Discovering the Owyhees

Falling in Love with the Owyhees Mountains one Journey at a Time

Article by Ashley Loeb

Photography by Ashley Loeb

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

Perched in Boise’s backyard, the Owyhee Mountains are one of the most remote regions in the lower 48 states. Named after Hawaiian fur trappers from the 1800’s who were never found, they are also one of the most beautiful, unique places to explore in Idaho. My own exploration of the Owyhees began November 24, 2020, the day the pandemic dashed my hopes of visiting my family for the holidays. I found solace in their rugged beauty and a sense of awe quickly filled the hole in my heart. I hiked along the quiet dirt trails, soaking in the beauty of the astounding rocky landscape. Father Time had clearly carved its way through the canyons, peaks, and rock features, leaving his permanent fingerprints in a place that felt like I had escaped to another planet.

While that fateful day in 2020 was the first time I fell in love with Owyhees, it certainly wasn’t the last. Since then, two friends have shared with me the mysterious tale of a man made of stone who lived in the mountains that only a few had ever found. Having tried and failed before, they were determined to make another go of it, and I was eager to join them on their persistent search for the elusive “Old Man of the Owyhees.” We set out with new directions and a hope-filled mind that the old man might reveal himself that day. 

Crystal blue skies with the sun casting down its warm rays took some of the chill out of the crisp February air. Dressed in layers and trekking poles in hand, we set out with a hand-drawn digital map, trying to make sense of where we needed to go to find our treasure. After the initial steep climb above the canyon, we meandered along a trail, stopping for glimpses on the ridge to the jaggedly beautiful depths below, feeling on top of the world. We trekked through golden weeds and sagebrush, following the twists and turns until it was time to descend. Finding the safest way into the canyon took some time as we relied on our poles and careful steps to avoid tumbling with the stones that loosened below our feet.

Safely at the bottom of the rocky slope, we heard the gentle rush of water carving its way through the canyon. We stopped on the bank, trying to gauge the distance between stones poking above the water to avoid an icy-cold plunge. After narrowly avoiding a slip on the slippery rocks, I encouraged the others as they navigated their way across, nearly pole-vaulting themselves to the other side on the final big step! 

With a marked trail long gone, we approached our next obstacle, bramble and brush. We began moving our way through, sometimes having to backtrack and try a different path. The bright red branches brushed against our legs and for a moment I felt like just another animal in the wilderness, like a deer foraging for its next meal. After a few awkward maneuvers, ducking and climbing and scooting through, we found our way to a clearer path. Looking up, I felt so comparatively small being surrounded by the high walls of the tan and brown stones with highlights of bright green moss. 

Like a volcano about to erupt, the excitement built up inside our chests as we crept closer to our goal. Reaching the approximate destination, six pairs of eyes darted across the canyon walls as the stone, uncertain exactly when and where he’d appear. As the sun was still trying to rise above towering rock sculptures, shadows filled the cravass, playing tricks on our eyes. Reaching a perch above the creek, the three of us turned and paced around, trying to keep the doubt from creeping up inside of us. 

Seconds passed like hours until I suddenly exclaimed, “The Old Man!” and pointed behind where we stood. I swear he was smiling back at us as we cheered in delight, hardly believing what we were seeing. “I can’t believe we walked right past him before!” My friend exclaimed, recognizing that they’d been in this spot before, but had not looked from the right angle to spot him. We captured the moment in celebratory selfies with our new friend. Munching on our snacks and basking in the glow of our achievement, we enjoyed our private party with the Old Man of the Owyhees, imagining what ancient tales he might tell if we could hear his silent words. 

Once refueled and ensuring we’d left no trace behind, we waved goodbye to the old man as our feet found the dirt path again and our hands found our gloves. We warmed up again quickly as our legs and poles worked together up the steep ascent. Back on top, the rest of the journey was smooth sailing. Saving the easiest journey for the end, we returned to our car and took the short, well-marked path into the front of the canyon to visit Jump Falls. Passing over the creek and following the relatively flat trail along the vibrant rock walls that felt alive with history was well worth gazing up at the 60-foot waterfall that glistened in the sunlight bursting through the canyon. The cascading flow was mesmerizing while the burbling sound soothed the ears. 

Having completed our mission for the day, we rewarded ourselves with a relaxing visit to the Sunnyslope wine trail along the way home. Among the hibernating vineyards at Kerry Hill Winery, they welcomed us with a refreshing glass of wine and savory smoked salmon to top off our day. We reminisced about the miles we’d traveled without seeing another soul except for that dear old man, and began planning our next Owyhee adventure!

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