• Trail Rides

    Front and Backcountry Journeys

    See the best of Idaho on a trail ride

Americans love to visit Idaho for outdoorsy activities

Playing in the Sawtooth Mountains in Central Idaho (Courtesy Idaho Statesman)

By Steve Stuebner

American travel and tourism trends show that Idaho is growing in popularity as a primo destination for outdoorsy visitors, and contrary to national trends, people are staying longer on overnight trips to enjoy quality outdoor-adventure activities.

Visitors are twice as likely to come to Idaho to engage in outdoor activities, compared to national norms, where folks may travel to go shopping or visit friends and relatives.

And when people come to Idaho, they like to go hiking, whitewater rafting, camping, fishing, swimming, hunting, birding, and relax on the beach or in a comfy cabin, according to a recent study by Longwoods International.

The Lochsa River provides oodles of fun. (Courtesy Bear Paw Outfitters)

This makes sense for a state that’s known as the “whitewater capital” of the United States with popular kayaking and rafting destinations such as the Salmon River, Hells Canyon, Payette and Lochsa, and nationally known fishing destinations such as Silver Creek, the Henrys Fork and South Fork of the Snake River. Plus, nearly two-thirds of Idaho is comprised of national forest and public lands where people can go skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, mountain climbing, rock climbing and more.

Idaho outfitters provide guided trips to all of these activities for people who don’t have the equipment, know-how or experience to do it on their own. See ioga.org and raftidaho.org for a menu of outfitters to contact about outdoorsy trips.

Hanging out around the campfire is one of the bonuses of going on a multi-day outdoor adventure …

Diane Norton, Manager of the Idaho Tourism Division for the Idaho Department of Commerce, said she’s not surprised by the findings of the Longwoods study. “We’re above the national norm on all of the outdoor activities,” Norton said. “It’s what we’re known for.”

An America Outdoors report on national outfitted travel trends shows that the top activities in outdoor travel in 2013 were lodging and cabin rentals, Standup Paddle (SUP) boarding, and canoe and kayak rentals. Guided trips of shorter duration were more popular on a national basis, than longer trips, said David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors.

Stand up paddle boarding, SUP for short, is one of the most popular outdoor recreation activities nationwide. In Idaho, you can SUP on lakes and rivers. (Courtesy Gregg Mizuta)

“Lower risk trips close to metro areas are growing dramatically,” Brown says.

But in Idaho, the length of stay is increasing. “Our trips of 4-7 days are going up, which shows that people are buying a pre-packaged trip,” Norton says. “And our day trips are increasing, too.”

Plus, Idaho’s many river outfitters provide SUP experiences as part of day trips and multi-day trips.

On a national level, approximately 70 percent of outfitters saw their profit margins increase in 2014, a good sign indicating that the grip of the recession is ending when it comes to leisure and adventure travel, officials said.

Elk hunting trips are seeing a resurgence in growth in Idaho.

John May, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, said he’s hearing the same thing from Idaho outfitters. “The general trend is that Idaho is doing better than the national average,” May said. “We had a good whitewater season, fishing trips were up, our hunting trips were up with bookings increasing for next year, and our lodging trips were up.”

Idaho trips are increasing because the state didn’t suffer the effects of the recession as badly as some other states, tourism officials said. People coming to Idaho tend to come from adjoining states like Washington, Utah, California and Oregon. Visitors also came from Texas, Florida, Arizona, New York and Montana, the study showed.

Just from casual conversation with the owners of lodging businesses, people enjoy coming to stay in a lodge or a private cabin while they can go horseback riding, hiking and biking, May said. They like to do a mix of leisure activities and come back to a comfy bed in a heated quarters.

“They want to experience the West, but not necessarily in a hard-core way,” he says.

“Glamping” on the Salmon River. Looks pretty comfy! (Courtesy glampinghub.com)

Glamping” is another activity that outfitted guests enjoy, where the women are pampered with yoga and massage activities, gourmet food is served on fine china with cloth tablecloths and fine wine, and sleeping quarters are very comfortable with nice sheets and blankets on raised beds or cots in Safari-quality wall tents.

“This kind of activity is now on the urban dweller’s bucket list,” May said. “They now realize that they can go “rough it” outdoors and enjoy a surprising list of amenities.”

