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The Tough Little Town of Riggins

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Any doubts as to the toughness of little Riggins, nestled between two of North America’s deepest river gorges, can be dispelled by its original name, “Gouge Eye”, which originated from a legendary bar fight between rowdy locals and gold-hunting prospectors.

Cowbow-Mansion

Unfortunately, Gouge Eye was renamed in honor of its first mailman, John Riggins. Nothing against Mr. Riggins, I’m sure being a mailman in 19th century Idaho was no cake walk, but for a town be named after a bar brawl? That’s awesome.

Just like Cascade, Riggins is a former timber town that has re-branded itself for tourism. It’s well-situated for it, midway between Boise and the college town of Moscow, and straddling the banks of the raging Salmon River. This is a great spot for whitewater rafting, hunting, fishing and hiking (as we experienced in the Rapid River Canyon), and popular with students and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

We stayed in the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge, which was both comfortable and rustic, decorated with river rock and timber beckoning back to Riggins’ logging days. The rooms offer views of both the canyon out the front and the Little Salmon River. There was a pool and outdoor hot-tub, a two floor lounge area and, the touch that really won us over, cookies and milk at 8pm.

Location of Riggins on our Idaho Map

-Don’t Go Hiking Without A GPS Device

Old Western Lamps
Rodeo-Club
Bull Rider Riggins
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September 30, 2012 at 1:58 am Comment (1)

After One Month in Idaho

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For our first month in Idaho, we had been based in the tiny town of Cascade, which turned out to be nicely situated; close enough to Boise for things like the Hot Air Balloon Festival, and bordering the wilderness we had been so eager to experience. After just 30 days, we’d only seen a small porting of Idaho; but it was enough to form some solid initial impressions.

Most Memorable

Mike: That’s an easy one: spotting two moose in the river just north of McCall, and being able to observe them for at least ten minutes while they ate and drank.

Jürgen: It was the middle of the night when we first arrived in Idaho and drove up to our cabin in Cascade. When I awoke the next morning and saw the view we had of the mountains and valley, I knew we made the right decision in coming here.
Favorite Food

Mike: It has to be potatoes, doesn’t it? But I’m going to go for huckleberries — a fruit I don’t think I’d ever tried before, and now can’t get enough of. Huckleberry pancakes, huckleberry juice, jam… they even sell huckleberry popcorn.

Jürgen: When we picked Mike’s parents up from the airport, we took them directly to the Basque Block and ate at Bar Gernika, which serves Basque and Spanish food. I love that I can have a great paella in Idaho!
Most Surprising

Mike: I find myself surprised every day by Idaho’s diversity. Nature, cities, history, deserts, ice caves, mountains, rivers, potato fields, waterfalls; the list just goes on and on. The most surprising thing about Idaho is how surprising it is!

Jürgen: Most people weren’t too thrilled about our selection of Idaho for this 91 days, but they were all curious. It’s amazing how a state which is so gorgeous and full of highlights, can remain under the radar for so long. So the surprise is: how unknown Idaho is, outside of Idaho.
Most Disappointing

Mike: Idaho’s a huge state and, due to time constraints, we’re having to skip on things we’d love to do. Hikes and multi-day outdoor adventures, certain towns and experiences that are just a little too far away. We’re doing a lot, but it’s frustrating to miss out on so much.

Jürgen: I’m having a love-hate relationship with the smoke, caused by this year’s terrible wildfires. I love the eerie look of it, but I’m really looking forward to our first 100% smoke-free day.
Funniest / Weirdest

Mike: There’s a gift store near Horseshoe Bend, with these awful signs posted in the front yard. “No Public Toilet! No means NO!”, “We don’t call 911, We Shoot to Kill!” Stuff like that. It’s an outrageous way to welcome guests, and totally riled me up. So I marched inside and announced loudly, “We’re just here for the free toilets!” The bitter-looking woman behind the counter almost had a heart attack.

