This trip was full of adventure and by the end of our two weeks, Idaho had engraved unforgettable memories in our hearts. We explored Ponderosa State Park, Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Yankee Fork area. Here are some highlights:
Ponderosa State Park
The park occupies most of a 1,000-acre peninsula that extends into Payette Lake. It’s a well-maintained, year-round park with boating, fishing, swimming, camping and hiking in the summer and 14 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails in the winter.
Three loops—Aspen, Blackberry, and Chokeberry, with a combined total of 139 campsites—have access to Payette Lake, with docks for each loop. Wildflowers provide an exquisite carpet of beauty. Depending on the time of year, you can find sunflower-like balsam root, prickly pear cactus, delicate glacier lily, bright blue lupine, and pure-white snowberry, to name only a few. The park is well-named with 150-foot-tall Ponderosa pines reaching to the sky.
The campsites have electricity and water. A dump station is located within the park, which is big-rig friendly. Besides RV camping, the park also offers cabins, yurts and tent sites.
If you stand at the top of Osprey Point at the northern tip of the park, you’ll get a 360-degree view that includes the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, Payette Lake and the resort town of McCall. What better place to plan the next day’s activities?
This is a delightful little mountain resort town, with lots going on. It’s a great place to shop, either to browse or pick up necessities, and has off-street parking for large rigs. There are also restaurants, a marina on Payette Lake and an airport. Throughout the year, McCall hosts special events, such as fireworks over Lake Payette during Fourth of July, a summer music festival, and a Winter Carnival that lines the streets with ice sculptures. A year-round indoor ice skating facility hosts figure skating, ice hockey and curling.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area
This was the absolute highlight of our trip. We camped at the south end of the Sawtooth Valley on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, which had no conveniences but did offer spectacular beauty and a richness to remember. Through our binoculars we saw about a dozen pronghorn grazing and watched a couple of youngsters butt heads in a playful tussle, while their indulgent mothers stood by. In the late afternoon a thunder and lightning storm streaked over the mountains, bringing with it alarming gusts of wind, giving us an exhilarating—even anxious—few minutes, and cooling off the land.
Here the Salmon River, or “River of No Return,” was born of creeks flowing from the mountains. Until 1950, boats could not access the main canyon, thus the name River of No Return. The sheer magnitude of this wilderness area is hard to grasp, even when you’re there. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is the largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states and comprises four mountain ranges, 1,000 lakes, and headwaters that feed four of the region’s major rivers.
Land of the Yankee Fork
We learned about the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza at the informative Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Center in Challis from helpful assistants, who, by the way, are RVers who work there in exchange for some compensation and free camping. They encouraged us to visit the ghost town of Custer.
Idaho is known as the last state discovered by white explorers. The rough terrain and harsh winters discouraged settlers from venturing there, but that changed in the l860s with the discovery of gold. Custer City, established in 1879 and named after General George Armstrong Custer, became the support center for the General Custer, Lucky Boy and other mines on Custer Mountain. The town’s peak population was 300 in its early boom days. By 1903 the glory days of mining on the Yankee Fork were slipping away. By the winter of 1910, Custer had become a ghost town.
A self-guided walking tour of some of the restored original buildings took us back to those rugged days. Interesting displays of mining equipment, such as a stamp mill, box sluices, tramway wheels and pullies, are found throughout the town.
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
The gold dredge tour at Yankee Fork was recommended by the volunteers at Custer.
We were so glad we made the effort. Again our guide was an RVer who camped with his wife in the vicinity. We were impressed with his vast knowledge of the operation, including the dredge, still floating in water, 112 feet long, 54 feet wide, 64 feet high and weighing 988 tons. Seventy-one buckets on one continuous chain, each holding eight cubic feet, dug into the valley to recover the gold by washing and separating the rock, dirt and gold. The dredge floated, like a huge boat, and dug its own pond as it went along.
Yankee Fork, northeast of Stanley, is a tributary of the Salmon River and winds for 33 miles through Idaho’s mountains. In 1939, the Snake River Mining Company tested the Yankee Fork for gold dredging. The results were good enough to establish a dredge and the parts were shipped by train to Mackay, then hauled by trucks to Yankee Fork and assembled on the site. The Dredge began operation in 1940 and ran until 1943, when it was stopped because of World War II. It resumed operation in 1947, closed in 1952, operated briefly the next year and then its huge Ingersoll-Rand diesels shut down for good. At the end of the claim, the dredge had taken seven and a half years to travel five and a half miles and took out $11 million worth of gold.
The retired dredge was donated to the U.S. Forest Service, but there was no money to develop it as a museum. In 1979, a non-profit group, Yankee Fork Gold Dredge Association, began restoration of the dredge. Today, accompanied by a guide, you can explore throughout the dredge, which is located 13 miles east of Stanley and eight miles north of Sunbeam Dam.
Idaho has much to offer, but our trip to the central area satisfied our sense of adventure…for this summer anyway.
For more information or to make reservations at an Idaho State Park, visit www.idahoparks.org/parks/ or call (208) 334-4199.
Mary E. Trimble is a writer who lives in Camano Island, Washington.