Idaho - A Quick Winter Trip

About nine months previously, we’d driven through mile upon mile of Idaho forest, past fathers and sons fishing on the banks of rivers and entire families floating on inflated inner tubes. And the whole time it had rained. This was the middle of July and it poured, non-stop. These people were clearly determined outdoors folk, not the kind to allow a little unseasonable weather get in the way of their fun.

In the afternoon we’d tried to find a hotel down by the lake in the center of Coeur d’Alene but a room rate of $360 had put paid to that idea. All the traditional motels were full too so, panicking a little, we’d booked into a faceless, international-style hotel on the edge of town at an only fractionally less outrageous $160 – not realising we’d just moved from Mountain to Pacific time so could easily have driven on for another hour.

And to compound the sense of daylight robbery, we used the TV to check our email. Remember how the Internet used to be, with no graphics, no colour and a sloth-like 28k modem? Well, factor in the need to navigate via the remote control and you have some idea of the less than wonderful experience that is TV-based surfing.

So when we crossed over the border into Oregon the following morning, our impression of Idaho could be summed up two words: 'wet' and 'expensive'.

Of course it’s unfair to judge anywhere on an impression gained over less than 24 hours so, when a business trip arrived out of the blue earlier this year, it must have been fate giving Idaho a second chance.

Boise … in the rain

Monday morning and a great start to the day thanks to my taxi driver, Yevonda, who points out all the places I “really must see” in Boise and recommends that I start at the Capitol building. Not sure of taxi tipping etiquette in the States, so I ask her to add whatever’s usual to the fare. She looks uncertain then passes me back some change which I stuff in my pocket without looking. Only later do I realise she hadn’t actually taken a penny extra and had left the decision to me. Sorry, Yevonda, it was precisely because I know we Brits have a reputation for meanness that I didn’t check my change!

The Idaho State Capitol building looks exactly how you want a capitol building to look. Constructed over 15 years from 1905 to 1920, it’s solid, imposing and has a feeling of permanence. The exterior is sandstone, transported to site in 10 ton blocks by convicts from the nearby Idaho Penitentiary, and inside is a mixture of red, black and grey marble. While the whole place oozes stateliness, the most impressive view is from the ground floor looking up to the huge dome above.

01 Capitol building

Other must-sees include a wooden statue of a mounted George Washington, carved by German immigrant Charles Ostner with, reputedly, nothing more than a postage stamp as reference for his features; and a replica of the ancient Greek statue ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’, sent by the French as thanks following WWII.

To me though, the most noticeable aspect of this building was its openness. As a European now used to bag searches and body scanners at the entrance to most public buildings, it was weird to be able to walk in completely unchallenged, follow my own self-guided tour and even wander amongst the senators and representatives who were meeting there that day. Long may such freedom continue.

Next stop is the visitor information office, where I pick up a few leaflets and discover that virtually everything’s closed on Mondays – including the art gallery and museums that were to be my next destinations.

“How about the Old Idaho Penitentiary?” suggests the helpful lady on duty. “It opens at noon and it’s only a mile so from here.” Sounds good to me so, map in hand, I set off.

Across the city, over busy junctions, past the cemetery and onto Warm Springs Avenue, a reference to the natural phenomenon that makes Idaho’s capitol building the only one in the US heated by geothermal water. Onwards through residential areas, past schools and shops and out into the countryside. At last, a sign indicates that I’m almost there.

By the time I finally arrive at the pay desk, hot, sweaty and not a little breathless, I’m convinced that the advertised mile is a fictitious figure, fabricated to persuade gullible tourists that it’s worth the walk. Well, they’ve failed miserably because I’m their only visitor. Ha!

Clearly hiding their disappointment at today’s poor return on the one mile conspiracy, they welcome me warmly, show me an introductory film and moments later I have the freedom of a prison that over the years has been home to some 13,000 inmates, 215 of whom were women.

02 Jail cell

Some of the building are just shells, damaged beyond repair during the 1973 riots that led to the place finally being closed down. Others, eerily, look as if their residents vacated them only yesterday. You wander past cold looking cells in which inmates’ belongings have been left untouched, up metal stairs in multi-storey cellblocks, with their clanging doors and intimidating atmosphere. It’s not hard to imagine just how bleak life must have been here, for inmates and jailers alike, especially when you’re confronted by the cells on death row and the room in which Idaho’s last hanging took place in 1957.

