Idaho? I know, I know - I am from Iowa = corn and Idaho = potatoes. What does this have to do with photography?
Last summer we needed an escape from the millions of visitors descending on our Wyoming national parks. It seemed that every place we considered was too hot, too crowded, or too far for mid-summer travel. Then, we looked next door to Idaho. It is only 8 miles over the pass on the other side of the Teton Range, but is there anything to do there? The answer we found was a resounding "Yes!"
The first thing we learned is that there is no "direct" route to central Idaho from the eastern state line near Victor. The route is through Idaho Falls, a great place to provision for a camping or RV trip and then travel west to Arco. This takes you through the Idaho National Laboratory - the home of nuclear power. Atomic City was the first town in America powered by nuclear energy. The INL has many research reactors and it strictly off-limits to casual visitors but guided tours can be arranged at their Idaho Falls office.
Near Arco is the Craters of the Moon National Monument. This monument is a huge lava field with wonderful scenic hiking trails and should not be missed. There is camping near restaurants in Arco and a nice campground in the monument itself. You can have a quick overview of the unique geological features in a half-day visit but to experience the trails and rugged beauty of the area, you need 2-3 days.
From Arco you have a choice of a clockwise or counter-clockwise tour of the central highlands. We chose counter-clockwise and headed north on US93 through Mackay toward Challis. The mining town of Mackay should not be missed. It has nice hiking, a fantastic ATV/OHV network, and historic drives into the surrounding mountains and the active and abandoned mines. Photographic opportunities abound and don't miss Amy Lou's Steakhouse for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Amy Lou has been serving wonderful home cooking at a great price for many years and when she is not cooking, serving, cleaning up, busing tables, or checking out guests, she will tell you her story. There is camping north of town at the Mackay Reservoir. This BLM site has paved sites with electricity for a reasonable cost and free sites near the dam with views of the waterfalls and good fishing.
We headed north past the Borah Peak trail head to Idaho's highest summit to Challis, another historic mining town near the Salmon River and the Land of Yankee Fork State Park. The park headquarters is just south of Challis and has a nice nature center and tells the story of mining in Idaho. It is worth the visit. Challis is also the door step to some of the best ATV and dirt bike adventures in the state. We left for a morning Jeep ride and ended up on an 8 hour adventure with hiking, exploring , photographing the mine, and trying to find the road back to Challis. It is a long story best told over a beer or maybe several.
At the far end of the 20+ mile loop "road" is the ghost town of Bay Horse. This town is worth at least half a day and the free guided tour. History jumps out from all directions as old-timers tell their tales of mining in the late 1800s. Many photographic opportunities of the artifacts and building remaining in the town.
While in Challis don't miss a real gourmet treat - the Tea Cup Cafe & Bakery - a treat you won't forget. Also, don't miss the hike to the amazing Lower Cedar Creek falls. Almost the entire creek pours out of a doughnut hole of solid rock. Get directions in the Mackay BLM office - the road is a bit tricky to find but the hike to the falls is beautiful.
Our next stop north was the "bump in the road" called Elk Bend. Here is one of the most delightful and well maintained RV parks in the west. Elk Bend is also close to the trail head for Gold Bug hot springs. We have not visited a lot of natural hot springs but there can't be a spring with a better view than Gold Bug. The books say it is a strenuous 2-3 mile, steep hike up the trail to the spring. The books are wrong and the walk is about one mile (maybe a little more) and a gentle climb until the last 500 meters. This last part is through a scree and boulder field that is easily managed and the walk is more than worth it. There are about 6-7 natural gravel-lined springs that range from just a little too hot to just slightly warm. Most springs have a view across the valley to the western mountains and spectacular sunsets. We had the pools to ourselves on two morning walks and found them "crowded" one weekend afternoon.
If you continue north along US93 you can visit the town Salmon and even further north is North Fork. The drive is along the Salmon River and there are scenic pull-offs and fishing spots along the way. We didn't try the dirt roads along the way but found an amazing loop road from North Fork to Duncan's Outpost. This road can be a real adventure and required a high clearance (probably 4WD) vehicle. The North Fork of the Salmon accompanies your drive in almost complete solitude. We saw two fishermen in about 6 hours - take a good map. Our GPS didn't show the road at all and there is definitely no cell service in this remote area.
US93 takes you north to Missoula, Montana and on to the Canadian boarder but we were already 5 days behind "schedule" on our "10 day" trip so we headed back to Challis and then southwest on SR75 toward famous Stanley. This drive is spectacular at the least. We found a campground along the way and spent a couple of days exploring back roads, the historic ghost towns of Sunbeam, Bonanza and Custer and had a tour of the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge. Custer and the dredge should not be missed and definitely take the guided tours of both. The dredge is a piece of engineering history with some of the most fascinating stories I have ever been told.
There are many campgrounds along scenic SR75 to Stanley but the town itself was a bit disappointing unless you want a guided river raft trip there was surprisingly little to do in the town. We stopped for breakfast at the Stanley Baking Company and Cafe - nice breakfast. We didn't find much else in Stanley, except rafting, but we did have a nice lunch at Elk Mountain RV Camp on the way to Stanley Lake. The real spot to visit around here is Redfish Lake south on SR75.
Redfish lake is one of the most beautiful spots in all of Idaho. An idyllic lake at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains, Redfish Lake is surrounded by hiking trails and maybe a few too many tourist attractions. The area gets crowded in the summer but we found a perfect campground at Sunny Gluch for $10/night with electrical hook-ups only about a mile from the lake. Lots of scenic hiking but very little in terms of large wildlife.
The last stop on our 10 day trip that took 3 weeks was over the pass and a white-knuckled RV drive down SR74 to Galena and on south to up-scale Kechum at the base of Sun Valley and Bald Mountain ski areas. This town is Jackson on steroids - up-scale, expensive, and modern. Kechum has one of the best bicycle pathway networks anywhere and plenty of fine restaurants to keep you eating for a couple of weeks. There is good hiking in the area and the scenery is wonderful and there are many good day hikes in the 3-8 mile range. Camping north of Kechum can be found in national forest camp grounds along the Big Wood River.
So we had three weeks of hiking, soaking, biking, camping, and photographing in the central Idaho highlands. A great summer break and only about a 4-6 hour drive from Jackson. Life is good.