Ponderosa Pine Scenic Route: Lowman, Idaho

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The reason this route is called the “Ponderosa Pine Scenic Route” is because that’s exactly what you see for most of the drive–trees, a lot of trees.  Miles and miles of trees.  And curves, don’t forget curves.  It is indeed scenic, and makes for a relaxing, get-away-from-it-all drive, but after a while it all becomes a little monotonous.  The scenery does change in one section of the route, around the town of Lowman, and a devastating forest fire is to blame.

The Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway follows Idaho Rte. 21, beginning at Stanley.  From there, it heads north for just a few miles, cuts through a break in the Sawtooth Mountains, then heads southwest towards Boise.

Once you leave Stanley, you leave behind the breathtaking views of jagged mountains and peaceful, glassy lakes.  As I twisted and turned north, then south on Rte. 21, I didn’t stop to take very many pictures.  All there was, was pavement and trees.  Then…

… the trees thinned out, and I discovered I was entering the site of the Lowman Fire.

The Lowman Fire devastated this area in 1989.  Part of the town was destroyed.  46,500 acres of forest land were reduced to ash.  The fire actually burnt the asphalt out of the pavement on Rte. 21.  It took 28 days to bring the fire under control.

It’s amazing, for a fire that was extinguished in 1989, how much devastation remains today.  Some of the hillsides, like the one above, are remarkably similar to the landscape around Mount St. Helens.

Despite the semi-bare hillsides and occasional piles of burnt logs, this is an incredibly beautiful area.  Take a look at the picture above.  That’s the Payette River.  Look at it!  Have you ever seen water so green and clear?

If you have time, a full tank of gas, and you’re not afraid of narrow mountain roads, consider a detour to the town of Atlanta.  It’s a near-ghost town nestled in the middle of the Sawtooth Mountains.  Although it’s very picturesque, it’s also very remote, and requires you cross at least 40 miles of unpaved, 1-lane roads.

As I rolled into the town of Lowman, the sun was about to set.   I thought to myself, “Certainly it won’t be much farther to Boise,” and another self-afflicted lie, “I’m sure the road will straighten out from here to the city.”  Wrong, and wrong.

Outside of Lowman, the road climbs into the mountains again.  There weren’t very many good views (I was hoping for something extraordinary as the sun set).  Everywhere I went…

…there were trees in the way, and no good overlooks designed to give tourists a breathtaking view.  The road just went on and on, around curve after curve.  It grew dark.  All I could comprehend was the curve in front of me.  The sunset would be on my left, then on my right, then back on my left again.  I began to wonder if this road actually went anywhere.  Maybe it just winds around to infinity.  Maybe I had made a wrong turn, and was somehow heading back the way I came.  Is Boise out there somewhere?  Shouldn’t I see some suburbs by now?  Let’s check the cell phone… NO SERVICE?  How about the gas gauge… EMPTY?  Seriously, where the HECK is Boise?

To make an overly dramatic story short, I finally came upon the Lucky Peak Reservoir.  Rte. 21 follows along its edge for a few miles, then passes the dam (I didn’t even see it), before dropping out of the mountains and into the populated valley.  I didn’t run out of gas.  My cell phone finally worked again, and best of all, I had rounded my final curve of the night.

I tried to find a hotel in the Boise area, but after making several stops, I couldn’t find anything under the $90 – $100 range.  So I decided to drive on to Nampa.  It paid off–I actually had the most positive hotel experience of my trip at the Super 8 off exit 35.  The lady at the front desk was beyond friendly (I had trouble with my room key, so she came up to check on it, and even ended up getting my ice for me!) and the room was fresh and clean. 

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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