IDAHO, the Gem State

What to see

Interstate 84 From Oregon to Idaho
Twin Falls the Perrine Bridge - Shoshone Falls - Twin Falls
Oakley City of Rocks
Bruneau Sand Dunes
Boise City tour
Silver City ghost town
Sun Valley ski resort
Other pages other states | articles

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This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 2

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 2 covers Idaho, Nevada and Utah. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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IDAHO, also known as the Gem State and the Potato State, is a mountainous state in the Rocky Mountains. If the west is largely forested and sparsely populated, the east is a plain. The name Idaho was the corruption of an Indian word for Jewel of the Mountains, and the Potato state is a reference to its main crop. In 1890 Idaho joined the US as the 43rd state. The capital and largest city is Boise.

The surface is approximately 216,000 km2, of which 63 % is owned by the federal government, and 41 % is forested. The population of approximately 1.3 million residents has a density of six per km2, but large parts of the mountains in central and northern Idaho are practically uninhabited. Around Boise live many Basques, which came from northern Spain, and a third of the population is Mormon. In 1842 the first Catholic mission was founded by the Belgian Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Smet. There are many reservations in the state, mainly of Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians, and the largest reservation is Fort Hall in Pocatello.

This state is about the last refuge for larger animals. The animal kingdom is represented by antelope, caribou, elk, moose, cougar or mountain lion, grizzly bear, black bear, lynx and deer, but also the eagle, falcon and owl. The largest river is the Snake River, that ends after 790 kilometers in the Columbia rivier in Washington. There are lots of French names, such as the lakes Coeur d'Alene and Pend Oreille. The deepest canyon in the US is Hells Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Snake River, located along the border of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and western Idaho, which is more than 7.875 feet (2,400 m) deep!

Fur traders traded in Idaho since the 1800's, but by 1840 the game was as good as exterminated. In 1860 gold was discovered, and after 1880 the arrival of the railroad developed mining and timber industries. After 1900 the first dams were built, and extensive irrigation greatly expanded agriculture. Idaho is the largest potato producer in the U.S., and also successfully breeds cattle and sheep. The mines produce lead, zinc and silver, and the mines of Coeur d'Alene are the deepest in the U.S. with a depth of 7,800 feet (2,375 m). A major employer is the electronics company Micron.

The state offers beautiful scenery, and ski resorts such as Silver Mountain near Kellogg, Schweitzer Basin near Sandpoint, Brundage Mountain near McCall, and Bogus Basin near Boise. The Nez Perce National Historical Park documents the life of the Nez Perce, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

A famous ghost town is Silver City, south of Boise, and the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River are 212 feet (64.7 m) high, or 45 feet (14 m) higher than Niagara Falls! The Snake River Stampede (in July) is about the biggest rodeo in western America.

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I-84 : From Oregon to Idaho

The Oregon Interstate 84 crawls over many long hills to Idaho. Up to Baker City the valley is dotted with large fields, that are abundantly watered, but once past that city, the terrain becomes more hilly and dry. The landscape ends up becoming quite desert-like, and no living soul is to be seen, nor indeed any structure!

After crossing the Idaho State Line, one immediately notices that the facilities are built more soundly and that they are better maintained. Almost all of Idaho is largely agricultural, an endless series of arable fields, with only here and there a lonely farm. The houses and farms are well cared for.

Idaho potatoes !We looked forward to seeing fields of the famous Idaho potato, the renowned and large baking potato that is particularly tasty with a garnish of whipped sour cream, spring onions, bacon bits and grated cheese. A real treat! Unfortunately, the Idaho potato fields are not located along the interstate, but instead they are on the higher plateaus.

The cities of Caldwell, Meridian, Nampa and Boise used to be four different cities, but over the years they grew together, producing a long and busy urban ribbon. Once past Boise the agriculture seems to come to an end, and there is nothing to be seen for miles except vast, monotonous and dry plains, covered with prairie grass.

Twin Falls

Shoshone Falls & Twin Falls

The Twin Falls actually gave their name to the city, but in 1935 a dam was built with a hydro-electric power station of 9 megawatts. Prior to 1935 the water discharged along two sides of a large, centrally located rock, which explains the name Twin Falls, which in turn became the name of the town.
Since the construction of the dam in 1935, the water only runs off along ONE side of the rock. However, they never renamed the city to "Single Fall"...

In 1995 a second power station was built, good for 43.5 Megawatts. The view over the dam and especially over the canyon is most spectacular, and certainly worth the walk. Unusual is the fact that excess water from the artificial lake actually runs over the top of the dam!

Twin Falls 3 Twin Falls 4


Highway 78

Along highway 78, the road between Hammett and Bruneau leads past some extremely picturesque landscaping. You'll see the desert, flanked by lush and bright green fields and sectioned by the Snake river, in a beautiful open and rolling terrain, against a background of Idaho mountains. The ride is extremely soothing and delicious!

In Idaho you will find many French place names, even though by now they have been completely anglicized. The name of Boise is pronounced "boy-see", but it stems from the French word "boisé", which means "wooded ". For that matter, Boise is nicknamed "the city of trees".

