Trans-America trail trip report: part 7 (Idaho)
I'm back with another installment of my 2017 Trans-America Trail (TAT) trip report blog. This one is all about Idaho.
Just to retrace a little, after starting the TAT in Andrews, North Carolina, it takes - for a vehicle - around 16 days of solid driving to arrive in Idaho. The TAT traverses the southern part of the state and can really be divided into 4 sections: the Pocatello; Craters of the Moon; and the Sawtooth crossing, with two parts, the first to Ketchum / Sun Valley, and the second through the western Sawtooths out to the Oregon border.
Because I'm focused on photography opportunities along the trail, I just love Idaho. The good stuff starts quite literally right on the Utah state line (not to say that northern Utah is not good too, but the real old farm action starts at the border). The photo below is on the Idaho side of the line. The Pocatello Valley itself is this little oasis with Interstates running south and east of it. It is still actively farmed and some houses look as though they're used in the summer, but when I was there in December 2017, I didn't see any house lights around the whole valley. What makes it so good for photographers is that many of the farms still have the old buildings standing, making for a stunning combination with the mountains and big skies.
I'm not giving coordinates for all the specific sites (a sampler below) as you can see across the valley and roads are laid out in blocks, making it easy to explore and find interesting locations for shooting in different light.
Pocatello valley farmstead (monochrome)A retro treatment for an abandoned farmhouse on the Trans-America Trail, Pocatello Valley, Idaho, 19 December 2017 If you're a photographer, I'd recommend diverting the short distance over to Malad City for the night so that you can get an afternoon shoot in the Pocatello Valley and then another one in the Arbon Valley the next morning. There's a good, clean, cheap hotel right up by the Interstate, a nice restaurant just down the side road by the hotel, and gas and a Burger King if you roll in later in the evening. This is a pretty easy day's drive from Bonneville Salt Flats.
At the south end of the Pocatello Valley, the TAT goes right past a couple of classic old abandoned farmsteads, then up a back road that brings you right to the Arbon Valley. If you go the other direction, east to Malad City, you pass one more old falling farm on the way.
If you head straight through without photography stops, you can make it all the way to the entrance to Craters of the Moon on pavement or generally good gravel roads. Heading east-west on the TAT, I did a long day from Wendover to get to Craters of the Moon. I'd intended to get a hotel in American Falls but the ones I saw were disgusting, so I just set up camp at the start of the National Monument (picture a little lower down).
The Arbon Valley, the next north from the Pocatello also has great old farmhouses right along the TAT. The TAT itself takes some side roads that are really bumpy for a little. There are numerous gravel roads running south-north in the valley parallel to the TAT. Again, the valley is narrow enough you can see things in the distance and divert to farmhouses as you feel. There's a classic leaning house (below, 1 shot in summer, 1 in winter) that is right on the country highway. Allow yourself at least 50 minutes to get here from Malad City and time it to arrive before dawn. Drive the highway, not the TAT route, as the TAT will take twice that at least as it just runs over cobbly roads and mud holes. After a few shots here, you can then go down a few miles and hang a right to a group of old buildings on the side hill. This spot gives great morning views down over the valley and looking up towards the mountains (photo above). There's also a bunch of other nice buildings in the area, an old shot up truck, and some abandoned gas pumps, and a cool two story barn.
The drive up to, and past, American Falls is quick once you leave the Arbon, then it's wide, flat gravel country roads to the start of Craters of the Moon. There's reasonable camping possibilities right at the entrance (below, N42.908 W 113.126) or if you come through here before dark, you can also do the first part of the road out and camp at the old Crystal Ice Cave side road (second below, N 42.951 W 113.215).
I had been quite anxious about Craters of the Moon as I knew it was very remote and not a place you would want to get towed out of. When I started into the area in the morning, I drove pretty cautiously around mud holes but as the day wore on, I had great fun just plowing through the middle of them. It hadn't rained for several days so the mud wasn't too bad, but this section could be a real mess in a rainstorm. Below: coffee break at the intersection with the Minidoka-Arco Road, near the Bear Trap Cave (only half way through the mud for the day!).
Coffee break, Craters of the MoonHalf way through the Craters of the Moon mudfest, I decided it was time for a coffee break. Espresso was brewing on the rear table, way out in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, 16 June 2017 The next section of the trail is among some of the remotest territory on the entire TAT. At a few points, the road gets pretty faint and there are some potentially serious mud holes along the way. Eventually you come to a backcountry air strip near Cox's Well and then the road gets progressively better for the rest of the way till you hit pavement again near Arco.
