This Mountain West Roadtrip Is One of America’s Most Underrated
The road trip ranks among America’s finest, as long as travelers follow a single, vital rule: treat the interstates like magma.
“I sought out U.S. 90, a wide gash of a super-highway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation's goods. Rocinante bucketed along. The minimum speed on this road was greater than any I had previously driven. I drove into a wind quartering in from my starboard bow and felt the buffeting, sometimes staggering blows of the gale I helped to make . . . . Instructions screamed at me from the road: ‘Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed.’ Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
In the pantheon of great American road trips, Portland, Ore. to the Tetons doesn’t land on many top ten lists. Route 66, California’s Highway 1 or the Oregon Coast are better known and more widely traveled, with legendary and Instagrammed-to-death scenery around every bend. Apart from the towering cliffs and golden lines of the Columbia River Gorge, the straight shot from Oregon to Jackson, Wyoming is a hot blast of noxious cattle fumes, better to be quickly conquered than slowly explored. But this road trip ranks among America’s finest, as long as travelers follow a single, vital rule: treat the interstates like magma.
Portland to Jackson Hole is a trip that could be completed in one punishing 12-hour ride. But to make this journey an unforgettable one is to saunter from place to place, driving no more than a few hours in each day, and lingering in many of the charming towns scattered along state highways in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. John Steinbeck described interstates as “great high speed slashes of concrete and tar” best avoided, and he was right.
How to experience this gorgeous expanse of the American west with aplomb? Take the scenic route.
From Portland, find the Mt. Hood Scenic Byway (State Highway 26), which snakes its way through the ski towns of Zigzag and Government Camp and slides around majestic Mount Hood, a goosebumps-inspiring landmark that will remain in view for most of this drive, even after the road plummets towards the basalt canyons lining the Deschutes River, en route to a booming high-desert city where cowboys and California yuppies mingle uneasily: Bend.
There are ample places to spend the night here, but if you happen to be packing camping gear, the smart play is to grab an early dinner at El Sancho Taco Shop and push on towards the Crooked River Valley, where ample campsites line a placid stream that beckons fly fishermen and inner tubers alike.
The next morning, the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway mohawks through the lush Ochoco National Forest en route to the Victorian Lane Bed and Breakfast, a kitschy and cute home that caters to visitors of one of Oregon’s many under-appreciated wonderlands: the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which serve up three separate and equally epic collections of ancient geology, the star of which is the Painted Hills. It’s worth staying a couple of nights in or near John Day so that you can tool up and down the scenic highway for a full day in between. Try timing your arrival to the Painted Hills themselves a couple of hours before the sun drops, because that’s when its rich stripes of colorful strata pulsate in the sidelight. The roads in this part of the state are so uncrowded there are times you may wonder why they were even built.
The next couple of days may be the least interesting drives of the trip, but you have to crawl through some of the nation’s largest cattle ranches and the smell that accompanies them one way or another. Sneaking onto the interstate is the fastest way through it, but to cheat saves only a few hours, so you might as well stay off the highway and enjoy a little scenery. Boise is the next stop, and it is best reached by finishing the Journey Through Time Byway and then breaking south towards Vale. From here, it makes the most sense to cut over to 84 and get through Nampa and Meridian as quickly as humanly possible.
Boise is Idaho’s sole progressive enclave, and it is at present an interesting mashup of Idaho cowboys and Boise State University frat boys and black-clad scene kids, who coexist nervously by staying in their lanes as Californians fleeing their home state flock here to drive up real estate prices and clog traffic to and from the suburbs. For now, the city retains considerable dollops of charm and is especially alluring to outdoors enthusiasts and music-lovers, who convene here each spring for the Treefort Music Festival, which hosts more than 400 bands scattered from one iconic venue to the next. Stay a couple of days here, at the Riverside Hotel. Have a drink at Pengilly’s Saloon, some Basque comfort food at Bar Gernika and/or a farm-to-table feast at Fork.
Escape the state’s capital via another hour or so on the only stretch of interstate that’s probably worth traversing (because the alternatives aren’t that interesting), but in Bliss, break south on the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, which glides through the comely Snake River Canyon towards a sleepy mid-sized city enmeshed in sprawl, and a surprising amount of traffic along its main artery, State Highway 93. Stay at the Blue Lakes Inn, helping yourself to the cookies and earplugs — you’ll need both — at the front desk, before a morning at Shoshone Falls, a massive waterfall that some call the “Niagara of the West,” as it’s 45 feet higher than its Canadian border counterpart and nearly 1,000 feet wide.
