Idaho 2020

Dropping down out of Montana, we drove to Challis, ID along the picturesque Salmon River valley. Leslie and Klaus had friends that liked the Challis Hot Spring campground. We checked it out, but it was booked for the weekend. We instead headed about 15 miles into the hills outside of Challis to the 7,000-foot Mosquito Flat Reservoir campground, another forest service campground that was open this late in the year and free. The last seven miles of road was a single track through the mountains. It was a little tight in some places, but we did not run into anyone coming the other direction. Leslie and Klaus were behind us pulling their trailer, which would have been more difficult to deal with if the road had some traffic. I guess our job was to push anyone off the road as the lead truck – lol.

The wildfire smoke from California and Oregon was very noticeable when we arrived, but slowly dissipated over the course of the next couple of days. It was a little hazy during our stay, but at least you could not smell the smoke.

The mosquito flats reservoir supplies the water for the farm fields we passed on our way here. The water level was pretty low this late in the year, but it was still deep by the dam. Because it was near a full moon, huge trout were jumping out of the pond during prime fishing time in the early evening. Luckily, the nighttime temperatures were near freezing, so the mosquitoes were all gone, and the campfires provided much desired heat.

Pam’s brother, Allan, pulled into the campsite just as the sun was setting and dinner was put on the table, chicken tacos. The next day we decided to drive the smaller vehicles up the 4-wheel drive road to the 9,000-foot Challis Lakes. As the road got narrower and steeper, we parked one vehicle and then the other along the way. We ended up walking the last two miles to the lakes. We took two vehicles so that Allan could drive alone. He found out on his drive up to meet us that son was exposed to COVID at school and was now in a quarantine period. Social distancing while hiking the trail was easy.

It was a good decision to leave the cars. Even with 4-wheel drive the road became a steep, rocky track more suitable for ATVs than a larger vehicle. There was no room for two-way traffic along many sections of the trail.

As we hiked to the lakes, we noticed this tree and discussed why trees twist as they grow. Allan had heard that the twist direction is different for eucalyptus trees in the northern hemisphere relative to the southern hemisphere.

I research this after we returned and trees do twist both ways as they grow in the northern and southern hemispheres. Some even change the direction of twist with age. The dominant factors are asymmetry of the tree’s crown and the prevailing wind direction. For the majority of trees in the US and Australia the crown grows larger on the sunny side of the tree and the prevailing wind is from the west. In the US, the sun is to the south and with a westerly wind the twist is counter-clockwise as seen on this tree. In Australia, the sun is to the north. The same westerly wind then causes a clockwise twist. Some folks think the difference in twist is due to a Coriolis effect difference between north and south, where this difference can be seen in water running down a drain, but gravity and the earth’s rotation loses this time to just the sun and wind.

We reached the lakes at the top. The water was crystal clear and it will be filling back up with snowmelt soon.

We made it back to our campsite and had another great meal and campfire before saying goodbye to Leslie, Klaus, and Allan the next day. While the single-track road into the campsite felt really narrow when we arrived, it felt huge on the way out after driving and hiking the narrower 4-wheel trail to the upper lakes. We even squeezed by a truck with a utility trailer on our way out with no issues.

Leslie and Klaus turned north to Missoula and Allan south to Salt Lake City. Pam and I drove back to the Challis Hot Springs campground and checked in for a good soak. We saw a herd of bighorn sheep on the hills next to the hot springs.

The weekend crowds were gone. The owner had just this year put in a few non-electric “tent” sites down by the Salmon River. We grabbed one of those sites and enjoyed the riffling noise of the river for the next couple of days.

The hot springs were a treat. They had two hot pools. One was roughly a 20’ x 40’ pool at about 97 degrees and the other was a 15’ x 15’ pool at around 105 degrees. Both had crystal clear water and the pools’ bottom were just loose river rock, allowing the natural hot water to rise into the pools. Cold water was added to maintain the desired temperature.

They also had a walking trail through the trees along the river that made for an enjoyable evening stroll.

The place is a popular camping spot, but during the week the reduced number of campers makes it much more enjoyable. The fall colors were out along the Salmon River.

In the evening time we sat by the river and watched all the birds. We saw great egrets, sandhill cranes and this osprey looking for a late, take-out fish snack. No wonder they can snatch a fish out of the water when you see their talons.

