Bouncing along Big Baja (Idaho)

A shortcut from Swan Falls Dam to Grand View is a lonely drive in wide-open spaces with wide-open views.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comNovember 7, 2013 

  • DO THE BAJA LOOP DRIVE

    Exploring Big Baja Road

    It is best to do the drive in the morning when the sun is on the Owyhees, especially for photography. If it's a cloudy day, you might not see the mountains.

    • Start out driving about 20 miles east on I-84 from the Treasure Valley and take Exit 74 (Simco Road).

    • Turn right. Drive Simco Road. Along the way you'll see Cinder Cone Butte to the right. At around 21 miles you'll hit Idaho 67.

    • Turn right toward Grand View and go 3.5 miles. You'll see the Big Baja Road sign.

    • Turn right and put your odometer at zero.

    Here are some highlights:

    Mile 0 to 4.9: It's pretty desolate country, but if you look west you'll see the Owyhee Front and glimpses of the Snake River Canyon rim. Also to the left is Big Black Butte in the distance.

    It's a straight road with wide-open spaces. You'll see some good stands of sagebrush and other sections that have been cleared by wildfires and only tumbleweeds remain. Look on some of the black rock outcroppings for whitewashing. That's where raptors perch waiting for prey.

    Mile 8.1: Strange buildings to the right. A military compound? A military practice area? You can only imagine.

    Along the way, you'll see side roads going off to the northwest toward the canyon. Most are unimproved roads that can get pretty greasy in wet weather. They range in distance from about 2 to 3 miles from the Big Baja Road to the canyon rim.

    They could make good places to explore in four-wheel-drive vehicles, on motorcycles, on ATVs or even hiking. Note: Don't explore them in wet weather.

    The roads also offer access to the bottom of the canyon at certain points. You might have to walk from the rim.

    The whole Big Baja Road makes a good run on a motorcycle or ATV if you don't want to drive it in your truck or other rig.

    Mile 14: Big Foot Butte is closer off to the right. There are several buttes in the area on the right looking north and northeast to the freeway.

    The area out there is also a military training range and you might see helicopters making maneuvers.

    The road veers to the north and away from the canyon after a while. Remain on the good gravel road and it eventually comes to Moore Road.

    Mile 22.8: Make a left turn on Moore Road and head toward the canyon. Keep on the good gravel road.

    Mile 25.1: This is paved Swan Falls Road. Turn left and you can head to Swan Falls Dam and the bottom of the canyon where you can have a picnic.

    Turn right and head for a lunch or dinner spot in Kuna.

    NOTE: You can do this drive in reverse by starting out at Kuna and heading toward Swan Falls Dam.

    Birds of Prey area

    • The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, 20 miles southwest of Boise, is home to North America's largest concentration of nesting birds of prey. The best time to see birds of prey is from mid-March through June during morning and early evening hours.

    The 485,000-acre area was established in 1993 to protect an incredible ecosystem of basalt cliffs, high desert, river canyon and river bottomlands along the Snake River.

    Information: blm.gov/id. Click on "Four Rivers" and go to "Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area."

Stop!

Don't turn onto Southwest Idaho's Big Baja Road if you're not into nothingness.

Well, it seems like there is nothing — absolutely nothing — for 22 miles going northwest from Idaho 67 to Swan Falls Dam.

But there is something out there — wide, wide-open spaces, a sightline of about 25 miles, a dynamic panorama of the Owyhee Mountains (if they're not hidden by clouds), side roads to the remote Snake River Canyon and an area rich in hawks and other critters.

But again, if your idea of a scenic drive is Priest Lake or the Sawtooths, don't turn off.

The Big Baja Road looks like a whole bunch of nothing, as is characteristic of a lot of the West's high-desert landscape.

Desolate gray, green and brown goes on and on for miles and miles.

If you're still reading this story, let's back up before you come along with me on the unscenic, or scenic, drive, depending on your taste.

For several years I've been driving past the Big Baja Road sign off Idaho 67 on the way to duck hunting along the Snake River and wondering about the sign and the road.

Well, last week, curiosity got to this backcountry wanderer. I had to take the drive and find out what the heck is the Big Baja Road.

Prior to its completion in 2010, the road was a bumpy two-track desert route with washouts, ruts and a powdery silt base that turned to a slick goo in wet weather and choking dust in the summer.

"A lot of folks were getting stuck out there," said Patricia Roller, area manager for the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

The area attracts hard-core birdwatchers, motorcyclists, ATVers, shooters and other backcountry adventurers.

Although only diehards ventured into the area, the road was continually getting damaged as travelers tried to get around rough spots.

They were widening the road, and the tracks were encroaching on vegetation and wildlife habitat.

Soil erosion was also a concern for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Officials decided to improve it with stimulus funds that were available at the time.

It took about four years and 29,067 tons of gravel to complete the improvement project at a cost of $630,000.

The road went from a powdery desert cutoff to a road with a 7-inch gravel base, good for travel in most weather.

What is the point of the road?

• It's a shortcut from Kuna and parts of the Treasure Valley to BLM recreation areas in the C.J. Strike Reservoir and Grand View areas. If you're an outdoors person, that's important.

• It's a cutoff for visitors from Mountain Home and other areas to the east headed to Swan Falls Dam and the Snake River Canyon.

• It makes it easier to shuttle a vehicle if you are floating the Snake River from Grand View to Swan Falls Dam. Otherwise, you would have to go all the way around on the freeway, driving more than 75 miles.

• It allows visitors to see an undeveloped part of the Birds of Prey area on a road that is much safer and easier to drive. Visitors come from around the world to see raptors in the Birds of Prey area.

If you're more into pavement, you can see the Birds of Prey area by heading to Kuna and taking Swan Falls Road with its information kiosks and developed overview at Dedication Point. There is also a picnic area at Swan Falls Dam. Or, you can drive to Celebration Park, south of Nampa, with its developed visitor center, picnic area and hiking trails.

But if you want to get out in the area where there are no developments or sounds except for a strong wind, it's worth exploring.

• It is better access for BLM crews rehabilitating areas that were burned by wildfires. The better the vegetation, the better the population of ground squirrels and other critters for eagles, falcons and hawks that use the area.

• The road is also improved access for firefighters in an area that is prone to wildfires.

• Why was it named the Big Baja Road? Well, it reminded BLM officials of the silty roads in Baja California, Mexico.

Got your curiosity?

If you're lucky, it will be a clear day and you'll get hit by a stunning panorama of the Owyhee Front that you can't see from other areas of Southwest Idaho.


View Big Baja Road in a larger map

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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