Thursday, July 9, 2020

Explore the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway - A stellar 3-day trip from Halfway to Joseph

Hi all,

The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is not that well-known, but it's a pretty cool scenic drive in my book. The whole loop around the Wallowa Mountains is 213 miles on the Oregon side of the Snake River. Take your time and soak in the scenery.

On the first couple days of Cycle Oregon three years ago, Wendy and I and 2,000 other cyclists rode the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway from Baker to Halfway, and then we all did a HUGE 95-mile day from Halfway to Wallowa Lake State Park via the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway and Forest Road #39.

After doing that ride, I wanted to come back and explore the Forest Road #39 area in particular, and just do some leisurely camping and hiking. My buddy Norm Nelson was game to go over there last week, so we did a 3-day trip, hanging out mostly around the Imnaha River campgrounds, and doing some hiking and fishing.

For my blog post this week, I'm recommending a bigger 3-day itinerary for families and friends that covers a few more popular sights along the way.

For Day 1, I'd recommend driving I-84 to Baker, Oregon (2 hours travel time), and then take the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, Oregon Highway 86 to Halfway, Oregon (1 hour+ driving time), the gateway to the southern end of the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness. After a half day's drive, take a break, and enjoy the clean mountain air and impressive views of the Wallowas.

In Halfway, perhaps stay at a local Bed and Breakfast like the Inn at Clear Creek Farm, the Pine Valley Lodge, or the Halfway Motel and RV Park.

For Day 2, go east on the scenic byway toward Oxbow Dam in Hells Canyon. About 10 miles east of Halfway, turn left on Forest Road #39 (curvy paved road) and drive 20+ miles over the first big summit and visit the Hells Canyon Overlook. There's a rest room there, parking, and a paved accessible trail to a stupendous view of Hells Canyon.  

Last week, the overlook area was smothered with wildflowers of all kinds. The tell-tale peaks of the Seven Devils poked up on the Idaho horizon. Looking below, I could follow ridgelines plunging over 5,000 feet down to the Snake River (can't see the actual river). It kind of takes your breath away. I've been down in the bottom many times staring up from the river at the forested peaks looming above. 

After visiting the overlook, drop down to the Imnaha River campgrounds. There are a number of campgrounds that you could choose from along the main road, or up a separate road to the Imnaha River trailhead to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. We stayed at Indian Crossing Campground and had plenty of elbow room. We went hiking upriver to try out the fishing (water was very high and fast), and the Blue Hole advertised on the map and signs seemed pretty quiet.

It was still fun to climb down to the river, stand on a nicely-positioned casting rock, and cast some dry flies in the stillwater pool to see if anything might rise to the surface.

The Imnaha River hiking trail was very easy walking ... totally buffed and well-maintained in the lower 3-4 miles.

Other campgrounds in the immediate area include: Coverdale, Hidden, Ollokot, Blackhorse and Lick Creek (top of 2nd summit). There are a number of primitive self-support pull-out spots as well.

For Day 3, I'd recommend taking Forest Road #39 over Lick Creek summit and Salt Creek Summit and head for Joseph and Wallowa Lake State Park. The drive will take a couple of hours. Joseph is a charming little town with cool brew pubs, sidewalk cafes, art galleries and museums.

Book a room in Joseph or camp at Wallowa Lake State Park and you can't go wrong. The views from Wallowa Lake State Park are drop-dead gorgeous of the lake and the north end of the Wallowa Mountains/Eagle Cap Wilderness. There's hiking readily accessible up the West Fork or East Fork of Wallowa Creek. And there's the Wallowa Lake Tramway, which provides a quick trip to the rooftop of the Eagle Caps. There's food and drink available at the top.

According to the Wallowa Tramway web site, in 15 minutes, you ride from the bottom terminal (elevation 4,450 feet) up to the stop of Mt. Howard at 8,150 feet. The mountain is named for Major General Oliver O. Howard, who led U.S. troops in the Nez Perce War of 1877 and drove Chief Joseph and his people out of their ancestral homeland.

On Day 4, return to SW Idaho (or wherever your home might be) on Highway 82 back to La Grande, hop on I-84 and it's 2.5 hours back to Boise.

There you have it!
- SS

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Shadowy" St. Joe River country offers the full-meal deal for outdoor recreation

Watching the gin-clear St. Joe River glide downriver, about 60 miles upstream from St. Maries, Idaho, it flows with that same emerald-green beauteous color that you see on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River or the Selway.

Cold, clear, pure water flowing out of the wilderness. The St. Joe runs for 140 miles from the top of Bitterroot Mountains in the St. Joe National Forest. Sixty-six miles of the St. Joe are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Locals call it the "shadowy" St. Joe because of the dense forests that enshroud the river canyon like a dark cape.

