A 900 Mile Journey In a State Full of Surprises.
03/05/2010 54 °F
I left my winter home on Monday. I was happy to get back on the road once again, and I had all new territory to explore. Namely, Idaho. There is much of this state that I haven’t seen, and many roads through landscapes I hadn‘t yet driven. All weekend long I spent in preparation for the journey. I baked fresh honey wheat bread and cinnamon rolls. I cooked up a big pot of homemade chili, and hard boiled some eggs. With all this food prepped ahead of time, it makes the first week easy when it comes to meal time. Along with food prep, I packed up the van, organized it, cleaned it, and made sure I didn’t forget anything. In my free time, I was studying my atlas, trying to piece together a route that would allow me to explore, and keep off of the freeways as much as possible. I also crunched my financial numbers to see roughly how much this trip would cost, estimating mileage to figure gas expenditures. Finally, all my preparations were finished and all I had left to do was hand in the keys to my cabin, point my van south, and step on the accelerator. I was ready.
Idaho has turned out to be a state full of nice surprises. To date, I’ve driven over 900 miles through this state alone, and have seen the variety of terrain that Idaho offers the wayward traveler. I’ve been taking it slow and easy, stopping a lot at roadside parks, state parks, and natural attractions. A leisurely drive, satisfying my curiosity wherever and whenever it gets piqued.
The first thing that struck me, was the magnificent rivers that run through the state. On the first day alone, I drove along the Coeur d’Alene, the Clearwater, the Salmon, the Little Salmon, the Payette, and the South Fork of the Payette. The rivers were all beautiful in their own way. Cold, clear water from melting snow high up in the mountains starts the process. Eventually it all collects at the lowest point and gushes and rushes through the rocky valleys. Idaho is very mountainous and often the easiest way to navigate the country is by river. When they built the highway system, they built the roads along side of the river, the easiest place to build a road. So many of the miles I’ve traveled are along these great rivers.
I stopped for lunch at a sunny park on the banks of the mighty Salmon river. The Salmon is one of Idaho’s quintessential rivers. The river banks are made up of high grass foothills, striated with a million wrinkles from where water has flowed. I ate my sandwich in the shade, and watched a friendly flock of Bohemian Waxwings forage and flirt. I took off my boots and socks and walked down to the beach. I couldn’t resist, I rolled up my pants and stepped into the water. It was refreshing, and soon it was numbing. I realized that if I had a Native American Indian name, it would probably be “Pale Feet.” The warm sand of the beach felt good after the cold water, and I walked back up to grassy picnic area. I enjoyed seeing fresh green grass again, there’s nothing greener than the first growth of spring. After so many months of seeing only dead dried out leaves, weeds and grasses, the first tendrils of the intense green of spring always raises my spirits. I was also sitting in the sunshine of a 65 degree day without a care in the world, that helps too.
One of Idaho’s greatest gifts is the hot spring. These natural bathing pools are found throughout Idaho, and I consider it a travesty to my soul if I didn’t stop and go for a soak whenever I’m in the state. I have help in finding the springs, I’ve a guide book that I always have packed when visiting the Pacific Northwest. Using this book, I found 3 new roadside pools to ease away the days tension (What tension? How tense can you get spending your days driving around Idaho?). My favorite moment occurred when I woke up early after a good nights rest. It was still dark out, and as I stepped outside, I heard the trampling of hooves, I had scared some deer. I grabbed my cold wet shorts that I had hung up to dry outside the night before. It was excruciating putting them back on, I cringed through the whole process. I slipped on my sandals and walked the 200 yards down to the spring. I was cold, but I knew a steamy reward awaited me, and it was like slipping into a pool of sheer heaven. I kept whispering aloud to myself, “AHHHHH.” It was great. I watched the day slowly dawn, while sitting luxuriously in 102 degree water. The sound of the birds chirping, the rushing white noise of the South Fork of the Payette not far away were all I could hear. It was serene, and a beautiful way to start your day.
