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Epic Boredom-proof Road Trip

Idaho’s Land of the Yankee Fork

Gail Newbold | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Apr 30, 2018

You don’t have to love mining to fall for the Land of the Yankee Fork Historic Area. But you probably will by the time you finish exploring the well-preserved ghost towns of Custer, Bayhorse and Bonanza deep in the heart of central Idaho.

Few other states in the mountain west make it so easy to find solitude as Idaho. Even during the prime travel month of July, the main highways and scenic byways on this road-trip-through-history were nearly empty, and the backroads practically deserted.

In just four-and-a-half days, we explored ghost towns in beautiful, remote settings, examined a freakish-looking gold dredge, inspected curious antique mining equipment lying in the open air, visited museums and an old miners’ cemetery. But that’s not all. On this boredom-proof road trip, we also fit in a river float, soaked in hot springs, picnicked by a lake, hiked through an isolated forest and dined on excellent cuisine.

What makes this epic road journey even more outstanding is that it’s a loop — you never cover the same territory. Below are the details leaving from Salt Lake City.

Begin by heading north on Interstate 15, then northwest onto state Highway 28 in Idaho.

Island Park Trail

1. Gilmore Ghost Town

Watch for the signs off Highway 28 because you won’t want to miss the old mining town of Gilmore if for no other reason than its spectacular setting. Crumbling homes, barns and even a hotel sit deep in meadow grass against a backdrop of pines. Allow plenty of time to wander and imagine what life was like for its residents. You can also visit the nearby ghost towns of Tendoy, Lemhi and Leadore, and the Birchcreek Charcoal Kilns (turnout for the kilns is on the left when heading north on Highway 28).

Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center
Fountain near Island Park in Salmon, Idaho

2. Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center

Lewis and Clark enthusiasts will especially enjoy the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center (sacajaweacenter.org) on 2700 Main St. in Salmon, but its beautiful 71-acre park, trails and unique displays appeal to all. After learning about Sacajawea’s life and her role in the expedition, meander on the nature trail, part of which runs alongside the idyllic Lemhi River.

3. Stagecoach Inn

Be sure to spend at least a night in the pretty mountain town of Salmon. At the Stagecoach Inn (stagecoachinnmotel.com), guests with rooms on the backside of the motel have views of the Salmon River. Just outside each sliding glass door there’s a grassy area with picnic tables and chairs close to the river. Breakfast is free and includes burritos, oatmeal with all the trimmings, bread from the nearby Odd Fellows’ Bakery and more. Enjoy the eclectic offerings for dinner at the Junkyard Bistro. We ordered a grilled cheese with cucumber, spinach and red onion, and a pork and sweet chutney sandwich. Both were delicious.

Stagecoach Inn

4. Island Park Trail

After breakfast, stroll the short but sweet Island Park Trail located in downtown Salmon under the main bridge. 

5. Lemhi County Museum

Home to the largest collection of Agaidika Shoshone (Sacajawea’s people) artifacts on exhibit anywhere, according to museum President Hope Benedict, the Lemhi County Museum (lemhicountymuseum.org) in downtown Salmon is well worth a wander. In addition to the Shoshone collection, you’ll see mining implements, a huge collection of historic photos and countless artifacts. Don’t miss the large hairballs from cows’ stomachs. “They’re a lot of fun,” Benedict says. “You can’t believe how much the schoolkids love them.”

Lemhi County Museum
Lemhi County Museum

6. Odd Fellows’ Bakery

One visit to the delectable Odd Fellows’ Bakery (oddfellowsbakery.com) is not enough. We stopped in for a late breakfast of flaky cinnamon rolls and chicken pot pie empanadas; we loved them so much, we returned a few hours later only to find the bakery closed. If your stay in Salmon is short, buy one of everything. You won’t be disappointed. Located on 510 Main St., Salmon.

7. Float the Salmon

What better spot to put-in on the Salmon River than near the town itself? Idaho Adventures (idahoadventures.com) is fittingly located alongside the river and offers water excursions to suit every fancy — wet and wild, scenic, guided kayaking, fishing trips and more. The scenery is beautiful and spotting wildlife such as osprey, red-tailed hawks, river otters and beavers is thrilling.