Ninety minutes later, I take the short walk to freedom and start the long walk to Boise. Within a couple of hundred yards, a guy in a pick-up pulls over. “Wanna ride?”. That was exactly what I wanted, especially as the road ahead was not only emphatically longer than a mile, but also considerably wetter than when I’d first walked it.

“Where you going?” he asked. “Oh, anywhere in the center will do me fine thanks.” “Where you from?” “The UK, just visiting.” And that was it. He didn’t seem to want to know anything else or divulge anything about himself. It struck me briefly that maybe I’d been a little foolhardy getting into this stranger’s pick-up but then thought he’d taken the same risk with me up so we were even.

A quick bite to eat in the historic Basque Quarter (red bean & chorizo soup, pastrami & Cheddar on sourdough and a beer, all excellent) and, as it’s about the only other place open today, next stop is Boise zoo

Wandering around zoos on your own can look a little odd but I decided that the idea of trying to tempt passing youngsters into accompanying me might look worse. And anyway, I had no need to worry because the place was completely empty.

The girl on the till gave me a map, marked out a route that took in most of the covered areas (the rain was getting heavier by the minute) and wished me a great visit. And a great visit it was. The combination of pouring rain – apparently the animals love it – and the complete lack of other visitors meant that all the animals were out of their kennels, hutches, stables and dens. So I got to see snow leopard, tigers, moose, eagles and more, all apparently oblivious to my presence and, I have to say, looking somewhat more content than your typical zoo inmates. By the time I was finished I looked as wet and bedraggled as the meerkats, but it really had been worth it.

And I’m afraid that’s about the total sum of my time in Boise. It was no less wet than my previous experience but I’d enjoyed almost all it and hadn’t been ripped off once (sorry again, Yevonda).

Boise to Ketchum

Three days of conference later and I pick up the keys to my Pontiac Vibe, tune into whichever mad-man’s on Talk radio at that time of day and head off full of excitement towards Highway 21, the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, 93 miles of mountains, streams and pristine wilderness. Within minutes I’ve pulled off the Interstate, climbed into the mountains and can see a lake ahead of me … and a sign that says that my planned route’s closed due to snow.

03 Road closed

Okay, this is all part of the adventure. Check the map for an alternative circular route, discover there isn’t one so return to Interstate 84 a little disheartened, my mood not lightening any when I realise I’m heading in completely the wrong direction and need to turn around at the next exit.

The scenery’s bleak and empty, just how I like it, but it’s hard to get any feel for the place from the Interstate so it’s with some relief that I join Highway 20 at Mountain Home half an hour or so later. That’s more like it, just the same as before but here you have time to read the names on ranch signs and to stop and photograph the rusting remnants of pick-ups and farm machinery that sit decaying outside virtually every home.

The landscape is covered in deep, deep snow, and the road passes through mountains and across wide open flat plains. Every new vista provides yet another photo opportunity: huge drifts of snow blown into waves and craters; icy-looking roads recently opened up by snowploughs; isolated homesteads that know they’re going nowhere until the Spring thaw.

04 River

An hour or two later I turn onto Highway 75 and head north towards the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Passing through Bellevue and Hailey before reaching Ketchum, I discover that this is an upmarket ski region with hotel rates to match. Decide to visit the tourist office for advice and end up booking the last remaining room in the town’s only old-fashioned – and therefore reasonably priced – motel, the Lift Tower Lodge. I’m also presented with a CD which promises an audio guide to the route from Ketchum to Stanley via the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. What a brilliant idea!

Pizza and coffee for lunch, and set off. Stick the CD in the slot and just about the first thing it tells me is to look out for North Fork Store on my left – there it is – as this was the location for the Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray film Bus Stop. How cool is that? Further on there are signs for Boulder Basin where Clint Eastwood filmed Pale Rider and throughout the drive you keep bumping into Salmon River, the source of the River of No Return.

Later in the day I discover that Clint has a place here as do the likes of Arnie, Jamie-Lee Curtis, Tom Hanks, Bill Gates and many, many others. I’m glad I wasn’t aware of this ahead of my trip as I would almost certainly have skipped Ketchum. And this would have been a real shame as the scenery is stunning.

Pass Galena Summit at 8450 feet and pull over to take in the dramatic views of the Sawtooths in the distance. As it’s still early March, this actually means having to climb the 5 or 6 ft high bank of impacted snow that the snowploughs have pushed to the side of the road.

05 Sawtooth

The road itself is clear, but few if any side roads are passable, which means there’s no chance of visiting what I’m told are spectacular lakes along this road, or the ghost towns further north. However, visiting Stanley almost makes up for this as there’s not a soul in sight. The tourist office is shut, there are just two cars outside the motel and there’s no-one moving around town. Given that two of the three roads leading into Stanley are closed, this emptiness should perhaps have been less of a surprise than it actually was.

