Idaho: Rafting, Hiking and Exploring

Amazing but Joyce had never been to Idaho before. Tom’s only time there was on a very short business trip to Boise. This trip provided a very different insight for him into the state. We briefly explored a few of the state’s “major” cities and natural and historic sites.

Our first, and primary motivation was for a whitewater rafting trip through the Snake River’s Hell’s Canyon.

Rafting the Rapids of Hells Canyon

Formed by eons of tectonic uplift and the erosion caused by the rushing waters of the Snake River as it roared over and through the volcanic, black basalt canyon walls, Hells Canyon now sports rapids from Class I through IV. The 10 mile wide canyon is lined with cliffs that range from a few hundred to more than 7,000 feet.

We approached (and left) the Hells Canyon Dam along the lovely Hells Canyon Scenic Byway.

Hells Canyon road view

The road traces the river down from the Brownlee Dam, past the Oxbow Dam and finally reaching the Hells Canyon Dam, where we caught Hells Canyon Adventures raft for a day-long rafting trip.

Hells Canyon DamHells CAnyon rafts

After a brief intro, we put on our life vests and hard hats. Yes hard hats because we decided to help paddle (you could choose to not paddle in different rafts). We then departed on an 18-mile, downriver float.


We went through majestic mountain scenery, where we rotated between leisurely stretches of gently flowing water to full-steam paddling (and appropriate drenchings) through three Class IV rapids, a few Class III rapids, and gentle guiding through several Class II and I rapids.

Hells Canyon magestic cliffsDSC02663DSC02667

The trip, included a stop where we enjoyed a DIY sandwich lunch buffet. Then back on the river.

We went past several miles of rugged, sheer black basalt cliffs on the upper reaches of our stretch of the river, followed by less vertiginous walls, covered with brown grasses as we proceeded downriver. Lovely still, but quite different from the first part of the trip.


Our five-hour raft journey ended at Sheep Creek Ranch, a now-defunct sheep ranch, where we boarded a Jet Boat for a one-hour, upriver return trip. On the return trip, we flashed through the rapids through which we previously paddled. This gave us a chance to take a few pictures of the waters we went through.

jet boat going through rapids

Not as dramatic as our last whitewater rafting experience (Grand Canyon), but lovely and well worth a day on the river.

Hell’s Canyon dinners were in the two Oregon-Idaho border towns in which we stayed on the night before and after Canyon.

  • Halfway, OR, where we stayed at the rustic, yet comfortable Pine Valley Lodge and ate at The Main Place, “the best restaurant in town”, where we began with an order of Manila clams, steamed in white wine and garlic (good, although a lot of garlic), and then shared a full rack of baby back pork ribs (okay, but nice homemade BBQ sauce) and homemade onion rings (very good).
  • Ontario, OR, where dinner was at Mackey’s Irish Steak House. I had a slightly overcooked (medium vs medium-rare) but still quite tasty ribeye with delicious homemade onion rings. Joyce enjoyed baby back pork ribs (better than those at the Main Place) and a baked potato. We shared a bottle of 2016 Washington State Sangiovese from Mary Hill Vineyards.

Silver City Idaho

Getting to Silver City is no easy feat. The best way is via an ATV or 4 wheel truck. If you have a car, as we did, you go slowly via some very bumpy stone dirt roads. Just take your time and let the ATVs go around you.

Silver City is a virtual ghost city. It is a remote, locked-in-time, 19th-century gold- and silver-mining boom town that looks pretty much as it did in the 1860s through ‘80s. Then it was a boisterous 2,500-person mining metropolis that boasted the state’s first daily newspaper.

Today it has roughly 75 partially-renovated buildings, many of which are privately owned by descendants of the town’s founders. The population is probably significantly less than 100. Its primary landmarks are its 19th-century school, church, drugstore and especially the Idaho Hotel, which has been renovated and furnished with period antiques. The hotel rents rooms, has the town’s only restaurant and serves as the town’s primary museum.

Silver City Standard School HOuseSilver City drug storeSilver City churchSilver City old buildings

Silver City’s few other remaining businesses cater to tourists and people looking to explore the surrounding former mining country in the Owyhee Mountains.

Lunch was, where else, at the Idaho Hotel. Since the town has no electricity, natural gas or even tap water (the mines polluted the well water), food is limited to what is brought in each day, stored in ice chests and can be cooked on a propane grill. Our lunch: a double cheeseburger, hot dog and coconut cream pie, were quite respectable.

Boise Idaho

French-Canadian trappers in the 18th century initially explored the young, lively, 220,000-person capital of Idaho. In 1863, it was established as a city. The modern government, commercial and education city sports dozens of outdoor recreation areas including parks, gardens, a riverfront greenway and water sport activities, sports arena, and ice skating and ski facilities.

