North Central Idaho
If it weren’t for the power lines and the semis trucking goods along the north-south highway, you might think nothing had changed since the 19th century.

North Central Idaho

A map of Riggins, Idaho, comfortably fits on a cocktail napkin. Straddling Highway 95, the only north-south artery between Boise and the Canadian border, the town is squeezed between Preacher Mountain and the Salmon River and is home to only about 420 people.

Tiny Riggins has a large claim to fame, however: it is the state’s whitewater capital. Each summer and fall, this town and its sleepy neighbors up and down river swell with visiting kayakers, rafters, jet-boat thrill-seekers and fishing enthusiasts. These tourists are eager to splash their way through one of the deepest gorges in North America, or to hook salmon, trout and sturgeon.

“We get people in here from a lot of places,” said Pete Broyles, co-owner of Riverport Brewing Company, just over the Washington state line, about 100 miles north of Riggins. It was a Monday night in Clarkston and I was listening to him describe how the locals came around from mass-produced lagers to handcrafted ales like his ruddy-colored, medium-bodied B-Run Red.

“This is Keystone country,” he said. “They didn’t know what to do with all those flavors. At first, people were dumping Clamato in there.”

I shuddered to think about a beer spiked with tomato juice and clam broth, but Broyles eventually gained a small legion of converts, and flavorsome food and drink is no longer a scarcity in this mountainous corner of the West. From onsite coffee roasting at Two Rivers Coffee and Creamery to the upscale atmosphere at the Rogue Wine Bar, north central Idaho is just cosmopolitan enough to make a visit to the country feel comfortable. If this is the wilderness, it has certainly gained more than a bit of sophistication since 1805 when explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark became the first U.S. citizens to cross the Continental ­Divide. Yet with miles upon miles of prairie, forest and river to go around, crowds are still unheard of.

Following the Salmon River up out of the canyon from Riggins onto the Camas Prairie, I drove past old timber railroad trestles, a bed and breakfast built in the shape of a dog (and billed as “the world’s largest beagle”) and Tolo Lake, where paleontologists uncovered the skeletons of Columbian mammoths and prehistoric bison. Few trees interrupt the landscape, which stretches infinitely toward the horizon, and towns are far apart. If it weren’t for the power lines and the semis trucking goods along the north-south highway, you might think nothing had changed since the 19th century.

Now as then, fishing attracts out-of-state visitors, especially those hoping to reel in bass, three-foot steelhead trout or maybe a great white sturgeon, a fish that has been known to reach lengths of 10 feet (note that sturgeon are catch-and-release only). As for steelhead, anglers from across the country vie for a $2,000 grand prize during Lewiston’s annual derby in November. I happened to turn up during the right month, but not being much of a fisherman, I set my sights lower and sought the help of an expert.

“My goal is to make sure everybody gets at least one,” explained Brent Sawyer, a driftboat guide with Exodus Wilderness Adventures who met me just before dawn at the company’s offices in Riggins.

I hadn’t been river fishing before and asked him what to expect. “We’ll give ’em hell and see what happens,” he said, adjusting his faded blue baseball cap.

I didn’t do badly on my first day out, catching four steelhead and bringing two back to town to be smoked, dried and vacuum packed. Brent deserved all the credit, though: He’d done almost everything except cast lines and reel them in for me. Plus, he brought the thermos of coffee, an essential provision for any mid-autumn river trip. Patience is also something to pack, because as I learned, hours can go by without so much as a tug.

Luckily, the scenery doesn’t disappoint. Not long after I caught my first steelhead, I spotted several mule deer picking their way along the stony slopes above us. And near the end of the day I got lucky again, counting three bald eagles from my perch in our driftboat.

If a day of fishing doesn’t appeal to you, rent a kayak or join a rafting trip and paddle your way to a good time. Or maybe, instead of observing a group of predators from afar, you’d rather see them on foot, at a shorter distance. In that case, stop at the Wolf Education and Research Center in Winchester, where sign-posted trails on the 20-acre property allow visitors to enjoy short nature walks on their own.

At the Center, you can watch endangered gray wolves and learn about their biology and importance to Western ecosystems. First noted by Lewis and Clark in 1804, gray wolves earned frequent mentions in their journals, and were often described by the explorers as large and great in number. Later hunted to near extinction for sport and profit, the species was reintroduced to Idaho only 17 years ago.

This is a state for people who want to vacation outdoors, and backcountry camps are ideal bases for trail rides, day hikes or excursions to hunt elk, bighorn sheep, black bear and even mountain lion. Serious anglers and hunters will want to venture into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the second-largest such protected area in the lower 48 states.

The nearby Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is another good bet for its sheer lack of civilization. It also beats the Grand Canyon by almost 2,000 feet to claim the title of North America’s deepest gorge. Accessible by small aircraft or jet boat, riverside lodging at places like Copper Creek Lodge, Heller Bar Lodge, Shepp Ranch and Mackay Bar Guest Ranch offer amenities like hot tubs and catered meals in a backcountry setting–just the thing after a long day spent battling wits with Mother Nature. For unspoiled scenery, privacy and tranquility, few locations top these retreats.

Rustic luxury doesn’t have to mean a journey deep into the wilderness, however. Ninety miles by car from Lewiston on the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, River Dance Lodge rents resort-style cabins as well as lavish campsites while west of the Memorial Bridge in the city proper, a handful of comfortable hotels cling to Main Street, affording views of the river and the towering bluffs on the opposite bank. That said, room service and indoor pools aren’t the only reason to linger at the confluence of the Snake and the Clearwater.