I’m not really fond of there-and-back drives, preferring meandering circular routes whenever possible but, with no option here, I’d already told myself that it would look completely different travelling in the other direction. And it certainly did. Whereas the journey north had been in beautiful sunshine, looking south the skies were ominously dark and heavy looking.

Sure enough, within minutes the snow’s beginning to drift across the road and soon it’s actually snowing. I pass a motel and consider pulling in but, by the time I’ve decided that I probably should, I’m well past it and don’t want to risk losing what little traction this two-wheel drive tin can has to offer by trying to turn back.

As the road gets steeper and the snow falls more heavily, I’m beginning to think this really wasn’t a very good idea at all. I can just picture the headlines in tomorrow’s Ketchum Bugle: ‘Idiot Tourist Found Cold and Miserable’. The only thing that cheers me up – makes me laugh out loud actually – is the thought of just how cross my wife Carole would have been if she’d been sitting beside me. I’d long since lost all visibility behind, the rear wipe and demist both refusing to work, and visibility ahead was little more than 20 yards. Fortunately, it seemed that every other driver in the Sawtooth region had shown far greater sense; at no point was I faced with having to change direction or touch the brakes to avoid oncoming traffic.

06 Snow

Five more minutes of extremely cautious driving and I eventually pass over Galena summit. And while the road’s still treacherous, I know that I’m now heading the right direction and over the worst.

An hour or so later, I’ve found myself a place at the bar in the bustling Cellar Pub, Ketchum. “What’s that you’re doing?” asks the woman next to me, seeing me writing up my notes. I explain, tell her how much I’ve enjoyed the local scenery and mention just how impressed I was with the Bus Stop connection. “Yeah, my uncle was in that. Arthur O’Donnell, played the guitar.”

Finishing my notes for the day, I sit back and take a proper look around. The customers are all either skiers or locals and none look as if they’re struggling to afford their next beer. The bar itself isn’t your average mountain bar either. The beers are all either French or British, the posters on the walls are of Edinburgh, Ireland and France, and my meal consists of half a dozen oysters, hummus with pitta bread and bottle of wine.

Later in the evening a middle-aged man approaches me and suggests he might fix my teeth. An offer like that in a bar would normally be a cause for concern but this guy is a vacationing dentist, a little drunk and offering to replace my missing tooth for $2000. It really is that kind of place.

Of course, the obvious affluence doesn’t mean that that the Cellar Pub is any less authentically American West than a spit & sawdust saloon full of ranch hands – you could actually argue that in the 21st century it’s more so – but the fact that a sizeable number of the people there were holidaymakers rather than locals meant it lacked the natural humour and warmth of many other small town bars I’ve visited.

Ketchum to Twin Falls

The first thing I notice the next morning is the quality of the sound; it’s as if everything’s been muffled. Open the curtains and sure enough, it’s snowed. A lot. The motel owner asks if I need to book another night but I put my faith in the road department’s ability to clear a path out of town.

The roads in the center have already been cleared so I pay a quick visit to nearby Sun Valley, the reason for this region’s prosperity. It was identified as the perfect location for a European-style ski resort in 1935 by one Count Felix Schaffgotsch on behalf of Union Pacific. A year later it became the first dedicated ski center in the USA (well ahead of Aspen, everyone’s keen to tell me), and has played host to everyone from Olympic gold medallists and Hollywood A-listers to European nobility. Even you’re not remotely interested in skiing, the lodge itself is worth a 15 minute visit for the dozens of photos of past guests that line the corridor walls.

That done, it’s back south again, heading for the Craters of the Moon National Monument, 60,000 acres of lava fields where, says writer Washington Irving, “nothing meets the eye but a desolate and awful waste”. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The drive begins cautiously as there’s still a good deal of snow of the roads but, as I turn east onto Highway 20, the conditions begin to improve a little and I get chance to take in the scenery and wonder at the resilience of those who live on the land around here. Words like bleak and harsh don’t really come close to describing what it must have been like for the early settlers. I know Idaho’s famous for its potatoes but the only crop I can imagine anyone cultivating in any quantity is sage brush.

07 Homestead

It’s rocky, it’s unwelcoming and, today at least, it’s bitterly cold. It’s hard to imagine a less hospitable place but settle they did, and they’re still here. Small, low buildings with the obligatory rusting skeletons outside, clinging to the land as the wind does its best to sweep them all back east.