Jürgen: I’ve noticed “crosswalk flags” in a couple of towns here. What’s the point? As a driver, am I allowed to run over any pedestrian without a flag? Or if I’m holding a flag, can I just cross the road without looking? It’s what crosswalks are for! These flags are ridiculous and so unnecessary; not to mention how stupid people carrying them look!
How Expensive? From 1 (cheap) to 10 (expensive)

Mike: I’m going to say 6. Restaurants aren’t bad, but not super-cheap. Activities and hotels can be pricey, but I think overall we’ve been saving more money than expected. There are a lot of awesome things you can do here for free.

Jürgen: The gas prices are really hurting us, since we use the car almost every single day. But on the other hand, eating out isn’t too expensive. Some of the outdoor activities can be pretty pricey. I would give Idaho a 7.
People from Idaho are…

Mike: Unusually friendly and very proud of their state, but protective at the same time. Most Idahoans that we’ve talked to are thrilled we’re here, and that we’re enjoying ourselves… but nervous about our promoting it. Idaho, it seems, is best as a secret.

Jürgen: Super friendly, especially when they hear my German accent. Once they find out where I’m from, they’ll go into a detailed account of their family tree. Which I love, since it breaks the ice!
Idaho in Three Words

Mike: Underpopulated, Unbelievable Landscapes

Jürgen: Moose, Bald Eagle, Bear
September 30, 2012 at 1:11 am Comments (2)

Sockeye Salmon and Other Idahoan Rarities

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Sockeye-salmon

These red-bodied, green-headed Sockeye (or Kokanee) Salmon were just one of the unexpected things we saw during our first month Idaho. Every day, the state seems to be scouring its shelves, finding bizarre new curiosities for our camera. Here are some of the best pictures we’ve taken over the past month.

-Rent Your Car For Your Idaho Road-Trip Here

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September 29, 2012 at 1:33 am Comments (2)

The Smoke-Choked Canyon of Rapid River

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Don’t Forget Your Binoculars

For a couple weeks in late September, the wildfire smoke which had been choking West Central Idaho was a habitual part of every conversation. “Never seen it like this!” “The worst year I can remember!” “Usually you can see the mountains from here!” Though it might have ruined the views, we decided to pretend that we were lucky to be present for the smokiest season in decades. Yeah, we planned it perfectly! How many other people get to see smoke like this?!

Smoky River

When we pulled into the Rapid River trailhead just south of Riggins, the smoke was the heaviest we’d yet seen. But far from ruining the experience, and I’m not just being facietiously optimistic, the red-tinted clouds created a kind of permanent sunset, tinting the landscape under an eerily beautiful light. The trail we’d be exploring (#113) follows the canyon almost interminably, and we had decided to go for an eight-mile round-trip hike.

Getting out of the car, we noticed it had a flat tire. And a subtle feeling of dread began to come over me. The smoky, blood-red sky, the stern warnings from townsfolk about rattlesnakes in the canyon, and now a flat tire? That’s the first five minutes of every horror film ever made.

Luckily, we didn’t encounter a single rattlesnake during the entire hike. Though, the first time a cricket chirped in the brush next to me, I screamed and jumped backwards. In fact we didn’t spot any wildlife at all unless you count a Praying Mantis or a pile of berry-licious bear poop.

Despite the hike’s eight-mile length, it was easy. Mostly along the river, with only occasional steep hills. As the hours passed, my fear of snakes vanished and I even found myself hoping to see one. I’m beginning to think that spending time in the wilderness just makes you tougher. By the time we got back to the car, we were dusty and smalled of manly B.O. We got that flat tire changed in two minutes, spitting on the ground, hands dirty, and bragging about how we’d have strangled them cowardly rattlers had they have shown themselves. Grr!

Location of the Rapid River Trailhead
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September 25, 2012 at 7:27 pm Comments (3)

The Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary

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Wild animals who have been injured or orphaned could never be called “lucky”, but those in the McCall area at the time of their accident might at least consider themselves fortunate. For the past 23 years, the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary has been dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of Idaho’s wild animals, large and small.

