Nicknamed by local ranchers as the “Big Quiet,” Southwest Idaho’s Owyhee desert is still the most remote, undeveloped region in the lower 48.
Out here, volcanic cliffs and raging rivers cut through the expanse of high desert. Raptors soar above juniper-covered mountains, and bighorn sheep hide in mazes of gorges and canyons. Nearly half a million acres of this land is protected by the US government, making it one of the largest strongholds of undeveloped wilderness in the country.
In this guide, we’ll take you on a journey from the Owyhee desert’s southernmost, wildest landscapes all the way to the northern edge of the region
Summiting the Rugged Owyhee Mountains
Views of the lonely peaks of the Owyhee Mountains
Towering over the southernmost part of the Owyhee desert are the Owyhee Mountains, a rugged range extending from Southwest Idaho to northern Nevada. The elevation here varies from 2,000 feet to 8,000 feet above sea level. To this day, many of its craggy peaks and deep canyons have rarely been visited by anyone.
In 1816, three native Hawaiians were sent to these mountains on a fur trapping expedition but never returned. Word spread about the incident, and the entire region was known as the “Owyhee,” an early English pronunciation of Hawaiian. — Idaho State Historical Society
While most of the Owyhee Mountains are on privately owned land, there are a handful of summits that can be easily accessed by the public via old Forest Service roads and mining routes, especially on the northern side of the range. Just a few miles southeast of Silver City, you can climb the tallest point in the county — Hayden Peak, also called Cinnabar Mountain.
There are two gravel roads you can take all the way to the 8,401-foot summit of Hayden Peak: one along the west ridge and another on the south ridge. Both of them can be navigated with a high-clearance ATV (or some really durable hiking boots).
Along the way, you might find remnants of abandoned mine shafts and prospecting equipment from the 1800s. At the top are dramatic, 360-degree views of the rest of the Owyhee Mountains and the vast, lonely desert below.
Strolling the Dusty Streets of Silver City, Idaho
When miners first discovered silver in the mountains surrounding Hayden Peak, the once-sleepy settlement of Silver City quickly transformed into a booming mining metropolis. At one point, it was home to eight saloons, two hotels, six general stores and Idaho’s first-ever newspaper.
But the mines closed in 1942 and the once-thriving city faded into a boarded-up ghost town. Today, Silver City is one of the last remaining towns from Idaho’s silver rush days that hasn’t been developed or burned down by wildfires. It looks nearly the same now as it did over 150 years ago… and it’s open to the public to explore.
Strolling the old dusty streets here is like walking back in time and experiencing the Wild West as it really was, not how the movies portrayed it to be. The paint may have chipped off the signs and the windows are now boarded up, but the buildings still stand tall among the trees. Take a walk through town and you’ll find saloons, a schoolhouse, a Masonic Temple and even a brothel.
If you plan to visit, make sure to drive out here late spring, summer or fall. The roads are closed once snow season hits.
Local’s Tip: Spend the night at The Idaho Hotel. This luxurious Wild West-era hotel has been meticulously renovated to look the same as it did during the 1860s.
Secluded Fishing Holes along the Owyhee River
Fishing for trophy-worthy brown trout in the Owyhee River
Past the rugged mountain peaks and ghost towns, three rivers cut through the Owyhee desert: the Owyhee River, the Bruneau River and Jawbridge River. Each of them are a crucial source of freshwater to the 200+ species that call this place home, including antelope, raptors and coyotes.
Some of the most vibrant wildlife is found below the surface. These rivers are teeming with trophy bass and world-famous brown trout. Visit the North Fork Owyhee Wilderness Area to access some of the best, most secluded fishing holes.
The Owyhee River is world-renowned for the brown trout teeming in its waters.
With much of the surrounding land being difficult to navigate, these rivers are a great way to venture deep into the desert. There are several boat launch sites in the North Fork Owyhee Wilderness: the 45 Ranch Launch Site, Crutcher Crossing Launch Site and the Garat Crossing Launch Site. All of them are great starting points for a challenging whitewater adventure.
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Where to Float in SW Idaho
You’ll see volcanic cliffs towering 400-500 feet above the water, with each layer of basalt telling stories about the land thousands of years ago. Look closely and you can even spot flocks of bighorn sheep hiding among the rock spires and crags.
As you navigate through stretches of Class IV rapids and calm waters, make sure to look up and take it all in.
An important note: These rivers aren’t for inexperienced rafters. We recommend going with a guide.
Epic Mountain Biking at the Wilson Creek Trails
Exploring the ancient canyon walls along Reynolds Creek
Away from the river banks, the land is dry and rugged. Rocky plateaus carve through the expanse of sagebrush desert, and steep ridges rise up against wide-open skies. The trails here are a fun challenge for even the most experienced mountain bikers.
With 30+ miles of singletrack trails, the Wilson Creek Travel Management Area is an easy-to-access gateway to the Owyhee wilderness. Nicknamed “Little Moab,” the parking lot and trailhead are located just a few miles off ID-45. (Check out our Mountain Biking Guide for directions.)
Local’s Tip: Try hitting the trails in the spring. The entire Owyhee wilderness will be in bloom with hundreds of native wildflower species.
As you ride through the wilderness, it won’t take long to see why ranchers called this area the “Big Quiet.” Out here, you’ll likely be the only one on the trails for miles around. The only thing you’ll hear is the wind howling through the desert.
A Quick Hike to Jump Creek Falls
Jump Creek Falls — a lush waterfall oasis hidden in the Owyhee Desert.
From rugged mountains to deep canyons and raging rivers, there’s plenty to discover in Idaho’s loneliest high desert… But would you ever expect a stunning waterfall?
At the northernmost point of the Owyhee desert (just about an hour west of Boise), Jump Creek Falls is a hidden oasis. To get there, you’ll take winding country roads to a trailhead and stroll along a 0.6-mile dirt trail. (For directions, check out our Hiking Guide.)
At 60 feet tall, Jump Creek Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Southwest Idaho.
The short, easy stroll will take you through a lush riparian habitat along a bubbling creek, surrounded by towering canyon walls. At the end of the trail, you’ll find it: a shimmering waterfall cascading into a shallow pool below.
A dramatic, moody sunset over the Owyhee Desert. (Just one of many.)
Spend a few days out here and you’ll realize: Solitude is good for the soul.
From the mountain peaks to the river gorges, you get to discover something far bigger than yourself. The Owyhee desert is one of the few regions left in the Northwest where you can stand completely alone in the face of beauty.
It’s wide open landscapes like these that keep Southwest Idaho fiercely, unapologetically and relentlessly wild.