A Backcountry RV Roadtrip in SE Idaho – Quiet Splendor!

April 2016 – In our RV travels we prefer to take small back roads from town to town instead of zipping past everything on the interstates. As we left the Moab area in Utah to head north into Idaho, we scoured the map to find some skinny roads through the farmlands that would take us through the valleys between the mountain ranges.

RV roadtrip past snowcapped mountains of northern Utah

Wow! We left the red rock canyons of Utah behind and headed into northern Utah.

Our minds were still reeling with the incredible and world renowned landscapes we’d enjoyed at Canyonlands National Park (North and South), Arches National Park, Dead Horse State Park and even the roadside stop of Newspaper Rock after coming up through the (appropriately named) Valley of the Gods. But we were astonished by the beauty of our surroundings in this lesser known area as we looked out our truck’s windows.

RV roadtrip through Farmland and mountasin of northern Utah

We knew the farmland around in Logan, Utah, was gorgeous, but this was incredible!

Route 89 heading out of Ogden, Utah, was a little fast paced for our tastes, so we snaked our way through the farmlands on Route 23 and then on Route 36. The views in every direction around us were breathtaking.

Farm and mountain scenery southeastern Idaho

It’s scenery like this that gets us off the highways and onto the backroads of America.

This is farm and ranching country. Horses grazed in the pastures and cows dotted the fields all the way to the mountains in the distance. It was early spring, and newborn calves bounded behind their mothers.

Views from the RV southeastern Idaho mountains

Horses and cattle didn’t seem to notice the views — all they saw was breakfast!

We had traveled through this part of the country several times before, spending time at Bear Lake and Logan Pass in Utah and driving north through Afton Wyoming on our way to and from the Tetons. Despite two visits to the Tetons, there are places there we still haven’t seen. However, we decided to stay on the Idaho side of that stunning mountain range on this trip.

RV camping by southeastern Idaho lake

The lakes were as beautiful as the mountains.

And the scenery we were seeing was plenty glorious enough, and the roads were very peaceful!

RV roadtrip through southeastern Idaho mountains

Not a bad spot to live!

The skies, however, were not peaceful at all, and rumbling in the heavens got our attention.

RV camping southeastern Idaho

The skies began to look a little threatening.

A stormy day that had been promising rain all day long suddenly ended with a spectacular sunset that had us running out of the buggy and down to the shore to take photos.

Southern Idaho sunset on lake

Cloudy skies sometimes bring awesome sunsets. This one was exceptional, especially after a gray day!!

As we were busily snapping away at the sky, I heard a loud splash and looked down at my feet to see a beaver swimming right past me.

What luck!

I managed to catch him surrounded by the sun’s vivid magenta reflection in the water before he dived out of sight.

Camping sunset beaver in Idaho lake

A beaver swam right by me!!

We were doing this little backroad RV roadtrip in a season that fell somewhere between winter and spring, which gave us lots of unpredictable weather. Nasty weather makes for great photography, however, and we continued on our farm road journey on Route 38 under pretty clouds at dawn.

Malad City Idaho sunrise

Reflections at dawn.

Later in the day, however, those clouds got angry once again. We watched a massive black cloud forming in the distance as we drove. Suddenly the cloud was upon us. Fortunately, just at that moment, we saw a huge roadside pullout with a big red sign that said “Stop!” And stop we did!!

RV travel southeastern Idaho_

Yikes! A huge black storm cloud made us pull over and stop!

No sooner had we run back into the trailer and closed the door than the heavens opened up. It rained buckets. It rained so hard the raindrops seemed to be bouncing off the ground. Thank goodness we had our house with us!

We made lunch, and afterwards we soon got drowsy from listening to the rain pelting our roof. So, we crawled under the covers for a nap! When we awoke, the skies had lightened and Nature gave us the “all clear” and go ahead to continue our journey on Route 37.

2016 Dodge Ram 3500 Dually_

Four hours later, after a good nap, the skies began to clear.

We continued north, and after all this time on the backcountry roads of northern Utah and southeastern Idaho, when we arrived in the town of American Falls, we felt like we’d landed at an enormous city.

We watched long trains crossing the train bridge in town. One was so long it had three engines on the front and two on the back!!

