A Drive Through the Idaho Heartland

Route Details Trip Tips Length: About 440 miles. When to go: Each season offers fine scenery, but winters are severe,

Dworshak State Park
Dworshak State Park, located on the western bank of Dworshak Reservoir, is a popular fishing, boating, and archery spot.

Route Details

Trip Tips
Length: About 440 miles.

When to go: Each season offers fine
scenery, but winters are severe, frequently
closing roads at higher elevations. At many
campgrounds and lodgings, reservations are
necessary in summer, the peak season.

Nearby attraction: Snake River Birds
of Prey National Conservation Area, 20 miles
south of Boise.

Further information: Idaho Travel
Council, 700 West State St., Boise, ID 83720;
tel. 800-635-7820, www.visitidaho.org.

Print a map of this route.

Idaho, located at the cross roads of
the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific
Northwest, enjoys an incredible wealth
of scenic diversity. Here, where the
members of the Nez Perce tribe have
made their home for centuries, a few
hours’ drive in almost any direction can
take you from desert to mountain or
from valley to prairie, and then back
again. Best of all, some 4 million acres
of the state are federally protected
wilderness areas; they remain much
as they have always been since the
Lewis and Clark expedition first ventured
into the area, crossed the Bitterroot
Range in 1805, and beheld an
unspoiled land they decided might
best be called, simply, paradise.

1. Boise
French Canadian fur trappers first explored this area in the
early 1800s. Impressed by the
abundance of cottonwoods along
the riverbanks, they decided to
name the place Boisé, which means
“wooded.” American settlers eventually
followed, traveling west on
the Oregon Trail, and today, with
more than 140,000 residents, Boise
is Idaho’s largest city as well as the
state capital.

In a wide valley backed by the
silvery ridges of the faraway
Owyhee Range, Boise boasts an
appealing mix of the old and the
new, the natural and the manmade.
The capitol, with its neoclassical
dome, is the stately
centerpiece, while the historic
district, Old Boise, lies at the east
end of downtown. Also worth a
visit are the sprawling grounds of
Julia Davis Park, which contains
Zoo Boise and offers charming
narrated excursions aboard an
antique steam-engine train. The
Boise Greenbelt, perhaps the city’s
proudest achievement, features
nearly 30 miles of trails along the
banks of the Boise River — the
very area that inspired the early
fur trappers.

2. Payette River Scenic Byway
For a refreshing contrast to city
life, head north on Rte. 55, the
Payette River Scenic Byway. Leading
into wooded wildlands, it soon
becomes one of the loveliest roadways
in the state. The scenery
really picks up at mile 23, where an
overlook affords a view of Horseshoe
Bend, a lengthy curve in the
Payette River.

At Banks, some 14 miles farther
along, the river splits into two
branches. Winding upward, the
byway follows the northern fork,
which makes a tumultuous 1,700-
foot descent in a mere 15 miles.

3. Cascade Reservoir
A dam on the North Fork Payette
River, completed in 1948, created
this large reservoir, which comes
into view about three miles north
of Cascade, a popular resort town.
Long stretches
of sandy shore lure
summertime swimmers
and sunbathers. Camping
is also popular, and
those who spend some
time in the area can fish,
boat, hike, and ride horseback
as well. Rte. 55 skirts
the reservoir’s eastern
shore.

4. McCall
The town of McCall, nestled beside
Payette Lake, traces its beginnings
to 1891, when Tom McCall
and his family — part of a wagon
train heading to the west — stopped
and decided to stay. It’s easy to see
why: Payette Lake, with its azure
water and forested shores, is indeed
an enchanting place.

The town is now a popular vacation spot, with
each season offering something
special. In spring you can troll the
lake’s depths for rainbow trout and
kokanee salmon. Summers are an
ideal time to take a dip and then
dry off in the bright mountain sunshine.
Hiking, of course, remains
excellent most of the year, but the
trails at Ponderosa State Park are
especially pleasing when autumn
colors contrast vividly with the
lake. Come winter, nearby Brundage
Mountain attracts skiers with
its fine powder snow. From the
slopes visitors can enjoy a heart-stopping panorama that stretches
from the gentle scoop of Long
Valley to Seven Devils Mountains
and neighboring Oregon.