Read-Tail-Hawk

Since their primary goal is rehabilitation, Snowdon is normally off-limits to visitors. The less contact these animals have with humans, the better, and the staff try and keep interaction to an absolute minimum. For the curious public, there are occasional open houses, and “The Dome”: an educational center at the sanctuary’s entrance, with pelts and information about animals from bears to wolverines.

We were invited to take a rare peek behind the gates, and meet some of the animals currently under care. There was Luta, a beautiful red-tailed hawk who’s been in captivity her whole life. She doesn’t know she’s a hawk and wouldn’t survive long in the wild, so is one of the refuge’s permanent guests. The same goes for Ollie, a magnificent Great Horned Owl whose right eye was put out after a run-in with a truck.

Snowdown had recently been in the press thanks to Boo-Boo, a bear cub orphaned during the wildfires that ravaged Idaho in 2012. All his paws were burnt, but he was expected to make a full recovery. In fact, during our visit, he was already up and about, and we couldn’t even find him in his large enclosure at Snowdon… “Probably up a tree” explained Carolyn, who was acting as our guide. We did spot two other orphaned bears, as they were running away: sisters, who were slated to be released before hibernation season.

Snowdown is a non-profit corporation supported entirely by private donations and grants. Their facilities are small, but they manage to re-release almost every animal brought into their care. It’s an enterprise worth supporting — visit their website to help contribute and, if you can make it to one of their infrequent open houses, make sure to do so!

Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary – Website
Location on our Idaho Map

-Great Hotels in Idaho

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WildLife-Crossing
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Spying-Hawk
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September 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm Comment (1)

Boulder and Louie Lakes

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For the last few miles on the way to the Boulder Lake Trailhead, we were following two buses. School buses. School buses full of peppy children excited for their long-awaited day out. “I can’t believe this”, I hissed at Jürgen. And, of course, they were going on the exact same hike as us. We parked, put on our boots, and then waded into the mess of screaming, happy kids. Off on our big day of pristine nature and peaceful solitude.

Boulder Lake Hike

But despite the inauspicious start, we managed to have a nice time. Quick and inexhaustible little monkeys when alone or in small groups, children slow down considerably when congregated into large herds. We passed them immediately and didn’t slacken our pace until their piercing voices had completely faded into the distance.

So we arrived at Boulder Lake in almost no time at all. It was a moderately difficult hike, through the woods, following a stream uphill, but the view of the dammed-up lake was worth the effort. Set high in a range of granite mountains, Boulder Lake was large and blessfully quiet. We paused for awhile on the ramparts and scouted for wildlife; and only continued on our way when we heard the wild pack of kids nearing behind us.

The path continued east to the unsigned trail which would take us to Louie Lake. Before setting out, it’s worth stopping at the McCall ranger station to get a detailed explanation of the route — we would never have spotted the trail if we hadn’t known exactly what to look for, and where to look for it.

I figured that, after climbing up to Boulder Lake, we were as high as we’d get for the day, but the trail to Louie Lake continued even further uphill. Luckily, the nature was so entrancing that we hardly noticed. By now, the children were a distant memory and the only signs of life were chirping birds and the occasional, curious chipmunk. The views from the highest point of the hike were incredible — the Long Valley of McCall to the west, and nothing but autumn-colored mountains to the east.

We descended until reaching Louie Lake, which was just as big and beautiful as Boulder. From here, it was another mile back to our car. It was a loop of seven miles, which took almost five hours to complete, owing for lunch and photo breaks. Strenuous, but not overly so, it made for an excellent day hike.

Location of the Boulder Lake Trailhead | Beginning of Louie Lake Trail

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September 24, 2012 at 2:33 am Comments (0)

Bald Eagle! USA! USA!!!

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After our moose encounter, we didn’t have to wait long for Mother Nature to rear her head once more. Minutes before we entered the Snowdown Wildlife Sanctuary outside of McCall, a bald eagle swooped down from a tree and soared over the stream in front of us.

Bald-Eagle

It was the first time I’d ever seen our national bird, and I immediately remembered the lessons of my youth. This might surprise any non-US readers, but it’s a fact that in every school across the country, American children are drilled on the proper reaction to seeing a Bald Eagle. So as it soared over my head, I jumped into the air, pumped my fist, and screamed “Home of the Brave!” Behind me, fireworks. In front, amber waves of grain.

