Idaho Canyonlands

A few months ago I read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner.  It was both a biography of John Wesley Powell and a history of Powell’s journey through the Colorado Plateau.  What particularly interested me was the figure of Clarence Edward Dutton.  He was a geologist who accompanied Powell and wrote strikingly strong descriptions of the Plateau.  Since that time I’ve felt a shift necessary in the voice of my writings:  going from bland travelogue to limning of the areas I photograph.  Presently I’m reading a narrative by Samuel Parker who journey to the Oregon Territory in the 1830s.  He speaks well to the challenge faced by any contemporary writer, whether they be a nascent blogger or established novelist:  “The intervening distance to St. Louis through the great valley of the west had lost much of its novelty, as I had previously passed over it, and long since had it ceased to excite that degree of interest in the community, with which it was regarded before the numerous descriptions of the tourist and traveler had rendered its general features familiar.”  Thus with the world ever shrinking with innumerable photos on the internet, one is hard-pressed to find an area whose features have not been rendered familiar.

I had mentioned that Samuel Parker’s destination was the antiquated Oregon Territory.  This is an appropriate starting place.  This territory was comprised of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho and some of Montana.  The more important features is that is was bounded by two mountain ranges (excluding the Pacific for the sake of this illustration):  the Cascades and the Rockies.  In Washington, the Cascades’ declivity is reached at the Columbia River.  It is here that the Channeled Scablands begin.  It is an arid region, treeless mostly, and typified by sage and canyons termed coulees.  Some coulees are deep and quite impressive, but the overall elevation of this area is very low.  As you head east, the Scablands gently rise and begin an intermittent mingling with the Palouse.  This is an area of farmland likened to a gigantic golf course:  large rolling hills, again mostly treeless.  The land continues to change as you near the Idaho-Washington border.  Buttes begin to rise amidst the farms like giant islands of trees.  Soon the large swathes of farmland are broken by the ever present ridges and buttes until they are wholly extinguished by forests and mountainous terrain.

This final transition is the quickest of all.  I experience this whenever I drive south to Moscow along US HWY 95 or any back roads I may take.  The photogenic Palouse is soon turned into an Idaho Canyonlands.  I know that I’m exaggerating a bit here.  I’ve experienced the views of vast, treeless wilderness in Southern Utah.  I’ve stood at Mesa Arch and the Green River Overlook seeing nothing but a crooked, terrific maze of rock and canyon that is the acme of hostile.  Idaho’s Canyons do not conjure up such feelings of desolation or palpable desert.  On the other hand, perennial streams, creeks and rivers flow throughout these canyons.  They are green in the spring, brown in the summer and fall and dusted or dumped upon with snow throughout the winter.  Evergreens cover the canyons from top to bottom; shade is not at a premium.

As I drove the back roads from Moscow to Juliaetta, I noticed a small stream, just a trickle as I begin to descend from the farmland to the Potlach River.  This was the Little Potlach Creek.  Moving east from Moscow to Deary, Idaho more creeks are encountered.  Looking at a topographic map you’ll see a ridge followed by a creek and canyon, followed by another ridge, creek and canyon, ridge, creek and canyon, and so forth until mountains encroach.  From West to East, the Little Potlach, Middle Potlach, Little Bear, Big Bear and Pine Creeks all flow south into the Potlach.  Each have their canyon.  The Potlach then flows into the Clearwater and the Clearwater to the Snake.  Each waterway grows in breadth and depth; each associated canyon gets larger and deeper.  This progression is also experienced once leaving the Clearwater and climbing back towards the farmland.  I found Big Canyon an inviting area and was not disappointed at all with the impressive grade that climbs along it’s edge.

Big Canyon near Peck, ID

The Salmon River also flows in the Snake River, but further south.  The Salmon holds many distinctions.  One is being the longest river contained wholly in one state.  Besides that, the Main and it’s fork possess some of the best white water and wild canyons in the U.S.  Hells Canyon might be carved by the Snake, but the Salmon River and it’s forks have blazed impressive ditches too.  Even the small Rice Creek has carved an impressive canyon.  This was another enjoyable trip up steep switchbacks with great views.


Spring at Rice Creek


Rice Creek and Salmon River Canyon


The canyon capillaries are also well seen at White Bird.  For anyone who has traveled this stretch before knows the views are breathtaking.  I captured a nice sunset there a few weeks ago and thought I was going to be lucky again.  I’m at least glad I took this shot a hour before sunset.  The clouds grew thicker:  no sunset.  I plan to traverse this area even more in the coming months, seeing new sights and most assuredly being blown away by the canyons.


Sunset over White Bird


Afternoon Clouds over White Bird


Rapid River near Riggins, ID


Salmon River Rocks


4 thoughts on “Idaho Canyonlands

  1. Boy, I’d love to be up there right now, can’t wait for summer in Idaho! Great photos as always, Aaron!

    Something I’ve always wanted to do in that country, but never managed, is to drive as far as possible up the Salmon from Riggins at peak runoff. I see the crazy driftwood piles and high-water mark in there later in the year, and it must be a mind-blowing sight when the Main is running 80,000-120,000 cfs! Something you might consider if you have the opportunity….

    • Last June I happened to drive from Moscow to Boise after a few days of heavy rain. The Little Salmon just south of Riggins was almost flooded over the highway! I’d like to catch it about halfway or more to full flow. Too high and the water is too muddy. Still, it’s an awesome sight to see any of those rivers running pretty full. Have you been down or at least seen the South Fork Payette near Banks, Idaho? That’s hardcore whitewater!

      • Yeah, murky high water isn’t super photogenic, but it’s a sight! And I’m from the southwest, where clear water is can be a pretty theoretical concept. They say the Selway stays remarkable clear even at high flows.

        I assume you mean the North Payette: hardcore indeed, and that’s something I have no desire to boat. We make that drive on our way home from Main Salmon trips (down the north Fork, up the South), and checking out those ridiculous rapids never gets old. I do wonder if the whitewater was that crazy before they put in the road on one side and the railroad on the other; it’s still a very steep gradient, though.

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