Train crossing bridge in American Falls Idaho

In American Falls we saw a long train with five engines!!

The storm clouds continued to threaten and were moving very fast above us. I’d gotten a kick out of setting up a timelapse video of the clouds moving across the canyon walls of Dead Horse Point State Park a few weeks earlier, and this seemed like a perfect chance to try that technique again:

From American Falls, our journey took us north along Route 39 to Route 26 and through Atomic City which we had enjoyed on an earlier trip to the otherworldly Craters of the Moon National Monument. But instead of seeking out moonscapes, on this trip we had snowcapped mountains in mind and on our agenda.

RV views on Salmon River Idaho roadtrip - nowcapped mountains

Snowcapped mountains were what we were after.

We hooked up with Route 93 and followed it northwest to the village of Mackay. What a sweet town! Mackay, Idaho, is flanked by two gorgeous mountain ranges, and we walked around town with our heads tipped back to take in the beautiful views.

Mackay Idaho main street

Downtown Mackay, Idaho.

Our RV roadtrip had brought us through some remote and quiet lands. To give you a sense of size and scale, the town of Mackay, which was a major landmark on our trip, has a population of 494!

No wonder the local cinema can offer happy birthday wishes to a resident!!

Main Street Cinema Mackay Idaho

In a small town, your birthday can put your name on the marquee at the cinema! How fun!!

Makcay, Idaho, is on the opposite side of the mountains from the much more well known, busy and trendy community of Sun Valley to the west, and it is “opposite” in spirit as well.

“We like having a mountain range between us and Sun Valley!” One local said to me, laughing.

We meandered the few streets, and admired the rustic, crusty and aging barns and buildings tucked between some of the homes.

Crumbling Barn in Mackay Idaho

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Old barn Mackay Idaho RV roadtrip

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This part of Idaho is wonderful for RVing, and it has been popular with RVers ever since RVs were first built!

Antique travel trailer RV

We saw a cute antique trailer in a yard. Cool!

Discovering special places that don’t get top billing in the tourist literature is one of our favorite things about this full-time RVing lifestyle. International tourists flock to the major cities and the National Parks. And why not, they’re spectacular! But the roots of America are in the small towns across the country.

Old store front Mackay Idaho

Get your stretchy suspenders here!!

We were so glad we had chosen a route that we had never taken before through this familiar region. Every sight along the way was new and exciting!

RV camping Salmon River Idaho

Getting off the beaten path is our favorite aspect of RVing.

If you are have an RV road trip planned between northern Utah and southern Idaho, consider getting off the interstate and exploring the smaller roads. It’s a very beautiful part of the country!! More info below…

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Craters of the Moon + Cataclysms from Sun Valley ID to Alpine WY

Camping in the Sawtooth Mountains

Sunset in the Sawtooths

August, 2014 – We had been enjoying a wonderful stay in Sun Valley, Idaho, spreading out in some great camping spots and taking in lots of free summertime outdoor events.

The wildfires that had nipped at our heels in Sedona, Arizona, and in Bend and eastern Oregon, were by now long forgotten, and after a few days of summer showers and thunderstorms, the air around us was crisp and clear.

We wanted to do a “signature hike” in the area when the sun finally resumed its rightful place in the sky, and a ranger suggested the hike to Baker Lake.

Starbucks insignia for Sun Valley Idaho

This had been the most popular hike in the area until it was devastated by the Beaver Creek wildfire of 2013.

Now it was a hike through a burnt forest.

“It’s still beautiful,” the ranger insisted.  “But in a different way.”

Well, we’d seen enough fires in action this year, why not see what a national forest looked like once the embers cooled a year later?

Baker Lake Road into the Sawtooth National Forest

Beautiful mountains in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

Our trail, which had once wandered between green pines, was soon passing between stands of charred trees that were stark reminders of the devastation

However, as we slowed down and took in the strange landscape around us, we soon found there was an eerie beauty to it all. A mysterious aura enveloped us.

The Beaver Creek Fire had been the result of two separate fires that had joined forces.

By the grace of God, the ranger told us, the winds had turned at the very last minute, before the flames raced down a canyon into town, sparing Ketchum from a true bath of fire.