5. Riggins
The drive reveals new delights
with nearly every turn. Veering away from the North Fork
Payette River, it hooks up with
Rte. 95 at the town of New Meadows
and heads north along the
Little Salmon River. Both the road
and the river pass through meadows
ablaze with wildflowers in
summer, descending toward the
tiny town of Riggins and the confluence
of the Little Salmon and
the Salmon rivers.

With a population of just 450,
Riggins is a pleasantly typical Idaho
town — friendly, unpretentious,
and encompassed on all sides by
soothing forested slopes. Once,
logging drove the area’s economy,
but when the local mill burned
down in 1980, recreation took
center stage. A variety of trips
down the Salmon River are now
available, with outfitters in Riggins
offering guides, rafts, and
kayaks. The town also serves as a
jumping-off point for expeditions
into the wilderness. The Payette
National Forest lies to the southeast;
to the west are the Seven
Devils Mountains and awesome
Hells Canyon — at an astounding
8,000 feet, the deepest gorge in
North America.

6. White Bird Battlefield
The rolling hills here, covered
with grasses that sway gently in
the breeze, were not always so
peaceful and serene. Back in 1877
a group of Nez Perce Indians and
their chief, White Bird, clashed
with a party of soldiers and civilian
volunteers from Fort Lapwai.
Brief and brutal, the
battle was the opening salvo of
what came to be known as the
Nez Perce War.

The White Bird Battlefield, one
of 38 widely scattered sites that
make up the Nez Perce National
Historical Park, occupies about
1,100 acres. A shelter on Rte. 95
offers one of the best places to
view the area, with a sweeping
panorama of the grassy hills. After
taking in the vista, head down the
hill to the town of White Bird,
where road signs give directions
to the battlefield and recall the
events of that fateful day.

7. Camas Prairie
Heading north from White Bird,
Rte. 95 traverses the lush Camas
Prairie, a tapestry of green and
gold beneath bright blue skies. For
centuries the Nez Perces came
here each spring to harvest the
nutritious bulbs of the camas lily.
No less generous today, the land
now produces bumper crops of
alfalfa, peas, and wheat.

Grangeville, in the heart of the
golden fields, is an agricultural
center situated at an elevation of
3,300 feet, the highest — and
wettest — point on the Camas. But
farming hasn’t always been the
area’s main enterprise; during a
gold boom in the late 1800s, the
town served as supply depot for
the nearby Gospel Mountain and
Buffalo Hump mining districts.

The mines have long since
closed down, and as in so many
places in Idaho, the prospectors
of old have been replaced not
only by farmers but also by backpackers,
anglers, and white-water
enthusiasts. The adventurers come
to sample the vast pristine tracts
of surrounding countryside, including
the Selway-Bitterroot,
Gospel Hump, Frank Church-
River of No Return, and Hells
Canyon wilderness areas. Together
these tracts form an expanse
larger than the combined
total areas of Connecticut and
Rhode Island.

8. Nez Perce National Historical Park Headquarters.
Turning to the west, the drive
gradually descends toward Lewiston.
Notable sights on the
way include the trestle bridge at
Lawyers Canyon and the wayside
at Cottonwood, site of several skirmishes
between the Nez Perces
and army troops.

Just past Cottonwood, the road
enters the Nez Perce reservation
and, some 40 miles later, brings
you to the headquarters of the Nez
Perce National Historical Park.
The visitor center, located in the
town of Spalding, looks out from
its grassy hilltop to lazy Lapwai
Creek; it also provides an excellent
introduction to the history and
culture of the tribe.

9. Clearwater Canyon Scenic Byway
A short way past Spalding, turn
east on Rte. 12 for the start of a
winding ascent beside the Clearwater
River. Lewis and Clark came
this way in 1805, and relatively
little has changed since then. The
towns along this stretch are small
and far apart, resulting in a wild,
unspoiled landscape.

Pause at the overlook just a
mile past the intersection of Rtes.
95 and 12 to look for the unusual
basalt formations known as the
Ant and the Yellowjacket. You
might also want to visit the Lenore
Archaeological Site, about 15 miles
to the east, where Indian artifacts,
some of them 10,000 years old,
have been unearthed. Then, 12
miles farther upriver, the road
leads to Canoe Camp, once a
bivouac of Lewis and Clark. Preparing
for their trip west, the explorers
spent their time there
making canoes, using the traditional
Nez Perce method of burning
out tree trunks.