Golfing makes for another good way to enjoy the state’s open spaces. Four 18-hole courses and a driving range lie on either side of the lower Snake River while closer to Riggins, Meadow Creek Golf Course, which is open from May through October, provides views of 8,400-foot Granite Mountain and its slightly shorter neighbor Brundage from its 6,696-yard, par 72 course. Clinics and lessons are available, as are a swimming pool and a tennis court. Wake up early enough, and it’s possible to fit two or even three outdoor activities into a single day.

In the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis gathered supplies for his expedition west. Along with salt, tobacco and a “portable soup” intended as an emergency ration, Lewis purchased wine, knowing he wouldn’t find any en route. Fortunately for the modern traveler, wine is no longer a scarcity in Idaho, least of all in the Lewis-Clark Valley. In fact, a French immigrant planted one of the first Pacific Northwest vineyards here in 1872, giving rise to a small industry that withered after the passage of the 18th Amendment. Grape-growing returned to the state in the 1970s, and today, four boutique ­wineries operate within about 30 miles of Lewiston.

“I guess you’d say we’re wine and grape-growing nerds,” Coco Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars told me. Since 2004 when they released their first vintage, Umiker and her husband Karl have expanded their business steadily. Content to remain relatively small and focused on the region, the Umikers go so far as to use local glass for their bottles, despite the fact that they pay more for it.

On the other side of the Snake River, Basalt Cellars quickly found success, too. Its 2004 merlot won best of class at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival, the oldest continuously running event of its kind in the Northwest. Three years later, its 2007 merlot, which also placed first at the Tri-Cities fest, earned a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

I tried and liked it but my favorite might have been the dessert wine, a ruby-colored, medium-bodied nectar with aromas of kirsch. Draining my glass, I headed to my hotel for the night. Something told me I would remember how to get back to north central Idaho–even without a map.

Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS (B+): Red Lion in Lewiston and the Best Western Salmon Rapids Lodge in Riggins rank among the best large hotels. To be closer to the wilderness, consider River Dance Lodge on the Clearwater River or Shepp Ranch on the Salmon River, both of which offer excellent accommodations.

FOOD (A-): Restaurants in the Lewis-Clark Valley, even those that are relatively upscale, tend to be casual, with the best places concentrating on American fare. For steak, seafood and wine from Basalt Cellars or Colter’s Creek, try Macullen’s on Main Street in Lewiston. Tomato Brothers on Bridge Street in Clarkston is the place to go for pasta, thin-crust pizza and Riverport Brewing beers on tap. Don’t look for white tablecloths in Riggins, but don’t expect any shortage of first-rate meals, either. Dine on elk tacos or a bison burger at Shelly’s Back Eddy Grill, and then start the next day with a homemade pastry and a latte or a cappuccino from Two Rivers Coffee and Creamery just down Main Street.

ACTIVITIES (A+): In north central Idaho, outdoor enthusiasts have it all: fishing, hunting, hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. And for those who’d rather not go it alone, dozens of guide services and outfitters help visitors get onto the water or into the mountains. Remember to bring sunscreen, bug spray and a jacket for the water or higher altitudes because there’s no such thing as a quick trip to the hotel to grab the one thing you forgot to pack.

QUIETUDE (A+): Noisy jet-boat rides notwithstanding, there’s simply no beating the serenity to be found in this region.

Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: North central Idaho, where you’ll find abundant wildlife, crystal-clear high mountain lakes and postcard-worthy panoramas. The area includes the Lewis-Clark Valley, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Nez Perce National Historic Park and Riggins, the state’s small but spirited whitewater capital.

CLIMATE: Lots of sun, low humidity and mild winters allow visitors to golf year round, fish well into November and spend more time exploring the state by foot, boat, bike or horseback. Temperatures in July and August can approach 90 degrees but average in the low 70s. Late spring and early fall temperatures hover reliably in the 60s and in winter they only occasionally dip below freezing.

GETTING THERE: The Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport at approximately 1,400 feet above sea level is the ideal gateway to the region with two runways, the longest of which is 6,511 feet. Other options in the area include the Pullman/Moscow Regional Airport and McCall Municipal Airport.

“Real People” Culture

Gold mining brought many of the first settlers to north central Idaho in the 1850s and ’60s, setting off nearly two decades of increasingly tense relations with the native Shoshone, Kootenai and Nez Perce. Wishing to avoid conflict, the Nez Perce, who call themselves Nimi’ipuu (“real people”), signed an 1855 treaty that would turn much of their ancestral territory into seven million acres of reservation. The peace was short-lived, however, as prospectors encroached on tribal lands and forced the creation of a treaty that resulted in a reservation one-tenth the size of the original.

Disillusioned and angry, several Nez Perce leaders refused to move, and the U.S. military sent troops to pressure so-called “non-treaty” bands onto the smaller reservation. This ignited a war in 1877. After skirmishing with soldiers across Idaho and Montana, the non-treaty bands eventually surrendered.

Today, many of the places most significant to Nimi’ipuu culture and the brief war are part of Nez Perce National Historic Park, a collection of 38 sites concentrated in north central Idaho. To learn more about the people who first called Idaho home, stop at the Visitor Center in Spalding, a short drive from Lewiston’s regional airport.

Before entering the museum, pause to admire the Clearwater River, a nearly 75-mile ribbon of water that Lewis and Clark navigated in dugout canoes. After days of hard travel and lean meals of soup and horsemeat, their Corps of Discovery was happy to find the Clearwater when they did, for the river contained–as it still does–an abundance of fish, salmon in particular.