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.

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