Backcountry Byways 

Getting out in it without getting out of the car

In this sea of automobile roof racks called Boise, I sometimes think that we (that is to say, you) have forgotten the value of a good accessory-less drive. Gas prices and "bike guilt" have all but killed most drivers' drive to drive, but Idaho nonetheless remains a great steering state. Twenty nationally designated "Scenic Byways" crisscross like ant trails across the state and three of them, "Backcountry Byways," can provide instant sedan access to the most remote and scenic areas which Outdoor Idaho ever shamed its watchers for not knowing about. Here is a guide to those three, any of which can be used as a jumping off point to another activity, for a picnic or just to add to one's list of "exotic outdoor locales in which I have peed."

1. Owyhee Uplands Byway

Idaho's longest Backcountry Byway is also its most desolate and geographically varied. The Owyhee Uplands Byway cuts 103 miles across Idaho's dark southwestern corner before ending up in the remote truck-stop town of Jordan Valley, Oregon. While spectacular rock formations and canyons are the generally acknowledged eye candy of Owyhee County, the area spanned by this full-day drive is more lush high altitude desert than gorge gala.

Starting out at a well-marked Highway 78 turnout just east of Grandview, accessible either via Mountain Home or south of Nampa, the Byway runs due south through a chapped wasteland before slicing westward along the backside of the Owyhee Range. Meadows of ancient juniper, gnarled greasewood and blond aspen lining the route may seem surprisingly fertile given the area's reputation of aridity, but jutting side-roads provide quick four-wheel-drive access to Owyhee County's more famous features—creepy abandoned mining camps to the north and picturesque river country to the south. The Byway itself is two-wheel drive friendly, but check weather forecasts before forging a station-wagon train across this isolated region. Owyhee mud can massacre a group of neo-pioneers in matter of inches—and remember: Gas up in Grandview lest evil befall you!

2. City of Rocks

The newest addition to Idaho's Backcountry Byway collection makes a tight belt around 10,339 foot Mount Independence from tiny Albion (pop. 262) to tinier Elba and Almo (pop. indeterminate) before ending in 668-person megalopolis Oakley. The stunning "hoodoos" in the City of Rocks National Reserve are the road's obvious attraction, as these gnarled granite spires provide some of Idaho's best rock climbing and scenic hiking—aside from their geological significance as some of the oldest (2.5 billion years in some areas) rock in North America.

The towns of Albion and Oakley, while only "backcountry" in the most metropolitan definitions of the word, also provide plenty of eye candy to amateur road-tripping historians.

The abandoned—but eerily well-mowed—campus of the Albion State Normal School, for example, lurks like Albertson College's undead cousin in downtown Albion. The school operated from 1896 to 1951 as Idaho's premiere teacher-training facility, but today its boarded up windows and derelict towers only inform south-central Idaho's adolescent ghost tales. The city of Albion is currently battling to gain funding for restoration and historical recognition of the beautiful facility, but curious summer drivers should schlep over before the Normal School loses its scare appeal.

Even Albion, though, is no match for the potato field-encased time capsule of Oakley. Perched at the tail end of the Byway, Oakley carries an honor unique even among Idaho's history-rich villages: the entire town, over 100 buildings, is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The unique quartzite known as "Oakley Stone" comprises most buildings while turn-of-the-century wood forms others—in either case the preservation is unparalleled. Yes, Oakley and Albion are both quietly creepy in that indefinable tiny-fundamentalist-town-in-the-desert kind of way, but both are must sees for any Boiseans who are burned out on prefab. Oakley holds its annual historic home tour on Saturday, June 19; go to the town's Web site at www.xeba.com/oakley for details.

3. Lewis and Clark Byway

On the way from Boise to Tendoy, the 187-person blip on State Highway 28 that beckons the start of the Lewis and Clark National Backcountry Byway, asphalt explorers pass through four mountain ranges and utilize at least two other scenic byways. Factor in the abundance of hot springs, historical spots and small-town coffee shops in the area around the byway itself and this could very well be Idaho's ultimate day trip. Located 20 miles south of Salmon on the cusp of Idaho's section of the Continental Divide, the 39-mile Lewis and Clark loop is named for its proximity to Lemhi Pass, the route by which the explorers passed through the range and thus from Atlantic Ocean watersheds (like the Missouri River) to Pacific (like the Columbia). The party accomplished this feat in 1805, but the high altitude meadows and hillsides around the Byway have hardly changed in the 199 years since. The forest roads making up the bulk of the Byway are well-maintained gravel passable by sedan, but be wary of muddy ruts in early summer. They could dampen the spirits of an exploratory crew faster than a bad batch of prairie dog bacon (check the L and C journals—it's in there!)

For more information or maps of any of Idaho's designated byways, go to www.byways.org or www.id.blm.gov.

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