Fire damaged trees from the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho

The Beaver Creek fire burned 180 square miles

As we hiked, we saw large shards of blackened bark had fallen off the trunks of the trees, leaving intriguing lace-like patterns on the red-brown wood.

Bark falls off the trees from the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho

Lace patterns on the tree trunks

Scorched logs lay scattered across the ground, each filled with the funny checkerboard patterns that develop as wood burns.

Hiking the Baker Lake Trail we see lupine blooming

A little lupine grows between the blackened tree roots

Scattered here and there between the singed roots and ravaged remains, little purple lupine flowers poked their heads through the cinders and basked in the sunshine.

A thicket of tiny purple flowers filled the spaces between a stand of black stick-like trunks, and a few yellow flowers smiled up at us from their hiding places amid the wreckage.

Life was returning.

RV Camping in the Sawtooth National Forest Idaho

Fire in the sky at sunset — flames of the gods!

Craters of the Moon National Monument

Craters of the Moon National Monument

We had been in Sun Valley for nearly a month, and we were ready to move on.  We packed up and made our way east from Ketchum, Idaho, through Craters of the Moon National Monument.  This monument is a vast sea of lava flows that is the result of a series of violent volcanic eruptions between Idaho and Wyoming.

Driving alongside this moonscape for many miles, there was nothing but black lava rock as far as we could see into the distance.

Ironically, here we were facing another cataclysm, one much bigger than a forest fire and dating from a much more distant time thousands of years ago.

Most of the hiking trails wound through crooked trees and craggy lava rock, but the best one climbed straight up along the lava cinders to the top of a cinder pile.

The more we explored the park, the more we felt its air of haunting melancholy.

Tree at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho

Craters of the Moon has some wonderful landscapes

Placards along the trails told how, decades ago, in a misguided attempt to beautify the park, the National Park Service had poisoned all the trees that were afflicted with an ugly parasitic vine.

Only after all the parasitic vines had been successfully exterminated did the Park Service discover the delicate symbiosis between the vines and the now dead trees, one that is critical to the survival of the remaining trees.

Ancient volcanos in northern Idaho

An old volcano on the horizon in central idaho

We left the park pondering the immense forces of nature and the wisdom of tampering with their balance.  Can human knowledge control nature without disastrous consequences, or mastermind its energies without paying a price? An old volcano decorated with cell phone and radio towers slipped quietly past the car window.

High school class years on the hill in Arco Idaho

The hillside in Arco is covered with enormous white numbers.

Arco Idaho first atomic city in the world

Arco holds a unique distinction.

We arrived in the town of Arco, Idaho, and were immediately struck by the strange numbers that covered the hillside on the edge of town.  What the heck was that all about? Were there mines up there?

Looking a little closer, we soon realized these numbers were years — 2000, 89, 95 — and, asking around, we found out there’s been a long-standing tradition for the high school seniors to sneak up on the mountain and paint their school year on the rock.

That’s no small feat, as the numbers appeared to be 30′ or so tall!  Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management put an end to this practice about a decade ago.

 

ERB-1 Nuclear Power Plant control room_

The EBR-1 control room is right out of Star Trek.

We also learned that Craters of the Moon and the other vast barren landscapes in this region of the country are remote enough to have become the site of lots of weapons testing and nuclear power development over the years.

The little town of Arco stands out in history as the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power, and the nuclear power plant responsible, named EBR-1, is just down the road.

We took a tour, marveling at the 1950’s switches and dials in the control room. They seemed to come right out of Star Trek!

Storm clouds swirl above our RV

A fast moving storm swirls above our buggy.

RV parked under storm clouds

Storm clouds threaten…

Leaving Arco and EBR-1 behind, we traveled on to the shores of beautiful Palisades Reservoir. Just as we pulled the rig around to set up, nature unleashed her fury with a cataclysmic thunder and lightning storm.  I was so taken by the sky, as I “helped” Mark get the rig parked, that I began snapping photos of it with the buggy in the foreground.

Mud and rain out our window

It poured pitchforks for four days!

Mark, of course, was struggling to get the rig parked and set up before the deluge hit while I leaped around singing, “Wow, this is AMAZING, it’s so BEAUTIFUL!” as I took more photos.

Just in the nick of time, I got the camera put away and we got our little home set up.  For the next four days we hunkered down as the rain fell in relentless torrents.