Another reason people come to Idaho, Norton says, is that “we’re a bargain” compared to many other destinations in terms of lodging and trip costs. Plus, many people know that they can enjoy outdoor activities in Idaho without feeling pinched by thousands of other tourists doing the same thing.

We call that the “Private Idaho” experience. Come visit and find out what that’s all about!

For more information, go to ioga.org, raftidaho.org or visitidaho.org.

Bronco blue turf, Idaho potatoes could help boost Idaho tourism

Commerce Director Jeff Sayer with his wife, Laurel, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

By Steve Stuebner

Jeff Sayer, Director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, had a life-changing experience on a Middle Fork Salmon River trip, and he said that helps him understand the intrinsic value of outfitted trips in a speech to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association at the annual meeting.

The Middle Fork trip was a U.S. Forest Service trip that involved several Idaho outfitters and guides, Sayer said. He rode with Dirk Gibson, owner of Adventure Guides, a Middle Fork outfitter, and Gibson proceeded to grill him about his life and priorities as they floated down the beautiful canyon.

“It was a time when I was ready to change and start something different,” Sayer said. “That trip literally changed my life.”

As director of Commerce, an agency that oversees the $3.4 billion travel and tourism industry in the state, Sayer said he hopes to help Idaho get more national recognition for its travel and tourism assets. “Idaho has so much to offer, but it seems that we’re just scratching the surface,” he said. “There’s a lot of good things happening in Idaho. We’ve got a great story to tell.”

The Boise State Broncos and the blue turf are a nationally recognized icon that Idaho tourism could benefit from, Sayer said.

Two things that get a lot of national recognition are the Boise State Broncos’ blue AstroTurf and Idaho potatoes, Sayer said. “Those are two things that I’d like to piggy-back on to give us more recognition,” he said.

Technology is changing rapidly in American society, he noted, and it behooves tourism officials, as well as outfitters, to stay on top of those trends to capture more customers. Smart phones are one area that’s seeing big growth. Web sites should be retooled to ensure that they’re friendly for smart phone users, he said. He mentioned a web platform called Responsive Design that readily adapts to the devices using the web site.

“The latest  information I have is that one-half of all travel trips will be booked with smart phones in the near future,” he said. “This is one change we should be ready for.”

In a vacation in the Black Hills, Sayer and his wife, used their smart phones to access a guided tour of the area on their smart phones. They clicked on a QR code, and “the whole Black Hills experience was opened up to us on our phones,” he said. A narrator explained the sights and sounds of the area, greatly enhancing the drive.

IOGA Executive Director John May with Director Sayer at the IOGA annual meeting.

Another idea Sayer shared was about marketing the activities in Idaho that are special, and not necessarily just  the Idaho brand. For example, web sites could focus on the activity, such as hunting, whitewater rafting or recreation. “Why not choose the activity and make that the destination?” he said.

Along those lines, Idaho Outfitters and Guides have been working on creating a brand and web site called “Raft Idaho.” More on that topic to come.

“You guys represent the best of what Idaho’s backcountry has to offer,” Sayer said. “We’ve got to get creative and work on this together. Why not call Idaho “America’s Backcountry?” I’m excited to work with your new director, John May, on lots of these new ideas.”

Idaho mountain snowpack levels look favorable for 2013 whitewater season

Rafting on the Lochsa River with Bearpaw River Expeditions

Idaho mountain snowpack levels and anticipated streamflows in the popular Salmon, Snake, Lochsa and Payette river basins are hovering near 90 percent of normal, which should provide for a fun-filled whitewater river season, according to officials with the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.

“The current levels in mid-March are looking excellent,” said Justin Walsh, owner of Bear Paw Expeditions, which runs day trips on the Lochsa River in North Idaho, east of Lewiston. Snowpack levels in the Clearwater Basin were 87 percent of normal as of mid-March, with more spring precipitation expected. “I’m really confident we’ll have plenty of water for a great season,” Walsh said.

Idaho is known nationally as the “whitewater state” with more than 3,000 miles of thrilling whitewater rapids, the most of any state in the lower 48. Now is the time when many families are planning their summer vacations; thousands will take week-long wilderness river vacations on the Salmon River, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Selway River or Hells Canyon of the Snake with Idaho outfitters.

These trips are packed with fun and feature great people, magnificent scenery, delicious Dutch oven meals, entertaining river guides, wildlife, and more. By the end of the day on the river, guests kick back on sandy beaches, relax with a favorite beverage, and swap stories about their river day.