Everyone told me that southern Idaho is boring. “It’s just one big potato field,” to quote a friend. I had no preconceptions, I figured a road that I haven’t traveled is good enough for me, and I’ll take whatever I find as part of the journey. What I found out, was that my friends must have stayed on the freeway. They probably didn‘t stop, and they don’t look at maps the way I do. On the contrary, Southern Idaho has some of the most dramatic scenery of the state, you just have to look for it. I believe that is part of its charm. Yes, there is a lot of flat open country, reminiscent of the plains of Texas, Nebraska, and Nevada. It’s high desert country, meaning a lot of sage brush and a lot of flat land. There are a lot of ranches and agriculture, and miles of open desert. All this open land lulls you into a kind of boredom after awhile. But if you keep on towards your destination, such as: Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway, Bruneau Canyon, Bruneau Dunes, Big Balancing Rock, Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, the land will suddenly change into a dramatic, beautiful, and unique landscape you never imagined existed in Idaho. I was enthralled with the region.
I almost completely missed the Bruneau area. I was traveling southeast just west of Mountain Home on the freeway when I noticed a sign that said, “Bruneau Dunes State Park.” I had a second to decide, and I thought to myself, “I like dunes, let’s check it out.” So I pulled off the interstate and gassed up. While fueling, I looked at the map and saw that Bruneau Dunes was about 15 miles south, it had a campground and that my map indicated a “deep scenic canyon” southeast of Bruneau. It was a done deal, I was going. So I drove south through the flat, sage brush covered desert land, wondering how in the hell a canyon could hide in all this flatness. The road turned to gravel, and still I continued on past more ranches, with fat black angus beef stock, staring dumbly at the van. I turned south to the scenic overlook, kicking up rocks and dust. Then after I drove over a little rise, the land fell away into a huge chasm of crumbling rock. I was amazed. I parked and ran to the edge, the drop down to the river was over 800 feet, and it was almost a quarter of a mile wide. It was immense. I sat on the edge for a long time, listening to the wind and the rushing river carving its way deeper into the earth. I was impressed with how vast and rugged it was, completely inaccessible from where I was, but what a view. My mind started to wonder about what else the region had to offer, so after a while I headed back north to Bruneau Dunes State Park.
The park was basically deserted when I arrived. I was the only visitor, and I drove the winding road past the campground to the picnic area, located near the dunes. The dunes were impressive, they are the largest sand dune structure in North America. Who knew? Not me, but I was glad I made the trip. The wind was blowing very hard, and the dunes were erasing any tracks recreating the fine edge of the ridge line. It was getting late, and I headed back to the campground to settle in for the night.
I slept beautifully. I went to bed early, and so I woke up early, long before dawn. A ¾ full moon reflected plenty of light to see. The wind had calmed down during the night, and the robins and black birds were all up cheerfully chattering and foraging for breakfast. I think that’s one of my favorite parts of van traveling, the fact that I can sleep in beautiful areas in complete peace. Since I’m not wealthy enough to build a cabin in a beautiful spot, yet, I’ll take what I can get. Most views out of a bedroom window look onto a neighbors house, mine look out onto a gorgeous desert scene with high sand dunes in the distance. Not too shabby.
The birds were out in full force that morning. Robins were everywhere, and a flock of black birds showed up. Throughout the day, the black birds were gaining numbers, and by that evening, I would guess their were at least 200 birds in the flock, foraging and moving as one. It was very cool to see.
I went back to the dunes. The wind had done a good job of erasing any tracks that had existed. The sand had wind ripples formed into it, a very pleasing leading line for photography. I took my time, walking carefully trying not to disturb the delicate lines any more than I had to. The sun was shining bright and at a low angle giving definition to the ridge line of the dunes. I hiked up to the high dune, it was massive, I’ve never been to the Sahara, but I have to think it compares to some of the dunes there. It was exhausting climbing up to the ridge line, I would take 10 steps and stop, panting for breath. The highest dune rises 470 feet above the desert ground, and it's a steep wall of sand that must be climbed. Eventually I reached the top and enjoyed the landscape while I caught my breath. It was an amazing scene. I loved the sharply defined ridge line, the lake that formed the western base of the big dune. I could see Mallard ducks swimming around in the lake. I could see the smaller dune I had climbed earlier, and the high desert country leading off to the snow capped mountains far to the north. Song birds trilled their songs in the air, the wind picked up a little, and that was all that I could hear. It was gorgeous out.
