The ancestral home of two Indian tribes, the Shoshones and Flatheads, the Salmon and Bitterroot valleys witnessed an influx of adventurers in the 1800s — from trappers, mountain men, and gold and silver prospectors dreaming of riches to cowboys hoping only to survive the winter. No matter who has come and gone, the remote back country remains an inspiring realm, with roiling rivers, craggy peaks, and far-off vistas that lure you ever onward.
Looking just as jagged as their name implies, the Sawtooth Mountains form a striking backdrop for Stanley, a throwback to the Old West, where the citizens take pride in a relaxed boots-and-jeans lifestyle. The Salmon River, the longest free-flowing waterway in the lower-48 states, passes right through town.
Rte. 75 follows the river, which snakes out of the Stanley Basin between high cliffs. Douglas firs and other conifers predominate in the forests, but aspens appear here and there as well, brightening the mountains’ evergreen slopes with autumnal splashes of gold.
Once in the town of Sunbeam, you’ll notice the ruins of an old dam. The only such structure ever built on the Salmon River, it was erected in 1910 to supply power for a nearby mill and mines. Since it prevented salmon from swimming upstream to spawn, however, residents agreed to circumvent it, and in 1934 a well-placed charge of dynamite once again unleashed the river’s flow.
Partially unpaved forest roads lead north out of Sunbeam to two early gold-mining camps, Custer and Bonanza. Both communities boomed when rich veins of ore were discovered around 1875, and both were all but abandoned by 1911. Sightseers can explore the ghost towns, where dance halls once resounded with rollicking piano tunes. A museum in Custer’s old schoolhouse tells the story of those earlier days.
The drive to Challis, a small town with lodging and services, offers many opportunities to observe the region’s wildlife. At Indian Riffles, for example, an overlook on Rte. 75 offers views of spawning salmon in the fall. The road then heads east and north, never straying far from the river.
Along the way, you might spot dippers, aquatic birds that resemble chubby brown wrens. Overhead, golden eagles sail across the sky, their graceful flight a nearly perfect symbol of the freedom one finds among the Rockies. The area is also inhabited by bighorn sheep, which winter on the alpine slopes, and mountain goats, sure-footed creatures that roam the uppermost cliffs at will.
4. Cronks Canyon
By the time the drive reaches the town of Ellis, low bare hills give way to the steep walls of Cronks Canyon. Farther along, the landscape opens once again, and farms and ranches abound. Keep an eye out here in springtime for Idaho’s state bird, the mountain bluebird.
Hemmed in by sheer cliffs, the dangerous, churning rapids of the Salmon River — a powerful torrent that the Shoshone tribe believed no human could survive — have earned the waterway the nickname River of No Return. Eventually, however, boatmen learned to master its white water, and today thrilling raft trips and jet-boat tours are available.
Surrounded by tall mountain ranges, the town of Salmon is also the home of the Sacajawea Interpretive and Education Center, celebrating the Lemhi-Shoshone woman who served as interpreter for Lewis and Clark as they crossed the Bitterroot Mountains. A one-mile-long walk brings her historic culture to life.
White-water outfitters offer a variety of trips, which range in length from a few hours to several days. Despite the remoteness of the setting, a day spent shooting rapids ends not with a can of beans but with a sizzling steak at a comfortable camp under the stars.
6. Lost Trail Pass
After being told by Shoshone Indians that the Salmon River could not be navigated, the explorers Lewis and Clark decided to scale this pass on September 3, 1805. What they encountered was by no means a leisurely hike. In fact, one member of the party described their route as ”the worst … that was ever traveled.” Today, following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Rte. 93 zigzags up through dense forests and then, cresting at about 7,000 feet, descends into Montana. Farther along, the East Fork of the Bitterroot River comes into view, its chilly waters rushing to the valleys below.
7. Bitterroot Range
The byway continues through a fairly narrow valley, which eventually widens to permit glimpses of the Bitterroot Range to the west. Bitterroot, the plant that gave these mountains their name, once was a staple food of Indians, who boiled or baked the roots to lessen the bitter taste. Today it is Montana’s state flower, and locals cherish the lily’s pinkish bloom as a sure sign that spring has come.
Other plant life includes towering ponderosa pines, cedars, firs, and larches, all of which blanket the lower slopes of the Bitterroots. The mountain crests, however, remain bare, their granite crowns battered by the elements into knife-edged horns and aretes. South of the town of Darby, Trapper Peak rises some 10,157 feet.
8. East Side Highway
Near Hamilton, towering cottonwoods arch over the Bitterroot River, which meanders gently now after its tumultuous fall from the highlands. Exit onto the East Side Highway (Rtes. 269 and 203), which ventures to two noteworthy sites. The first is the Daly Mansion, a 42-room showplace begun in 1897 by a mining magnate. Then, at Stevensville, the highway nears the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, where ospreys are making a welcome comeback.
9. Travelers Rest Historic Site
Before heading west for the Bitterroot Mountains and Lolo Pass, Lewis and Clark camped at this site just off Rte. 93. Nine months later — their trail-blazing journey nearing completion — they bivouacked here again, then returned to St. Louis and the heroes’ welcome they so richly deserved. Length: About 250 miles.
When to go: Driving conditions are best in summer; winters are cold and snowy, especially at higher elevations.
Nearby attractions: Painted Rocks State Park, with camping and watersports, southwest of Hamilton, MT, on Rte. 473. Lake Como, nestled in a valley to the west of Darby, MT, on Como Rd.
Further information: Idaho Travel Council, 700 West State St., Boise, ID 83720; tel. 800-635-7820, www.visitidaho.org.
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