One of the best parts of river trips is hanging out in camp in the evening around the fire …

Whitewater enthusiasts also will book day trips with Idaho outfitters on the Payette, Snake, Salmon, Lochsa, St. Joe and Moyie rivers. Now is a great time to reserve your spot for a unique and unforgettable vacation, outfitters say.

Chuck Boyd of Salmon River Experience said he is glad to see snowpack levels hovering around 90 percent. “My best years are when it’s a little bit below normal,” Boyd said. “I like the snowpack right where it is.”

Side-hiking on the Salmon River quickly reveals how deep the canyon truly is …

When snowpack levels are super high, the Salmon River can surge to dangerous flood-stage levels for several weeks at a time when it’s unsafe to run raft trips or jet boat excursions, he said. With slightly lower flows, the Salmon River tends to peak a little earlier in May, providing a longer floating season from June – September, the water warms up sooner for swimming, and good fishing kicks in earlier.

Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said early, high-elevation snows in November and December set up Idaho’s mountains and rivers for a good season.

“We got a lot of snow above 7,000-foot elevation, it piled up several feet deep and that put us above normal,” Abramovich said. “We know there’s a lot of snow up there. That’s kind of the kicker for this river season. It may be a real bonus when it comes off.”

A few river basins in southwest Idaho are showing lower snowpack levels, such as the Boise at 68 percent of normal, and the Owyhee at 68 percent of normal. The Payette basin is at 77 percent of normal, but reservoir storage is 115 percent of average on the North Fork of the Payette, and the South Fork, elevating streamflow predictions to 88 percent of normal, Abramovich said. “The Payette Basin will be fine because of reservoir storage,” he said.

River floaters will have to watch the Owyhee gauge closely to time trips correctly, Abramovich said. “You’ll have to be quick to catch the Owyhee this year,” he said.

The spectacular Bruneau River, however, is hovering at about 90 percent of normal snowpack. Seth Tonsmeire of Wilderness River Outfitters near Salmon, said his company is hoping to run at least one guided trip on the Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers when the weather warms up. “We’re a little more optimistic about running the Bruneau this year, and we know the Salmon River is going to be great,” he said.

For more information about booking an Idaho whitewater river trip, go to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association web site, http://ioga.org/rafting or call 208-342-1438.

Leo and Dee Crane, Zeke West inducted as IOGA Lifetime Members

Dee and Leo at Tinker High Hunting Camp

Zeke West, right, at the helm

Three longtime IOGA members, Leo and Dee Crane of Orofino and Zeke West of Grangeville, were honored as Lifetime Members at the annual IOGA meeting last week in Boise.

Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, said the honor is the equivalent of a “lifetime achievement” award because of the many contributions that the Cranes and West made to their communities, IOGA and Idaho’s recreation industry.

Leo and Dee Crane operated Clearwater Outfitters, based in Orofino, for nearly five decades before selling their big game hunting business and starting a business they now operate on Dworshak Reservoir called “Lake and Leathers.”

Zeke West, owner of Whitewater Outfitters for nearly five decades, ran trips up and down the Salmon River and Snake River from Lewiston to Corn Creek, and he also was licensed on the Clearwater River from Kookia to Lewiston. He guided hunters in Units 20 and 20A adjacent to the Salmon River, and he guided bear and cougar hunters adjacent to the North Fork of the Clearwater River.

“Zeke was the consummate jet boat captain. He had a million-dollar smile, he provided quality customer service and he always operated in an exemplary, safe manner,” Simonds says. “Plus, he’d make himself available to assist other outfitters or other boaters with just about anything. He was a real gentleman.”

West purchased Whitewater Ranch in the late 1960s, and that was his base of operation on the Main Salmon River, long before it became the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. The first jet boat he purchased in 1971 was a 24-foot Oaks. A decade later, he bought a 26-foot Bentz jet boat, which he used until after he retired. He also had a 30-foot Smith boat named “Old Faithful” that he bought from Mackay Bar.

In 1982, the Nez Perce National Forest gave Zeke an award for logging 2,000 hours of jet boat operation without an accident. When he sold his last boat in 2012, he was still accident free.  “That’s quite an achievement considering the wild nature of the Salmon River at many different water levels,” Simonds said. “Zeke’s outfitting career is the epitome of providing quality customer service while maintaining the health, safety and welfare of those who utilized his outfitting and guiding talents.”

