Sunday, July 12, 2009

Yankee Fork or bust

Originally published in the Post Register.
The Custer Motorway sounds like some kind of Idaho autobahn. It's not.

It's a 45-mile gravel and dirt road between Sunbeam east of Stanley and Challis that includes a section easily navigable by two-wheel drive and a steeper section that is made easier with four-wheel drive. Two of the drive's most interesting stops -- the Yankee Fork gold dredge and the Custer townsite -- are an easy drive for any passenger car.

A visit to the Yankee Fork area must start with a stop at the Land of the Yankee Fork Interpretive Center at the junction of U.S. Highway 93 and state Highway 75 just south of Challis, 150 miles from Idaho Falls. You'll get a good feel for the area and its history, plus you can pick up maps, self-guided tour brochures and general information. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all year, except the period between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.

From there, head up Highway 75 for a scenic hour's drive along the Salmon River some 44 miles to Sunbeam, the site of the only dam on the Salmon River (now breached). At Sunbeam, turn north onto the Custer Motorway, which starts out as a wide, graded gravel road.

As you travel toward Custer, you'll see piles of rock and gravel on either side of the road. These are the tailings from the Yankee Fork gold dredge, which will be your next stop about eight miles from the highway.

The dredge looks a little like a large, ungainly boat stretching 54 feet wide and 112 feet long. It operated from 1940 to 1953, except during the height of World War II. Its operators lost money on the project, spending a little more than a million dollars to scoop about a million dollars' worth of gold and silver out of the creek. Since you picked up interpretive information back in Challis, you'll have all the information you need to get the most of your stop.

Just up the road is the ghost town of Custer, which includes a number of restored buildings. You'll have more material from the Challis interpretive center to help you learn about the Custer townsite, which was a thriving gold mining town from 1870 to 1911.

If you're feeling particularly adventuresome, continue heading up the Custer Motorway at this point instead of turning around and reconnecting with the state highway (assuming the first early high-country snows haven't already closed the pass). The road is usually open between early June and early October, but inquire in Challis before going.

The road between Custer and Challis travels through beautiful high-mountain meadows and forests and is passable for most passenger cars, if you're patient and don't ride too low. Four-wheel drive is better, if only for the clearance. This is the route of the former Bonanza-to-Custer toll road (Bonanza is between Custer and Sunbeam).

The drive from Custer to Challis on the Motorway is about 30 miles and will take 90 minutes or more, depending on stops. Along the way, keep an eye out for interpretive signs explaining what remains of former stage stops and other historical sites.

The Motorway ends on Challis' Main Street, which connects with U.S. Highway 93 and your route home.

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