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The Spencer Opal Mines

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The sun was hot on the back of my neck as I crouched down over another pile of rocks, wielding my hammer and garden fork. My legs were getting sore, and I kept forgetting to drink water, but the growing exhaustion didn’t matter. Every time I had almost convinced myself to quit, a shiny glint appeared underfoot. Yes, my precious, another opal!


Spencer, Idaho, is a small town near the Montana border which owes its existence to the opal. The mines here are the best in America, producing stones renowned for their fine layers and exquisite color. Discovered in 1948 by a couple deer hunters, the Spencer Opal Mines have been owned and operated by the same family for the past 48 years. In 1968, after realizing they were producing more rock than they could work themselves, they opened a mini-mine for amateur gem hunters. For $10, you can scour the stones as long as you want, and keep up to a pound of opal-laden rock for yourself.

When we first read about the Spencer Opal Mines, I was more than a little suspicious. “Sure”, I thought, “like they really dump it into a public mine, without first removing all the good opals”. But as soon I saw the pit, I realized that this is exactly what they do. It’s big, with tons of rocks, and there’s no way they screen them all in advance. And my skepticism was completely dispelled when I found my first opal, a yellow-colored gem, after about five minutes of hunting.

The chances of discovering a truly valuable opal in the Spencer Opal Mines aren’t that bad. While demonstrating how to water the stones down and bring out their full color, the mine’s owner told us about a 10-year-old kid who had recently found a huge pink opal in the public mine. He estimated that the gem could probably pay for the kid’s first year of college.

After about an hour, we left the mine with two full bags of rock, our one-pound quotas easily met. In fact, I had to choose some opals to leave behind, although I could have paid a bit extra to take them all. Most of the gems we found were fairly common, the shiny white color of quartz, but we ended up with a few colorful opals were suitable to be polished and set into jewelry. Not a bad haul.

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December 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm Comments (2)

The Ghost Town of Bayhorse

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Driving along the Salmon River Scenic Byway, we entered the Land of the Yankee Fork: a state park which stretches out to the south of Challis, dedicated to the mining history of the area. There are three ghost towns in the park, and we decided to make a stop at Bayhorse.


We had taken our time on the Salmon River road, and didn’t arrive at the gates of Bayhorse until 4:45pm, nearly closing time for the park. But the guard waved us in, and said we could take our time. Idaho, we’ve learned, is filled with easy-going people like this; he must have been getting ready to go home, but was happy to inconvenience himself for a little while. And, being selfish jerks, we always make sure to take full advantage of such generosity!

It was fortunate for us, because the ghost town was fascinating. Like so many of the small towns in central and northern Idaho, Bayhorse got its start during the mining boom of the 1860s and 70s. Tucked away in a narrow canyon, it reached a peak population of around 300, before the mining dried up in the 1890s and people started to leave. In 1958, plucky little Bayhorse finally lost its last resident and became a certified ghost town.

If the ruins are anything to judge by, this must have been a neat place during its heyday. The most notable remnant is the old mill: a big three-story structure resting on the side of the canyon. It was designed to make use of gravity: rocks dumped into the top were processed on their way down. In varying states of conservation, we also saw a saloon, a few houses, and a brick Wells Fargo building in the middle of town. You can even still find some old charcoal kilns on the outskirts.

We’d visited other mining towns that were past their prime, such as Idaho City and Warren, but this was the first fully abandoned town we’d seen, and provided a fascinating glimpse into a rather short-lived period of Idaho’s short history.

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November 10, 2012 at 12:38 am Comment (1)

Kellogg’s Crystal Gold Mine

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Gold Pan Kit

The day after visiting the Sierra Silver Mines in nearby Wallace, we were invited to check out Kellogg’s Crystal Gold Mines. Two mines in two days might sound repetitive, but they offered sufficiently distinct experiences to make each worth the time.


Where the most memorable aspect of Sierra Silver Mines had been its still-working equipment, that of the Crystal Gold Mine was its history. This was the first hard rock mine explored in the Silver Valley, dug out by a small group of prospectors years before the silver rush which brought about the first permanent settlers. The identity of the men responsible for the Crystal mine remains shrouded in mystery.