Zeke had an exemplary safety record as a jet boat pilot.

Plus, West was part of a close-knit community of outfitters, guides, guest ranch owners and caretakers who live along the Salmon River in the remote and primitive wilderness section in Central Idaho.

Leo Crane first got his outfitting license in 1964 as the owner of Clearwater Outfitters. He’s been a member of IOGA since 1966. He started the IOGA Clearwater Valley Chapter in 1987. He also served on the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board from 1987-1999, and the IOGA board from 206-2008.

Leo with Billy Mahanes and his nice bull elk

Crane took guests on big game hunts for elk, deer, mountain lions and black bears for many years.  He operated during the “glory days” of big game hunting in the Clearwater region for several decades, hunting in the popular Mallard-Larkins roadless area. After wolves affected that operation, he switched to leading fishing trips on Dworshak and white-tailed deer hunting trips.

“Leo has been a steady and reliable IOGA member who’s been willing to be involved in leadership posts over the years, and he’s continued to have an interest in being a volunteer leader on many levels,” Simonds said.

Leading up the IOGA Clearwater Valley Chapter for several decades, Crane helped with new membership recruitment and staying abreast of outfitting, land-management and Fish and Game issues with fellow members. More recently, Crane has been serving on the Clearwater Basin Collaborative on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and serving on IOGA’s wilderness committee.

Leo and Ken Smith man the BBQ at the Roundup fund-raiser

Both Leo and Dee have hosted “The Roundup” community event in Orofino since 2000, a fund-raiser  for the IOGA Clearwater Valley Chapter. The event raises scholarship money for local students and funds for I-CARE, a benefit fund for families coping with cancer. I-CARE stands for Cancer Assistance and Recovery Effort. Since 2008, I-CARE has raised $13,350 to benefit more than 30 families in the communities of Orofino, Pierce, Kamiah, Kooskia, Weippe, Deary, Ferdinand, Harpster and Peck.

The Roundup

“Leo and Dee are the epitome of small family-run outfitting businesses where the husband and wife work hand in hand,” Simonds says. “Their connection to the local community, and the way they give back to and support the community, has been really important to IOGA’s image.

“For decades IOGA has been blessed to have Leo and later Dee as active members,” Simonds continues. “At every turn they have stepped forward to provide IOGA with the leadership, knowledge and energy necessary for it to function as the leading statewide professional organization and effective advocate for outfitters in Idaho and America.”

Leo leads the pack string back to the trailhead for the last time …

Zeke West’s youngest son, Bob, reflects on the life that Zeke lived on the river.

“I awoke in the cabin to the fresh, damp forest air. The sun had not yet risen over the high green mountain top, but it was still daylight. The sun would not shine directly into the bottom of the canyon for another hour or so.  The world around me was wide awake. I could hear the cawing of the crows in the distance. The gentle roar of the river in the background, its frigid waters cascading through the rapids not 100 yards away. The gentle never ending voice of the thermal flow of life.  Small birds were singing and chirping and playing amongst themselves in the trees or the hill. The same birds had been there for years and years.

“I rose from my bunk and looked outside at the dew covered grass, the world filled with the air that still held the chill of night in the light of morning. The bees were already hard at work, dashing from blossom to blossom on the wild black raspberry bushes on the hill behind the house, the large log house where my father would soon emerge and whoop at me to come get breakfast. Even breakfast had the feeling of the country. The sourdough pancakes that magically formed from the same crock on the kitchen counter every day without fail.  Sometimes as a special treat my father would make sourdough biscuits and jerky gravy instead of sourdough pancakes.  There was the smell of bacon on the griddle, a smell made to wake up to.

“Conversation at the breakfast table would be of events of the day to come. How we had to take the jet boat 50 miles downriver to pick up the Forest Service workers: About the horses that had wandered to the neighbors again and had to be retrieved. (4 ½ miles downriver)  Somehow they always remembered the greener pastures at Campbell’s Ferry.  What green pastures they had. Natural Mountain pastures with no fences. Only a few fruit trees scattered sparsely through the pastures and surrounded by a blanket of evergreens and of course the timeless whisper of the river.”

Congratulations to Leo and Dee Crane, and Zeke West! Hats off to them!