring weekend I hiked into the North Fork to camp along the canyon rim and melt snow for water. In early morning light, as I gathered juniper and sage sticks for a fire, nine elk walked out of the canyon. This two-night backpack trip followed a formula I’m perfecting: head out on the Mud Flat; ditch the truck at the edge of the wilderness; hike along a rutted road at the boundary for mile or so; head cross country toward a canyon; set up camp under a juniper and explore from there.

Camas bloom in wet swales in early Owyhee spring. Photo by John McCarthy.To fully celebrate the permanent wilderness, I joined three other guys on a week-long kayak trip through the heart of the Owyhee River Wilderness. Here we saw more fresh cougar tracks than human footprints. And we spent glorious days in solitude — often in pounding rain and hail, paddling against wicked-up canyon winds and contending with grueling portages, including a quarter-mile haul. Of course, all the effort was worth it.

The Owyhee Canyonlands provide a challenging opportunity for exploration and adventure. Taking the Mud Flat Road, with ample time for stops along the way, is a great introduction to the land.

Want to visit Owyhee Canyonlands?

Find more details on driving the Owyhee Mud Flat Road. You’ll find downloadable files including:

  • Birding the Owyhee Uplands National Backcountry Byway
  • Bruneau/Owyhee River Systems Guide
  • Historic Silver City
  • Owyhee Uplands National Back Country Byway
  • general map and guide

Or call the BLM Public Room: 208-373-3889.

You can get printed publications such as the Owyhee Uplands Back Country Byway (a detailed driving guide) and a BLM Surface Management 1:100,000 topographic map, Triangle map, ($4) from BLM offices:

Bruneau Field Office
3948 Development Ave.
Boise, ID 83705

Owyhee Field Office
20 First Avenue West
Marsing, ID 83639

Get information on the Owyhee legislation, including unofficial wilderness maps.

Boaters brave rain, snow, hail, long portages and rapids in the short floating season. Photo by John McCarthy.
Hiker overlooks Little Jacks Creek Wilderness near Mud Flat Road, Idaho. Photo by John McCarthy.
Camas bloom in wet swales in early Owyhee spring. Photo by John McCarthy.