Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Standing in Idaho City's dirt-lined, deserted Main Street, it's tough to imagine how it was 140 years ago. With more people than Portland and over 250 thriving businesses, it was a bawdy, lusty town where whisky was cheaper than water - and life cheaper still. Why did more than 12,000 (mostly) men rush to this nascent - and very temporary - metropolis? The same lure that drew thousands to Alaska and the Yukon. Up in them thar hills, in 1862, prospectors discovered gold...

By 1865 most of the gold in the Boise Basin was gone, as was much of Idaho City. A comprehensive fire leveled the town and the prospectors moved on. But in that short time, more gold was pan-ned than in the Alaska Gold Rush - over $ 250,000,000 worth. Now the city's just a tourist stop on Idaho's Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway.

Boise to Boise or bust
The Byway, Highway 21, is the first leg of our tour of Southern Idaho, and rises into the Sawtooth Range from Boise. When French-born Captain Benjamin Bonneville of the US Army arrived at the site of Idaho's modern-day capital, he is said to have named it la rivière boisé, or the wooded river. Boise is still known as the City of Trees; and a river, the Boise, still runs through it.

The first section of the Byway to Lowman is a narrow winding two-lane that swings through a succession of small communities, these becoming fewer as the road climbs. The afternoon sun throws short, severe pine-tree shadows onto the tarmac as we climb into the mountains, making it trickier to judge a clean line through each bend. The surface has suffered frost heaves and the ravages of snowplows; narrow cracks and potholes are repaired hastily with tar stripes. Our wheels follow ruts and slide on the tar.

In July 1989, lightning strikes ignited a fire that devastated the pine forest. When the smoke cleared, more than 46,000 acres of the Boise National Forest had burned. At Lowman, the road widens, and, though less curvy, the surface is in much better repair. We pass Kirkham Hot Springs, one of more than 200 in Idaho and swing quickly along the achingly pretty Payette River (named for Francois Payette who ran the Fort Boise trading post in the 1840s). The Payette eventually joins the Salmon River, a tributary of the Snake, which in turn feeds into the Columbia. But we're following the Payette's south fork upstream, high into its source in the Sawtooth Range. Twenty-one eventually drifts away from the Payette and the climb begins in earnest. The first pass on the road is Banner Summit at 7,000 ft.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2003 back issue.