10. Dworshak National Fish Hatchery
After crossing the Clearwater at
Orofino (a Spanish word meaning
“fine gold”), a short side trip
on Rte. 7 wends to the Dworshak
National Fish Hatchery. Every
year this high-tech facility — the
largest of its kind — releases about
4 million young steelhead and
salmon into the Clearwater River.
The fish then swim 500 miles to
the Pacific, only to return years
later to spawn. Behind the hatchery Dworshak Reservoir stretches
its blue finger 54 miles into the
timbered wilds.

11. Heart of the Monster
What the Garden of Eden is to
Jews and Christians, Heart of the
Monster is to the Nez Perces — the
place where life began. According
to ancient belief, the god Coyote
slew a great monster from whose
blood and flesh arose most Indian
peoples. From the beast’s heart,
Coyote fashioned a race known
as the Nee Mee Poo, today’s Nez
Perces. The Heart of the Monster,
a 30-foot basalt outcrop near East
Kamiah, sits on the banks of the
Clearwater River, exactly where
Coyote left it.

12. Lewis and Clark Highway
Just east of Lowell, a sign warns
travelers that there are no service
stations for the next 84 miles.
Here begins one of Idaho’s emptiest
stretches of highway — empty,
that is, of all but the most dramatic
and unspoiled scenery. To
the southeast lie the Lochsa River
and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness;
to the north, a woodland
of Douglas firs and western red
cedars covers a precipitous 6,000-foot ridge. Years ago, the only
way through these mountains — as
Lewis and Clark found out — was
a tortuous Indian path called the
Lolo Trail.
13. Lochsa Historical Ranger Station
Built in the 1920s, this station
could not be reached by road until
1952, and all the buildings and
furnishings on display were either
made from local timber or were
packed in.

When forest fires raged through
this area in 1934, residents of the
ranger station jumped into the
Lochsa River to escape the flames;
miraculously, the ranger station
itself survived. A walking tour
through the site visits the eight
original buildings and a museum of
U.S. Forest Service memorabilia,
one of the finest collections of its
kind and tribute to those who
dedicate their lives to trees.

14. Colgate Licks Trail
Lochsa means “rough water,” and
the Lochsa River really delivers,
especially for the next few miles.
Ever-narrowing canyon walls
squeeze the river into a series of
exhilarating roller-coaster rapids
so rough that even the most experienced
white-water boatmen are
tested to their limits. About 27
miles upriver, you can walk the Colgate Licks
Trail, which leads to two natural
hot springs. Bring along a camera,
for the mineral deposits at the
springs attract a variety of wildlife,
particularly at dawn and dusk. You might spot elk,
deer, and possibly even a bear.

15. Powell
Thirteen miles short of the Montana
border lies Powell, a rest
stop where food, fuel, and lodging
are all available. (Fill the tank: the
next service station is more than
50 miles away.) Traveling westward in the fall of 1805, the explorers
Lewis and Clark paused
here — also for a rest. Starving,
exhausted, and soaked by persistent
rains, they reluctantly were
forced to butcher one of their own
colts for food. Clark commemorated
the event by naming a nearby
stream Colt Killed Creek.

Another corner of this wilderness
recalls the name of an award-winning
author, conservationist,
and historian — Bernard De Voto —
who camped beside a branch of
the Lochsa while he edited the
journals of Lewis
and Clark. Just upstream on the
riverbank, a grove of majestic red
cedars is known as the De Voto
Memorial Grove.

16. Lolo Pass
This high mountain pass, perched
at an elevation of 5,233 feet, was
once traversed by local Indians,
who migrated in a seasonal pattern
back and forth between their
bison hunting grounds in present day
Montana and the fertile fields
that spread across the wide prairies
of Idaho.

A visitor center at the pass offers
historical accounts of Lewis
and Clark, whose expedition made
an arduous trek over these windswept
peaks, part of the craggy
Bitterroots. (Once over their
ridges, you will want to adjust
your watches to the mountain
time zone, an hour later.) Beyond,
the roadway makes a twisting descent
toward Lolo Hot Springs.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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