Discovering Idaho Horseback

Autumn is here, and winter is soon to follow! That may not be a problem for all you folks located in the sunny south. But, for us folks up north, winter is “bah, humbug” time! when it comes to trail riding. Most of our trails in the northern Rockies are snowed in by early November. However, fall and winter are prime times to plan summer trips and that special first, early season ride.

Salmon River country in central Idaho is free of snow and ready for riding by early spring. The area’s deep canyons provide a respite from the unpredictable late-winter weather found in the state’s high, rugged mountains. You’ll see wintering wildlife herds, soak in primitive hot springs, and visit historic sights.

A few years ago, an early spring visit to the area provided enjoyable riding experiences and pleasant weather. This time, we invited our cousins, Jerry and Diane Shriner, and our friends, Angelo (Angie) and Joyce Bissell. They met us at the campground on the Panther Creek tributary of the Salmon River.

This campsite is located about 30 miles west of North Fork, Idaho. Go west from North Fork, and follow Forest Road 030 about 26 miles. On the way, you’ll pass the little mining town of Shoup. This is an interesting stop. Notice the manual gas pumps. There’s no electricity here, because it’s too remote. The gas is hand-cranked up to a glass bulb above the tank to your desired number of gallons. Then gravity feeds the gas down a hose into your vehicle.

After Shoup, continue following the river until you see the Panther Creek Rd. (number 055), coming in on the left. Turn on Panther Creek. The camp is three miles down, on the right. It’s a perfect campsite for horsepeople. There’s easy access to good water, four corrals, hitching rails, plenty of space to turn around and camp-and last, but not least, first-class views of the surrounding mountains.

The camping area is bordered on one side by the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States) and on the other side by the Salmon National Forest. Keep a Frank Church Wilderness Forest Service map handy-it’ll tell you which trails and old roads you can ride on from this area.

On our first night, we watched elk herds grazing on the hillside across from our camp. We did this while sitting around a smoky, poorly burning fire that we’d dutifully built inside the foot-high metal Forest Service fire ring. We figured our wood was causing the smoke problem (more on this later).

While sipping Angie’s homemade wine, we reflected on the fact that we were in country that had changed very little since Lewis and Clark passed upstream from us 200 years ago. After crossing the Continental Divide, Lewis and Clark still had to cross the formidable Idaho Mountains. They first chose the Salmon River as their route across Idaho, but their attempt to float the Salmon was short lived when they discovered deep canyons and swift, dangerous rapids. They abandoned this route and went farther north where they crossed the state overland on the Lolo Trail. That abandoned attempt resulted in the Salmon River being known as the River of No Return.

As night temperatures plummeted into the high 20s, we were very thankful that our accommodations weren’t like those of Lewis and Clark’s. That warm, toasty camper felt good!

Since we were camped down in the valley, we rode trails that looped and wound their way into higher elevations. Early spring is a good time for riders and their mounts to get the kinks out. I was testing my new saddle on Scout, my Missouri Fox Trotter. Scout seemed to like the saddle, but I was having trouble getting comfortable. Jerry Shriner’s great words of wisdom came to mind: “If your knees hurt, your stirrups are too short. If your butt hurts, your stirrups are too long. If both hurt, then your stirrups are just right.”

Both Joyce and Angie had new horses, and they were looking forward to seeing how they’d do. Nothing like the wet-blanket treatment! After five days of riding up and down mountains, crossing streams, and getting close and personal with deer, elk, and grouse, the young horses acted like real troupers.

Panther Creek is noted for its hot springs. You can ride to a hot spring located three miles on the road up the hill just east of camp. The road continues past the hot spring and is gated to vehicles, but is open to horseback riders. You’ll find hot mineral flows, custard-colored, scalded hillsides, and rising plumes of steam.

Note that the main hot pool is too hot for serious soaking. Hike about a half-mile down stream and you’ll find other pools in the river you can soak in. However, beware! As I found out, there’s poison ivy on the surrounding riverbank. Be careful where you toss your clothes!

We had an important task on this trip: restoring the tombstone of Red the Bartender. Here’s the story: Across the river from our camp, the land rises to form a broad bench, where the old mining camp of Dynamo City was built back in the 1880s. Nowadays, there’s nothing left of the rip-roaring, canvas tent city. Nothing, that is, except for the lonely grave of Red the Bartender.

A few years ago, Red’s gravesite was reduced to ashes. The Forest Service rebuilt the fence around the grave, but the headstone was still lacking. We had a friend cut and engrave a new wooden tombstone. One morning, after coffee and Jerry’s Dutch oven biscuits, we made plans to cross the river and ride to Red’s gravesite.

Incidentally, our coffee that morning was around a crackling, blazing fire that put out heat, not smoke. After trying other wood, it was apparent that the fire wasn’t getting enough air due to lack of ventilation from the metal fire ring. Angie and I removed the ring, and guess what? We had a clean-burning fire! (Yes, we did put back the fire ring when we left.)

After we saddled up, Jerry grabbed the tombstone, and we rode across the river. We put the tombstone in place, paid our respects, and left an empty whiskey bottle on Red’s grave. This is the only known grave of a Dynamo City resident. Replacing Red’s tombstone was a brief reconnection with the past.

After a number of rides in the Panther Creek area, we moved camp and drove 1½ miles east of North Fork to Wagon Hammer Springs. Driving out was tough, we had to wait for mountain sheep to amble across the road! And that was only a preview of the wildlife display we had yet to see. At Wagon Hammer Springs, we headed out for a ride. We rode through a winding valley surrounded by open mountains. Some of the higher mountains glistened with freshly fallen snow. Then we spotted elk, hundreds of elk! They were moving in what appeared to be broad bands across the sides of the barren, brown hills. There were elk to our right, elk to our left, and elk on the hills in front of us. It was a grand sight!

Wagon Hammer Springs is one of the few areas where Lewis and Clark traveled overland. Most of their route was on water or following rivers. The Forest Service has marked the Lewis and Clark trail in this area with trail markers. For a rare chance to follow the actual footsteps of Lewis and Clark, ride straight north of camp up the valley, and take a well worn trail to the left up a small canyon.

That night, we recounted our adventures as we happily thawed out around a blazing campfire. Even though the weather had been chilly, we’d done a great deal of riding, and had seen some awesome country and wildlife. We felt thankful to have shared with our friends the adventures of horses, hot springs, and tombstones. TTR