Once up to Arco for gassing up and picking up supplies, I headed up (on June 16) towards Antelope Canyon, the first of the higher passes in the Sawtooth Mountains. There's a good camping site at the Antelope Guard Station and also decent camping possibilities up to the pass. The photo below was taken on my TAT Backwards trip in mid-July. This area was packed in June when I went through - fishing season was open - but completely deserted when I came back through in July.
When I was heading east in mid-June and started up this road, it quickly turned into a creek. Some Chevy pickup truck was up ahead of me and had done a creek crossing so I figured all was fine, and passed him and continued up. Eventually I had to turn around well short of the pass due to a combination of snow and severely washed out roads. I talked to some ATVers coming down from the pass, but I was the only truck it looked like that had even made it that far up the road in 2017. I later heard Antelope Pass had opened about 5 days later.
While I was up farther messing around, it had started to rain and when I was coming back down what had been a stream was now a river! I definitely had some anxious moments going through some bits were one side of the road was largely gone (video link below). It was already getting dark and I ended up having to divert all the way out to Boise as other parts of the TAT were also flooded or under snow cover still.
Antelope Pass washoutWhen I was on the Trans=America Trail east to west in May/June 2017, I encountered a lot of snow and numerous closed passes (one Oregon pass was still blocked by snow in mid-June). The entire Sawtooth range in Idaho ended up being closed (I came back in July on my TAT backwards trip and got through most areas closed on the trip west). I tried to get up Antelope Pass but it was hopelessly blocked higher up. It was warm with heavy snow melt and was raining heavily, so when I reversed my earlier course conditions were actually significantly worse only 90 minutes later. This clip was taken while coming down through the washout, 16 June 2017.
Coming back the opposite direction, I had really wanted to do the entire Sawtooth crossing but it turned out that a couple of sections were still closed as the floods from the storm and meltwater on June 16, when I was trying to navigate Antelope Pass, had washed out some bridges and caused mudslides. I did manage to do the Ketchum to Antelope Pass route fine (pictures below).
Below: road in the Copper Basin, heading east towards Antelope Pass on the TAT Backwards trip.
Below: looking down the valley from the top of Antelope Pass in July. In June, I was turned around by snow and flooding well down in the valley where the forest is. East from Cinnamon PassThis was the section of road I could not get past on the trip West on the Trans-America Trail. Without snow and floods, it is narrow but easy. Cinnamon Pass, Idaho, 15 July 2017.
In June, I headed out from Boise to re-connect with the TAT on its way up to Idaho City. In July, I came the other way from Horseshoe Bend (after having come down from Grangeville via McCall) and camped at a great spot along the Boise River. My camping spot was at N 43.662 W 115.727, but there are all sorts of campsites along the river and in the forests throughout the region.
Heading east in July, I tried to work around the washouts but had to divert out to the main highway to the south a couple of times. Eventually at Dollarhide Summit, where one can look down into the valley and see the Ketchum / Sun Valley area, there was a gate up. I tried to head down anyway but turned around after seeing the only tracks were made by mountain bikes. Later I heard there was a major bridge washout prior to reaching Ketchum, so that sounds like something for TAT 2018 drivers to check out. This whole area is really pleasant with a nice mix of forests and riverside driving.
Back to east-west, you hit pavement for a little ways heading up to Idaho City, then it is back to gravel for the drive to Placeville and down the great twisty road from Harris Creek Summit towards Horseshoe Bend. Placerville is just off the TAT and definitely worth a stop. There's a couple of stores and small museums, a nice old pioneer cemetery, and a bad-ass fire truck. This town has residents year round and the woman at the general store was telling me they had 12 ft of snow on the ground the winter of 2016-17.
I lost a son as an infant - I sometimes don't know why I persist in visiting cemeteries so much, but this one was an especially tough one to see. It must have been such a hard life up here between work, weather, and a lack of medical help.
Once down out of the Sawtooths to Horseshoe Bend, there's a couple of nice little restaurants and coffee places (and a garage on the left that did some welcome tire valve repairs in 104 degree heat in July for only $5). Just downriver from Horseshoe Bend there's a major bridge out, so even in 2018 the TAT will probably require a minor diversion out and around on the highway to Montour. From there, it's a mix of easy farm roads and some pavement through the Payette are until you come to the Oregon border.
In good conditions, allow two full days to do the drive across the Idaho section of the TAT. That brings the total up to about 18 days. As much as I loved doing Craters of the Moon twice by myself, I would not head out there alone if it was raining or had recently rained hard. There's very little to use to winch out on, so getting stuck could be really expensive!
Keywords: backroads, idaho, overland, overland photography, photo locations, photography locations, rural america, rural usa, trans-america trail, trans-american trail
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