Exploring the Owyhee Range

Idaho is the adventurer’s paradise, with few people and wide open spaces. From the rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range to the remote high desert region along the Owyhee River, off-highway explorers have a near endless playground. My trail run with the Northwest Cruisers of Idaho started south of Nampa along the northern watershed of the Silver City Range. The Owyhee Mountains and neighboring highlands were first explored by non-natives in 1818, under the Donald Mckenzie Expedition. The goal of this early exploration was to establish fur trading routes back to Boise and supply the demands for fur back in the eastern US. Interestingly enough, the name Owyhee is not native, but Hawaiian, given by the three Hawaiian members of that first expedition.

The cold was biting at 7:45 am while I waited for the rest of the group to arrive. I was parked along the Snake River at Walters Ferry, which nearly creates a wall between the expanses of Boise’s growth and the remote deserts to the south. Within minutes Toyotas of all models began rolling into the meeting point and the usual chatter about tires, axles and gearing filled the air. Brian Davis was the trip leader for the day, and led the group east on HWY 78 towards the Owyhee Front Management Area (Rabbit Creek Trailhead) and the Lost Trail.

The trail begins with a lava rock embedded surface; I was glad I had aired down and thankful for the smooth riding Old Man Emu suspension in the 2004 ARB 4Runner I was driving. The trail is easy for the first 2.5 miles before turning to the west and up an unnamed intermittent stream. From there, the Lost Trail begins, and a series of optional challenges require the driver’s full attention. The first challenge was a crossed-axle notch that lifted the rear tire on the 4Runner. With the rear ARB locker engaged I slowly proceeded over the outcropping to minimize suspension compression and slider contact on the rock. After the first obstacle a tight drivers side turn was required, lifting the front end over a two foot shelf. Good break-over angle reduced the chance of scraping. The BFG All-Terrains on the 4Runner maintained traction and the truck crested the top of the challenge with little drama. Several other vehicles attempted the challenge, including the lone Land Rover in attendance. The long travel of the coil sprung Discovery allowed Ernie to pilot his 1997 through the challenge with little wheel spin.

The trail continues northeast, traversing a series of washes created by the massive watershed of Black Mountain and the northern Silver City Range. Several of the stream bottoms were covered in ice, protected by the shadows of the high, rocky walls. The ice greatly increased the challenge of several obstacles, creating an issue for the open differential vehicles. The traction control on the 4Runner was quite effective in those spots, reducing any understeer that would have been caused by locking the front axle.

The final challenge was a narrow canyon with a series of ledges and waterfalls. The first ledge had the added challenge of a cambered approach, pitching the side of the vehicle towards the rock wall. It was critical to proceed slow and smooth, limiting the chance of the vehicle sliding. A few smaller ledges positioned the vehicle at the base of a ten foot tall waterfall. To add difficulty to the challenge, a stream of frozen water stuck to the face, limiting the lines you could attempt. The long wheelbase and locking differentials on the 4Runner made the climb easy, and I crested the lip without spinning a tire. Several of the open diff vehicles also tried the falls, which made for great entertainment, but fortunately no broken parts. Exiting the final obstacle sent us through a narrow notch filled with boulders. The Land Cruiser suffered heavy damage to the factory steps due to a moment of aggressive driving. After exiting the Lost Trail the route out was easy all the way to Reynolds Creek Road.

Southern Idaho provides a great opportunity for exploration and 4wd challenge, and was made even better by a great group of fourwheelers from the NW Cruisers. The ARB 4Runner exceeded my expectations and made for a very comfortable and capable trail vehicle. Look for more adventures in this overland prepared Toyota in future issues of Off-Road Magazine.

    GPS Coordinates (WGS84 Datum)
    Trailhead and HWY78- N43 16.841 W116 34.460
    BR at Y Intersection- N43 16.457 W116 34.798
    BR into wash- N43 15.058 W116 35.979
    Turn Right- N43 14.214 W116 36.996
    Turn left into wash, challenges begin- N43 14.397 W116 37.148
    BR- N43 15.442 W116 38.931
    Turn Left- N43 16.431 W116 39.732
    Trail Ends, Turn Right onto Upper Reynolds Creek Road-N43 16.750 W116 40.008

Ernie’s 1997 Discovery I is lightly modified with an OME suspension and 265/75 R16 Tires. Despite the limited modifications, the Land Rover 4wd heritage and good driving got the truck through with no damage.

The ARB prepared Toyota 4Runner was very stable and predictable on cambered obstacles, helped by the medium valved Old Man Emu shocks and low center of gravity.

With the rear locker engaged and the front left open, the traction control allowed tight turning and no wheel spin.

One of the coolest rigs on the run was Dan’s FJ45 pick-up. The flexible spring-over suspension and 36x10.5 tires made short work of the trail.

The Owyhee Front is a vast plane of lava canyons and Sagebrush. Fortunately, the BLM has made much of this area available to OHV users.

This obstacle had a tricky, crossed-axle approach and a sever camber. Slow and controlled progress minimized the chance of falling into the notch.

Open differentials made this hill challenging for this IFS Toyota truck. After a few attempts the truck was at the top.

The last real challenge was a steep waterfall with an icy slope. Dan’s long wheelbase made the obstacle look easy.

On the last obstacle, the driver of this FZJ80 got a little heavy on the throttle and slid into a large bolder. The factory step took most of the impact.

Christian got the overlanding bug back in the 1990s when working in and exploring West Africa, and it never left since. He has been involved with Expedition Portal and Overland Journal since the early days and has seen the market grow and explod in the last few years. When he is not snowboarding or mountain biking, he is browsing the Internet to bring you the best overland vehicles on the plantet - here on Expo and on Instagram.