Idaho, located at the cross roads of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, enjoys an incredible wealth of scenic diversity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
[sale-item img=”http://media.rd.com/rd/images/rdc/products/the-most-scenic-drives-in-america-pd.jpg” title=”The Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=”http://www.readersdigeststore.com/The-Most-Scenic-Drives-in-America/M/0762105801.htm?trkid=rdv_store”]