If you like to travel, I bet you also like to explore. Is that right?
Whatever gets you down the road….a motorcycle, a bicycle, an ATV or UTV, a jeep, vintage trailer, travel trailer, 5th wheel or motor coach…..Swiftwater RV Park in north central Idaho just outside of White Bird, is a great destination from which to explore some pretty interesting places…or routes.
Of course, the famous nearby spot is Hells Canyon National Recreation Area – best explored by jet boat (ask me how to book a guided trip).
However, what I want you to think about exploring is “Old’ Hwy 95, commonly called the ‘Old’ White Bird Grade.
Talk about a spectacular road! Way back in May of 1936, the Lewiston Tribune reported that “After more than half a century of planning, a quarter of a century of active construction work, expenditure of about $15 million and seemingly endless endeavor, the North & South highway extending 536 miles from southern Idaho at Weiser to Porthill on the Canadian boundary, is completed…..the only highway tying north and south Idaho together and the only highway threading the Salmon River canyon which bisects the state from east to west.” If you want to read the entire article, click here.
A unique section of that historical road is the route that today ambles out of White Bird on the north end of town, heading up to the top of the WB Summit on a very circuitous narrow road – Old 95 – that I think should be included on someone’s list of the nation’s ‘top 10’ most unusual highways. Keep in mind, this road with a g-zillion switchbacks (the arcs/switchbacks, if combined, would form 37 full 360° circles, an average of 950° per mile) was the only Idaho road north or south for nearly 40 years.
White Bird was on this ‘old’ highway and today’s residents who grew up in town remember running and walking on the road, because it simply ran through town. That was how as a kid you got around. There used to be a car garage in town and it was common for some of the teenagers to hang out there. Every now and then, a traveler would stop at the garage because they were terrified to drive up this infamous section of the highway. They’d ask around if there was someone they could pay to drive them up the hill. The local kids jumped on the chance; to them it was just their ‘back yard’ and not scary at all.
Farmers kept water troughs at a few of the precarious switchbacks for their livestock and folks who frequently traveled the road knew their exact locations, as they were a welcome stop for over-heated cars.
The Old Hwy kept its status as Idaho’s only route north or south from 1936 to 1975, when the ‘new’ White Bird Grade – Highway 95 – was completed over to the west of the switchback route. Then Governor Cecil Andrus opened the New Hwy 95 with pomp & circumstance. Andrus, originally from Orofino (a nearby town in rural north central Idaho), call the new route the ‘End of Idaho’s ‘Goat Trail’ . “Improved communications between north and south Idaho” could now take place he said, adding that “regular shipment of Idaho potatoes to the north – and shipments to the south of peas and lentils from the northern prairies” would occur.
So, why not give the Old White Bird Hwy a try next time you’re out this way? To start at the bottom of the Old Hwy is only about four miles from Swiftwater RV Park. The view and panoramas are stunning and the road is literally ‘a trip’. Can’t wait? Check out this video (it’s kind of long and has weird music, but gives you a good feel for the road). There is another video on the White Bird website page about the White Bird Battlefield
The new 7.2 mile grade took ten years to complete and saved more than 15 minutes driving time and ‘countless beads of sweat’ as people navigated the treacherous switchbacks on the ‘Old WB Grade’. Andrus reported that the $8.5 million project of the ‘new Highway’ and the ‘White Bird Steel Bridge’ was one of the decade’s most important accomplishments for Idaho.