I drove a shuttle, took pics and marveled at the beauty of the St. Joe while Wendy floated the river in an IK on a sunny afternoon last week as part of a 4-day camping trip. Floating and fishing are two of MANY activities that you can enjoy in the St. Joe country. During our stay, we went hiking, biking and took a scenic drive on the way south to visit the Hobo Cedar Grove, a beautiful pocket of giant old western red cedar trees.

In other trips to the St. Joe, I've ridden the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail, backpacked to Arid Peak Lookout and paddled the lower St. Joe through the ribbon of cottonwood trees heading into Lake Coeur d'Alene. The whole area is just kind of a perfect outdoor recreation playground for all of those activities. We also saw hundreds of ATV/UTV riders who assembled for a big campout and group ride in Avery, turning the tiny mountain hamlet into a RV city.

Highlights from our trip:

Hiking – We hiked across a neat cable suspension bridge to access the Allen Ridge Trail, which rises  several thousand feet above the St. Joe River. We hiked up to a cool viewpoint with our friends David and Carol Lindsay of Coeur d’Alene. The trail runs for 3.7 miles before intersecting a forest road. It starts out at a nice grade and gets progressively steeper as you climb. 

Floating – There are at least six different sections of the St. Joe that you can float, depending on whether you’d like to run a little whitewater or whether you’d prefer relaxing flatwater. Wendy paddled a 6-mile section of the river that was Class 1-2 all the way, but absolutely gorgeous. See the Forest Service St. Joe River guide on details.

Fishing – We saw more fly fishermen than anything else in the upper section of the St. Joe River canyon. It’s a blue-ribbon fishery with native west slope cutthroat trout. Cutthroat trout fishing is all catch-and-release only, but general limits apply for all other species. Here's more information on fishing the St. Joe provided by Idaho Fish and Game. 

Camping – It’s no secret that the St. Joe country is a cool place to go camping. There are hundreds of RVs camped out in private campgrounds in the river bottoms on the way up the St. River River Road, and then there are many USFS campgrounds and dispersed camping areas farther up the road. We came in on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m glad we did, because many of the campgrounds were full or close to full mid-week.

Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area – We decided to take a “short-cut” to Clarkia on Forest Road 321 so we could see some views off the top of the mountains along the way and visit the Hobo Cedar Grove Botanical Area. It was a 30-mile short-cut that took at least 1.5 hours to drive. The road was listed as a major access route on the forest map, but it was pretty much a typical bumpy, twisty single-lane Forest Service road. It was cool to see some new country along the way. The Hobo cedar grove had a nice educational interpretive trail, some wildflowers that we hadn’t seen before, and of course, towering cedar trees looming above. Barely anything grew underneath the forest canopy except for lady ferns.

Traveling to the St. Joe - We took Highway 3 from U.S. 12 near Lewiston to climb the Potlatch River grade and enjoy a scenic drive to St. Maries on the way up. Once in St. Maries, stock up on ice and last-minute supplies go east on the St. Joe River road to find a camping spot and begin your adventure. Pick up a St. Joe National Forest map before you go (Avery Ranger Station is not manned or open), but there are many pamphlets and brochures on things to do in the local area inside the front door of the ranger station. You might look into a camping reservation on to pick a Forest Service campsite.

Have fun!
- SS

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dan Noakes skis all 9 of Idaho's 12,000-foot peaks

Hi all,

Many of you may remember my story about Donnelly resident Dan Noakes hiking the Idaho Centennial Trail in only 52 days in the summer of 2018.

Considering the HUGE amount of downfall and brush that he had to plow through on the 1,000-mile trail, plus using serious route-finding skills necessary to stay on course -- and having the mental toughness to persevere on a mostly solo adventure -- you know that Dan Noakes is a super strong outdoor athlete!

And he's ambitious! His next big adventure was to summit and ski all nine of Idaho's 12,000-foot peaks in one year! He not only skied the peaks, he often skied the most extreme line possible on the way down those mountains! Phew!

To top off the adventures, Dan is super handy with video production, using GoPros expertly in the field, to share some of the most challenging, hard-to-film moments of his journeys with all of us. You can learn more how he climbed and skied each mountain on a separate YouTube episode on Dan's Channel.

Thanks to Star-News writer Drew Dodson and editor Tom Grote for sharing Drew's story, published today, about Dan's adventure ... I have a few quotes to share for perspective below his story.

Peak Performance - McCall man climbs, skies all 9 Idaho peaks over 12,000 feet 

The Star-News

Clinging to a steep snow-covered mountainside near the apex of Idaho itself, Dan Noakes peered down as his fear and self-doubt plunged to the mountain floor in a procession of snow chunks and pebbles.

“I mean, these peaks could gobble you up in a second if they wanted,” said Noakes, 35, of Donnelly. “If the snow fractures or a loose rock gives out, you could just be a goner.”

“They’re almost like a loyal friend that notices your full potential,” he said.

Noakes recently completed a personal quest to climb and ski all nine of Idaho’s 12,000-foot peaks, a feat known to have been completed by only professional skier Mark Ortiz and a few others.

