On our way east, Ruth & I encountered a road closure due to forest fires that were near enough to Idaho Highway 21 to present danger. We altered our itinerary for the 2nd time and explored 21 on our return; and, like many journey changes, we ended up driving 3 gorgeous highways instead of 1 over most of a day with chances to wallow in nostalgia and see wildlife.
Our delayed day began in Montana slightly southwest of Butte when we turned right on Highway 43. This is ranch country thanks to the Big Hole Valley and Big Hole River, which the road follows. An increasingly rare occurrence, Ruth & I were in virtually the only car on this road for miles and miles. Partially because we were just south of the Continental Divide, there were hazy mountains often in the distance. Just before our ascent to the Idaho border, we passed the Big Hole National Battlefield. Here, Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph took on the U.S. Army in the Nez Perce War in 1877. Both sides sustained casualties, but Chief Joseph lost more men. Ruth & I enjoyed our time in the Beaverhead National Forest, which had mostly healthy trees to admire for many miles–no beetles, no fires.
After 89 Montana miles, we saw a welcome-to-Idaho sign and turned left on old U.S. Highway 93. Soon we were following the Salmon River. We had done this before and loved the area. Salmon, Idaho, a town of about 3,000, still appears to be prospering. The Sacajawea Interpretive…Center is here because she was born nearby. The big tourist activity, however, is river trips involving fishing, rafting, swirling, etc. One Coloradoan on TripAdvisor raved, “Best Vacation Ever!!!!” I understood. Ruth & I were glad to see that the River Cinemas theater survives. We looked for McDonald’s and learned that it has not yet come to town. “There’s a Burger King,” a local told us, half apologetically.
Highway 93 continued until the tiny town of Stanley. The Salmon west of here was known as The River of No Return due to steep canyons and a no-way-back stretch for 200 miles. Just before the town of Challis we saw Big Horn mountain sheep on the road. We stopped in Challis, the largest community for miles, and talked to a woman at the Bureau of Land Management field office. She confirmed the animals’ identities but told us that they were more common on the roads in spring and fall. Challis was shaken by a 6.9 earthquake, the largest in Idaho history, in 1983.
There were still forest fires along Highway 21 and we saw lots of smoke and a helicopter. However, the road was now opened and scenic all the way to Boise. Its best attraction was Idaho City. Once a thriving mining town with 4 breweries and 41 saloons, Idaho City reportedly produced more gold than the State of Alaska, enough to help the Union win the Civil War.
All 3 of these roads are correctly designated scenic by Rand McNally.