Idaho Adventures

8. Salmon River Scenic Byway and Williams Lake

If you have time en route to Challis and the Land of the Yankee Fork, head south on state Highway 93 until you see the signs to Williams Lake — 13 miles (about 30 minutes) off the highway. The Lake Creek Trail on the south side of the lake is a prime birding spot from May through October.

Aerial view of the Salmon River

9. Pioneer Motel and RV Park

A great place to stay in Challis is the welcoming Pioneer Motel and RV Park right on Highway 93 (challismotelrvpark.com). The check-in area includes an ice cream shop, gifts, coffee bar and convenience items. We dined at the River of No Return Brewery where we ate organic local beef burgers, homemade buns and salad made with greens grown by the owners.

Land of the Yankee Fork State Park

10. Land of the Yankee Fork State Park

Before leaving on your day-long exploration of this fascinating territory, stop in at the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park visitors center and museum modeled after a stamp mill (parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/land-yankee-fork). Employees will send you off with detailed maps and instructions.

11. Bayhorse Ghost Town

In 2006, the Bayhorse Town Site was improved and developed by Idaho’s State Park system and is a standout among ghost towns. The well-preserved late-1800s structures are easily accessible by well-marked trails, maps, signage and a helpful onsite ranger. Get there by exiting state Highway 75 onto a dirt road and driving about four miles. The terrain surrounding the town is rugged with steep slopes and deep canyons. A hiking trail into central Idaho’s spectacular backcountry takes off from the town site.

Bayhorse Ghost Town
Bayhorse Ghost Town

12. Big and Little Bayhorse Lakes

If you’re willing to continue for another seven miles on dirt roads you’ll be richly rewarded. We passed fields of gorgeous wildflowers of all colors before reaching the high-mountain Big Bayhorse Lake, ringed with pines. A trail through the pines connects Big Bayhorse Lake to Little Bayhorse Lake. Bring a picnic and dine under the trees with sweeping views of the lake.

13. Sunbeam Dam

Get back on paved Highway 75 for a pretty drive alongside the Salmon River, before reaching the remains of Idaho’s only dam ever constructed on the Salmon River. Built in 1910, the Sunbeam Dam was used for power only one year, then sat idle until it was demolished in 1934. A massive wall of concrete still stands watch over the beautiful river and interpretive signs explain its history.

Yankee Fork Dredge

14. Yankee Fork Dredge, Bonanza and Custer

Across the street from the Sunbeam Dam, take Forest Road 013 north to begin the most fascinating part of the road trip through mining history into an extremely remote and beautiful part of the country. The cemetery at the Bonanza town site was possibly one of the most charming we’ve seen, with most of the graves surrounded by weather-beaten picket fences on a gentle slope covered with wildflowers.

The Yankee Fork Dredge is a massive and unique piece of machinery used to essentially rake up any remaining bits of gold in the Yankee Fork Tributary of the Salmon River. It is well-preserved with self-guided tours inside the dredge available daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Bonanza
Custer Motorway
Custer Motorway

15. Custer Motorway Adventure Road

After wandering the town of Custer, you can decide whether to brave the narrow, dirt lane back to Challis on the Custer Motorway Adventure Road, or simply return the way you came. We highly recommend the Custer Motorway. We were warned we’d probably need a high-clearance vehicle, but were fine in a Nissan Altima. It was truly an adventure to be on such a remote road. We only passed a single truck. The dense forest was crisscrossed with mossy streams and meadows of purple lupine. It was a magical hour-and-45-minute drive from Custer back to Challis and civilization.

16. Challis Hot Springs

Since Idaho is rife with natural hot springs, no trip there would be complete without a long soak. The landscaped grounds and beautiful flowerbeds at Challis Hot Springs (challishotsprings.com) welcome visitors to its two sparkling-clean, gravel-bottom pools.

Salmon River
Salmon River

17. Craters of the Moon

If you have more time than we did, detour off Highway 93 at Arco and explore the vast ocean of lava flows, islands of cinder cone and sagebrush at Craters of the Moon National Monument (nps.gov/crmo/index.htm).

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