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 European explorers filled in.
But in 1860, the same year that Mormons from Utah established Idaho's first permanent settlement, prospectors found gold in the northern reaches of this wild country. Suddenly, lots of people cared.
In the 1870s, prospectors also found gold in the mountains of Idaho's central wilderness. Soon, towns like Custer, Bonanza and Challis sprouted along Salmon River tributaries like the Yankee Fork, where only tall pines and taller peaks had stood before. An enterprising freighter, 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.
By 1890, Idaho had a star on the flag. But with the new century came the usual downturn in mining. New strikes were few, and the old ones were fading. By 1910, the heyday of gold mining along the Yankee Fork was past.
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. The word "Adventure" has since been added to its name, justifiably enhancing the allure of the 40-mile passage back into time.
Remnants of the region's mining history, including 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 can still be seen today along the Custer Adventure Motorway.
Snow usually closes the narrow dirt road in Custer County from late October through May. But in between, travelers can detour off scenic Idaho Highway 75 at either Sunbeam or Challis, and spend the next few hours exploring historic sites and enjoying central Idaho's rugged mountain scenery.
The best place to start is at the intersection of Highway 75 and U.S. 93 just south of Challis, where the Historic Area's visitor center will provide background and a brochure detailing points of interest along the motorway. The tour begins at the west end of Main Street in Challis, in Custer County.
If you begin at Sunbeam, turn north at the store onto Challis National Forest Road 013, and follow the Yankee Fork itself. There are several campgrounds along the way
For information, including a brochure with a map, write to Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation, P.O. Box 1086, Challis, ID 83226, or call 208/879-5244. And remember to Tread Lightly!
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!