It’s as I’m looking out over this land that I feel the car twitch as it hits a bank of thick slush. There it goes again. And the snow’s returned. Slowing down to 30, I once again begin to wonder just how clever it is to be tackling these conditions in a rental car that has already proved itself less than 100% reliable.

However, as Craters of the Moon has always been the key destination of this trip, I decide to carry on but just take it easy. Although the weather’s getting worse if anything, it’s only a few more miles to go and a few minutes later I’m pulling up outside the visitor centre.

Before I go in though, a bit of background. In planning this trip, I had sought and received the tremendous advice of members of the forum at “Craters of the Moon is a must see’ came back the message loud and clear. “Might the snow not be a problem?” I asked. “No, you’ll be fine, just a light dusting if anything” they assured me.

Fast forward to my flight from Atlanta to Boise, reading Roads from the Ashes, the story of how RoadTripAmerica founder and editor Megan Edwards came to hit the road. In Chapter 6 she tells us: “When you live on the road, you spend a fair amount of time wondering whom to believe.”

Back to the  present … and yes, I’m sure you’re ahead of me here.

“Hi, I’ve come to see the 7 mile loop road.” “Are you a cross country skier?” “Er, no.” “Then you’ll have to wait until the middle of April.”

This is something of a blow but, if I’m honest, not a complete surprise; the drive had led me to suspect that it might be a seasonal attraction.  Despite the obvious futility of the exercise, I explain to the park ranger that this was something I really wanted to see, as if this was going to persuade him to order up a fleet of snow ploughs for my personal convenience.

Sure enough, all he can offer sympathy, an interactive explanation of how this natural wonder was created and the suggestion that I might want to visit Twin Falls instead. “Shoshone Falls are higher than Niagara and I hear they’re running spectacularly at the moment.”

I had originally planned to continue east to Arco after Craters but decide that (1) the road conditions might be even worse, (2) Twin Falls sounded more picturesque and (3) it would almost certainly turn out to be shut for winter.

Back into the car and, as luck would have it, the snowstorm lifts, the sun comes out and I get some truly amazing views of the section of Craters of the Moon that runs alongside the highway. If the farmland I’d driven through earlier had been inhospitable, this must have been a settler’s vision of hell. It looked as if the entire landscape had been set on fire, ripped apart and thrown around by some unimaginable force. Which of course it had, leaving behind a gothic horror of sharp, angry-looking piles and ridges and dark, cold rifts and caverns.

08 Craters

The rest of the drive to Twin Falls is a delight. There’s less snow, the mountains disappear to the horizon and the landscape becomes typical American west – wide landscapes, huge skies, massive emptiness and yet a deep beauty that makes you understand the constant appeal of heading west and populating this country.

An hour or so later, I pull off Highway 93 for a view of Perrine Memorial Bridge, a huge steel arch that carries the road some 486 feet above the Snake River canyon. When it was first built in 1927 – the current bridge went up in 1974 – this was the highest bridge in the world and the view remains breathtaking.

A subsequent Google search also reveals that the bridge has particular significance for base jumpers – the people who leap from cliffs, tall building and, it would seem, high bridges – as it’s possible to jump there every day of the year, and perfectly legally too. All the same. legal or otherwise, rather them than me.

10 Perrine Bridge

The bridge leads directly into Twin Falls and the local signs then point you in the direction of nearby Shoshone Falls. As the man said, with a 212 feet drop they’re higher than Niagara but for me, this kind of claim invariably raises a sense of suspicion. Higher than Niagara, wider than the Grand Canyon, taller than the Empire State. When you hear facts like these, you just know they’re not going to live up to the promise. And sure enough, while Shoshone Falls are certainly impressive, they’re not beautiful or majestic in the way Niagara is – the generating station installed by the Idaho Power Company has made sure of that. If you’re within a hour’s drive or so of Twin Falls and it’s early spring, they’re undoubtedly worth a visit, but whether you’d choose be that close to Twin Falls is another matter.

09 Falls

Entering from the north, you pass through a sprawl of hotels, malls, restaurants, car lots and the like. You follow the signs for the historic center and before you know it you’re U-turning with that depressing acceptance that the only place you’re going to find a beer, a steak and a bed is one of the faceless hotels on the main drag into town. And even more depressing, it’s a Saturday so there’s no-one in the restaurant at all and only a local couple in the lounge bar who, it transpires, have only turned up to keep the staff company until the solitary resident goes to bed and they can all go somewhere more interesting. I’d rather be here than not, if you know what I mean, but it’s a close call.

