We covered 1400 miles in complete comfort in our Jeep Liberty Limited 4x4, knowing that regardless of the challenges we might face when venturing into back country (such as the drive along the Salmon River to Vinegar Creek), we were in good hands. Married to a four-speed automatic transmission, the 3.7-liter V-6 performs very well. Based on the total miles traveled, the on-board computer calculated an overall fuel economy of 24 mpg (my, how the world of the SUV has changed). Shift on the fly 2WD to 4WD-high is as effortless as turning on the satellite radio. The roof rack and the interior easily handled all our gear and then some, and it can tow a boat, RV, or a trailer full of toys. The base MSRP is $28,735. As tested the suggested retail price was $33,400.
North Central Idaho is influenced by its rich and colorful past -- it was part of the Wild West, after all -- and still has the same timeless, breathtaking landscapes as it did back then. The mountain men, miners, pioneers, Chinese immigrants, cowboys, and outlaws, and the Nez Perce Nation have all added their unique flavor to the pristine mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, and meadows that carpet the horizon. Throwing our gear in the back of a four-wheel-drive Jeep Liberty Limited, what lay ahead of us was a multi-day adventure. It was our mission to poke around and snoot into as many of its nooks and crannies as time would permit.
On one leg of our journey, would involve navigating the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (Highway 12), one of the Top 10 Scenic Drives of the Northern Rockies. It goes from Lewiston, Idaho, to the top of Lolo Pass on the border of Big Sky Country (Montana). The second leg wouldmeander south along Highway 95, from Lewiston down to Riggins. Our grand finale would be to board a jet boat and power up the Salmon River, deep into the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness. On our way up river, we'dput ashore and visit the original homestead of Buckskin Bill (Sylvan Hart), a man with a degree in literature who chose to live here in total isolation from 1930 to 1980. We'd lodg at the Mackay Bar Guest Ranch, a back-country retreat reachable only by boat or airplane. We'd enjoy gourmet ranch-style fare and sleep tucked in our beds while wolves in the nearby timber howled a message to all that, since their reintroduction into the Idaho wilderness in 1980, they are back in force. It just doesn't get any better.
Lewiston is an excellent point of entry into Idaho and the western hub of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. We spent the first night at the Pistol Palace, a circa-1920s brothel that's now a boutique hotel appointed in the period and style of those earlier raucous times. In honor of the working ladies who helped keep the West wild, the rooms have names like Giggles' and Trixie's.
This swath of land that cuts across Idaho (from Washington/Oregon to Montana) is Lewis and Clark country. This is where the Corps of Discovery followed the Nez Perce tribe's Lolo Trail over the Bitter Root Mountains, hoping to find the Northwest Passage where it was thought the Missouri and the Columbia Rivers might somehow connect at a shared headwater. Among the many important places to visit along Highway 12 are the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding and the town of Kamiah near Lewis' and Clark's winter-quarters with the Nez Perce while seeking the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, historical markers explain the significance of the places Lewis and Clark stopped. Heading up Lolo Pass, there are two places where the Corps of Discovery crossed what today is Highway 12. Another, the Heart of the Monster, is a venue whence the Nez Perce people believe their people emerged into the world. Walk along its winding path and visit kiosks that tell this fascinating tribal story .
In Kamiah, there are murals depicting Lewis and Clark and the area's mining and timber histories. Just for fun we stopped at the 100-year-old Kamiah Hardware Store, where we found the largest assortment of goods of any hardware store we've been in. What you find here speaks volumes about the people who live in this challenging environment and what they need to live off the land. For good eats, try the Hearthstone Bakery, a block up the street from the hardware store.
Two excellent places along Highway 12 guarantee a pleasant night's rest. At the River Dance Lodge,you can relax in the sun on the porch of your very own luxury log cabin, enjoy good food in the dining hall, and ride along parts of the Lolo Trail Lewis and Clark followed. The second site, at about Mile Marker 90, is Reflections Inn, a B&B tucked up on the side of a natural bench that sweeps from the mountains down to the river. Owners Ruth and her husband Jim fix a dynamite ranch-style breakfast with plenty of fresh ground coffee that is so good it makes you stick around longer than planned. Minutes east of the Inn is a fork where the Selway and the Locksa Rivers come together. Take the short drive off Highway 12 (Road 223) to Fenn Ranger Station where eagles, moose, elk, fox, wolves, and deer are routinely seen and where a riverside estuary plays host to osprey and heron.
