May 31, 2012

Rivers, Canyons and Fossils

Idaho has more whitewater river miles than any other state in the continental U.S.  On Tuesday, we experienced the Snake River in Hells Canyon.  Yesterday, we followed the Salmon and Payette Rivers, although we just appreciated views of the rivers from the highway and countless overlooks.

The Salmon River is the legendary “River of No Return,” and we followed a portion of the river from White Bird to Riggins, Idaho’s whitewater capital.  Highway 95 parallels this mighty river, and we witnessed how its power had carved the beautiful Salmon River Canyon through the mountains.  On the way we passed back into Mountain Time Zone, one more indication that we’re nearing the end of our trip.

The Salmon River Is Peaceful Here
The Salmon River Cut this Canyon
A bit farther south we turned onto the Payette River Scenic Byway.  The Payette River seemed to be even wilder than the section of the Salmon we had been following.  We watched the river crashing and tumbling its way over rocks through the narrow river valley.  Often the river was a wild torrent, while in other places it was barely a ripple.

Payette River Whitewater
McCall was our destination for lunch.  This quaint resort mountain town sits on Payette Lake and is a popular place for both summer and winter recreation.  We soon climbed into tall tree country and ascended into high mountain valleys.  Snowcapped peaks provided a dramatic backdrop for much of the day.

Payette Lake
High Mountain Valleys
Snow Lingers on the Mountains
We arrived in Boise, Idaho’s capital, and drove through the downtown area where we saw the capitol building.  Our favorite stop, however was a local co-op, where we picked out local cheeses, wine and produce.  The prepared foods were too tempting to resist.  We will eat well for the next few days.

When we stopped for the evening, I uncorked a bottle of a local red wine from the Snake River Valley called Chicken Dinner.  I just loved the name, but the wine also turned out to be very good.  It was a nice way to end a lovely day.

The Snake River cuts its way through much of south central Idaho, and the river was our constant companion for much of today.  The high desert plateau which we passed through is now a rich agricultural region, thanks to irrigation provided by the Snake River.

The Snake River Winds Its Way Through South Central Idaho
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument also owes its existence to the Snake River and what was found in the bluffs that form the river canyon.  The monument protects the world’s richest known fossil deposits of the late Pliocene Epoch, about 3.5 million years ago.  Hagerman also contains the largest concentration of fossilized horses in North America and is most famous for the Hagerman Horse, Idaho’s state fossil.

The Hagerman Horse
Although it is not possible to view fossils on a trail, we were able to get a closer look at the sedimentary layers in the bluffs, which are approximately 600 feet high.  Each layer in the formation represents a different geologic event.  The views down to the Snake River were beautiful.

Snake River Overlook
Sedimentary Layers in the Bluffs
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is also one of only four national park units that contain segments of the Oregon Trail.  From an overlook, we could clearly see the trail ruts.  These ruts are not two parallel ruts carved into hard rock.  Here, the ruts are U-shaped because the feet of the oxen dug more deeply into the soft soil.  The trail ruts most closely resemble parallel swales in the landscape.  By the time the emigrants reached this area, they had already walked 1,300 miles.  They usually arrived here in July, and the temperature often reached 100 degrees.  The Oregon Trail seemed much more real when I could look at the actual ruts made by so many thousands of wagons.

Oregon Trail Ruts Are Visible Between the Two Poles
This Is the Landscape that the Oregon Trail Emigrants Traversed
The Snake River had one more surprise for us, called the Thousand Springs.  Just south of Hagerman, we could see natural springs cascading down the walls of the Snake River Canyon.  These springs are not waterfalls, but instead flow naturally from the underground aquifer of the Snake River Plain.  

Thousand Springs
As we passed into the city of Twin Falls, we were delighted to find diesel under $4.00 per gallon.  We haven’t seen fuel prices this low since we left Austin, Texas, in March.  We crossed the Snake River once more in Twin Falls and wondered what might have possessed Evil Knievel in 1974to attempt to jump this canyon.

Who Would Try to Jump the Snake River Canyon?


  1. I had the same reaction when I first saw the Oregon trail too Sarah. A piece of history and how in the world did they do it?? Makes you feel connected in some way. LV

    1. LV, I've been to quite a few landmarks along the Oregon Trail, as well as individual trail segments, and I still get the same feeling each time. I am in awe of what the emigrants were willing to endure. How brave they were. Sarah

  2. There is parts of the Oregon Train north of Fort Morgan. Chuck will have to show it to you some time. You are getting closer to home and it just seems like you started out. Love A

    1. A, I never realized there was a section of the Oregon Trail near Fort Morgan. I'd love to see it. Can you believe we will be home in just over a week? Tim and I were talking about it just last night, and it's amazing how quickly time has passed. Nine months seemed like such a long time when we started, but it's gone by so fast. Sarah

  3. If you travel along the trail you used to be able to see items the peoPle decided to stop carting. It isveryinteresting

    1. That would be such an interesting thing to see. It must have been hard for the emigrants to have to discard things that they cared about. Sarah