We continued south from Challis to Arco, ID, the first city in the United States to be powered by nuclear power. The first breeder nuclear reactor in the US, EBR-1, is located just outside Arco within the large, unpopulated area that makes up the Idaho National Laboratory. The EBR building is now a National Historic Landmark because it is the site that generated the first usable electricity from nuclear energy in 1951. Unfortunately, it closed on Labor Day so we could not tour the building this trip. We have visited it before, and the place is maintained as if it were still the 1950s, all mid-century modern furniture and office equipment. Given the maturity of nuclear energy when they first flipped the switch, I am sure many of the folks in Arco wondered if their lights would turn on, or would there be a very large, bright flash on the horizon.

We stopped into Arco to replenish some supplies and camped the night at the Craters of the Moon National Monument. By the end of the day, the campground was filled with everything from class A motorhomes to tents. The weather was considerably nicer this year compared to the sub-freezing, snowy weather we had passing through there a year before.

We had a nice hike around Devil’s Orchard in the morning before heading out and further south towards Pocatello, ID.

We passed south through Pocatello and into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. After a climb into the mountains and cooler air, we found a place to camp at Scout Mountain campground. Two of the three camping loops were closed, and the remaining open loop was free this time of year.

There was a well-maintained walking path that ran right next to our campsite and around the local mountainside, giving us a nice view of the peak.

The hiking path passed through the woods and into some open meadows. The forest is filled with colorful aspen trees this time of year. We don’t see the variety of fall colors like eastern woods, but the aspens provide us with a little bit of fall gold, and even reds and oranges if it’s really cold.

The next day we continued to the other side of the mountain and dropped into the Arbon Valley. This valley in southern Idaho is one of the largest producers of grains and cattle in the world. It was a beautiful drive down the rural roads through the valley to the Curlew National Grasslands.

The grassland areas, while beautiful, were not really the short-grass or tall-grass midwestern plains grasslands where the buffalo roamed, but appear to be taken over by sage, possibly due to the lack of animals on the grasslands. However, there is nothing better than the smell of sage when hiking through the fields on a sunny day, with the possible exception of the vanilla – butterscotch smell of a Ponderosa tree baking in the sun.

We camped at Stone Reservoir campground within the grasslands. We hiked around the reservoir and saw a couple flocks of ducks and a coyote wondering how to get a duck dinner. We caught a shot of some deer coming out of the fields for an evening drink from the reservoir.

The only other folks in the campground were several guys that showed up late in the evening with their campers and were out before dawn on their ATVs. Dove and crow season were open, but waterfowl season was still a week away. We did see the Fish and Game bird wing barrels on our drive to the campsite, where you drop in one of the wings so that they can get an estimate of the birds taken during the hunting season.

We left Curlew and headed a short distance south to the Utah border.

Montana 2020

We entered south-central Montana from the Bighorn Mountains area in Wyoming. I wanted to revisit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument because of a recent addition to the place. As we approached the NM on a back-road we came across a tow truck attempting to pull an 18-wheeler out of a ditch. The tow truck and 18-wheeler blocked the road by this operation. The tow operator came over and asked if he could borrow our jumper cables since the 18-wheeler’s battery was dead and he had misplaced his. Luckily, we have heavy duty cables. He got the 18-wheeler started and was then able to release its brakes.

The Bighorn Battlefield has both 7th Calvary and Native American monuments at the site. This is part of the Native American monument. What I wanted to see was the relatively new, beautiful, metal and glass 50-foot Dignity statue of a Native American woman. However, after we got there, I realized it was 300 miles away in South Dakota – oops.

Pam and I hiked the trails through the monument and read the information boards along the way. The initial attack by Lt. Col. Custer and the 7th Calvary was on a two-mile long village by the river and trees in the valley below. His less than honorable tactics of attempting to capture the woman and children to force a surrender did not work and the combined forces of the Lakota – Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors drove the calvary away from the village and up the hill to the place of Custer’s last stand. The news of Custer’s loss arrived back in Washington, DC during the 1876 centennial celebration, which led to an increased military response in the months that followed.

We camped near the National Monument at the 7th Ranch RV Camp, which is now within the Crow Reservation. It had a nice hiking trail that we enjoyed as the sun set.

The wildfire smoke from the northern California and central Oregon fires was becoming very noticeable. Not too long after this shot the sun disappeared from view as it approached the horizon, due to the smoke layer, before it actually set.

