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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.

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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)

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)

Pictures from Lake Coeur d’Alene

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For 33 miles, a scenic byway hugs the eastern coast of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Given the bustle of the city, the road gets into some surprisingly remote territory: over the gorgeous Mineral Ridge, through the tiny town of Harrison, and into pristine forests. We visited during the autumn and were blown away by the beauty of the drive.

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October 26, 2012 at 12:51 am Comments (0)

Oh, To Be Rich in Coeur d’Alene

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Coeur d’Alene is the largest city in the Idaho panhandle; a mix of remote nature, urban ease and ostentatious wealth. It’s well-known in the Pacific Northwest as a resort destination, with a prime location on the lovely lake which shares its name. We had been eagerly anticipating our short, two-day stay there, and found it to be just as memorable as advertised.

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On the banks of gorgeous Lake Coeur d’Alene, you might not see another person for hours. We drove up and down Highway 97, through the historic town of Harrison and right alongside the eastern coast of the lake. On an old dock sticking out into the water, we took a lunch break, with nothing but a cool breeze for company. The faraway sound of a boat motor eventually broke the spell; Coeur d’Alene is actually one of the most popular lakes in Idaho for water sports, especially among the rich weekenders who come in from Washington and California. (See more pictures of the scenic drive.)

No, Coeur d’Alene is no hidden gem. A stroll along the boardwalk of the Coeur d’Alene Resort should convince us of that. Hundreds of expensive speedboats, sailboats and cruisers anchor in hotel’s marina. It was hard not to feel inferior while passing by. Even the floating boardwalk is over the top: the world’s longest. We stood on the bridge for awhile, watching a sun-tanned gentleman and his young, unnaturally voluptuous wife (we’ll be kind, and assume “wife”) steer their yacht underneath us and into its parking spot. A parking spot which is probably more valuable than my life.

With the lakeside resort as its nucleus, downtown Coeur d’Alene extends to the west, where there’s a beach and park, and also to the north, where we found art galleries, upscale souvenir shops, slow traffic, a couple good bars and cafes, and … hipsters? Yes, Coeur d’Alene harbors a healthy population of trendy young hipsters, complete with tight-fitting jeans and thin mustaches. We spent a couple hours in Java on Sherman, sitting next to a couple fashionable young dudes who were playing chess and discussing Grizzly Bear’s new album (their verdict: it’s great). I almost felt like I was back in Savannah!

CDA, as the cool kids call the city, takes its name from the Coeur d’Alene people … who take their name from the French for Heart of an Awl. This strange name was bestowed upon the tribe by a French Canadian fur trader, who was impressed and frustrated by their unforgiving negotiating style. If there are any tribe members left in the city, they stay out of sight; like the rest of Northern Idaho, CDA is overwhelmingly white. 96%, in fact.

We stayed in Coeur d’Alene’s Best Western, just north of the city center along Highway 95 — it was a comfortable place to rest, with decent restaurants in walking distance. After a long day of sight-seeing, we had dinner at Tomato Street, where one portion was enough for a small family. I slept well that night, belly bursting with pasta, and dreamed that I was a rich playboy tooling around the lake in my new mini-yacht. Coeur d’Alene is the kind of town that inspires such dreams of grandeur when you’re asleep. And fits of jealousy, when awake.

Location of Coeur d’Alene on our Map

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October 25, 2012 at 11:22 pm Comments (4)

The Town of Cascade – Our Home for a Month

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In 2001, the Boise Cascade Sawmill ceased operations. It had been the largest employer in Cascade and its closure forebode a grim future for the tiny valley town. But Cascade refused to abandon hope; instead, it took a good look at the incredible nature surrounding it, and decided to give itself a makeover. There was no reason this former lumber town couldn’t become a tourist destination.

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In 2004, the Tamarack resort was opened. The Cascade Reservoir was given the more enchanting name of Lake Cascade. Rafting and kayak shops opened their doors to take advantage of the town’s prime location between the lake and the scenic Payette River. The nine-hole golf course was put under new management. And in 2010, Kelly’s Whitewater Park debuted, serving as both a water sports practice zone and a welcome center for visitors. Cascade was ready for business!

