The Idaho Drive: Ketchum to Boise via Stanley, Boise to McCall and back again.
We had some time to kill in the Boise area and we’d heard a lot about the surrounding mountains on our last visit, so we figured we’d get out and explore the area ourselves. Who knew Idaho could be so amazing? Here are some of the things we found (and loved), as we looped from Ketchum to Boise, by way of Stanley, and from Boise to McCall and back, by way of Garden Valley:
First things first. I had no idea there were so many hot springs in Idaho. After stumbling on one in a campground, I made it my mission to find and dip in as many hot springs as I possibly could. And we found a lot. There’s Warm Lake, with an average summer temp of 70ish degrees, thanks to its hot spring inlets. There’s the one near mile marker 61 on the Warm Lake Road, the one where clothing is optional. There’s a bunch that you can hike miles to find, using sketchy directions from a bulletin board at roadside pull-offs. There’s springs at the Bonneville, Pine Flats, Kirkham, and Ten Mile National Forest campgrounds (to name but a few). There’s one on Rt. 75 east of Stanley. There are the ones that the locals keep secret and the ones that they tell the tourists about. Some are developed, like Gold Fork near Cascade, but most have been left in their natural state. Unlike Tecopa, though, we didn’t enjoy any of these in our natural state.
This area is pretty much all National Forest, with a wide range of forest service campgrounds. Some are amazing, some are crap. Some are free, some cost $15/night. None have running water or showers. Some don’t even have pit toilets, leaving it up to you to do your business as best as you can in the wild (200 feet from a stream is sometimes a real challenge). But they’re all gorgeous and quiet (unless you’re at a hot spring campground on the weekend — when you realize how cold the rivers and lakes are, you realize why so many Idahoans love the hot springs).
Outside Ketchum, we stayed in an aspen glen on the banks of the swift flowing Big Wood River. Aspen eyes peered through the windows; aspens faces looked at us in profile. Aspen trunks lay bared by aspen-hungry beavers. Mosquitoes lay in wait, scorning our smudge fire. The fast flowing river provided white noise for our dreams.
Ghost Towns and Real Towns
A few miles east of Stanley are the ghost towns of Bonanza and Custer. Bonanza has been left as is, a town of 600 reduced to a few rotting, boarded up cabins and hermit homes. From Bonanza, you can drive a few miles on a bumpy, one lane forest service road to the Bonanza and Boot Hill cemeteries, places where a disturbing number of gravestones are marked “unknown.” Custer has been restored into a cutesy village of gift shops run by the Forest Service. It’s cuter and more family friendly and more educational but somehow less interesting than wandering around the weathered ruins of Bonanza. Both of these towns are here because gold miners bet on there being plenty of booty in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. Evidence of their mining operations can be seen in the piles of rubble that fill the valley floor and in a surreal defunct mine between the two former towns (looks like a grey version of the yellow submarine). There wasn’t enough gold here to sustain the operation for very long, though. The whole place was virtually deserted by 1910.
Plenty of small towns in this area still thrive on tourism gold: Stanley and Idaho City, Cascade and McCall, Ketchum. Stanley is a rustic town whose dirt main street holds a happy number of bars and restaurants where you can have a beer and a pizza and contemplate the snow covered Sawtooth Mountains in the background. Idaho City is all dressed up like an old fashioned mining town, but it feels like a mining town where the miners still live and work (and would shoot you in a minute). Cascade is an interesting town with a great library, just normal people trying to pick up on some of McCall’s business and enjoying their own alpine lake. McCall is the sophisticated big brother, the place where you can eat sushi and drink decent wine and flip your jet ski on a real mountain lake. Ketchum is a complex organism, where wealthy folks and regular folks keep their distance, where enough people pass through to support multiple amazing used bookstores, and where you can actually drink in some of the same places where Hemingway drank. We loved them all, in their own ways.
Bars and Breakfasts
The first night we made it to Warm Lake, we were a little bummed. We thought we’d found an amazingly remote place, but it turns out we’d just arrived via the rear entrance. We’d navigated a rutted dirt track through a burned forest while everyone else had come in on the main, two lane highway. We got the second-to-last spot in the third campground. Coming in, we’d passed a lodge along the lake and decided to see if they had a bar. Why not? And they did. The North Shore Lodge was happily open for business. Dad was teaching his son how to bartend, but we didn’t pose much of a challenge, settling on Fat Tires and bagged chips. Luckily, one of the guests would prove more entertaining, first asking for a Piña Colada (which they couldn’t make – no mix) then settling for something they called a fuzzy navel, which looked nothing like the orange juice and peach schnapps mixture I had come to love when I was 19. I mean 21. Mr. Piña Colada then entertained us all with a discussion on tequilas. It was everything a rural, decent bar should be.
We hadn’t planned our supplies well. Towards the end of our time in the mountains, we totally ran out of food (and booze). Our final night, we made it through the worst of our provisions: some dried mushrooms we’d had for at least three years, a pouch of shredded halibut that was possibly two years old, some butter beans I’d been scared of eating for months. Waking up on our final morning with nothing for breakfast, we made for Idaho City and what we’d been promised was an amazing restaurant. All we knew was that it was the second place on the left.
When we reached Idaho City, a famished hour later, we found that there was only one place on the left. It must have been the second place on the right. It had all the qualities: the log cabin exterior, the enormous pies in the display case. And if Trudy’s Kitchen wasn’t the right place, then I don’t care what was. You know how, if you like sausage patties, when you order one, you really want a GIGANTIC sausage patty, but you always tolerate the tiny one you receive because you know a sausage patty is terrible for you, anyway? The sausage patties at Trudy’s were as big as I’ve always wanted sausage patties to be. After multiple days of healthy eating and reasonable portions, we gorged on gigantic breakfasts and a side of fries to the point where we were too full to try one of the famous pies. Next time.
The Road Itself
And finally, after thinking about all the amazing things we’d seen along the way, I should mention that the drive itself is incredible on its own. The drivers aren’t as nice as they are in Boise, though.