Then, it’s off to Idaho Falls over the Perrine Bridge, another impressive viewpoint above the Snake, which you’ll revisit a dozen more times before getting back to Oregon. Take the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway and stop for a hike at the Craters of the Moon National Monument, where a lava field spans 618 square miles, before traveling on to Idaho Falls, a quiet and conservative city that feels ripe for a millennial boom that may never materialize. The Hilton Garden Inn sits just a few feet from the banks of the Snake River and a few minutes’ walk from the Snow Eagle brewery and the lauded Copper Rill restaurant.
Across the river lies a downtown teeming with gorgeous historic brick buildings, half of them with empty storefronts. Idaho Falls’ proximity to the Tetons and Jackson, Wyoming, (an hour and a half drive) makes it feel inevitable that the area will soon beckon outdoorsy millennials who can’t afford to live in a place where the median housing price tops $1 million. But it’s not quite there yet, perhaps because it’s not quite close enough to the mountains.
The drive from Idaho Falls to Jackson follows the last leg of prairie along the Swan Valley Highway before climbing into the foothills of the Big Hole Mountains via the Teton Scenic Byway, in the shadow of Piney Peak to the north and then dropping back into Idaho’s Teton Valley, a paradise to which you’ll soon return and then wish you didn’t have to leave.
Start in Jackson, but don’t feel like you’re missing out if you can’t stay in the city proper. It is crushed with tourists, especially in the summer, which means getting in and out of town is a two-lane traffic-snarled logjam.
The same is true of the roads leading in and out of Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park, where a moose sighting can cause an hourlong delay. Teton Village, 12 miles from Jackson, offers a back way into both Teton National Park and Yellowstone, and because its a ski resort village it’s slightly less slammed in the summer. Stay there, at one of two great options: the swank Four Seasons Jackson Hole, or the Hotel Terra, which is every bit as refined and a little closer to the village’s heartbeat and its fun bars, like the Mangy Moose.
Spend at least three nights on this side of the mountains, which affords a full day in each park. In the Tetons, sleuth out the hidden trail to Delta Lake, a punishing but worthwhile climb to a pristine alpine lake tucked in the middle of the range.
In Yellowstone, prepare to be overwhelmed with great options, explored mostly at roadside stopping points that number in the dozens.
The best way to cut through the chaff (and avoid parking nightmares) is to book a tour with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, whose guides are fonts of information and who know all of the places that are worth stopping or better off skipped. If the river calls, take a lazy float with Barker-Ewing Whitewater, whose massive boats reassure passengers they needn’t fear an errant splash. Spend an afternoon strolling Jackson, whose mostly kitschy shops do include a couple of awesome offerings: Made, which features the handmade creations of more than 360 American artists; and Mountain Dandy, Made’s “brother store.” Then, hurry back to Idaho.
Idaho looks upon the Tetons’ “quiet” side, as it were, but only because the eastern face of this mountain range rises straight out of the ground, meaning its peaks are viewable all along the road, no foothills to block them. The west side of the range is every bit as beautiful but shrouded by a few miles of foothills that make for anticipatory drives inching closer and closer to a commanding view. Ski resorts and their culture can be obnoxious and overwhelming, but the Grand Targhee Ski Resort & Bike Park is a mellow exception: parked at the crux of Table Mountain and Littles Peak, you can rent mountain bikes in the summer, curling up and down a network of singletrack trails until the snow returns in late fall. Or, without paying so much as a parking fee, visitors may lace up hiking boots, trek to the Mary’s Nipple, have lunch against a backdrop of jagged peaks and then (for free!) ride the ski lift back down again, to spare a hammering of hips and ankles and knees. It is the perfect way to spend a day.
At night, an unbelievable array of options await, between the small and crunch towns of Victor and Driggs. There are impressive restaurants: from the cool concept of Warbirds Cafe, which smartly occupies a space inside the Driggs Regional Airport, to the farm-to-table Forage, which would thrive in any city in America. There’s nightlife: weekly Shakespeare performances (seasonally) in Driggs put on by the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks; Music on Main each Thursday from June to August in Victor, which is often capped by a stealth performance by well-known artists at the Knotty Pine; fine breweries in both towns for a post-hike pint; or the nostalgia pick, at The Spud drive-inn movie theater, which plays the newest titles on a screen attached to an old rodeo grandstand as soon as the sun goes down.
For lodging, there is a can’t-miss option in the Dreamcatcher Bed & Breakfast, nestled on 20 acres between the two towns in a spacious lodge in the countryside with high peaked ceilings, perfectly appointed rooms, a firepit in the yard and private porches from whence to watch the sun drop. Breakfast is the highlight, not an afterthought, as chef and innkeeper Andrew Zajac combs through recipe books to treat his guests to dishes that you’d be lucky to find in the best San Francisco brunch spots. Most of the Dreamcatcher’s guests wind up extending their stays. It will not be easy to leave.