It also has number of historic neighborhoods and buildings tucked among its contemporary core. These include:

  • BoDo, a four-block area in which renovated warehouses are mixed among modern buildings to form the core of the city’s entertainment district, which was hopping on the Saturday afternoon and evening when we were there;
  • Old Boise Historic District; the 19th-century core of the original city, which blends into BoDo;
  • Basque Block, which housed boarding houses for one of the largest concentrations of Basque immigrants in the country and is home to a Basque cultural center and museum;

Boise Idaho Basque Block

  • Union Block, a large, block-sized stone building that is lined with restaurants, cafes and bars; and
  • Warm Springs Avenue, a wealthy street that is lined with many of the city’s grand, “historic” primarily early 20th-century) homes.

Among the city’s particularly noteworthy historic buildings are the:

  • Idaho State Capitol, a 208-foot domed structure that was built (between 1905 and 1920) of sandstone carved to look like logs;

Boise Idaho captial building

  • Boise Depot, a mission-style train depot completed in 1925, the heyday of the area’s train transport.
  • Egyptian Theater, a 1927 entertainment palace.

Old Boise Idaho Egyptian Theater

The city’s museum scene consists of history, military, aerospace, mining, nature, science and art museums, a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden. We were particularly drawn to the Freak Alley Gallery, an open-air “gallery in which local student and professional artists create an ever-changing mix of murals on back walls of downtown buildings.

Boise Idaho Freak Alley 02

Boise Idaho Dining

  • Trillium. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing a Smoke and Fire pizza—a crisp, thin-crust pizza topped with smoked chicken bacon, fire-roasted red peppers, smoked gouda and asiago crème.
  • Chandler’s. We shared three particularly interesting dishes. We started with a slightly overcooked seared foie gras with pineapple puree, pickled pineapple and strawberries and brioche toast. We then had an unusual, and tasty bone marrow flan with morels, marrow demi-glace and toasted brioche. We followed this with a shared entrée of Alaskan, chinook ivory salmon (also slightly overcooked, as we failed to specify that we wanted a belly, rather than a tail cut) with garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus, chanterelles, mushroom beurre blanc and pinot noir reduction. Wine was a nice 2017 Evening Land “Seven Springs” pinot noir. Dinner was accompanied with live piano music. We stayed after dinner for a couple selections from a mellow jazz trio, where we had after-dinner drinks (Graham 20-year tawny port and 2017 Soter “North Valley” pinot noir).

Hagerman Idaho

Although the town itself offered little of interest to us, we came to explore the surrounding area.

Thousand Springs State Park actually consists of five parks, each of which provides examples of natural underground springs that emerge from the basalt  walls of the Snake River Canyon. We visited three of these parks:

  • Malad Gorge State Park is the largest and most dramatic of these. It demonstrates and explains the nature of the huge aquifer that feeds the springs, the combination of shield volcanic and erosion processes that created the gorge through which they flowed and how a massive, prehistoric mega-flood (from the breaking of the natural dam holding the prehistoric Lake Bonneville) sped the gorge’s forging by sending 33 million cubic feet of water per second though the small existing gorge. The force of the water and the rocks it carried widened already weak joints in the black basalt. This process is demonstrated through interpretive stops along the gorge, and the 60-foot waterfall that plunges over a 250-foot gorge into the basalt Devil’s Washbowl. The roughly 2.4-mile gorge ends at Woody’s Cove, a box canyon that was once characterized by a large waterfall whose waters were diverted over time, leaving only small pools of water and shrubs.

Malad Gorge State ParkMalad Gorge waterfallMalad Gorge State Park Woody's Cove

  • Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Park. This dramatic box canyon is still being fed by a small, 20-foot waterfall. The head of this canyon is has two large ponds whose bottoms are covered lovely patches of bright green algae and which flow into a stream that flows through this portion of the canyon.

Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Park

  • Ritter Island State Park, located at the base of a gorge, has a few pretty streams (mini-waterfalls) that flow down the side of a sheer cliff face.

Ritter Island waterfall

  • Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. The visitor center contains a trove of animal and plant fossils for a previous (especially 1929-1935) Smithsonian Institution fossil bed dig. A film explains how a Lake Bonneville megaflood (about 15,000 years ago) resulted in a massive die-off of animals that were buried in 600 feet of sedimentary soil and rocks and gradually mineralized into fossils. The prize specimens were those of roughly 20 complete Pliocene-era horses (small (roughly 300-500 lb, five-foot tall, single-toed predecessors of current horses), including the largest ever found (a replica of which is the highlight of the center). The center also contains a replica of a mammoth head and original fossil remnants of species including giant ground sloths, giant dogs, tortoises and other animals (most of which are now extinct) found in the area.

