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Malad Gorge & Balanced Rock

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Shaped during the Ice Age by the cataclysmic Bonneville Flood, the Magic Valley is something of a geological wonderland, loaded with canyons, rivers, boulders, cliffs and fossils. We embarked on a long driving loop starting at the Malad Gorge, through the Thousand Springs State Park to Balanced Rock, near Buhl.

Malad-Gorge

Interstate 84 passes right by the Malad Gorge, so close that you could roll down your window and throw your litter into it (if you were a thoughtless pig, which thankfully you’re not). Despite the proximity, it’s impossible to see the canyon from the highway, and so thousands of people blaze past daily without even registering its presence. But it’s worth getting off the highway at Tuttle (exit 147) to take a quick walk.

Malad Gorge, a part of the Thousand Springs State Park, is 2.5 miles long and 250 feet deep, and there’s a trail on either side of the divide. Near the highway, a pedestrian bridge places you in front of the Devil’s Washbasin, where the Malad River crashes spectacularly into the canyon.

The Thousand Springs State Park isn’t a park in the traditional sense, but a collection of five different units in the area around the town of Hagerman. Malad Gorge is the only one of these units which we explored, but others include Ritter Island, a birdwatching paradise in the Snake River, and the Kelton Trail, which preserves wagon wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail.

The Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument are another protected area in the valley. It was here that, in 1928, the Hagerman Horse was found. At 3.5 million years in age, it’s one of the oldest horses on the fossil record, and is thought to have resembled a zebra. There have also been mastodons and bone-crushing dogs found in the Hagerman beds. As might be expected, it’s off-limits to the casual visitor but there’s an interpretive center in town with a few exhibits and fossil replicas.

A few miles east from the small town of Buhl is the Balanced Rock. An impossible geological formation, this rock perched precariously on a pedestal weighs over 40 tons, reaches a height of nearly 50 feet, and is shaped just like Africa. And it looks as though it would tumble over at the slightest breeze. We climbed up to the rock and enjoyed a packed lunch with an amazing view over the valley.

Locations on our Map: Malad Gorge | Hagerman Fossil Beds | Balanced Rock

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January 2, 2013 at 7:51 am Comment (1)

The South Eastern Corner of Idaho

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After driving through Soda Springs and Montpelier, we continued along Highway 30 into the southeastern extreme of Idaho, occupied by Bear Lake and a handful of small towns. It was late October, but winter had come early to the region and a fresh layer of snow was blanketing the ground.

Snow-Camping

The border between Idaho and Utah cuts through the middle of oval-shaped Bear Lake. Set on top of limestone deposits, Bear Lake has a unique ecosystem which supports several endemic species, such as the Bear Lake Whitefish. And the strange, intensely turquoise color of the lake’s water have led locals to call it the “Caribbean of the Pacific Northwest”.

But Bear Lake is most well-known for the legendary creature which haunts it. The story of the Bear Lake Monster stretches back to the 19th century, and the arrival of the original settlers. The deadly beast hunts in the water, but can run onto land in pursuit of its prey. Like an Alligator-Shark-Bear. And it totally exists! If you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe that shining beacon of journalistic integrity: Animal Planet.

Perhaps some skepticism is warranted. After all, the man responsible for the original reports of the Bear Lake Monster, Mormon missionary Joseph C. Rich, eventually admitted it was all a scam; a ruse to drum up curiosity about the region. Usually, a full confession would be enough to close the case, but nothing can apparently deter the charlatans at Animal Planet from peddling their sensational myths. And, apparently, being a hoaxster doesn’t put off the voters of Idaho: Joseph C. Rich went on to become a state senator!

The sky was overcast when we visited, so we weren’t able to appreciate the famous blue water of Bear Lake, and neither did we encounter any monsters. But it was still a gorgeous drive. We drove along the lake’s northern border, on a narrow strip of land that separates it from the rather less enchanting Mud Lake, then picked up Highway 89 which brought us into Paris.

A tiny town in Bear Lake County, Paris best known for its tabernacle, built in 1889 by Mormon pioneers. A Romanesque structure of red sandstone, the tabernacle is completely out-of-place in the unassuming little village. But the impressive temple is in wonderful condition and still in use today.