Our guide for the day, a former miner who joined the Navy when the industry slowed, showed us the veins of quartz which the gold-seekers followed into the underground. Gold is often mixed with quartz, and he pointed out some nuggets still embedded in the hard, white rock. No one knows how much gold this mine produced, but considering how much was left when the mine was rediscovered, it must have been a substantial amount.

The miners vanished suddenly, for reasons which are unascertainable. Their equipment, advanced and expensive for the day, was left behind, and the mine’s entrance was sealed up and carefully concealed. It seems safe to assume that they intended to return. The mine was so well-hidden that it remained undiscovered until 1991.

Our tour took about an hour. We learned about various minerals, including the beautiful and worthless Smithsonite, and got to experience the unsettling sensation of absolute blackness when our guide shut off the lights completely. We saw downward shafts now filled with water (and some fish), some of the rotted, original equipment, and an interesting exhibit which demonstrated the blast pattern on a wall packed with dynamite.

And after the tour, we got to try our hand at panning for gold in tubs kept in the yard. I was too clumsy and impatient, but Jürgen demonstrated an innate knack for it. So I wasn’t too surprised when, the next day, he swung into the parking lot of a hardware store and ran inside to buy his very own pan. For weeks, every time we drove by a river, his eyes lit up with gold fever, and we had to stop. Amazingly, he never hit it rich.

Crystal Gold Mine – Website

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October 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm Comment (1)

The Sierra Silver Mines of Wallace

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The history of Wallace is synonymous with that of silver mining in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. The town was founded when silver was discovered, thrived as long as the mineral was abundant, and faded once the mines closed up shop. The Sierra Silver Mine Tour confidently describes itself as “the most popular, interesting, and instructive tour in the Northwest”, and offers an excellent primer to both Wallace and the industry which defined it.


Our tour started with a trolley ride around Wallace, with the driver pointing out historic buildings and sharing anecdotes from the town’s bawdy history. The trolley then drove outside the town limits and deposited us at the opening to the Sierra Silver Mine, where a retired miner was awaiting us. He outfitted us with hard hats, gave us a short history of the mine, and then led us into the underground.

Discovered around 1900, the Sierra mine was a dud which never produced any real riches. It had a few different owners throughout the years, but regardless of how far or deep they dug, silver was never discovered in sufficient quantity to justify full-scale mining. In 1982, the mine was purchased by a group of locals who opened it up to tours, hoping to preserve and promote Wallace’s mining history and heritage.

Our tour underground lasted an hour. During it, we were taught how to identify silver and lead, and how these differ from lesser-value metals like zinc. Turns out the sparkliest stuff isn’t necessarily the most exciting. Our guide also demonstrated some of the equipment used by the miners of the early 1900s, such as a giant drill which was at least twelve feet long. My favorite was the slushing machine, which removed the sludge and water produced after a blast.

It was a fun tour, and an interesting peek into the history of the industry that shaped the Silver Valley.

Sierra Silver Mine Tour – Website

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October 17, 2012 at 12:22 am Comments (2)

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.


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.

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

A Walking Tour of Historic Warren

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After learning the year-round population of tiny Warren, located in the western foothills of the Salmon River Mountains, I was shocked. “Twelve?!” I couldn’t believe even that many people lived here.

Warren is the most remote town that we visited in Idaho, stationed at the end of a dirt road 45 miles out of McCall. It’s a moderately popular summer getaway which empties out almost entirely once snow sets in. Understandable, since the only road into town closes for winter. After that, it’s either snowmobile or airplane.

As with many of central Idaho’s tiny towns, Warren had its heyday back in the 1860s with the discovery of gold. Prospectors moved in from every corner of the country — Californians, Missourians, Secessionists from the South — but they were all out-numbered by the Chinese. Over 1200 workers from China flocked to Warren, establishing their own saloons, restaurants and barbershops. One prominent member of the Chinese community, Ah Sam, even became an honorary mayor of Warren.

