Centuries of history, petroglyphs and gold mines, are on the menu for the first ride to Silver City. I’m so excited.
The Long Independence Day weekend was finally an opportunity for a day trip to Silver City. I plotted a route that avoided freeway but wasn’t too dirty.
I passed intermingled subdivisions and pastures turning to sagebrush as while following pleasant surface streets south to a break at Celebration Park where dark boulders (known as Bonneville melon gravel) strewn between river and cliff are decorated with thousands of petroglyphs as much as 12,000 years old.
Highway 78 must have a fairly new surface. It was a smooth roller coaster ride of curves, hills and dips. Not many highways put butterflies in my stomach.
After fifteen fun miles, I arrived at the main Silver City turn-off. The road is paved for the first six-or-so miles allowing continued roller coaster speeds. Shortly after it turned to gravel, I noticed the undulating brown hills to the left bisected dramatically by a jagged scar.
Golf ball-sized gravel required a leisurely pace after turning off the road to follow the two-track down to explore the canyon’s edge.
Sinker Creek supports a ribbon of greenery as it meanders through the canyon bottom. I watched a small group of ATVs follow an established road across the creek once and twice on their way out of sight. I was tempted to find a way down but knew it would jeopardize my chance of getting to Silver City before dark.
As a child, I was surprised to discover that the brown couch I’d lived with for years was not brown at all. Looking at it closely one day, I saw it consisted entirely of threads of red, green and yellow. The Owyhees are like that. Although drab from a distance, a close look reveals vivid colors and surprising shapes.
Abrupt cliffs of orange stone, home to miniature, vertical forests of grey and green lichens, held my gaze. Lacking trees for scale, Sinker Creek Canyon loomed larger than it seemed from the road. It reminded me of the Nevada mountains where what first seemed to be patches of green grass on the mountainsides were in fact entire forests of aspen trees.
I followed a different track up from the canyon back to the main gravel road and slowly wound my way up into the mountains. I set my eyes on the highest peaks hoping I would soon find my way there.
Immersion in the environment is a joy of riding. The open air conveys scents and changes of temperature. I relished the aroma while passing through forest carpeted green and spotted yellow. It was not the wet smell of Wallowa woods, moss and earth, but a drier smell of bark and sap. It reminded me of the woods around our home as a boy. It felt like somewhere I belonged.
I saw a dozen jeep trails peeling off that I wanted so much to explore.
I passed many grand views until descending a hill to Silver City. I made it!
“Silver City, Idaho is one of the few old mining towns that did not burn down or become commercialized into a modern city. Visiting Silver City is like going back into history. The Idaho Hotel is as it was 100 years ago with few modern amenities."¹
I cruised a festive main street crowded with residents and visitors involved in a big game of horseshoes. It was like driving through someone’s picnic. Moms pulled their kids out of the way to let me pass.
The hotel is a picture of dissonance, appearing on the verge of collapse in some areas but freshly painted and decorated elsewhere.
Packed lunch in hand, I swung open the worn door to the hotel foyer to see if there was a place I might sit while eating. The double dining room doors were closed while paying guests sat down to a family-style dinner. Rather than intrude, I decided to find somewhere outside.
I walked up the dirt main street to a picnic table situated above the park where horseshoes were flying. My sandwich was nicely compacted from the day’s bumpy diversions. As I sat and ate turkey on flatbread, I watched ATVs, the main get-around-town vehicle, loaded down with entire families, sometimes three or four kids riding fenders or racks.
I felt welcome in Silver City. The people in these little towns always seem more straight-forward to me.
After finishing lunch and walking around the town a little, I felt I’d seen as much as I could in the time I had. I was ready to be on my way.
Before exiting town, I looped around a few side streets on the motorcycle to see the old buildings. Some of the streets were so steep and rutted it seemed you’d either have to walk or ride on knobby tires if you lived up there.
I reserved enough daylight to attempt the War Eagle Mountain summit. I’d passed the turn-off just a mile or so before Silver City. The dirt road upward was lined with evergreens. I waved to folks settling in around their fires at the several occupied campsites I passed.
Here as in other mining towns of the era, the average lifespan seemed to be three decades. It puts whatever hardships we might experience in perspective.
Only a few of the headstones identified the interred and none were still standing. They’d all been removed from their original base and embedded in haphazard horizontal cement slabs. These few were connected by long rows of the “unknown.” How so many lost their identity was a curiosity.
A small detour to leave some tracks in summer snow seemed important.
The final ascent to War Eagle summit was a rough and rutted Jeep trail but nothing the GS hadn’t seen before. The wind was cold and the light nearly horizontal when I stopped at a bit over 8,000 feet. I sauntered around the summit enjoying the 360-degree view, wishing I had time to follow roads farther into the mountains.
I was glad we hadn’t tried other trails. I didn’t see any coming through to the summit.
A mine noticed on the way up required at least a quick look on the way down.
Hundreds of mines pock-mark and honeycomb the mountains; one had upwards of seventy miles of tunnels laboriously hand-dug through it. Between 1863 and 1865, more than two hundred and fifty mines were in operation and hundreds more were developed thereafter.¹