Within a couple days of moving in, we had become intimately familiar with the town; not exactly a difficult task, considering its size. Highway 55, the Payette River Scenic Byway, cuts through downtown and, if you blink, you might miss the smattering of shops along the side of the road. The bar, movie theater, pharmacy and grocery store (which closes at 7:30pm) are within spitting distance of each other, and nothing’s more than a short walk away. Not the golf course, the ranger station, or the lake.

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Cascade is the kind of town where the movie theater still has a grand old piano next to the screen. And where they’ll hold off on showing the movie ten or fifteen minutes, until the folks waiting for their popcorn have taken their seats. Where, if the film stops running a couple times due to electricity faults, the projectionist will announce “Cascade in August, folks!” to a roomful of laughs.

There are still some businesses shuttered; Cascade hasn’t yet become a resort town of wild prosperity, but that’s mostly to its benefit. There’s none of the stuffiness which can ruin wealthier places. We went into town nearly every day for shopping, food or fun, and couldn’t have been happier to call it home for our first month in Idaho. Cascade is ideally situated, about 90 minutes from Boise and 45 from McCall; close to natural hot springs, and some great hiking in the Boise National Forest.

Location on our Idaho Map

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September 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm Comments (2)

A Labor Day Hike to Loon Lake

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A popular walking loop leads from the Chinook Campground in the Payette National Forest, along the banks of the Sesech River to the majestic Loon Lake. We woke up early on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend to tackle the hike, which impressed us not only with its beauty, but with a fascinating piece of history hidden within the woods.

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For the first few miles of the hike, we followed the Secesh River, shining brilliantly in the morning light. It’s pronounced “SEE-shesh”, with its roots in the word “secessionist”. After the Civil War, gold prospectors from all over the nation settled in nearby Warren. Conflict inevitably arose between the former Union and Confederate loyalists, and tribal lines were drawn. Northerners stayed in a part of Warren which they coined Washington, while Southerners settled across the river, henceforth known as the Secesch.

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In February of 1943, a B-23 Bomber got lost in the snowy mountains of Idaho. Short of fuel, the eight-man crew searched desperately for a place to touch down. In the nick of time, they spotted Loon Lake: frozen over and just spacious enough to attempt a landing. The plane skidded across the ice and crashed into the trees on the lake’s southern shore.

Everyone survived the rough landing, but they weren’t yet out of danger. Completely lost in the wild back-country of Idaho, they had no means of communicating their location, or any idea as to where they were. For fifteen days, they held on, reduced to eating bark, leaves and squirrel. Lucikly, a commercial pilot from Warren eventually discovered the wreckage, and was able to rescue the crew, all eight of whom survived.

The wreckage from the Chinook Bomber is still in the woods, near Loon Lake. After 69 years, it’s more intact than I would have believed. We walked around the bomber, and poked our heads into the wheel well and cockpit. A stirring testament to man’s will to survive.

The trek back to the car was long; five miles through burnt forest, with Labor Day traffic to contend with. This is a popular trail for dirt-bikes, which hindered us from truly enjoying the scenery. Every time a bike blasted by, we’d be suffocated for a couple minutes by the dust it kicked up. It was the wrong weekend to be on this trail; my eyes were sore, and I was coughing up dirt by the time we arrived back at the car.

Locations: Chinook Campground Trailhead | B-23 Bomber Remains

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September 5, 2012 at 4:13 pm Comments (3)

The Lava Lakes in Payette National Forest

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Idaho has no shortage of incredible hikes, and we were overwhelmed with options when choosing the destination of our first big day out. Browsing through a formidable collection of books, pamphlets and online guides, the name “Lava Lakes” popped out. The eight-mile round-trip hike in the Payette National Forest sounded perfect, promising unforgettable wilderness, sweeping views, strange geology, wildlife and solitude. And it delivered.

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Nearly 20,000 miles of public trails snake throughout Idaho. How exactly do you narrow that down? At a 15 minute/mile pace, that’s 5000 hours of hiking. Even if you just concentrate on the top 1% of trails, you still have 200 miles to look forward to! The sheer abundance of possible hikes is almost disheartening. We pride ourselves on exploring our new homes comprehensively, but had to accept that completing even a tiny fraction of Idaho’s beautiful hikes would be impossible.