We also swung by the Oregon Trail Museum in nearby Montpelier. Although it was closed for the season, we managed to charm our way inside so that we could snap a few photos. More than just a collection of information or dry exhibitions, this museum attempts to recreate the experience of being a settler on the trail; visitors first equip themselves at a general store, then walk along the trail with stops for camp songs and stories.

Location of Bear Lake | Paris, Idaho

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December 24, 2012 at 12:24 am Comments (4)

Table Mountain… and Crime in the Tetons

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While we were visiting Driggs, we couldn’t resist sneaking over into Wyoming for a hike in the Grand Tetons. Sure, we’re supposed to be concentrating on Idaho’s sights, and yes, there’s plenty to see without ever leaving the state. But look at them! How could we resist?!

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We had chosen to embark on an eight-mile hike to Table Mountain. While parking our car at the Teton Campground trailhead, just over the state line, we should have sensed the sinister shift in the air. We had left the safe haven of Idaho for Wyoming, a lawless land of thievery and malice, and it was a decision we’d regret. But we’ll get to that later, because the hike was amazing, and it’s better to concentrate on the positives.

The trail to Table Mountain was exhausting, sharply uphill for the first six miles, with a gain of over 4000 feet in elevation. But it was a glorious day; autumn was in full swing and the Tetons provided such a dramatic backdrop that it was easy to ignore our burning thighs. As we neared the flat cylinder-shaped summit of Table Mountain, the unmistakable profile of the Grand Teton came into view. After cresting the top, we took a long break to appreciate the landscape below us. Fresh air, unforgettable views, pure nature, exhausted muscles and the satisfying feeling of accomplishment, there’s nothing that makes me happier than hikes like this, and I was in tremendous spirits during the walk back to the car.

My mood changed immediately, though, once we arrived. Thieves had broken into our car and stolen my laptop and tablet. Unbelievable. Here, we travel around the world, Sri Lanka, Buenos Aires, Bolivia, and the first place we’re the victims of crime is Wyoming. The cops told us later that, although they have suspects, it was unlikely we’d ever see our stuff again. There’s a gang which targets cars parked at trailheads. Pretty clever; it’s a remote location where people are guaranteed to be gone for hours.

The theft was a setback, but we got off pretty lightly. Everything we own was in that car. I can deal with a lost laptop, especially since it meant that I’d be getting a new one. But it was a rough end to what had been a wonderful day. Sorry, Wyoming; you have some amazing nature, but the chances we’ll someday be spending 91 days with you have dropped significantly.

Location of the Trailhead

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December 13, 2012 at 8:59 am Comments (0)

From the Peaks to the Craters

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After an extended stay in Sun Valley, we got back on the road. Destination: Arco. We took Highway 26, which is also known as the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway. It couldn’t be more perfectly named. The picturesque aspen-covered mountains of Sun Valley slowly give way to the bizarre lava-formed landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument. We were lucky to have stunning weather during the drive: a perfect showcase for Idaho’s stunning natural diversity.

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November 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm Comments (4)

The Salmon River Scenic Byway

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Idaho has no lack of scenic byways. There are 30 which criss-cross the state, and during our six-week road-trip through Idaho, we made an effort to complete as many as possible. Each had something recommend it, from historical sites, to crazy geological formations or interesting towns. But for amazing scenery, none beats the Salmon River Scenic Byway.

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This byway begins at the Lost Trail Pass, on the border between Montana and Idaho. From here, it’s a 161-mile journey along Highway 93 to Stanley, through Salmon and Challis. Both of these small towns are worth a stop, Salmon for recreational opportunities on the river and Challis for the Sacajawea Interpretive Center, but it’s the nature you’ll remember most. The byway hugs the mighty Salmon River along its southwest course, offering landscapes that have changed little in the past 200 years, when Lewis and Clark arrived over the Lost Trail Pass.

The road passes from the Salmon National Forest into the Challis National Forest, and wildlife-viewing opportunities are excellent the whole way. We stopped and hauled out the binoculars multiple times. Outside Challis, a bald eagle soared over our heads. White-tailed deer fed in distant pastures. And most excitingly, we found a large group of bighorn sheep grazing along the side of the river, 30 miles north of Stanley.

At first, we thought they were deer and whizzed by the herd quickly, but something about them made Jürgen take pause, so we looped back around to get a better look. Turns out, Bighorn Sheep are awfully similar in appearance to deer — at least the females and youngsters, who don’t have the distinctive, curly horns. Although safely off the endangered species list, they like to keep out of sight and are a rare sight.