Jürgen was impressed, I could tell.

After I had calmed down, I went straight to the internet and researched Bald Eagles. When bragging about the encounter (and, oh, did I plan on bragging), I wanted to have more to say than “eagle was pretty”. So please, friend, take a seat and allow me to dazzle you with my EagleFacts!

On average, Bald Eagles live up to twenty years. Along with Golden Eagles, they’re the largest raptor in North America, with an average adult wingspan between 5.9 and 7.5 feet. Females and males are similar in appearance, but the ladies are larger by up to 25%. They build the largest nests of any bird, and return to them year after year, continually adding material to them. These nests can reach thirteen feet in depth, and eight in width. The eagles mate for life and can fly faster than 40 miles per hour.

Bald Eagles live all over America, but are sensitive to human presence and prefer remote areas with plenty of access to rivers and lakes. This explains why they are so often found in wild, remote Idaho. They mainly eat fish (which they rip apart with their talons), but will attack and eat anything they can manage, including raccoons, small reptiles and geese. They’re not preyed upon in the wild, and so are considered apex predators.

First a moose, and now a Bald Eagle. And all within our first few weeks in Idaho. We’d spot Bald Eagles a few more times during our stay, but I’ll never forget that first encounter.

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Updated!!! We spotted a Bald Eagle Couple near Driggs!

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Landing Bald Eagle

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September 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm Comments (0)

Three Great Restaurants in Cascade

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Great BBQ Place in Savannah

For the first time in half a year, we were living in a place with a fully-equipped kitchen, and were finally able to cook at home. So we didn’t eat out a lot during our month in Cascade. But occasionally, we felt like letting someone else do the work. For such a small town, there are quite a few good dining options in Cascade. Here are our favorites.

Huckle-Berry-Pancake
Gramma’s Kitchen

Order an omelette for breakfast at Gramma’s Kitchen, and you’ll be skipping lunch… and possibly even dinner. Gramma serves up some giant portions. On our first visit to this unassuming restaurant on the north side of the town, I asked our waitress about Huckleberry Pancakes; even though they weren’t on the menu, I thought I would try my luck. “I’m so sorry, honey, we don’t have any”, and so I ordered an omelette.

But the cook had overheard my request, and went about scouring the kitchen for any extra huckleberries that might be laying around. When my meal came out, it was with a giant huckleberry pancake on the side, free of charge. And just like that, Gramma’s Kitchen won an eternal place in my heart.

Location on our Map

Idaho-BBQ
Dollar Bill’s Redneck Kitchen

We stopped at the brand new restaurant called Dollar Bill’s after breathless recommendations from a few people in town. Well, “restaurant” might be a stretch. Bill had just opened for business and there wasn’t much to the place, besides a grill on his deck and a few tables in the yard. A little skeptical, we asked Bill to make us whatever he thought was best.

While our food was cooking, Bill told us about his story. Turns out, he’s quite the character, a chef who’s worked around the country at a number of posh resorts. Most recently, he was in charge of the restaurant at Cascade’s Golf Club. At Dollar Bill’s, he specializes in his favorite foods: BBQ and seafood chowder. We got a bowl of the chowder; rich, creamy and cheesy. Delicious. Even Jürgen, who’s no fan of seafood, ate every bite.

Swing by Dollar Bill’s if you’re looking for a good, no-nonsense lunch. You can’t miss it: the bright red cabin, where a bunch of people with barbecue-smeared mouths are sitting on benches in the yard.

Location on our Map

Clear-Creek-Station
Clear Creek Station

Found a few minutes south of Cascade on Highway 55, Clear Creek Station is referred to between Jürgen and I as “Merlott’s”. Anyone who watches True Blood will understand the reference. Clear Creek Station is just like Merlott’s. The owner even looks like Sam, and has the same affable personality. I’m not sure about the shape-shifting abilities.