The idea was born in a waiting room at St. Luke’s McCall a year ago as Noakes’ wife was in labor with their first child and he was watching a ski movie that featured Mount Church in Idaho’s Lost River Range, which is home to seven of the nine peaks.

Noakes tackled that peak almost immediately last spring, and within a year, managed to climb and ski all eight others, some accompanied by friends and others alone.

Collectively, the undertaking took Noakes a total of about 80 hours, 92.2 miles of hiking, skiing and bicycling and one calendar year.

Now Noakes is releasing a docu-series on YouTube chronicling each peak. Producing episodes using footage from his trips requires about another 16 hours per peak, Noakes said.

New episodes are released Wednesdays on Noakes’ YouTube channel, which can be found by searching “Dan Noakes” on

Each of the nine peaks offered unique challenges, but the toughest peak for Noakes’ money was Diamond Peak, the last he completed, and on his 35th birthday no less.

Rocky and near vertical terrain covered by a couple inches of fresh snow made finding footholds sketchy at best, even with the use of crampons, or spiked cleat attachments for ski boots, Noakes said.

While walking the tightrope ridgeline, Noakes’ right foot slipped and brought him face to face with the prospect of a 2,000-foot tumble to the mountain’s base.

“The main thing that caught me was my whippet, which is an ice axe connected to the handle of a ski pole,” he said. “That was really scary.”

That experience was the only true close call among all of the peaks, though much of it was a balancing act eerily similar to navigating icy, narrow ridgelines, Noakes said.

“It was a battle of is this intuition or is this fear?” he said. “With each step forward, I said, ‘I think it’s my fear, I’m gonna go for it.’”

That lesson is applicable not only to skiing Idaho’s tallest mountains, but also to the challenges people encounter every day that at first seem too daunting, Noakes said.

“If you just go one step closer, then you find out ‘oh, I can go one step further,’” Noakes said. “And then you keep going and you find out, ‘oh, it’s not as bad as I thought.’”

“You can take that energy and put it somewhere else, whether it’s a relationship or starting a business,” he said.

Noakes is not producing the docu-series for profit, but in hopes that it inspires others to derive self-worth from fulfilling personal goals rather than letting their net worth or career dictate it.

“You come back with a sense of self-confidence and self-peace,” Noakes said. “But I think what a lot of people struggle with is that society doesn’t really reward you for these endeavors.”

Powder conditions made Mount Idaho’s near 50-degree slopes the best of the nine peaks, while Mount Church claimed the title for longest outing at 14 hours and 23 miles roundtrip, Noakes said.

Noakes escaped any falls while skiing or scaling near vertical snow walls, but was forced to drop-trou on top of Donaldson Peak after the urge of nature calling became too much to ignore.

Each mountain ascent was plotted using Google Earth and uploaded to a Garmin GPS device Noakes used to keep him generally on track for each peak.

Noakes owns a local animation company called “Motifize” and is known locally for his pursuit of extreme outdoor activities, including in 2018 when he hiked the 1,000-mile Idaho Centennial Trail.

(c) McCall Star News

This is what Tom Lopez, author of Idaho: A Climber's Guide, had to say about Dan's adventure:

"Just summiting the 12ers in a short period of time is an impressive accomplishment. Doing it in winter-like conditions takes the effort to another level. Skiing down them? The first thought to cross my mind was "wow." The next thought was what a crazy, bold, dangerous challenge. Dan Noakes rocks!"

SS: Which was harder? Tackling the ICT or summiting and skiing all the 12ers?

DN: "I have asked myself that question. They are two different beasts. I would say that the 12ers are scarier because there are spots with high consequences if you fall. Skiing is the same, high consequence if you fall and then are alone out in the Lost River Range. 

"With that said, the ICT is more of a challenge overall IMO. It is longer miles, a ton of bushwhacking, more of a commitment for sure and more endurance because you have to travel 940 miles instead of 90 is what I traveled on the 12ers. This is all my opinion."

SS: Which was tougher mentally, the ICT?

DN: "Oh gosh. Yes I think overall the unknowns and being away alone in the wilderness for so long on the ICT was more mentally taxing. With the 12ers you had the thrill of skiing, which made up for any agony that you felt on the way up."

There you have it! Are you inspired?

Idaho’s 12,000-foot Peaks

1.     Mount Borah: 12,667’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
2.     Leatherman Peak: 12,228’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
3.     Mount Church: 12,201’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
4.     Diamond Peak: 12,197’ – Butte County, Lemhi Range
5.     Mount Breitenbach: 12,140’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
6.     Lost River Mountain: 12,078’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
7.     Mount Idaho: 12,064’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
8.     Donaldson Peak: 12,023’ – Custer County, Lost River Range
9.     Hyndman Peak: 12,009’ – Blaine County, Pioneer Mountains

(All photos courtesy Dan Noakes)

- SS