Tetons to Salmon
Hard as it will be to abandon this gorgeous region, there are more treasures to be found on the road back to Portland. The road from Driggs northwest to Salmon cuts across cow and hay fields along windy plains, before slicing between two arid, forested mountain ranges on the Sacajawea Historic Byway. But for local country folk and a few RVs dotting the campgrounds that line the Lemhi River, it’s a desolate stretch of terrain (in a good way) and a tempting place to stop and set up a quiet camp. If you want to sleep in a real bed, press on to Salmon, where two fine-but-not-spectacular options await: the Syringa Lodge, which stocks popcorn and peanut M&Ms at all times and which offers comfortable beds and an above-average breakfast in an impressively built log cabin a half-mile from the Salmon River; or the Stagecoach Inn, a basic motel with idyllic views of the same river and walking distance to town. Easily half of the storefronts in Salmon are boarded up, but there are at least two reliably good places to eat: the Pork Peddler, which does a perfect brisket, and Junkyard Bistro, whose garlic burger is flamebroiled to a crispy delight.
For entertainment, go see a flick at the charming River Cinemas or some live music at The Owl Club, wandering between retro storefronts that cry out for new occupants.
Salmon to Ketchum
Boring roads are behind you now. The drive from Salmon to Ketchum begins with an hour and a half so close to the river you could drop a fishing pole in it, along the Salmon River Scenic Byway. You’ll pass family farms, not mega-ranches, and weave in and out of slot canyons that gobble up the sky. Then it’s a westward turn that might seem like a Google Maps glitch but isn’t: Trail Creek Road, the quickest way to the Sun Valley, serves up a bit of an adventure.
It is a dirt road, at least for half of its 40 miles, and there is a sharp cliff that drops into a steep valley on the right, so drivers are well-advised to keep their eyes front and their speeds slow. Before too long, the road levels out along the North Fork Big Lost River, where a few camper vans and RVs have staked out their spots for stargazing: Sun Valley sits in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 13 in the world. If you’re camping, this is a fine place to end the day.
If a bed sounds better, beeline it to the Limelight Hotel in downtown Ketchum, a five-story design marvel that has defied the expectations of once-wary locals, who were at first unhappy at the idea of interlopers from Aspen setting up shop in their little town. The Limelight’s owners promised the community they’d create an inclusive space and that they’d be good residents of Ketchum, and judging by the mostly locals crowd mingling on the open patio on a summer night, they’ve succeeded. The food is well above par, the rooms spacious and modern, and there’s a bike shop on the property, where guests can rent two-wheeled vessels to explore the 400 miles of trail all accessible right from the center of town. Be sure to eat at Rickshaw, which features Southeast Asian flavors in a laid-back setting. This is another place that you’ll find hard to leave.
Ketchum to McCall
If you curtailed your Ketchum adventures to the trails and riverbanks closest to town, this will be your first glimpse of a series of spectacular mountain ranges that ring the city and that stretch well beyond the Sun Valley. The Boulder Mountains lie to the east en route to Stanley, looking down upon a valley with a few family farms, ramshackle cabins and RVs pulled up to the Big Wood River. The Sawtooth Scenic Byway crisscrosses that river a couple of times and is blissfully windy and uncrowded, but before you reach McCall you’ll traverse no less than three more Idaho state scenic byways, until a route that lines the surging Payette River points to the lakefront resort town of McCall.
The vibe in McCall is rustic bordering on dated, and lakefront resort towns tend to lure jet skis and rednecks (for better or worse!) but there are a few gems: Shore Lodge has an elegant spa with two saltwater immersion pools lined with lava rocks that mimic a real hot springs. Stay here if you can get a room. You wouldn’t think sushi would shine in the intermountain west, but Sushi Bar McCall puts up a delectable array of options, including an unagi-inspired take on catfish, a quail egg shooter and a massive ice cream-topped brioche called “honey toast.” For more predictable fare, hit the rooftop at the Salmon Brewery, whose yeasted creations pair nicely with the sun setting on the lake. On your way out of town, stop at Ruby’s for more Asian-inspired food: known for its breakfast bowls, the restaurant does a bustling brunch with one last view of the lake to the north.
McCall to Joseph
The drive from McCall to the Wallowa Mountains makes no sense. After an hour or so to Council and Cambridge, a right turn hits the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, which lines looming cliffs of black and green basalt. It’s a landscape mostly devoid of people, hot and barren and beautiful. Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America, a piece of trivia that becomes too real on the climb out of the canyon, a neverending undulation of switchbacks, the scenery changing so quickly and so dramatically you would be forgiven for stopping every five minutes to snap a new series of photos.