Our first time in Clear Creek, I ordered a side of short ribs which were the best I’ve had in years, and Jürgen choose a giant burger which almost defeated him. Portions are big, beers are cheap, and the place is understandably popular with locals. Absolutely recommended, even if you have to wait for a table. We liked it so much here, that we made it our final meal in Cascade.

Location on our Map

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More pictures from Gramma’s Kitchen
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More pictures from Dollar Bill’s
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More pictures from Clear Creek Station
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September 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm Comment (1)

A Short Hike to Rainbow Lake

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We were hosting a couple friends from San Francisco for the weekend, and had promised them an easy hike — just enough physical activity to justify soaking our bones in hot springs later in the evening. Rainbow Lake came recommended as a simple five-mile hike, just outside Cascade.

Rainbow-lake-Idaho

I underestimated the time it would take to reach the trailhead, so we got a very late start on the day. Luckily, the supposed five-mile hike turned out to be even shorter than advertised, and we reached Rainbow Lake after only about twenty minutes of walking. The hike was beautiful — the forest lightly burnt in a long-ago fire and colored with fire-red bushes. The lake was small, picturesque and, considering the short length of the hike, surprisingly remote; we were in the middle of the Salmon River Mountains, and completely alone.

Anyone looking for a strenuous, all-day adventure will find themselves disappointed by the hike to Rainbow Lake, but for fishermen or families (or groups of friends who’d rather spend the time immersed in hot springs), the short hike is perfect. We came, saw the lake, ate lunch, and were back to our car within a couple hours.

Location of the Rainbow Lake Trailhead

Epilogue – A short time later, we were sitting down with a cooler of beer in the Trail Creek Hot Springs. We had arrived at the same time as a big biker dude, who wasted no time in stripping down into his birthday suit. Luckily, there are two pools at Trail Creek, so we weren’t compelled to admire the jewels.

Soaking in the hot water was the perfect post-hike reward and we could have stayed for hours, but felt compelled to leave after a rowdy family of locals arrived. They had quickly shamed Naked Biker into putting on his shorts (“this ain’t no porno-show”), but he made it clear he wasn’t going to abandon his pool. So they hocked next to ours, all ten of them staring at us. “No pressure, y’all. We’re jes waitin’ our turn!” Sigh. But it was time to be getting home, anyway, and so we emerged to dry ourselves off on the rocks.

As soon as we were out, they jumped into the pool. And then brought out the Palmolive. Under our horrified glares, they slopped dish soap into their hands and started cleaning their bodies and clothes. In the hot spring. With dish soap. I had never seen anything of the like, but was most surprised by their willingness to lather up in front of us, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. They could have waited five minutes, and we’d have been gone. Shameless? Ignorant? I’m not sure, but it was definitely amazing.

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September 21, 2012 at 3:31 am Comments (3)

Burgdorf Hot Springs

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On the drive back from historic Warren, we decided to check out the Burgdorf Hot Springs. This had been an area sacred to the Nez Perce tribe, but was taken over during the gold mining days by an enterprising fellow named Fred Burgdorf. He saw the financial potential in the natural hot springs, and turned Burgdorf into one of Idaho’s first resort towns.

Idaho-Travel-Blog

Burgdorf has been owned privately since opening in 1870. It was the first commercial hot spring we visited in Idaho; you can bathe for as long as you want, for $6 per person. Besides the large main pool, which maintains a comfortable heat of 100°F, there are two smaller pools which are much hotter, at 112°F. The guy working the desk warned me to bathe in these pools for no more than two minutes at a time. I had a hard time staying in even that long.

Burgdorf is famed locally for the lithium in its water. We’ve heard that some visitors will even drink from the pool for the therapeutic effects of the lithium… which, considering the number of people who bathe here, probably isn’t the greatest idea. Lithium is known for its ability to smooth the edges and after my dip in the pool, I definitely felt relaxed.

Burgdorf has fifteen cabins which you can rent for $35 per adult ($10 per child). With its beautiful location in the woods just 30 minutes north of McCall, it would make for a great, and very relaxing, weekend.

Location on our Idaho Map
Burgdorf Hot Springs – Website

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September 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm Comments (0)

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