As we approached Stanley along Highway 93, the Sawtooth Mountains came into view for the first time. With a number of peaks that reach over 10,000 feet in height, the Sawtooths are hailed as one of the last great “undiscovered” climbing destinations in America. Hundreds of alpine lakes dot the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and the region’s remoteness almost guarantees a lack of crowds, regardless of the time of year.

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November 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm Comment (1)

Driving Highway 12, on the Trail of Lewis & Clark

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Starting in Lewiston, Highway 12 traverses the state from west to east, through Indian reservations, along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, and into some of the state’s wildest country, until finally arriving at the Lolo Pass, where Lewis and Clark crossed over from Montana and became the first white men to step foot in Idaho.

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By starting in Lewiston, we were following Lewis & Clark’s trail in the wrong direction. They had reached Lewiston in 1805, when the Nez Perce were at their cultural height. In honor of the region’s original settlers, a beautiful statue by the name of Tsceminicum sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. A Nez Perce woman kneels on the ground, while the legends and symbols of her people appear to flow out of her like a river.

Today, the 202-mile journey from Lewiston to Lolo Pass requires about three hours in a car, but it took Lewis, Clark and their Corps of Discovery well over a month to complete. Highway 12 doesn’t follow the exact trail: the much rougher Lolo Trail, just to the north, is the path the expedition party actually used; it’s still open to traffic, but expect to go about 15 miles per hour.

After passing through the reservation towns of Orofino, Kamsiah and Kooskia, we reached the tiny community of Syringa, where Scott Swearingen and his family welcomed us into their Lewis & Clark Trail Cabin. We arrived just before dusk, tired and ready to relax. As though he’d read our minds, Scott started a campfire, and we sat around chatting with him until it was dark. The next morning, he had a hearty breakfast waiting for us — just what we needed before another long day on the road. The cabin was rustic and comfortable, and well-situated for a trip along Highway 12. To book a night, contact Scott and Pam via Air BnB.

The next day of driving was completely different. Whereas we’d encountered a number of towns on the first day, the road cut through remote territory on the second. Just outside of Kooskia, we saw a sign warning us that there’d be no petrol for 88 miles. And after the road entered the Clearwater National Forest, we didn’t see another town for hours. This was untamed wilderness of river and forest, with little other traffic.

Lewis & Clark’s expedition took place so long ago, and the landscape of America has altered so drastically, that it’s difficult to put ourselves in their shoes; to truly appreciate how dangerous and rough their adventure must have been. But along Highway 12, you can journey through the same wilderness as they did, over 200 years ago. Besides the cement of the road and a few interpretive signs set up along the side, not much has changed.

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November 5, 2012 at 2:48 am Comments (2)

The Pend Oreille Scenic Byway

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The Pond Oreille Scenic Byway follows Highway 200 east from Sandpoint to the Montana border, between the mountains of northern Idaho and its most unforgettable lake.

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During the end of the last ice age, retreating glaciers and the ensuing floods scarred and reformed the landscape of Idaho’s Panhandle. One result of this large-scale terraforming was the pendant-shaped Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced pond-ah-ray): the biggest lake in Idaho at 148 square miles, and the fifth-deepest in the entire US. Its shores are almost completely unpopulated, with just a few towns dotting the northern coast. The lake is so deep and so remote that, during WWII, the US Navy used it to conduct submarine testing.

Although we only saw a fraction of the lake during our drive along its northeastern shore, it was enough to impress. Just outside of Hope, we drove onto a peninsula which is home to the David Thompson Wildlife Reserve. A herd of deer were grazing on the lawns, completely undisturbed by our presence. Even when we left the car and approached them, they continued grazing and munching apples. We got within a couple feet, and possibly could have pet them.

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Deer aren’t the only wildlife found around Pend Oreille’s shores; the great majority of the lake is in the Coeur d’Alene Forest, home to grizzlies, wolves, bobcats, bald eagles and owls. The southern tip of the lake is where the Navy set up the Farragut Naval Training Station, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; in its day, it was the second-largest training station in the world. The Navy has left, and today the area is a state park just ten minutes from Silverwood.

After passing Clark Fork, the highway leaves Pend Oreille and skirts along the Clark Fork River, which extends 310 miles into Montana and is that state’s largest river, by volume. We continued until reaching the border, where we’d hoped to see the 1952 Cabinet Gorge Dam, but found it closed for construction. Unfortunate, because it looks pretty cool.