Hagerman horse fossilHagerman fossil bone crushing dogHagerman American MAstodon fossil reproduction

  • Hagerman National Fish Hatchery prepares roughly 1.2 million steelhead (the sea-run stage of the life of a rainbow trout) for release into Idaho rivers. Interpretive panels gave an overview of how a network of hatcheries is intended to replace the millions of trout that locks and dams prevent from reaching their upriver spawning grounds and reproducing.

While panels provide an overview of the process, hatchery employees provide much more detailed explanations during self-guided tours. The process begins off-site, where the eggs of healthy wild females are fertilized with the sperm of health males and nurtured for about a month before being sent to the hatchery. Here, the “fry” are held and fed in indoor tanks until they reach about two inches in length.

These fingerlings” are then sent through water-filled pneumatic tubes to a series of trailers that house equipment that inserts a encoded, laser-readable wires (which contain details of their origin, fertilization and release dates, and so forth) through their noses and snip of the small dorsal adipose (fat) fin to denote that they were raised in a hatchery. They are then released into large, outdoor running tanks and fed a protein-rich diet of vitamin- and mineral-enriched fish and vegetable feed until they reach seven to nine inches in length, at which time they are released into local rivers.

clipping the fin of a fishfish going through a tube

This is just one of Idaho’s many hatcheries, including another state hatchery in Hagerman that produces more than five million trout and steelhead fry per year for release into the wild.

Hagerman Idaho Restaurants

  • Snake River Grill. We massively over-ordered by selecting two dishes—wood-smoked pork ribs with BBQ sauce (which came with a huge side of onion strings) and a cornmeal-crusted alligator with chipotle aioli. While the alligator was tasteless (other than for the breading and the aioli), the ribs and strings, along with the basic but quite satisfactory salad bar were good and more than sufficient for both of us. The restaurant has an enticing display of nine incredibly tempting pies which we managed to ignore.

Twin Falls Idaho

Twin Falls is a small city with a century-old historic district, hot mineral pools and sites including:

  • Shoshone Falls, a 212-foot cascade that people in these parts refer to as the “Niagara of the West”. When we visited in early September, we were greatly impressed by the three or four-stage drop from a hydroelectric dam to the final, dramatic plunge of one primary (perhaps 200 feet wide), plus several smaller flows into the river canyon. This was even before we saw pictures of springtime flows which can cover then entire (perhaps 500 or 600 foot) cliff face with a single torrent of water.

Shoshone Falls

  • Evel Knievel Jumpsite, has the foundation and ramp which Knievel used in his failed (due to a premature opening of a parachute), 1974 attempt to jump the mile-wide gorge on a steam-powered rocket-powered motorcycle; and
  • Perrine Bridge, passes 486 feet above a particularly deep portion of the Snake River gorge. The visitor center next to the bridge is often used by paragliders and BASE jumpers (who leap with parachutes) from an area next to the bridge.

Perrine Bridge

Twin Falls Restaurant

Elevation 486 (named for the restaurant patio’s height above the river) overlooks the Snake River Gorge. Our view was accompanied by a wonderful meal of two dishes—a perfectly cooked broiled belly cut of British Columbia chinook salmon with dill butter and two fire-grilled local quail with honey-bourbon-jalapeno glaze. Each of our dishes were accompanied by Caesar salad and baked Idaho potatoes and a bottle of 2016 King Estate pinot noir.

Jerome Idaho

Minidoka National Historic Site. Mindoka was one of the ten WWII Japanese internment camps that held a total of 120,000 internees during the war years. Rounded up, often with only a week or two notice, most lost their homes, their businesses and any possessions that they were unable to carry. They were transported to remote camps that were still in the initial stages of construction, staying in overcrowded, unheated hastily-built barracks that lacked plumbing, were illuminated by a few bare lightbulbs and that had so many cracks that the wind, dust, rain and snow covered their beds and few possessions. The initial hardships were magnified by an initial lack of sewage and cold food storage, which resulted in disease, illness and even some deaths.

Minidoka was a 33,000-acre camp that housed a total of more than 13,000 Japanese-Americans (from Washington, Oregon and Alaska). Although only a handful of the camp’s 600 original buildings have yet been reconstructed—these tar-papered structures along with portions of the barbed wire fence (which were temporarily electrified until internees almost revolted), and one of the guard towers—provide a poignant reminder of a particularly dark chapter in the nation’s history.