A bit further are the Malad River and the Malad Gorge, and these received their names after some French trappers got sick (in French: malade), after eating a spoiled beaver. As a matter of fact, the British Hudson's Bay Company, that controlled this entire region from way before the Louisiana Purchase, mainly had French trappers and Indians as customers.

Bruneau : hwy 78 - 1 Bruneau : hwy 78 - 2

Bruneau Sand Dunes

The Bruneau Sand Dunes Visitor Centre presents a movie about the dunes, which were formed after the catastrophic flooding of ancient Lake Bonneville. More than one million years ago this inland lake covered almost the whole of northern Utah and southern Idaho. Its surface was more than 20,000 sq miles (52,000 square km) and in places it was more than 1,000 feet (300 m) deep.

14,500 years ago the bottom of the lake was driven upwards by volcanic activity, and as a result a natural dam broke near contemporary Pocatello. The deluge that followed was extraordinary. An gigantic tidal wave ensued that was 200 times larger the normal flow of the Snake River, and about one cubic mile (4 km3) of water rushed downstream.

This volume was so abysmally large that even the very large Snake Canyon completely overflew. The lake lost about two thirds of its water, and the rest evaporated almost completely in the next thousand years. This resulted in the formation of the Great Salt Lake Desert, and eventually only three smaller lakes remained in Utah, namely Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake and Utah Lake.

map of ancient Lake Bonneville
Snake River

The two majestic Bruneau Sand Dunes consist of cement-colored sand and they rise approximately 150 meters above ground. In the middle there is a trough, where the two dominant wind directions collide. They act as a chimney and keep the spot free of sand. In the basin, the sand is brought in from the surrounding mountains, where old sediment layers are exposed by erosion.

In the mid-1950's a few small ponds appeared in these dunes, caused by rising groundwater levels, after the damming of the Snake River. These ponds quickly developed a very particular eco-system in the dunes with many insects, fish and several small animals. The vegetation has adapted too, and you can even find reed, in the middle of the desert! In the 1980's however, the water level of the ponds diminished alarmingly when local farmers began to make use of groundwater to irrigate their fields. Provided enough water is pumped in from the Snake River, this fascinating habitat can be maintained.

Perhaps the only downside of the park is that the road leads directly into the dunes, but that there is no trail to drive around them, to allow visitors to admire the spectacle from various angles. Also, the standing water attracts lots of insects, including giant dragonflies and voracious mosquitoes...

Bruneau Sand Dunes 1 Bruneau Sand Dunes 2


Before Boise there is actually nothing to be seen along the highway - no houses, no ranches, no fields, no trees - just a barren, desert-like prairie. Boise has an extremely dry climate with only eleven inches of rain per year (about 28 cm). But all the rainwater and snow from the mountains is recovered, and thanks to the dams this volume is sufficient for the rest of the year.

In the center of the city lies the Julia Davis Park, which was donated by Thomas Jefferson one year after the death of his wife. The park is the starting point of the Boise City Tour Tram, that will take you through the historic town and along several points of interest. You'll see two original log cabins from 1860, the Boise University (that was built on a garbage dump), and the only library in the world with an inscription of "LIBRARY !", including the exclamation point...

The city centre contains several historic and beautifully restored buildings. Boise has several hot springs that supply water at 69 °C (155°F), that in turn heat several city buildings and the pool. The city has its own tree nursery, to replace dead trees throughout the city. Boise originally only had two local tree species, and all of the other species were introduced ! Other points of interest are the former prison, the House of the Basque community (the largest community outside Spanish Basque Country), and the beautiful Rose Garden.

The tour is enlivened with nice anecdotes, and typical and enjoyable American puns. For instance there was the story of a very nasty man, Arty, who had stooped so low that he was willing to commit murder for just one dollar. He found a customer, went to a grocery store and strangled three women. The next day the newspaper titled in big letters : Arty chokes Three for a Dollar in the Food Store...

Boise 1 Boise 2 : city tour
Boise 3 : Library !
Boise 4 : city tour

Sun Valley : ski resort

Highway 93 is a scenic byway that runs north through the Idaho mountains. It also skirts the famous Sun Valley ski resort.

The Sun Valley ski resort owes its existence to Averell Harriman, son of railroad baron E. H. Harriman. As owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, in 1935 he sent Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find the perfect place to build a ski resort that could compete with the magic of the great Swiss and Austrian ski resorts. The count visited many villages in the Rocky Mountains, and even saw many that would eventually become famous ski stations, but he found none that met his stringent requirements. Finally he heard about Ketchum, an old mining town in Idaho.

He visited the town and was so excited that he immediately sent a telegram to his employer. Harriman came by promptly, and within a few days he bought 4,200 acres (1,700 hectares) of land. In the following seven months he built a luxury hotel with an excellent service, a closed swimming pool, a fine cuisine, and dance evenings with an orchestra!

Sun Valley opened its doors in the winter of 1936, and it was an instant success. This obviously was partly due to Harriman's immense circle of acquaintances. European nobility appeared alongside Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper, which meant that Harriman's Public Relations department had no problem whatsoever in attracting "ordinary" tourists...

In 1977 Sun Valley was purchased by the self-made tycoon R. Earl Holding. He refreshed the resort and built additional lodges.

Sun Valley : ski resort 1 Sun Valley : ski resort 2

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