Hiking the Owyhee Desert

The Owyhee Desert is one of the most remote regions of the lower 48. The Air Force uses this region for training pilots, testing jets, and bombing ranges. Hikers will experience plenty of jets and at times, the sky resembles an airshow. Dangers of this section include:

  • Lack of shade
  • Lack of water
  • No cell service
  • Lack of people

When I hiked this section, I did not see a person the entire time. I only had spotty cell service in two locations. The desert does not have trees or bushes high enough to cast shade. Topographically, it is flat, lacking any noteworthy hills.

Will I Need Water Drops for the Owyhee Desert?

The simple answer is yes. The only running water is found at Winter Camp. Other than that, I recommend placing 2.5 gallons for each hiker every 15-20 miles.

Water drops are not as difficult as they sound. Jeep trails are abundant but they require a high clearance vehicle to traverse them. Use the Idaho Centennial Trail website to organize with other hikers and plan a group water drop.

Owyhee Desert Section Map

[sgpx gpx=”/wp-content/uploads/gpx/Owyhee Desert Outline.gpx”]

Owyhee Desert History

If you look at Idaho on the map, you will notice a crescent-shaped valley, in which, the snake river flows. This feature was created by the Yellowstone Supervolcano. As the North American plate has moved, the hot spot has erupted, creating a trough through the landscape.

This section of the trail goes through what is known as the Bruneau-Jarbidge caldera. The sight of a Supervolcano eruption, some 11 million years ago

Another interesting feature of the landscape is how the desert got its name.

In 1819, native Hawaiians sailed to the American Northwest to take part in a fur-trading expedition. At this time, Hawaii was spelled Owyhee and the people of this island chain known as Owyhees. The Hawaiians left the British expedition and ended up dying. In their memory, the river, and eventually desert and mountain range were named Owyhee.


Wild West Trail Notes

Leaving the Jarbidge Mountains behind you, the landscape becomes extremely flat. Sagebrush dominates the landscape, broken up by the random roads crisscrossing into the horizon. Few, if any people come out this far and huge portions of the trail are overgrown or non-existent. Parts of the trail follows roads that have long been overtaken by sagebrush.

I recommend poking tall vegetation with your trekking poles to look for rattlesnakes.

Wildlife you will encounter include Pronghorn Antelope, Cattle, and Rattlesnakes. There is a sizable population of raptors, they nest in the cliffs which are numerous in the area. Bighorn sheep may also be found here although sightings by hikers are rare.

The Bruneau Canyon overlook is the most popular attraction in this section. There’s a pit-toilet and a well-maintained road leading to the site. This will most likely be your first contact with people on the hike.