Challis Idaho National Forest Custer Motorway - Getting TherePosted in Features on April 1, 2002
With its hard winters, daunting mountains, deep river canyons, and unsettled vastness, there seemed little reason in the first half of the 19th century to care about the place the Indians called "land of deep snows." In fact, Idaho was the last blank space on the map of the contiguous United States that white explorers filled in.
But in 1860, prospectors found gold in the northern reaches of this wild country. Suddenly, interest was high.
An enterprising freight-hauler named Alex Toponce obtained a charter from the territorial legislature to build a toll road from Challis through Custer to Bonanza. By September 1879 it was open, and for the next decade it was the only wagon and stage road to the Yankee Fork mining district.
Today, mining's role in Idaho's history is preserved in the sprawling Land of the Yankee Fork Historic Area, where backcountry travelers in high-clearance vehicles can still drive Toponce's toll road, now called the Custer Motorway Adventure Road.
The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the old road in 1933, and renamed it the Custer Motorway. Remnants of the region's mining history include the ruins of stage and toll stations, cemeteries, the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza, even an idled 988-ton floating gold dredge that operated in the 1940s and 1950s.
The best place to start is at the intersection of Highway 75 and U.S. 93 just south of Challis. The motorway begins at the west end of Main Street in Challis, in Custer County not far from the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
If you begin at Sunbeam, on Highway 75 along the Salmon River about 45 miles southwest of Challis, turn north at the store onto Salmon-Challis National Forest Road 013. Follow the Yankee Fork for eight miles to the old gold dredge, tours of which are available in summer. Continue two more miles up the Yankee Fork to the Custer Museum, at the old town of Custer.
For information, write to Land of the Yankee Fork State Park, P.O. Box 1086, Challis, ID 83226, or call 208/879-5244. Information can also be found online at www.idahoparks.org/parks/yankeefork.html. The park's e-mail address is LAN@idpr.state.id.us.
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The facts presented in this column are, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend calling the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting. Please remember to Tread Lightly!