We traveled from Lewiston down to Riggins and then up the Salmon River into the Frank Church Wilderness. For a short distance out of Lewiston, Highways 12 and 95 are one and the same, but that ends as Highway 95 heads south into and through breathtaking topography. Being familiar with the folklore and history of the Nez Perce Nation and the 200 years of animal husbandry they put into breeding the Appaloosa horse, we visited one of the top Nez Perce breeders, the Yearout Sweetwater Ranch, minutes south of the town of Lapwai. Virginia Yearout and her husband John run a herd of about 80 registered Appaloosa mares and stallions, and they sell equines around the world. The Yearouts organize horseback trail rides that retrace the steps taken by the Nez Perce when part of their nation made a great escape to the Bear Paw Mountains in Montana and then up into Alberta, Canada.
Further south on Highway 95 are the town of Winchester and the Wolf Education and Research Center. The Center is responsible for keeping and studying the Nez Perce Sawtooth Wolf Pack, and has been instrumental in reintroducing wolves into the Idaho wilderness. From a population of zero 30 years ago, the number of wolves in the wild today has grown to about 900. And, yes, this is a huge political/economic issue in Idaho and Montana.
Keep going south to the town of Cottonwood, where you'll find St. Gertrude's Monastery and Historical Museum. Perched on the verdant rolling hills above town on hills that yield bumper crops of grain and hay throughout the summer, this early 1900s monastery poses a striking stance against the blue Idaho sky. Here, the Benedictine Sisters have opened a B&B as a revenue stream. This is not rustic lodging: Following dinner with the 65 sisters who live here, we returned to our suite to watch a NASCAR Cup event on an LED flat screen. Five of the sisters came down to watch the race and over a bottle of vino tinto (red wine), I explained to them the nuances of the race, and in return they answered my questions about what it's like to live in a monastery. Just steps from the B&B is the Historical Museum that exhibits tens of thousands of artifacts and art that range from prehistoric to modern. It offers a complete and comprehensive look at North Central Idaho's past.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we drove south on Highway 95 to Grangeville and then up to the top of White Bird Summit. We spent that afternoon and night at the White Bird Summit Lodge, is owned by Terri and Frank Schmitz. Frank, a big game hunter whose trophies from all over the world adorn the walls of the lodge, is also an expert on the White Bird Battlefield, directly below his ranch, where three-dozen Nez Perce warriors defeated an entire U.S. Army Cavalry unit. Frank can tell you how to get to the site, where you'll find signs explaining what triggered the battle and how it ended.
Following a good night's rest at the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge in Riggins, we joined Amy and Matt Sinclair, who operate Exodus Adventures, on one of their jet boats. In addition to jet boat tours, they offer whitewater rafting trips along the Salmon River, which range from half a day to seven days long. They host salmon and steelhead fishing trips (in season) and trips that take you out after the huge prehistoric sturgeon that can weigh 150 pounds and may be 100 years old. To protect these behemoth creatures, a catch and release program is in place.
We began early in the morning with a 50-mile drive in our Jeep up a graveled forestry road to Vinegar Creek. There are no roads above Vinegar Creek; this is literally the end of the trail. Local eccentric Buckskin Bill built and lived in a compound for nearly 50 years on the Salmon River, which can be reached only from the Mackay Bar Guest Ranch (also on the Salmon River) where we were staying. From Mackay Bar, a jet boat operated by Whitewater Expeditions comes and gets you and takes you there. Amy and Matt can arrange this. Only a few people know how to navigate this stretch of the Salmon River by jet boat, for it's exceptionally wild, and its rogue nature continuously changes as water levels rise and fall.
Buckskin Bill lived in total isolation, grew all his food, built his dwellings, and even built a fortress and vowed to fight the “Federales" when they told him he had to move in the 1970s. He stayed, and the government left him alone. He handcrafted his rifles and tools from old mining equipment he found, and he loved to host visitors, the few who somehow managed to find him. His marked grave is there, and his complex has been kept intact and is maintained as a National Historic Site.
That night just before a sumptuous dinner at the Mackay Bar Ranch and with steelhead season in full swing, we watched as the Ranch's fishermen guests returned with trophy catches after doing battle on the river all day.
Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge
Fenn Ranger Station
Mackay Bar Guest Ranch
Nez Perce National Historical Park
North Central Idaho Travel Association
River Dance Lodge
St. Gertrude's B&B
10 Scenic Drives of the Northern Rockies
White Bird Summit Lodge
Yearout Sweetwater Appaloosa Ranch