William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century poet, could not have spoken more eloquently about the season's glory: "Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile."
As many seasoned hikers know, fall is considered the best time of the year to hike. The landscape echoes transition as the days shift from summer's heat to shorter sunlit days and cooling weather. The trails are nearly empty, the bugs are gone and wildlife is on the move as it migrates to lower elevations.
Autumn also provides an exceptional opportunity for photographers as foliage transforms into vibrant hues of yellow, orange and red.
Here are three excellent hikes to consider within an hour and a half of Boise.
Wilson Creek Loop
LOCATION: South of Marsing, in the Owyhee foothills.
TRAILHEAD LOCATION: From Nampa, travel south on 12th Avenue (Hwy. 45) approximately 17 miles to Hwy. 78. Turn right, and drive 3.1 miles to Wilson Creek Road. Turn left and travel on the paved road 2.4 miles. Turn right onto FR 3758 (a dirt road) and proceed 3.7 miles to a small road on the right, FR 37057. Turn right and drive 50 yards to the trailhead.
THE HIKE: About 10 miles south of Marsing, hikers will find the 28,800-acre Wilson Creek Travel Management Area. Remote canyons, interesting rock formations and a chance to see wild horses are some of the appeals of the area. A great fall hike is to explore the trail along Wilson Creek, where fall foliage and blooming rabbitbrush add color to an otherwise brown landscape.
The trailhead for this hike is located between two of the prominent features within the WCTMA: the 5,353-foot Wilson Peak and the 4,628-foot Wilson Bluff, both named after an early explorer of the area, Marvin Wilson. From the trailhead, hike the faint trail (W100--trails in the area are numbered) one-half mile, to an unsigned junction marked with a rock cairn. Continue straight, paralleling Wilson Creek, which is fed by a small spring. A left turn at the rock cairn fork ascends 300 feet to a saddle and drops through several dry washes. The views west to the Snake River Plain and the distant Boise Front Range are outstanding.
Although there is a footpath on both sides of the drainage, it is best to cross the creek to the south side. Over the next mile, the route parallels the creek, crossing it several times. The narrow canyon is bordered by rock outcroppings, lichen-covered boulders and dense foliage, making this segment the highlight of the hike. At 1.5 miles, the trail junctions with trail W140. Beyond this point, the landscape is more open and the scenery is not as striking. You can continue northeast and intersect with other trails or return to the trailhead.
Silver Creek Summit
LOCATION: About 26 miles north of Garden Valley, in the Boise National Forest.
TRAILHEAD LOCATION: From Boise, drive 30.8 miles on Hwy. 55 to Banks and turn right on the Banks-Lowman Road. Drive 8.2 miles and turn left onto the paved Middle Fork Road (FR 698). Pass through the small town of Crouch to a signed junction at 14.7 miles. Turn right on FR 671. Follow FR 671 for 11.7 miles to its end and the trailhead.
THE HIKE: Not only does this route offer outstanding fall color, one of the best views of the area is offered at the top of Silver Creek Summit. Although the hike ends at 6,300 feet, don't let the relatively low elevation deceive you; summit views stretch for miles in all directions. Don't forget the camera for this one. The hike is along an old Jeep road.
From the trailhead, the route heads north paralleling Silver Creek. At 1.5 miles, cross a small creek on a bridge and pass below granite ridges. At 2.2 miles, views extend up the canyon to the extensive granite rock formations that surround the summit. The route soon turns to the left and the grade intensifies, making another switchback at 2.6 miles. At 3.2 miles (about 1,300 feet of total gain), reach the scenic summit. Adventuresome hikers can explore the granite ridgeline off-trail.
Beyond the summit, the dirt road turns into a single-track and descends into the Bull Creek drainage.
LOCATION: About 45 miles east of Boise, near the Middle Fork of the Boise River.
TRAILHEAD DIRECTIONS: From the intersection of Warm Springs Avenue and Hwy. 21, drive north on Hwy. 21 for 9.3 miles and turn right after crossing the Mores Creek Bridge onto paved FR 268. Drive 22 miles (the road turns to dirt at 5.3 miles) and turn right onto Long Gulch Road (FR 113). Proceed another seven miles to the signed trailhead on the left.
THE HIKE: This seldom-traveled trail east of Arrowrock Reservoir offers towering ponderosa pines, jagged rock formations, a narrow canyon and excellent fall foliage. The first two miles of the hike have very little elevation gain as it meanders through open meadows and ponderosa pine forest. At two miles, the trail enters a narrow canyon and the grade is steeper. The canyon was badly burned in the early 1990s, however cottonwoods, willows and other shrubs offer impressive color in the fall. This is a long trail--nearly 10 miles--allowing you to make the hike as strenuous as you would like.
From the trailhead, travel west across several gulches as you parallel Long Gulch Road. At a half mile, ford shallow Corral Creek and arrive at an unsigned junction. Turn right, hiking through ponderosa pine forest. The trail eventually leaves the forest and crosses a large, grassy meadow. Ford Corral Creek again at 1.6 miles; nearby ponderosa pines invite an overnight stay.
Ford Corral Creek one last time at 2.1 miles and enter a narrow canyon. The scenery is striking here with jagged rock formations extending up the canyon walls and plenty of creekside fall foliage. Over the next two miles, the trail continues to climb, offering outstanding over-the-shoulder vistas.
At 4.3 miles, the trail weaves under a canopy of ponderosa pines. This area escaped some of the fire and is a fine location to enjoy a snack or lunch (1,800 feet of total elevation gain). If you want to continue your hike, the trail soon turns to the east and arrives at a junction. A left turn continues north on TR 129, rises 400 feet to a flat plateau with outstanding views and descends to the Sheep Creek Trail in four miles.
Scott Marchant's new 2013 Hiking Idaho Wilderness Calendar is now available at the Capital City Public Market and at select retailers and at hikingidaho.com.