Exploring North Central Idaho’s Food and Fields
To the uninitiated outsider, North Central Idaho’s undulating fields of grain may not seem like a tourist destination. Once there, however, travelers to the Palouse find its low-key charm casts a spell that leaves them wanting to return every season of the year.
In the spring, the fields are blanketed in lush shades of green, bright-yellow mustard and even purple camas. Summer brings hues of gold, and the fall harvest adds a touch of art to the scene, as farmers draw designs with their cultivation machines on live canvases. When the snow falls, the landscape resembles pillows of marshmallow cream.
It isn’t just the rolling fields that capture the heart. It’s also the periodic oases of civilization dotting this unique landscape called the Palouse, which straddles both Idaho and Washington. Red barns and homes encircled by green lawns stand in sharp contrast to golden fields resembling giant sand dunes. And of course, there are other delights to be enjoyed throughout the region such as artisanal food, the University of Idaho Arboretum and Botanical Garden, museums, state parks, and boat tours in Hells Canyon.
Palouse by Bike or Car
Just as opinions vary about whether coffee tastes better black or with cream, so they do as to whether the Palouse should be savored by car or bike. If possible, do both. They’re equally delicious. You cover more ground in a car and get a broader view of the pastoral beauty. On a bike, you’re part of the landscape. Either way, be sure to stop and poke around the tiny towns of Deary, Troy, Harvard and Moscow.
For our foray into the countryside, we opted to try e-bikes from Paradise Creek Bicycles in Moscow. “The ‘e’ stands for the big equalizer, not electric,” says owner T. Jay Clevenger with a grin. “You can ride uphill as effortlessly as down.”
He advised us to do a 24-mile roundtrip ride on the Latah Trail from Moscow to Troy “through some of the most fertile farm soil in the world and not a single sprinkler to be found.” An avid biker, Clevenger is intimately familiar with the trails and happy to offer guidance.
With smiles plastered on our faces, we sailed up and down the rolling hills dotted with trees and at times, forestland. On this day in August, the sky was blue, the air was clear and temperatures in the upper 60s — perfect conditions for a ride. The paved trail is well-maintained and offers two pit toilets and even a tool stop for unexpected repairs.
College towns are notoriously charming, and Moscow is especially so. Home to the University of Idaho, it’s small enough to wander on foot, old enough for buildings to be unique and beloved enough for restaurateurs to make it their home.
We picked up a walking tour map from the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center and poked around the town’s pretty streets with stops at the Main Street Antique Mall, the Prichard Art Gallery, Moscow Food Co-op for fresh artisan bread, and more. From May to October, the Moscow Farmers Market is in full swing and was recently voted the No. 1 farmers market in all of Idaho.
The food at Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana in downtown Moscow was possibly the best of our entire trip. Think way beyond just yummy pizza. The heirloom tomato caprese salad was a burst of flavor combinations from fresh basil to locally grown tomatoes of every color to mozzarella and balsamic vinegar. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto di Parma, spicy Copa, Finocchio, gorgonzola, rustico pepe nero and cana di cabra.
We ordered the pork spiedino — grilled local heritage pork tenderloin, local sweet onions, peppers and tomatoes with roasted potatoes and cauliflower with fire-roasted jalapeno puree over celery oil, cherry mustard and toasted almonds. The daily fish was a grilled skin-on steelhead with an herb rub, cauliflower, garlic scrapes, Mama Lil’s peppers, heirloom tomatoes with gremolata, and grilled summer squash finished with celery oil.
Our meal concluded with Butterscotch Budino — a blend of maldon salted caramel, crème fraiche and whipped cream — a party for the taste buds.
University of Idaho Arboretum
If you want the beautiful University of Idaho Arboretum & Botanical Garden to yourself, arrive at dusk after a rainstorm. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful time to visit with the lowering sun casting a magical glow and moisture boosting the aromatic scent of cedar chips and sage. Open from dawn to dusk, the 45-acre arboretum features a 1.25-mile gravel loop trail and is divided into four geographical regions: Asia, Europe, and Eastern and Western North America. There are a variety of display gardens. Admission and parking are free.
