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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)

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 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.

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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
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September 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm Comment (1)

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.

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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)

Moose Sighting in the Payette River

Moose Candy Dispenser (Funny)

On a whim, we decided to return to McCall from Warren by looping around the east side of the Payette Lake. We’d done the western road a few times, and wanted to see something new. And we certainly did: there, standing knee-deep in the North Fork of the Payette River, were two moose.

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Two young moose, a bull and a cow, were chilling on the far side of the river, probably 50 feet away. They raised their heads, registering our presence, and then went right back to eating and drinking, utterly unconcerned. We stayed for fifteen minutes watching them.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home was get on the internet and read up on moose. The ones we spotted must have been young, because they weren’t as large as fully-grown adults. Bulls can reach seven feet in height, and weigh up to 1500 pounds. Next to bison, moose are the largest land mammal in North America. The ones we had seen weren’t that big, and the bull still had velvet on his antlers.

I also learned it was good that a river had been separating us. Moose can get surprisingly aggressive, particularly when their young are involved. In fact, more people are attacked by moose than by wolves and bears combined! They’re herbivores, with no interest in munching on human bones, so won’t pursue if you run away. Against predators, though, they fight ferociously; battles pitting wolves against moose can last days.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about moose is that they’re not considered endangered at all. I had always just assumed that they were among the rare creatures we’re duty-bound to protect, but they’re so common that they can even be hunted. The non-resident license to kill a moose currently runs at $2100. Funny, since that’s about the same price I would pay to save one.

Location of our Moose Sighting


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September 19, 2012 at 1:38 am 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.

Lava Rock Idaho

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.

Location of the Lava Lakes Trailhead
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September 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm Comments (2)