By Bryan Hall
It was a dark and stormy night. Well, OK, it was daytime, and it really wasn’t that dark, but the weather people said it might rain. I had planned a trip to play tourist… go visit some parks and waterfalls, ride some roads I had not been on before, and generally get the wind in my face. Of course, the weather changed the day I left: one day it was sunny and 90 degrees, the day I left was cloudy and 65 degrees. Oh, well.
Wanting to avoid the boredom of the Interstate, I left my home in Nampa, Idaho and headed south on Highway 45, where I crossed the Snake River at Walters Ferry and turned onto Highway 78. This road runs south and east through an area known as the Owyhee Front, a high desert landscape filled with sagebrush and scrub land. Sitting at the base of the Owyhee Mountains, the road rises, falls and twists through the hardscrabble terrain. A couple of small towns inhabit this lonely part of the country, and eventually Highway 78 rolls through Bruneau Dunes State Park and joins Interstate 84 at Hammett. I was headed toward Twin Falls and the surrounding area, and the rain showed up in force almost as soon as I hit the freeway.
Not only was it pouring, but the spray from the cars and semi-trucks was blinding. Thankfully, I did have my rain gear on, and I was only on the freeway for about thirty miles, during which time the rain slowed to a slight drizzle. My first stop was Malad Gorge State Park, a 450-acre park just off the freeway.
The Malad River carves its way through a spectacular 250-foot canyon after crashing down a 60-foot cascade known as the Devil’s Washbowl, before joining up with the Snake River. The jagged sides of the canyon are evidence of the power of the river as it sliced its way through the canyon over the years, and viewpoints are available all along the edge.
By now the sun was doing its best to make an appearance, and I shed some of the rain gear before making my way to Miracle Hot Springs along US-30. Founded in 1960, Miracle Hot Springs consists of two outside pools, fifteen individual baths, and six VIP baths. The resort was virtually wiped out by floods in 1984, and the family, now in its fourth generation, rebuilt the pipeline and the well. The mineral water stays at approximately 103 degrees, but has none of the sulfur odor that is common to most hot springs. Unfortunately, I was there on a Sunday, and they were closed so I did not get the luxury of soaking in the therapeutic waters.
Niagara Springs State Park was next on my list, and I made my way across the Snake River (again) and through rich farmland to Rex Leland Highway and the entrance to the park. Well, it’s named “highway” but it is really just a two-lane road running about a mile and a half to Niagara Springs Grade. Then I saw the sign: “Pavement Ends.” Well, sh*t. Yes, folks, the road turned to dirt and gravel, and dipped down toward the Snake River, winding its way toward the entrance to the park. I almost didn’t go: the road was muddy from the recent rains, very steep and narrow, and with no guardrail on the canyon side. Fortunately, there was no other traffic when I was there, so I went. About a half mile down the road turned back to pavement as I passed by the Niagara Springs Fish Hatchery. Just past the hatchery, however, it was back to dirt road.
The springs were amazing: cascading out of the rock wall at a reported 200-250 cubic feet per second underneath 350-foot basalt cliffs. The water comes from the snow melts from the Big and Little Lost Rivers near the Craters of The Moon National Monument, then disappears underground before re-emerging at Niagara Springs and flowing into the Snake River. According to the park rangers, the water traveling underground can take up to 200 years to reach the springs. I rode about two miles into the park and came to the alpine Crystal Lake, a fifteen-acre body of cold clear spring water primarily known for trout fishing.
I headed back out of the park and into the town of Buhl, and to my home for the night, the Oregon Trail Inn. This little place is a motor court style motel, which are my favorite kind. Clean, affordable and spacious, this place was just what I needed to rest up and dry out my wet riding gear. Free wi-fi and breakfast the next morning were pleasant surprises, as was the $76 bill.
After breakfast (biscuits and gravy!!!) I decided to explore a bit: when riding through town the night before, I had seen a sign pointing down a country lane saying “Balanced Rock, 17 miles.” My curiosity was piqued, so I headed down the road and into the box canyon along Salmon Falls Creek. After a few twists and turns I almost missed the parking area, but was able to pull in at the last minute. Balanced Rock is a 48-foot high, 40-foot wide, 40-ton rock sitting on a perch that is a mere 36 inches by 17.5 inches. Carved and shaped by the wind over many years, the attraction is popular with hikers and climbers, and pathways lead up 200 feet to the base of the rock itself.
I headed into Twin Falls to find another couple of attractions: Perrine Coulee Falls and Shoshone Falls. The first one was a challenge: no signs, no markers, nothing to indicate that there was a waterfall. I had used Google Maps, and in a rare occurrence, I even used the GPS on my phone to locate it. After a short walk along the paved pathway that runs all along the Snake River Gorge, I found the overlook affording a view of the falls.