The scenic byway is only 33 miles long but took us about three hours round-trip, accounting for the frequent photo stops. Enjoy our pictures of what might be Idaho’s most gorgeous lake.

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October 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm Comment (1)

The White Pine Scenic Byway

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Across 82 miles of old pine trees, historic towns and sparkling lakes, the White Pines Scenic Byway brought us northeast from Potlatch to the old mission at Cataldo. It was a peaceful stretch of driving, with few other cars and increasingly beautiful nature.

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The Byway begins in Potlatch, founded in 1905 with the establishment of one of the country’s biggest lumber mills. The business closed down in 1981 and Potlatch emptied out; today, it’s little more than a commuter town for people studying and working in nearby Moscow. It’s got a rugged charm, but wasn’t enticing enough to convince us to pull over.

Highway 6 follows old railway tracks through towns and stations curiously named after famous universities. We passed through Harvard and Princeton; other former train stations included Purdue, Stanford and Yale. Soon, we were cutting north through a thick forest of Western White Pine. As few trees as possible had been cleared to build this road, and it felt as though we were driving through the legs of giants. The White Pine is Idaho’s state tree.

After emerging from the forest, we reached St. Maries (pronounced Mary’s): another old timber town situated at the junction of the St. Maries and St. Joe rivers. It’s a neat town, larger and more lively than Potlatch. We visited the Hughes House Museum and got some grub at a gas station/pizzeria. Nearby, we found an old-time Steam Donkey; a logging winch. Like I’ve always said, any town with a Steam Donkey is a winner in my book.

The byway continued north past St. Maries to a set of small lakes fed by the Coeur d’Alene River. With evocative names like Black Lake, Cave Lake, Medicine Lake and Swan Lake, these pools set in the midst of the forest were unforgettable. We stopped every 100 feet for more pictures, and it’s a real shame we didn’t have time to hike around — Cave Lake, in particular, demanded a proper exploration.

Our drive ended at Cataldo, where the oldest building in the state is found. The Old Cataldo Mission was constructed by the Jesuits to convince the Coeur d’Alene tribe of the wonders of Christianity.

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October 7, 2012 at 1:41 am Comment (1)

The Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway

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33 miles of paved road between Banks and Lowman constitute the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway. Although we didn’t see any elk during our trip, they’re a common sight during the winter. Along the road, there’s even a turn-out with binoculars pointed at a large plain called Gallagher Flat, where they especially like to congregate.

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The road hugs the South Fork of the Payette River, passing waterfalls of varying sizes and breathtaking canyon scenery. Sheer walls of rock infused with pitch-black streaks lava tower overhead, while far below the river winds its way through the valley. There are frequent turn-outs at spots of special historic importance, as well as at places with particularly beautiful views. And we took advantage of every one.

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September 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm Comments (2)

Snowbank Mountain and Blue Lake

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Wearied by the three-day journey across America, we kept close to Cascade during our first week in Idaho. Not a problem, since there is plenty to see. The day after our loop around Lake Cascade, we drove up to the summit of Snowbank Mountain and completed a short hike to Blue Lake, tucked away in the hills of the Boise National Forest.

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The drive up Snowbank was uncomplicated, following NF-446 all the way to its end. This was our first time on one of Idaho’s many National Forest Service roads, and it wasn’t nearly as rough as we had feared. Not all the NFS roads are as well maintained, particularly as you get away from population centers. But NF-446, while unpaved, was smooth and easily large enough for two vehicles.

We started our ascent in the morning, and enjoyed spectacular views of Cascade’s Long Valley awakening to vibrant life in the strengthening sunlight. The scene from the top of Snowbank Mountain was magnificent. We passed by an FAA Radar Station and parked next to an antenna tower where we took in a panoramic view which stretched out over Lake Cascade, extending for miles in every direction.

On the way back down, we stopped at a trailhead marking a one-mile hike to Blue Lake began. This was a short, simple walk, which wound slightly downhill through fields of wildflowers until reaching the lake, as sparkling blue as its name implies. There were some fishermen already present, as well as a rowdy group of kids on the far end of the lake who had spent the night camping.

Location of Blue Lake on our Map

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August 28, 2012 at 11:30 pm Comments (2)

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