There are a few apps we use when we travel to help decide our route relative to air quality and weather. One is “Smoke Sense”, which shows the air quality, fire locations and even the projected smoke path for the next couple of days. A second is “NOAA Weather Radar” to get the current and future weather patterns. A third app is “Wildfire Info”, which shows the current wildfire locations along with more detailed information on closures and fire containment. A final app is “Windfinder”, which shows the current and projected winds for the entire globe for at least a week into the future, and surprisingly it is very accurate.

We then drove west to Bozeman, MT to visit with our nephew, Tim, who is currently attending Montana State. We planned to meet for dinner, so we camped close to town at the Bozeman Hot Springs. It was the typical close-quarters parking for RVs, but it was handy to downtown Bozeman and the soak in the hot springs was very relaxing.

We followed up the nice soak in the hot springs with a dinner at the Montana Ale Works with Tim. We talked about his studies and his lab work on a NASA grant looking at new technologies on weather balloons. Before leaving town, we visited one of our favorite museums, the Museum of the Rockies. One of the best attributes of this museum are the two temporary exhibits that always display interesting items. Unfortunately, both were closed the day we were there. A Thomas D. Mangelsen exhibit was to open the following week, showcasing his incredible wildlife photos, and probably the great stories behind each shot. The other exhibit on 20th Century Japanese woodblock prints was due to open a few weeks after we left. We’ll have to go back again in the future.

After our tour of the museum, we drove to Missoula, MT during a long-desired rainstorm that helped to clear the air of the wildfire smoke. It was great timing for us with the rain because the air quality in parts of western Montana was into the unhealthy zone. We arrived at Klaus and Leslie’s place (Pam’s sister) in the rain. The next day Missoula had blue skies and puffy white clouds, and everyone was outside once again to enjoy the clean air. We hiked Mt Sentinel, or “M” mountain that overlooks the University of Montana and Missoula.

During our stay in Missoula I restocked our supplies with huge batches of chicken and rice soup and Bolognese sauce. Pam shopped for winter clothes for our new granddaughter, which are hard to find in Phoenix unless you only need a long sleeve shirt. Leslie and Pam baked up a variety of yummy plum desserts after a neighbor dropped off a few bags of freshly picked Italian prune plums.

Leslie and Klaus had made reservations at Holland Lake CG for the last weekend they would be open. The campground has some first-come, first-serve spots so Pam and I drove up towards the end of the week to grab one of those. The campground was very nice, where each spot was nearly 1/8th of an acre in size. We ended up getting a spacious spot next to Leslie and Klaus right on the water.

The lake was beautiful and the view from our campsite was gorgeous.

While watching the lake a merganser landed and swam around. Usually we see them floating and feeding on running streams, so it was odd to see it on a lake.

It had a unique hunting / feeding style, where it would swim with it head partially submerged, and then dive for the food. I guess they can see under water.

We hiked to the upper falls with some friends of Leslie and Klaus’ who were also camped there for the last weekend. Pam, Leslie, and I turned back at the falls for about a 6-mile hike. Klaus and their friends continued further up the mountain to the lake that feeds the falls before returning to the campground. The view of the lake and the snow-capped Mission Mountains was majestic from the upper side of the falls.

The next day we hiked to the lower side of the falls. The morning broke with not a breath of wind, so the lake was glass smooth.

It was a new campground for us and one that will definitely be added to the list of favorites.

We only got a short visit with Stephanie, our niece, from a safe distance because her boyfriend had tested positive for COVID and she was in her 14-day quarantine period. She ended up testing negative so that was good. She took up crocheting during her quarantine and showed us her beautiful shawl that she finished. She was going to attempt knitted hats next.

The following weekend we left Missoula on our way to Idaho to meet up with Pam’s brother coming up from Salt Lake City. Rather than make the 6-hour drive to our intended rendezvous location, we left a day early with Leslie and Klaus and camped roughly halfway there in Sula, MT. Sula is a sparsely populated rural community. The community has the most compact post office. No bulk mail through this place.

We camped the night at Martin Creek Campground, a nice little spot about 15 miles up into the hills past Sula. After Labor Day, the forest service campgrounds are either closed or open and free. Luckily, this campground was one of the latter.

On the drive back through Sula the next day we encountered a few bighorn sheep on the road. This guy decided to join the flow of traffic for awhile before bounding up the hillside to join his buddies.

Just south of Sula the road peaks at the Montana – Idaho border through the 7,300-foot Chief Joseph Pass. We drove through the pass and into Idaho, saying goodbye to Montana for this trip in 2020.