Minidoka baseball fieldMinidoka Guard TowerMinidoka

Many of the Japanese came to the U.S. to work in Hawaiian sugar cane fields and mainland railroads and mines after the Chinese had been excluded from U.S. admission. Most suffered from personal and institutional prejudice even before their inhumane (and finally in 1988, admittedly unjust and unconstitutional) incarceration.

While the historic site certainly discusses the hardships the internees endured, it focuses on how they made the best of a situation they could not change. It discussed many of the ways in which they triumphed over adversity by:

  • Farming the inhospitable land (at least after the government agreed to build irrigation ditches). By the end of the war, they had farmed 740 acres (producing 7.3 million pounds of potatoes, carrots and cabbages) and ran camp poultry farms and pig stys.
  • Planting trees, lawns and decorative gardens. They even bought fabrics from a catalog to decorate their temporary, overcrowded housing facilities;
  • Participating in managing their own blocks (groupings that included 12 barebones barracks, mess hall, recreation building and latrines with pit toilets).
  • Forming their own community and cultural organizations such as Boy Scout and Girl Scout chapters, arts and crafts groups, a symphony and help groups (as with carpenters, nurses and watch repairmen).

The story ends with the internees post-incarceration treatment. It explains how, at the end of the war, each was given $25 and a train ticket. While some who had lost their homes and businesses requested that they be allowed to continue to farm the lands they had worked for the last three years, permission was denied. Three years later (from 1947-50), however, the government decided to grant farmsteads, agricultural education and some of the surplus buildings and tools to those who committed to working the land and gave former internees first priority.

Arco Idaho

Craters of the Moon National Monument contains a wide range of basaltic volcanic features along a 7-mile drive and associated walks. This huge lava field was created up to 15 million years ago from the time that the magma-filled hot spot that is now beneath Yellowstone, passed through southern Idaho. (Actually, the hot spot remained relatively stationary. It was the continual plate atop it that moved.)

A visitor center provides a short movie, a diorama showing the progression of the hot spot and exhibits of the various types of lava and features that are likely to be encountered in the park.

The park itself consists of all types of lava, from:

  • A’a, the rough, gas chamber-pocked rocks that are spewed out at the early stages of the eruption; through

A'A lava

  • Pahoehoe, smooth ribbons that flow slowly during the later stages of an eruption; and

Pahoehoe lava 01

  • Cinders and ash, that can be ejected at the beginning and the end.

This lava forms the foundation of all types of volcanic features that one can see throughout the park. These include:

  • Cinder cones which form as collapsed calderas spew cinder that piles higher and higher around the caldera;
  • Spatter cones, miniature volcanos that form in the latter stages of an eruption when sticky globs of semi-hardened lava merge as they are ejected and fall;

Spatter Cone

  • Lava tubes, or tunnels, that form as the exterior portion of a lava flow cool and solidify around still-flowing molten lava in the center;

lava tube

  • Tree molds which form when slow-moving lava cools around a tree that is slowly burned by the still hot lava;
  • Vents and caves, from which hot gases and waters emerged from the earth; and
  • Fissures, formed as often lava cools and contracts.

Then, of course, there are acres of land where vegetation (initially sagebrush, followed by grasses, shrubs and trees) is in varying stages of taking hold in the barren, unforgiving post-volcanic soil and hearty wildlife begin to repopulate the area. We were particularly intrigued by the thousands of tiny, white, delicate flowers that studded the jet black cinder and ash fields.

ground cover in Craters of the Moon

Arco Restaurant

The options are slim in this tiny, isolated town that far from civilization. We, along with virtually everybody else traveling through the town over Labor Day weekend, ended up at Pickle’s Place, whose offerings are largely limited to breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches. We didn’t expect much, nor did we get it with our cheddar-topped bison burger and packaged onion rings.

Idaho Falls Idaho

The 56,000-person city began life as one of the few fording points for miners looking to cross the Snake River. Those residents who remained after the gold ran out, dug irrigation channels and turned to farming. While we walked the compact downtown area, we passed on the city’s two primary attractions: The Idaho Falls Zoo and the Museum of Idaho.

We did, however, have a pleasant walk past the city’s eponymous falls and along the lovely riverwalk.

Idaho Falls

Idaho Falls Restaurant

Jakers, where we ended up trying too many dishes. We began with delicious (but filling) panko-crusted onion rings, spinach caesar salad with anchovies. We followed up with two entrees, the tasty pan-fried Idaho trout, disappointing (at least compared with San Francisco’s House of Prime Rib) prime rib and baked Idaho potato. The wine was a bottle of2016 Stag’s Leap merlot.

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