Jump Creek Falls

Heading into Jump Creek Canyon

When I first moved to Boise I didn't know much about Idaho. I started exploring all of the mountains in the area. One hike that I did was to Jump Creek Falls. It's in the Owyhee mountains, not far from Boise. But as I learned more about the area I started to become a bit of a mountain snob. The Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho have spectacular alpine scenery and they quickly captured my imagination. They became my home mountains and I spent a lot of time hiking and climbing in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Areas like the Owyhees were dry desert, rolling mountains with no striking peaks. After a couple of hikes I stopped going there and focused on the Sawtooths and other big ranges. I didn't go to the Owyhees for almost forty years other than to drive through on the highway whenever I went to California.

I decided to change that this year. Now that I am retired, I have more time to hike. I want to start revisiting some of the areas that I have ignored for so long, mountains that are free of snow earlier in the year than high ranges like the Sawtooths.

Jump Creek Falls

Jump Creek Falls seemed like a good place to start. Abby loves to hike with me but she was laid up this week with a sore paw. I didn't want to take her to Jump Creek since I read that there was a lot of poison ivy there. Plus it is in a canyon with a lot of steep and loose rock. I think it could be dangerous for her. A hiker died after a seventy foot fall there this spring when he slipped over a cliff. It probably wasn't a good place to take her.

It was going to be a hot day so I wanted an early start. Abby was glad that I was up at 6 am to feed her. That's earlier than she usually gets fed. But she was clearly disappointed when I put on my hiking boots and then took off without her.

The drive to the trailhead only took an hour. It's not far from Marsing, only a short distance from US95, the only highway that goes through the Owyhees. Although it's a popular area, when I got there at 7:30 am on a weekday, I was the only car in the parking lot.

Jump Creek Falls from the overlook trail

It was a bright sunny morning but Jump Creek Canyon was just a dark gash in the hillside, narrow and forbidding. Once I was into the canyon though the trail was easy and the shade was actually pleasant and cool. The hike to the falls was short, less than half a mile. I have to admit that the falls were quite impressive. They are about seventy feet high. Usually by the end of June the falls would be almost dry. This year, with the very high snowpack that we had, it still had a good flow. The falls are in a sheltered alcove in the canyon with a small pool at the base. It's actually quite pretty and not what you would expect to find in a desert range like the Owyhees. After taking some pictures and video, I headed back to the car.

There are actually two parking lots at Jump Creek. The lower one was where I parked and provides access to the trail that goes up the canyon. From the higher lot there are trails that lead to overlooks above the canyon. They are only about a quarter of a mile apart so I just walked to the higher trailhead. From there I took a short trail that led to an overlook of the falls. It was a nice view and provided a very different perspective.

The weird six foot tall thistles

The trail continued from the viewpoint but there was a BLM sign warning hikers not to go any further. The trail is not maintained and the slopes are dangerous. This is not Yosemite Valley and the rock is extremely rotten. Holds can break off so rock climbing and scrambling is not advisable. The rock breaks down into tiny pebbles about half an inch in diameter and this ball-bearing gravel covers every trail. It's easy to slip on even the slightest incline. It would have beem fun to continue to the top of the falls and get a look at the upper part of the canyon but I opted to go back and take the maintained trail.

I backtracked to near the upper trailhead and this time followed the trail that climbed to the west. This only went a short distance before reaching the top of the slope on the edge of a large, rolling plateau. There was another sign indicating that the maintained trail ended here but I felt pretty safe continuing. There was no place to fall even if I wanted to.

This was the boring Owyhees rolling hill country that I remembered. But even here there were things of interest. After some distance I came to a small forest of giant thistles. They were about six feet tall and had red/purple flowers. I looked them up later and I think that they were Scotch Thistles, which is considered a noxious weed. I actually thought they looked pretty cool, more like some kind of alien plant from a science fiction movie than a weed. I kept expecting them to reach out and grab me as I walked past.

Upper Jump Creek Canyon above the falls

I walked along for about two miles, with lots of little side trips. Every so often there would be a trail that led off a couple of hundred yards over to the rim that would give a view into the canyon. It actually was pretty cool. At one point I could see a trail leading back that looked like it connected with the trail I had seen leading on from the Falls Overlook. I thought about taking it back but decided to stay on the trail that I was on.

In several places the trails led to rock outcroppings that required minor scrambling to reach viewpoints of the canyon. That always makes the view seem more special. It wasn't exactly heavy duty mountaineering but it was fun, and I was only scrambling where I was away from any dropoffs. The views were impressive too, looking down steep cliffs to the bottom of the canyon or looking right or left at the upper or lower canyon.

After a while I decided to head back. The path continued for as far as I could see over the rolling plateau. The skyline looked to be over a mile away. I considered continuing to see what was beyond but I guessed it was more of the same and it would take a long time and a lot of work to establish that. It was time to turn around.

One of the locals

While I had noted the flora on the way up I noticed the fauna on the way down. This was prime rattlesnake country and it was getting warmer. I have never seen a rattlesnake in all my years of hiking in Idaho but this would have been a good spot for my first time. Rattlesnakes aren't really scary. They aren't aggressive at all but the last thing that you want to do is step on one while you are walking along gazing at the scenery. So I kept my eyes on the trail as I hiked back. I didn't see any rattlesnakes but as I got closer to the trailhead I started to see a lot of lizards. They were pretty cool and usually just skittered away as I approached. One did make me jump as he was off the trail on one side and as I went by he decided that he really wanted to be on the trail on the other side. He darted across the trail just in front of me and did startle me a bit until I recognized it was a lizard and not a snake.

Then a little farther along I did see a snake. But it was just a garter snake - completely harmless. When I was a kid in Wisconsin my friends and I used to catch garter snakes in fields and keep them as pets, feeding them grasshoppers and worms. I left this one alone. He didn't pay too much attention to me either, just a foot or two off the trail and taking his time moving away. He was a good size for a garter snake, maybe three feet long.

Not a rattlesnake

Although the Jump Creek area is very popular I had been lucky and had the area totally to myself. When I was walking down the road from the upper trailhead to the lower trailhead another car did finally come along. When I reached my car another car arrived. My timing was good. People were starting to arrive and it was time to head for home. Sure enough, as I drove out the short dirt road to the main highway two more cars were driving in. I guess 9:30 or so is the time that people start to arrive.

But I had the place to myself for my hike. Although I hadn't thought much of the area for a long time, I had a really good hike. The waterfall was pretty. The canyon was more impressive than I expected. And the flora and fauna on the hike had been interesting. It was a lot of fun and definitely a good early season hike when the trails in the Sawtooth Mountains are still buried in snow.