Muddy tracks outside our door

Will we ever be able to leave?

At one point, a knock on our door summoned us to the aid of four teenage boys whose muddy joyride in their Rubicon had left them stranded, hubcap deep, in lakeside muck.

Luckily, the Mighty Dodge (with the help of Mark’s skillful driving and four eager boys pushing) was able to pull the Rubicon back to solid ground.

Sunrise over our RV in Idaho

A beautiful sunrise heralds the (temporary) end of the storms…

At long last we awoke to a glorious sunrise, and the puddles around us soon began to dry. We looked around for Noah’s raven and dove to send out as scouts, but his little winged messengers were nowhere to be found. We had to don our boots and go outside for a look ourselves! After a day of drying out, we deemed it safe to hitch up and leave, and we slowly rolled on to Grand Teton National Park.

 

 

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Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, ID – Pretty Waterfalls

The Tetons!

Mid-July, 2012 – We left the corner of Wyoming near Afton and journeyed north into Idaho.  We were doing our route planning to take in as many official “scenic byways” as possible, so now we followed Idaho’s Teton Scenic Byway.

We had been to Grand Teton National Park at the beginning of our travels in 2007 and had been awe-struck by the jagged beauty and majesty of the mountain peaks.  The national park is on the eastern side of the mountains in Wyoming, and its roads wind right along the base of the mountains.

The Teton Scenic Byway in Idaho is on the western side and the road is much further distant from the mountains, running right through the rich valley farmlands.  The views were lovely, but unfortunately the sky and lighting didn’t cooperate with us on that particular day, and the smoke from nearby wildfires made the mountains hazy at best.

Spuds!

But a real highlight was to drive through fields and fields of perfectly spaced, rolling rows of green plants.  “What do you think that is?” I asked Mark.  “Hmmm….” He mused.  “This is Idaho… which is spud country… Idaho potatoes maybe??”   Yup!  We soon saw a sign saying that this was “seed potato” country.  It explained that many farmers in the area are third and fourth generation seed potato farmers and that after storing the potatoes through the winter in cool cellars many are cut into 2″ cubes in the spring to create the next season’s crop.

Upper Mesa Falls

Where the Teton Scenic Byway leaves off the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway begins, and we made the turn onto that road.  Two beautiful waterfalls give this scenic byway its name.  The Lower Falls is very pretty, but the Upper Falls is a stunner.  We were glad to have our National Park Pass because these falls are one of those “federal lands” area with an entrance fee that is covered by the pass.

Waterfall Mist

The afternoon light lit up the mist that foamed off of the falls, and we wandered up and down the enormous walkways and stairways that cascade along the edge of the falls for tourists.

As we were leaving we noticed three fellows carrying kayaks up the stairs.  It turned out they were had just kayaked 8 miles down the river, and apparently that stretch of river is excellent white water and rapids.  Fortunately they had stopped short of the falls!!  Mark wanted to get a picture of me with them — and when one of them playfully put his arm around me for the shot I discovered he was sopping wet from head to toe!  That got me laughing.

Crazy wet kayakers!

The Upper Falls are known for the rainbow that forms in the mist in the mornings, and we set the alarm to make sure we caught the rainbow at its peak according to what a ranger told us.  Out of laziness we hadn’t changed the clocks in the trailer since leaving Arizona two months earlier, but we we knew we were off by an hour.  Well, we were off by an hour the other way!  So we got to the falls in the freezing cold semi-darkness and were just about frozen to the bone by the time the little rainbow finally made its first showing.

The falls create a rainbow each morning.

The Upper Falls is also home to the Big Falls Inn, a cool old log cabin built in 1915 by Snake River Electric Light & Power Co. as an office/residence for workers.

Big Falls Inn – from the Power Company!

Over the years it has been used in many ways — as a way station for travelers on Yellowstone Highway,

Baby robins

as a dance hall, and as a corporate retreat.  In 1986 the Forest Service acquired it through a land exchange.

We had simpler accommodations in our buggy nearby, but outside our window a little robin’s nest was full of open-mouthed chicks!

Continuing our journey north, our road wandered out of Idaho and into the Bitteroot Valley of Montana.

 

 

 

 

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