Thursday, July 9, 2009

Next time, pull off the highway

GILMORE – You’ve done it a dozen times – driven up the spectacular Idaho Highway 28 on the way to Salmon or elsewhere and seen the signs to this or that historical site and said to yourself, “I’m going to go see that some day.”

For heaven’s sake, next time, stop. You will not be sorry.

To illustrate, here’s a whole story about just two of those side trips within a few miles of each other, highlighted by one of the most beautiful mountain lakes on the planet.

Sidetrip No. 1: The charcoal kilns.

Admit it – you have assumed, as I did, that the charcoal kilns are essentially the size of the backyard grill and not worth taking the time to see. Wrong. Very, very wrong.

They stand 20 feet tall and are 20 feet in circumference. Can you fit that on your patio?

Back in 1885 there was a silver mine on the north side of the valley that required a smelter, and the smelter required charcoal. So, the enterprising folks of Nicholia, the 1,500-person town founded to mine the silver, built 16 of these beehive-shaped kilns on the other side of the valley and set about making charcoal. It took about 35 cords of wood to generate 1,500 bushels of charcoal, which was then hauled to the smelter.

Today, four kilns remain. They were restored in 2000 but remain clearly fragile (they are, after all, nearly 125 years old). The site includes a self-guided tour and photographs don’t do it justice. You need to see these charcoal makers.

Sidetrip No. 2: Gilmore and Meadow Lake.

Gilmore, a ghost town since its abandonment in 1929, is an odd place. Half of the site is open, with welcoming signs put up by the state explaining the history of the site, while the other half is privately owned with many No Trespassing signs making the message clear – you’re not welcome here. All that aside, it’s a fascinating stop, particularly for history buffs.

If you’re not a history buff, stop for a minute or two at Gilmore and then continue up the gravel road five miles into the mountains to Meadow Lake. Set at the base of a spectacular mountain cirque, this alpine lake is 9,160 feet above sea level, yet the surrounding peaks are 1,600 feet higher still. There is a beautiful campground, complete with hosts, along the lake’s edge. On the day of our visit, there was one camper.

And speaking of photos not doing justice to something, Meadow Lake really can’t be captured with a camera. So, skip Gilmore if you must, but pull off off Highway 28 and spend some time at Meadow Lake. The road is steep but easily navigable by passenger car.

OK, now drive on to where you were headed.

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