Twin Falls to Boise

Consider the low carb breakfast: low carb syrup, whipped butter blend, low carb pancakes, bacon strips & two eggs, but decide on the distinctly healthier-sounding cranberry muffin and two-shot espresso. Set off towards Highway 30 – the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway – in beautiful sunshine and yesterday’s frustrations are a rapidly fading memory.

Travel through Buhl, the Trout Capital of America and place that doesn’t look as though it’s changed in 30 years or more. Pass through more sagebrush country before suddenly entering what must be the Thousand Springs. Fortunately, everything I’d read the evening before had gone to great lengths to explain that the ‘thousand’ was no longer meant to be a literal claim, not since various hydroelectric and irrigation projects began diverting some of the water. What springs remain are impressive: waterfalls of different heights and volumes pouring from within the steep canyon walls on the other side of the river.

The springs form a surprisingly short part of this 68 mile byway and within minutes you’ve left them behind. A mile or so down the road, just before crossing Snake River, it’s a left turn up to the Hagerman Fossil Beds. In themselves, these weren’t tremendously exciting: you’re invited by wooden signs to pull over and look out over a lake, the walls of which are clearly layered. But that’s about it, no obvious fossils.

But continue up the same road and you’re treated to the most wonderful scenery. There’s sage brush of course but also spectacular views over the river, canyons, flat grassland, snowy mountains to both north and south, birds of prey soaring in vivid blue skies and, once again, complete solitude.

11 Road

Travellers’ tip. When you reach the top of the hill, pull into the small cindered car park to your left and take the short walk to the three look-out points overlooking the dry, barren plains that faced those on the Oregon Trail; the views are immense.

Heading west, you have no real option other than to hop briefly onto the Interstate for a short while, but pull off onto Highway 78 and next stop is Bruneau Sand Dunes, a place that does live up to its promise. A natural oddity caused by the convergence of two prevailing winds, these dunes have been here for as long as 15,000 years. The largest of them towers 470 feet over a lake and energetic types are perfectly welcome to make their way to the top.

Given that it was blowing a gale the day I visited, and the fact that I’m not that energetic anyway, I chose to wander no further than 400 yards from the car park but still found myself completely alone in a grey, sandy landscape, watching the wind cover my footprints in minutes. It’s only a relatively small area so it would be virtually impossible to get lost but you do get an idea of how the endless sameness of sand dunes can cause people to lose all sense of direction.

My next destination is Bruneau Canyon Overlook, an 18 mile diversion up a road that’s half paved, half loose gravel and a final mile or so dirt track. This takes you through more beautifully wild and untouched country and past a slightly disconcerting sign that warns you: ‘This road crosses US Air Force bombing range for the next 12 miles. Objects may fall from aircraft.’ What kind of objects? Bombs? Engines? The pilot’s Ray-Bans?

Finally pull into a small car park still unable to see anything other than what appears to be flat scrubland, walk 50 yards towards a line of railings and … wow. Massive, dark and threatening, Bruneau Canyon is 1300 ft wide and 800 ft deep in places, and runs for 67 miles through the high desert. It is literally breathtaking, an awesome chasm of dark rock, sparse vegetation clinging onto sheer walls and a cold, boulder-strewn river the colour of steel far below.

13 Bruneau

There is, apparently, a wealth of wildlife living in and around the canyon including bighorn sheep, antelope and coyotes. I didn’t see a thing, not so much as a bird, but this only added to the otherworldliness of the whole atmosphere. It’s the kind of place that, were it not for the wind doing its best to pull me over the edge and the threat of a day’s surcharge if I’m late returning the car, I’d have been more than happy just to sit and look at for hours.

So I had to leave the canyon in the dust behind me as I set of on the final leg of my short hop around the southern ends of South-western and South Central Idaho.

For this I’d decided to follow Highway 78 north between the Owyhee mountains to my left and the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area to my right.

To say it was uneventful, unchanging even, sounds like something of an anticlimax but this was exactly how I wanted the last memories of my trip to be. This part of Idaho looks as if it has been created by someone with only a limited palette of colours, the brown-beige-green section of the spectrum.

14 Cattle

It’s the repetitiveness of a landscape that gets under your skin so the mile after mile of sagebrush, grassland, buttes and mountains, interrupted only occasionally by a ranch building or a few hundred head of cattle, was the perfect end to my journey and emphasised to me – a city-dweller from birth – just how special these empty spaces are.

© Copyright: Peter Thody 2017