The Forest Ranger station in McCall had equipped us with a pamphlet titled the “Warren Historic Walking Tour”, which describes the ancient buildings which are still standing, and relates some of the more colorful stories of the town’s past. As we walked past the Green House, for example, we read the following about the overly conciliatory judge who resided there:

Andy Kavanaugh assumed the office in 1895 and was distinguished by never rendering a verdict. Kavanaugh threw all his cases out of court on the basis of “hearsay evidence” because “it made a lot smoother living in the community.”

Perhaps my favorite of Warren’s buildings was the old schoolhouse, noteworthy for its backwards “N” — particularly embarrassing, since this was where children were taught to write. In the 1930s, townspeople rejected a proposal that the “N” be corrected, huffing that “this is the way it’s always been!”

At the schoolhouse, I pointed out an odd bit of playground equipment to my mom. It looked like a medieval torture device, but sent her into a fit of nostalgic ecstasy. “Giant Stride”, she squealed, running toward it like the schoolgirl she actually was the last time she had seen one. Apparently, these deathtraps were all the rage in the playgrounds of 1950s-era Indiana. It’s like a tetherball set, but taller, and with six ropes instead of one, and they’re metal chains instead of rope, and instead of a soft ball on the end of each, there are heavy, metal stirrups. Of course, it’s incredibly fun — I swung around on it for awhile, cursing the dumb kid who must have wrapped a chain around his throat and forced the nationwide ban on this awesomely dangerous toy.

We finished off our day in Warren at its bustling saloon. Literally everyone in town must have been there. A very cool place, quirky like only the bars of very small towns can be. They had old Chinese artifacts on display, and a book compiling the editions of the defunct Warren Times.

Warren was a far more entertaining day trip than I had anticipated. The beautiful Warren Wagon road which leads there from McCall is almost worth the drive itself, but the town has a lot to recommend a visit. Just make sure and pick up the Walking Tour brochure in McCall, first.

Location on our Idaho Map

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September 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm Comments (4)

An Ice Cream Social in Historic Roseberry

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Maybe it was all the Mountain Dew we’d been drinking, but Jürgen and I woke up on Saturday morning with an unquenchable thirst for crazy action. “Dude!” I yelled at him. “Extreeeeme!” came his frenzied reply. Mouths frothing, we examined our options. Repelling in the Sawtooths? Lame. Kayaking in Hell’s Canyon? Snooze-ville. But what’s this? An ice cream social in historic Roseberry? Sounds like it’s time to get our party shoes on!

Ice Cream Social

In its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, Roseberry was among the most important towns in central Idaho, boasting two schools, a telephone exchange, stores, churches and a bank. But its fortunes changed irreversibly in 1914, when the railroad decided to build their line a mile and a half to the west, founding the new town of Donnelly. Businesses quickly abandoned Roseberry, even picking up entire structures and moving them down the road. By 1939, the last store had closed and it became little more than a ghost town.

But for the last few decades, there’s been a concentrated effort to bring life back to the town. The Long Valley Preservation Society has been working to turn old Roseberry into a place of historic interest. Barns have been rebuilt according to the original plans, the general store has been renovated, and the churches and houses now look much as they did in 1907.

Saturday’s ice cream social provided a great excuse to check it out. Houses were open to the public, and locals dressed in period garb were on-hand to relate Roseberry’s history and describe the buildings, most of which were Finnish in origin. We wandered from the “Barn at Roseberry” to the 1905 Arling House, and saw the 1898 Korvola Cabin… it was like a giant outdoor museum.

We had a great day out. The ice cream was free and delicious, and the town was packed full with visitors. We hovered around the proceedings a bit, checking out classic cars and eavesdropping on conversations. Everyone seemed to know each other, which I suppose isn’t surprising. We stayed until the bagpipe band finished their performance, then headed home.

Location of Roseberry

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September 4, 2012 at 9:31 pm Comments (2)
The Spencer Opal Mines The sun was hot on the back of my neck as I crouched down over another pile of rocks, wielding my hammer and garden fork. My legs were getting sore, and I kept forgetting to drink water, but the growing exhaustion didn't matter. Every time I had almost convinced myself to quit, a shiny glint appeared underfoot. Yes, my precious, another opal!
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