At the top, the wide and rushing Imnaha River barrels through a landscape that has suddenly transformed from golden and bone dry to green and piney. It will be hard to understand why this epic route isn’t slammed with tourists even in the peak of the summer, but you’ve earned drives like this, by venturing far from the obvious interstates Steinbeck so righteously hated. Into Joseph and Wallowa County the Eagle Cap wilderness rises into view, calling hikers and backpackers to a chain of pristine alpine lakes. If you’ve got the time, throw on a pack and charge into the wild for a few days, for the Eagle Cap is a breathtaking place to hike. If it’s comfort you seek, mosey on into Joseph, an old cowboy town that is slowly changing into a blazing hot tourism destination.
The bad: weekends here can be slammed. The good: steady growth in fine farm-to-table restaurants, breweries and distilleries. Terminal Gravity and its sprawling picnic area is an ideal place to stop for a pint and a burger, and if you can get into the Jennings Hotel, you’ll experience what happens when true artists put their spin on what can only loosely be described as a “youth hostel.” There’s a Finnish sauna that would pass muster anywhere in Scandinavia, a stocked kitchen and library and deck overlooking Main Street with a communal barbecue grill, and each room (most of which are private) was designed by individual artists, who are welcomed here regularly in residencies that can last a month or more at a time. Another great option is the pet-friendly Barking Mad Bed & Breakfast.
Joseph to Walla Walla
On the interstate, you’re now a six-hour drive from where the trip began, and while home (or the airport) may be enticing, there’s one more worthwhile stop to make, for a luxurious capstone to a long road trip. If you can afford it, and if it isn’t booked, spend at least two nights at the newly opened Casa Grosgrain, which features high-end furnishings, a full kitchen and a tasting room next door, where you’ll find a suite of varietals that buck the region’s longtime reliance on big, fruity cabs. You could hit the grocery store on the way in and not leave the property until it’s time to go home, but it’s worth venturing out to a few places to play and to eat. In downtown Walla Walla, famed Seattle restaurateur Paul Mackay has refurbished an old train station into a world-class steak house and brewery, each with a different vibe, both served by the same kitchen. For more posh fare, try Hattaways on Alder. If it’s the countryside you crave, take a short drive out to the newly opened Eritage Resort (a stellar alternative if Grosgrain is booked) and dine on charcuterie and beet salad on 300 acres of rolling wheat and vineyards. If you have some flexibility, sign up for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife new kayak tours of the McNary National Wildlife Refuge, an informative paddle twixt the bull rush and Cottonwoods that are home to rare white pelicans, blue herons and egrets, among 260 other species of birds in the area. The spots tend to sell out within minutes, so act fast.
Walla Walla to Portland
From wine country, it’s a 4 ½-hour drive back to the City of Roses, if you decide to travel on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s right across the river from Interstate 84, the more obvious route, and in some places it pokes through small towns like Bingen and Stevenson, which is why this route takes an extra hour. But 84 is just not a fun road, despite winding through similar scenery. Wind gusts can be severe, seasoned travelers blaze down the highway at harrowing speeds and the time you save will be time spent bare-knuckling the steering wheel. Plus, the views of Mt. Hood are exponentially better on the Washington side, and there are dozens of wildflower-strewn hikes along highway 14, as well as a smattering of lesser-known wineries and good places to eat.
Above all, there’s one stop on this route that should be considered mandatory, either for an overnight or a few leisurely hours: the Society Hotel in Bingen, Wash. It’s a brand-new concept, and its spa is both centerpiece and highlight. The Society knows sauna, is why. A 15-person sauna features two powerful heaters and searing temperatures of up to 195 degrees, which is impressive enough on its own. But the true test of sauna chops isn’t the heat, it’s the cold plunge. Most saunas rely on a shower for guests to cycle between fire and ice, and that’s simply not as effective as a deep pool of freezing water (50 degrees) to submerge into. The Society is worth a few hours’ stop if that’s all you can spare, and overnight options range from a shockingly reasonable $25/night (low season) for a bunk bed to mini “cabins” with kitchenettes for $180.
Cross back into Oregon on the I-205 bridge and head straight to the airport, or spend a night in northeast Portland, where some of the best restaurants in the city — Bollywood Theatre, Podnah’s BBQ, Hat Yai and Santo Domingo Taqueria, to name a few — can be found. For a cocktail, do Expatriate, and thank us later. For a soak of road-weary muscles, head to the Kennedy School. Portland has a dozen great options for lodging, most of the best of which fall under the Provenance Hotels umbrella: The Heathman is beautiful and historic; the Dossier classy and refined; the Lucia chic and stylish; the Woodlark a newer offering that cries out to be Instagrammed. Outside of Provenance, check out the newly renovated boutique The Hoxton; Radisson Red, a surprisingly fun respite from a city that can get a bit full of itself; the Society Hotel in Chinatown, which offers no-frills rooms with comfortable beds and an inviting lobby with a fireplace.