From there, I headed a short distance out of town to Shoshone Falls, also called the Niagara of the West. 900 feet wide and 212 feet tall, Shoshone Falls is actually taller than Niagara Falls, and is one of the largest waterfalls in the US. Springtime is the best time to see Shoshone Falls in all its glory, as runoff from the snow melt in the mountains creates a massive volume of water cascading over the rocks, as much as 12,000 cubic feet per second. Even in late summer, the flow was still impressive, estimated at 400 cubic feet per second. The park is easily accessible, but there is a $5 entry fee. Picnic areas, a souvenir stand/snack bar, and restrooms are available.
This part of the Snake River Canyon is where Evel Knievel attempted his infamous jump across the river in 1974. The site is accessible from Shoshone Falls Park, but it is about a mile walk to the site, and again, not well-labeled. I decided not to attempt the hike, instead opting to find the Evel Knievel Monument out near US-93. The directions I had led me to the Visitor’s Center, but no monument was apparent. I went inside the center to ask about it, the volunteer there said there used to be a monument in the far side of the parking lot, but vandals had pretty much destroyed it years ago and it was removed. He showed me some photos and other memorabilia they had in a book, but that was about it. From the parking lot, however, the jump site was visible, and I decided to try to get a closer look.
I crossed the bridge on US-93 headed north, and made a right turn on Shoshone Falls Road. Bordered on each side by empty desert, I continued about a mile and a half and turned off the pavement onto a dirt trail. This area is rife with ATV trails, but none suitable for my trusty Road King. I parked the bike and walked about 300 yards to the edge of the canyon, where the jump site was directly across the river.
Back on US-93, I headed north toward Sun Valley, rolling easily through the towns of Shoshone, Bellevue, and Hailey. At Shoshone, the road becomes Highway 75, and climbs into the Sawtooth Mountains. In Twin Falls (elevation 3,750) the temperature was a nice 75 degrees, but as I headed north, I also headed up: Hailey sits at 5,300 feet; Ketchum (near Sun Valley) is at 5,800 feet. The temperature was dropping as I climbed in elevation, and by the time I reached Galena Summit, at 8,700 feet, I was freezing! I had pulled over just out of Hailey and put on my chaps and heavier coat and gloves. I knew I only had about thirty miles to go before stopping for the night, so I pressed on.
The small mountain town of Stanley and the Mountain Village Resort was my destination for the night. Sitting at just over 6,200 feet, the town has a full-time population of about eighty people. During the winter, however, the population drops… as one bartender told me, “It’s like ‘The Shining’ up here,” with only about twenty people staying on. Stanley is definitely the quintessential mountain village. The main drag through town is paved (hey, it’s a highway after all), but the side streets are mostly dirt. The Resort appears to be the largest business and employer in town, and stays open year ‘round. I opted for adult beverages and dinner at a place called the Kasino Club, a bar and restaurant one block off the main street. Great service, cheap beer, and a killer dinner at a reasonable price: an 8-ounce pork chop with a tasty bourbon/brown sugar glaze, a huge baked potato, salad bar, fresh baked bread, and veggies all for less than $20.
While a bit overpriced, the motel was comfortable, and the next morning I awoke ready to hit the road. A quick look outside was eye-opening, to say the least. A rime of frost covered everything, a thick fog enveloped the town and the temperature was a chilly 31 degrees. Not only that, but my route home was to take me higher into the mountains before dropping into Garden Valley, as Highway 21 crosses the 7,000-foot Banner Creek Summit at the western edge of the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
I decided to hang around for a bit to see if the fog would lift, then suited up (I love my heated gear!) and headed west. About ten miles out of town I broke above the clouds and the sun beamed brightly under a brilliant blue sky. Crossing the summit and beginning my ascent into Lowman, the temperature climbed to a reasonably comfortable point, allowing me to shut off the heated gear. Lowman is a small village at the junction of Highways 21 and 17, and is a popular stop along the “Lowman Loop,” a favorite day ride for bikers in the area.
I turned onto Highway 17 and descended slowly into the valley, riding along the banks of the Payette River. For the first twelve miles or so, the road twists and turns along the serpentine river, with turns that range from long sweepers to tighter curves. The surface through here is pretty rough in places, and fallen rocks can be an issue. Once over the 4,800-foot Grimes Pass, I dropped into Garden Valley and continued on to Highway 55. Here the road and the river turn and roll through the town of Horseshoe Bend, then another turn onto Highway 52 to continue along the Payette River into the town of Emmett before heading home.
Summer has definitely left, and fall is on its merry way, so this may have been the last road trip of the year. Despite the rain and bone-chilling cold, the 520-mile jaunt was a perfect way to explore a bit of the scenery in southwest Idaho.
Bryan Hall is an experienced rider and author based in Nampa, ID. His book “Life Behind Bars” was published in 2013. You can read more at www.hiwayflyer.com.