Winter wanderings: Stop the car, explore Idaho's high desert

Pete Zimowsky / Idaho Statesman /

FRENCH JOHN HILL, Idaho — It was a winter whim.

My wife and I took the dog, jumped in the car and headed out of the Treasure Valley on U.S. Highway 95 toward southwest Idaho’s high desert.

Where? Who knows?

When you drive95 toward French John Hill and start winding through black rock canyons, the views immediately hit you.

Where you stop and take a stroll is your choice. These areas don’t have glitzy trailheads and manicured trails. You’re on your own. It boils down to whatever looks intriguing. There are dirt roads going every which way.

This is not a hiking story. This is a story about taking a winter stroll to relieve cabin fever.

Most of the time in the winter, the Lower Owyhees are out of the fog and snow is minimal.

As we drove along, we got to thinking that motorists driving this stretch of U.S. Highway 95 are so intent on getting to their destinations, they don’t realize the magnitude of the wild country just off the pavement. To many, it’s a stark, gray landscape they have to get through to reach the casinos of Nevada or relatives in California.

Hiking experts appreciate the area because there’s no one out there, and the geology is wild.

“I particularly enjoy these locations in the winter because of the ice formations,” said Sandy Epeldi, author of “Boise Backcountry Adventures.”

Stream crossings at the bottom of canyons can be easier because the pools are usually frozen, he said.

“It’s amazing country,” said Leo Hennessy, nonmotorized trails coordinator for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.

Hennessy loves the wide-open terrain and views of the Treasure Valley. Sometimes he likes to hike to some boulders on a ridge and have lunch. The boulders are nature’s seat warmer. They absorb the sun’s heat and make comfortable places to perch, he said.

If you follow the advice of experts, you’ll pull off the pavement a little ways and stroll along a dirt road through this vast high desert straddling the Idaho-Oregon border. You’ll discover hidden gullies with castle rocks and other strange rock formations, painted hills, verdant stream canyons and craggy chalk-like badland bluffs.

No kidding. That stuff is really out there.

And hiking areas can be accessible on foot in the winter, depending on the weather. The choices for a stroll are open because most of the land bordering U.S. 95 from Elephant Butte (near the state highway weigh station) to the Oregon border is public under the administration of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

If you look on a BLM map, you’ll see intriguing places such as Wildcat Canyon, Elephant Butte, Skull Spring and Dead Horse Creek.

And there are plenty of places to explore right off the highway in Oregon, too, like along the roads going to Succor Creek State Park and Leslie Gulch, to Silver City or Antelope Reservoir.

Just don’t venture too far down the roads with wet and muddy conditions and in bad weather.

We ended up parking on a road about seven miles inside Idaho, and we walked a main road and then a secondary road. We came to a little swale with juniper trees.

Black rimrock above the swale seemed to separate the blueish-white sky from the pastel-colored carpets of gray-green sagebrush.

The subtle rays from the low-lying winter sun painted the swales and gullies with soft golden colors.

You’d never see something like this unless you strolled off the pavement of U.S. Highway 95.

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