We had been through the heat and it was time to get high as Jessica and I follow the Salmon River to gaze upon the mighty China Wall.
Highway 75 along the Salmon River appeared to be a road biker’s paradise — good pavement, 35 MPH curves and beautiful scenery. All the obligatory waving to fellow riders meant I hardly ever had both hands on the bars. We passed bike after bike.
Our late start at untold miles limited the number of diversions we could pursue. But structures and a sizable parking lot thirteen miles from Stanley demanded investigation. I clamped down on the brakes and veered off the highway to park.
A decoratively fenced path overlooks an amorphous mound of cement that seems to have been dumped in the river. Jessica learned from the sheltered signage that this was no cement truck accident but the remains of a dam constructed a century ago by the Sunbeam Consolidated Gold Mines Company to provide power to their nearby mill and mine.
“Construction of the dam and power plant began in June 1909 and was completed in May 1910. Three hundred tons of cement was used in building the dam, which was 80 feet long on the bottom, 95 feet long on top and 35 feet high. The turbine drove the generator, which produced 2300 volts of electricity, stepped up by a transformer to 23,000 volts for transmission over the power lines …
The Sunbeam’s mill and mine operated almost a year on electricity. However, the low cost of electric power still could not compensate for the low value of the Sunbeam’s ore, which sometimes ran as low as $2.00 per ton. The company could not meet its financial obligations. In April 1911, the Sunbeam property was sold at a sheriff’s auction to satisfy its creditors, and the mine and mill closed down.
The Sunbeam power plant was never used after 1911. Caretakers lived near the dam and maintained it for a number of years. After the death of Lou Cruthers, the last caretaker, the dam’s fish ladders fell into disrepair. Rather than build new fish ladders, the dam was partially blown up in 1933 or 1934 to allow the salmon to continue their run up the Salmon River.¹
Dirt walking paths led to other points of interest around the Sunbeam Dam but we contented ourselves with the view from above. We expected plenty of walking later.
We were back on the highway another twenty-four exhilarating miles before the GPS said to turn up the East Fork of the Salmon River.
Yellow signs every few miles reminded us we were on a “narrow winding road” and should therefore, apparently, speed up. The East Fork road is paved for about seventeen miles, permitting a brisk cruise past farms large and small.
The green valley skirting the river gives way to colored and contorted rocks, reminiscent of Leslie Gulch,¹ climbing to ridges above. Blue sheets of rain hung in the sky ahead, threatening our path to the mountains.
starThe top of one fencepost was digitally removed from the foreground
We turned from the meadows of the East Fork of the Salmon to climb a gravel road along the deeply cut Big Boulder Creek. I was optimistic for more technical riding but began to doubt the road’s potential when we passed an older lady driving a minivan.
Coming out of a curvaceous few miles, the road opened onto a meadow and what looked like a bunch of buildings and cars at the other end.
“Oh great,” I said with the minivan in mind, “now there’s a resort and casino!” It wasn’t seeming very rugged.
The scene became more peculiar as we drew closer. There were maybe fifteen or more vehicles parked neatly a hundred yards from the road but no sign of people anywhere. We realized the buildings were part of an old mining operation, equally vacant and abandoned.
“Suicide cult,” I suggested.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Jess answered, matching my sarcasm.
The regular road ended at Livingston. The jeep trail beyond was “not recommended for passenger vehicles,” or something to that effect. I could see tracks where even the minivan had turned around before the trail.
The tracks up had seen recent rain. It was a bit muddy in places and kind of rocky in others, but all-in-all, an easy, putt-putt ride upward to Railroad Ridge with roadside flowers and vegetation lit spectacularly by the late afternoon sun.
In dramatic contrast to the surrounding, bare-faced mountains, Railroad Ridge is green and rounded with a breathtaking carpet of unique flowers.
The White Cloud Peaks consist of extremely steep and rugged slopes that provide little opportunity for extensive alpine vegetation development. Railroad Ridge, however, is an exception with gently sloping terrain that supports some of the most unique and well-developed alpine plant communities in Idaho ... White Cloud Peaks are host to several extremely rare species, including several that have state or federal status as threatened, proposed, or candidate species.¹
After looking around at flowers and rocks, at the lake below and Chinese Wall above it, we were curious to follow the two-track that disappeared over the hill from where we stood. It turned out it didn’t go far, fading to nothing on a small saddle separating the valley containing Livingston mine from the lake on the other side.
From the snowy saddle, we rode to the opposite side of the ridge to see what lay in that direction. We had seen snow there too.
It was nearing 8:00 in the evening and we were feeling hungry. Other tracks would have to wait for another visit. Jessica hinted she might be unhappy if we couldn’t make it back in time to get dinner somewhere. You want to ride fast, you say?
Lightning cracked the ever darkening sky ahead as we glided along the Salmon River toward Stanley. We had been lucky to avoid rain so far and it appeared that luck was about to end. We pulled off at a wide spot and quickly pulled on our rain gear just as the patter of rain reached us. It rapidly grew in force until it bounced audibly off the plastic parts of the motorcycle.
From there, we had only fifteen minutes or so of still-warm riding. We’d been hours in cold rain before so it didn’t seem bad. We continued to chat through our intercoms as we resumed highway speeds. We were humored to see a group of Harley riders stopped at an unsheltered pull-out, apparently waiting out the rain by standing in the rain.
Rain ended and the road was dry not long thereafter as we neared Lower Stanley. We saw with relief the restaurant still open. Inside, we sat contentedly, facing out a window over the Salmon River, eating unhealthy entrées and drinking heart-warming beverages while the remaining light drained from the sky.
Although we were back to our room not long after 10:00, we fell into bed and quickly to sleep. It was a long day but in it we saw some of Idaho’s greatest landscape.