We didn’t leave much to chance for our trip to the Lava Lakes, making sure to stop by the Payette Forest ranger station in McCall before embarking. The ranger on duty was helpful in pointing out the best trails and recommending which paths to avoid; not all of Idaho’s bountiful trails have been recently “cleared”, meaning that sections might be impassible due to brush or fallen logs. The four-mile track to the Lava Lakes, though, had his green light.

The drive to the trailhead alone would have made for a satisfying excursion. We passed by the Brundage Mountain Ski Resort, picturesquely tucked away in the forest. The road, rough and gravelly, also took us past Brundage Reservoir, Goose Lake, the Hazard Lakes, and along a cliff which overlooked the Grass Mountains and Lloyd’s Lake. Assisted by GPS and a detailed map, we found the trailhead easily (location), and were happy to see that no other cars were parked there.

The trail was as clear and easy-to-follow as the ranger in McCall had promised, and it led on a slight incline through some unbelievable scenery. Fields of wild flowers and old-growth forest, much of which had been burnt in a wildfire years ago. Charred, dead trees struggled with the wind, swaying and creaking a bit too much for my comfort, but adding immensely to the lovely strangeness of the landscape.

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After a mile or so, we came upon the first evidence of volcanic activity in the area: large mounds of lava rocks. The area was shaped by the same natural forces that formed Yellowstone seventeen million years ago, and much of the lava is still exposed. The trail culminated at the Lava Ridge, where the rising mountain that we’d been ascending suddenly drops straight down into a craggy black cliff.

Due to haze caused by forest fires plaguing the state, we couldn’t see as far from the top of the Lava Ridge as one normally could, but the view was still impressive. Below us were the Lava Lakes, a trio of sparkling ponds set spectacularly in the fire-devastated forest. I could make out a pair of deer at the edge of one lake, and we monitored their progress as they jumped through the forest.

Turning around and starting on the trail back, we heard a snort. No more than fifteen meters away, a large buck was staring at us. He was watchful and perfectly still, but twitched when Jürgen brought his camera up and then bounced away. Ten minutes later, the same thing happened with another, younger buck. It was incredible; they weren’t nearly as skittish as I would have imagined. In fact, they seemed almost curious about our presence.

The hike back down the hill was easy, and we had returned to the trailhead about four hours after starting out. The Lava Lakes Hike (Trail #149) was a perfect place to begin exploring Idaho’s wilderness, and made us eager to get back out discover more.

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September 1, 2012 at 5:26 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)

A Slow Drive Around Lake Cascade

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Propped up against the Boise National Forest, and just an hour north of the capital, Lake Cascade is a convenient spot for restless city-dwellers to get their nature fix. The charming resort town of McCall crowns the northern end of the lake, while the smaller villages of Cascade and Donnelly line the east, providing an abundance of places to stay the weekend.

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On our first full day in Idaho, we mapped out a drive around the lake in order to get a sense of its size, and also to explore the area. I thought the simple loop would take perhaps an hour, tops, but hadn’t reckoned on two things: (a) how huge Idaho is, and (b) how picturesque. Lake Cascade looks like a tear drop on the map, but has a surface area of 30,000 acres.

Jürgen is a professional photographer and, after all the years we’ve spent travelling together, I’ve become accustomed to pulling over and letting him take pictures. It’s his job; I understand. But during our tour of Lake Cascade, we were stopping with absurd frequency. “Pull over here. I’ll be right back!” I’d wait in the car, frustration level slowly rising, until he returned, grinning from ear to ear and proudly displaying a picture of some field, or old bridge. And then, just as soon as I’d finally nudged back over 20mph, he’d ask to stop again.

On the western edge of the lake, we followed West Mountain Drive, which brought us to the doorsteps of Tamarack Resort. This sprawling four-season resort opened in 2004 and almost immediately fell into financial ruin; it’s now in foreclosure. We drove up into Tamarack, past hundreds of impressive lodge houses which were impressively empty. Not a soul anywhere you looked, it was like a ghost town for very wealthy spirits. We later learned that some of these beautiful lodges had been auctioned off for as little as $60,000.

We completed our loop of Lake Cascade in four hours, and were compelled to scrap all remaining plans we’d had for the day. Underestimating the time required for excursions and road trips would be a recurring problem during our 91 days in Idaho. But Jürgen was on cloud nine, and I couldn’t help but share his elation. Our first little road trip had only confirmed how amazing Idaho was going to be.

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August 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm Comments (2)