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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Idaho Vacation: Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway

Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway Sign
 Scenic byways don't have to be long to be memorable.  Such is the case for the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway, a great option for a quick Idaho vacation.  This scenic byway is one of 27 scenic, historic and back country byways scattered throughout Idaho.

This short 33 mile byway follows the South Fork of the Payette River on the Banks-Lowman road.  Access is at either Banks (US-55) or at Lowman (ID-21).  At Banks, the South Fork of the Payette and the North Fork of the Payette come together creating a major waterway often topping 8,000 cubic feet/second during spring runoff. 

Floater With Pontoon Boat in Staircase Rapids
 A popular loop drive from Boise follows US-55 north through Horseshoe Bend along the south half of the Payette River Scenic Byway to Bend. Turn east and travel along the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway to Lowman.  Turn south on ID-21 and go through Idaho City along the south half of the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway and back to Boise.  Depending on the number of stops, this loop can be made in 1/2 day.  Of course, the loop can be traveled in either direction. 

Rafters Enjoying South Fork Payette
River Whitewater

Banks is a center for whitewater sports.  The greatest flows but tamest waters of the Payette are from Banks south to Horseshoe Bend.   Portions of the North Fork are not run commercially due to the violent nature of the river.  Above Smiths Ferry is popular for day trips.  Perhaps the most sought after river runs are found on the South Fork, the route of our scenic byway. 

Kayak in South Fork Payette
River Whitewater

There are many companies that provide guided trips on the Payette (see contacts below).  Excursions are varied from relatively short and tame all the way to multi-day trips with class IV and V rapids.  Some trips require portage around the largest waterfalls.  Regardless of skill level, a trip is available to fit your time schedule and ability level.  Many of these companies give lessons and sell whitewater equipment. 

There are several turnouts to allow viewing of floaters as they make their way down river.  One of the most popular is the turnout at Staircase Rapids.  Here one can view a relatively long stretch of river as floaters make their way through class IV rapids.  It is exciting even if you are only on the river bank.

Whitewater Action on the South
Fork of Payette River

About seven miles east of Banks, the canyon view opens to wide meadows where the Middle Fork joins the South Fork of the Payette.  One mile north of this junction is the small town of Crouch.  Crouch is mostly a supply town for the few year-round residents and the many summer visitors.  A number of Forest Service campgrounds are located along the Middle Fork and other tributaries.  A special treat is the Starlight Mountain Theater, an outdoor theater, performing professional Broadway shows.  Click here for information about the theater schedule, prices, dinner shows, etc.

Another mile or so east of the Crouch junction is the small town of Garden Valley.  Gas and limited groceries are available here.  Just east of Garden Valley is a Forest Service Ranger Station, another source of information  about the area. 

There are numerous hot springs in this area and continuing east along the highway and river.  Between Garden Valley and Lowman the highway goes past the Danskin wildlife viewing area.  During the winter and  spring large herds of elk use this area for their winter range.  Two pullouts with viewing telescopes have been installed for viewing the numerous elk, deer, chukars, wild turkeys, eagles, osprey, and other wildlife. 

South Fork of Payette River Viewed From Highway Overlook
 Past Danskin, the highway gains elevation to traverse the steep and rugged canyon.  The views for the next several miles are some of the most awe inspiring canyon views in the entire state.  The highway hugs high canyon walls while the river rumbles below.  There are several pullouts that have beautiful panoramic views of the river and waterfalls. 

Continuing east, the roadway drops in elevation and is at river level before reaching Lowman, the eastern terminus of this beautiful scenic byway.  The road is open all year but may be snow covered during winter months.  There is much to see and do along the 33 mile stretch of this beautiful byway.  Hot Springs and Pine Flats campgrounds are just off the highway near the Lowman end.  The highway joins ID-21 at Lowman and one can either return to Boise through Idaho City or continue east and north to Stanley and the Stanley Basin. 

Contact and Information sources (not complete):
Boise National Forest Garden Valley Ranger Station 208-462-3241 or the Boise National Forest,
1249 S. Vinnell Way, Suite 200, Boise, ID 83709, (208) 373-4100, or email contact at:
Garden Valley Chamber of Commerce: 208-462-5003, or email
Bear Valley River Co. - 208-793-2272 or 1-800-235-2327, or email
Cascade Raft and Kyak - 208-793-2221 or 1-800-292-7238,
Payette River Company - 208-259-3702(summer) 208-726-8467(winter), or email
Idaho Whitewater Unlimited - 208-462-1900 or 1-800-800-RAFT,, or email
Riverroots, LLC - 208-850-7637,, or email

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