Experience Lewiston's History
To experience more of North Central Idaho’s delights, head south from Moscow for 40 minutes on Highway 95 through the rolling hills of the Palouse to the city of Lewiston — a good base for exploring more of the region’s delights. Stop on your way at the top of the Lewiston Grade for beautiful city and river views. Lewiston’s Hampton Inn & Suites is one of the newer hotels in the area and a comfortable and convenient place to stay while visiting.
One of Idaho’s earliest permanent settlements, Lewiston has some of the state’s finest historic buildings. Check out the Lewis-Clark Center for Arts & History, the Lewiston City Library, Morgan’s Alley, the Nez Perce County Historical Society Museum and more in the city’s tree-lined historic district.
Jet Boat in Hells Canyon
With a name like Hells Canyon, you might think people would be scared off. Instead, the opposite seems to be true. This 10-mile-wide canyon enjoyed by helicopter, jet boat or raft, is a bucket list item for many. The Snake River winds its way through what is said to be North America’s deepest river gorge at 7,993 feet. We opted to experience it by jet boat with Snake River Adventures.
“We’ll be in Idaho, Washington and Oregon today,” our guide announced cheerfully after we boarded. From there, he dispensed information about the history of the area and pointed out birds, bighorn sheep, wildlife and petroglyphs. Beautiful sandy beaches dotted the journey.
“A jet boat tour is a good way to see a lot of the canyon if you just have one day,” says boat captain Eric Pardue. “Rafting trips are great as well, but with temperatures reaching as high as 110 degrees, a week in Hells Canyon can be rough.”
Our jet boat had a covered top and removable sides to navigate the Snake in all conditions. Unlimited soda, water and a box lunch are included in the tour price. And because there’s a bathroom onboard, drink as much as you like.
We ate lunch on picnic tables on a patio overlooking the river at the Garden Creek Nature Conservancy — a beautiful site with expansive green lawns, fruit orchards and wild turkeys.
The further up the Snake we traveled, the more beautiful the scenery. The canyon curves and the river narrows through cliffs of craggy gray with white rocks at water’s edge. The journey back to the marina is faster and bumpier, and fun in a different way.
Hells Gate State Park and Lewis and Clark Discovery Center
A short walk from the boat marina located inside Hells Gate State Park is the well-done Lewis and Clark Discovery Center. We particularly enjoyed the beautiful grounds set alongside the Snake River with fascinating displays of the details of Lewis and Clark’s epic journey. One of these illustrated the candles they ate when starving, how they smoked salmon over a fire and how they built canoes.
Pick up a trail map and hike, bike or jog on one of the many paths inside the park. Bike and kayak rentals are available in the park.
Nez Perce National Historical Park
Don’t miss the video at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which netted an Emmy nomination. Located about 10 miles east of Lewiston in Spalding, the park features a townsite, cemetery and museum with hands-on exhibits and artifacts and is well worth a visit.
Getting to the Palouse
You’ll probably head to the region from the Spokane International Airport or from Coeur d’Alene. If coming from the latter, you’ll have to decide which picturesque route to take — Interstate 90 to Highway 97 (Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway) or Interstate 90 to Highway 3 (White Pine Scenic Byway). Both are about two hours and 30 minutes, and beautiful in different ways. Each passes through sections of the Palouse as well as by lakes, streams, meadows, pines, wetlands and more. (If you’re in a hurry, consider taking the not-so-scenic Highway 95 for an hour and a half.)
We drove one scenic route arriving, and the other when leaving. The day we arrived, the smell of rain on the freshly harvested fields was intoxicating. The day we left, the sun turned the fields a brilliant gold in contrast to the blue skies and green trees.