It occurred to me, that I live a very damn good life. Here I was all alone on top of the largest dune in North America. It was a beautiful day, and peaceful. Good for the soul. I had all the time I wanted to explore this desert, this dune, to walk the ridgeline, and see the world from a unique perspective. I could make my photographs if the scene presented itself, but above all, I was exploring the world, and that’s my favorite thing to do. I was doing what I do best, and what I love to do. That’s a good feeling to have.
Wouldn’t you know it, my camera battery died on top of the dune. I had taken a lot of photos the preceding days, and hadn’t recharged it. I coaxed a few more shots from it by letting it rest and turning it on again, but it wasn’t long before it completely died. So I put it away and carried on my explorations with one less thing to think about. I was impressed with this dune. It’s size and beauty made me realize that this is one of the most unique places in Idaho. Idaho has sand dunes, who knew? I decided to spend another day at the park, and spent it relaxing, taking photos, bird watching, reading and writing, excellent pastimes.
The next day, I awoke early once again, and this time to the sound rain hitting my van. It was gloomy, and heavy rain clouds covered the land. I got up, and decided to head out. I had studied my atlas again, and saw that off to the south east that there was another scenic byway which led to a “Big Balanced Rock.” A likeable enough description, I wanted to check it out. I drove east along the banks of the Snake River, another great Idaho river. I turned onto Hwy. 30 the Thousand Springs scenic byway, and continued south east. It wasn’t long before I saw why the road was called that. On the far side of the Snake, a high rocky ridge had formed and from that ridge, at least a dozen white waterfalls poured down from the rock. It was great scenery for the drive, and I enjoyed it. I wish their was a park to stop at, but I didn’t see any.
After I reached the town of Buhl, the ranchland and farms took over again, and I followed the signs driving another 20 miles through the agricultural area. Again, I thought, “How cool can this balancing rock be?” There were hardly any rocks anywhere, much less balanced ones. Eventually I saw the road leaving the flatland and curving down into a rocky valley. It was amazing, high rocky cliffs made up the walls of the valley on both sides of the road. At the bottom, there was a small park, and a sign indicating the balanced rock was another mile up the road. I drove on. I found the pull off, parked, and got out. There it was in all its glory, the balancing rock. The sign said it was 48 feet high and 40 feet wide, it’s base was only 3 feet by 17 inches wide, formed by differential weathering. I hiked up to the top of the bluff, and took some photos. I hiked around looking at all the cool rock formations and boulders that formed the top of the cliff. It was a really cool area to see, a great stop. I drove back to the little park in the bottom of the valley, and set about to explore it.
The canyon had rock walls, and was filled with the songs of ravens, pigeons, magpies, ducks and eagles. It echoed my voice when I hollered, and made the bird song seem closer than they really were. The canyon had excellent ambiance. I played my banjo, an excellent instrument for a vagabond. I like playing the banjo, it sounds good in these western landscapes I like so much. It also sounded great in the canyon, it’s rhythmic sound resonated nicely off of the high rocky walls. I ate lunch and decided to go for a walk, to explore the canyon and see how far it went. It was a relatively narrow canyon, maybe 200 feet wide, and bounded by high rock cliffs on both sides. It looked like a rock climbers dream, full of lines, chimneys and high rock faces. The trail looked well used, and it was easy to follow as it meandered, following the small, slow moving river. I kept scaring ducks, and they’d fly off in a panic, their wing beaks, and “waks” exploding out of nowhere making me jump every time. I heard the scream of an eagle in the air, it echoed off of the walls and into my soul. It was the first time I’d heard one shriek like that, and it made the canyon seem wild and untouched. The clouds kept filtering the sunlight, beautifully lighting up the canyon scenes. I found a perfect composition and my photographic sense was fulfilled. I put my camera away. I continued on, going farther into the canyon, the trail became less defined, and deteriorated.
I decided I had seen enough, and climbed high up above the trail at the base of the steep rock wall, where green grass made a comfortable seat to rest. I contemplated my day, reflecting on all of the amazing sights and scenes that southern Idaho has to offer. I felt completely at ease, I was in paradise, and knew how special this region is. I decided that Idaho was quickly becoming one of my favorite states and I wanted to see more of these amazing, hidden landscapes.