Sagebrush: More Than a Weed

Sagebrush 1

At one time I considered sagebrush a sort of useless weed, a wasteland by-product, but since have become fascinated by this important and productive plant and its useful place in a healthy ecosystem.

On a recent trip to central Idaho, we drove for miles on roads winding through sagebrush meadows, a terrain often called prairie or steppe. An attractive roadside sign titled “Wildlife in the Sagebrush Meadow” piqued my interest and when we returned home I delved deeper into the marvels of sagebrush.

Sagebrush comes in a variety of sizes and is a coarse, many-branched, silvery-grey shrub with yellow flowers and silvery-grey foliage. Sagebrush thrives because a long taproot draws water from deep underground. In the meantime, its shallow roots collect scarce rainwater near the surface. Rub a silver-green leaf between your fingers to smell the sagebrush’s distinctive pungent odor, similar to terpentine. Once sagebrush has passed the seedling stage, it can reach ages of more than 100 years. It can grow 2 to 12 feet tall.

Although often too dry to support trees, sagebrush prairies support nest sites and provide cover from wind and predators, harbor food for insect-eating wildlife and provide the main winter food for sage grouse and pronghorn antelope.

Many species of animals call sagebrush “home,” including hundreds of birds, 70 mammals, 23 reptiles and amphibians, 72 spiders and more than 100 insects. Interestingly, pronghorn antelope are the only large herbivores who browse on sagebrush extensively. Some birds, such as sage grouse live nowhere else. These many species are important to the sagebrush ecosystem itself, providing crucial services such as dispersing seeds and preying on insects and rodents. Idaho grows ten different kinds of sagebrush and all provide unique habitat for wildlife prairie dwellers.

In addition, plants and grasses that grow under the sagebrush provide nesting materials and protein-rich insects for birds. Sage grouse depend on mature shrubs for shelter in winter and camouflage nesting sites under the protective canopy of leaves in spring.

Sagebrush habitats across the West have been greatly altered by a century of settlement, livestock grazing, agriculture and weed invasion. With care, these valuable sagebrush prairies can be managed and rejuvenated to enrich habitat for the myriad of wildlife that depend on it.

Here are a few steps that can be taken to preserve sagebrush:

– Eliminate invasive plants, such as cheatgrass that chokes out native sagebrush. Other invasive plants include Russian knapweed, jointed goatgrass, and musk thistle.

– Off-road vehicles, primarily all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) can damage biological soil structure. Their wheels can carry and transport seeds of invasive plants. Regulated areas should be off-limits to such vehicles. In addition ATVs create noise and disturbance to the animals that the sagebrush prairie supports.

– Limit the conversion of sagebrush land to cropland or pasture. Reduce the number of stock allowed to graze the small plants and grasses in sagebrush prairies, and also eliminate grazing May through mid-July to avoid trampling of ground nests and nestlings.

Sagebrush is a rugged plant, but is suffering from human interference. This essential shrub now needs human intervention to protect its vital existence in a healthy ecosystem.

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In the Immigrants’ Footsteps

ID Covered Wagon 4


As early immigrants struggled along the Oregon Trail, they had a tough decision to make as they made their way through Idaho. Should they risk the danger of crossing the Snake River or endure the dry, rocky route along the river’s south bank?

The original course of the Oregon Trail was from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City in the Willamette Valley. Although fur trappers and explorers used the travel corridor since 1811, most pioneers traveled the trail by wagon train from 1841 through 1848. By the 1860’s the trail was used very little as an emigration route.

The Oregon Trail entered Idaho in the southeast corner of the state. At Fort Hall, it joined the Snake River, following the south bank until a crossing was reached near what is now known as Glenn’s Ferry. The route left Idaho near Fort Boise after winding through 500 miles of the state.

Crossing the Snake was always dangerous, but when the water was low enough to negotiate, everyone who could took advantage of the more favorable northern route to Fort Boise. Those who crossed the river found more potable water and better feed for their stock. But during high water, most immigrants were forced to travel along the South Alternate route into Oregon, a difficult dusty trail that took its toll on man and beast.

About half of the immigrants chose to attempt the crossing by using the gravel bars that extended across the river. Not all were successful and many casualties were recorded in pioneer diaries. Many diaries also recounted how the Shoshone and Piutte Indians helped the immigrants cross the river, claiming they would have never made it without their help.

The Three Island Ford was used by pioneer travelers until 1869, when Gus Glenn constructed a ferry about two miles upstream.

Three Island Crossing State Park is located on the Snake River, just four miles off I-84, 72 miles east of Boise. As weary travelers, we drove into the park in the late afternoon on a scorching hot day. Although we didn’t have a reservation, we lucked out with a lovely, shaded campsite. We breathed a sigh of relief as we settled into our green oasis. Once rested, we enjoyed hiking the trails throughout the park. One of our hikes took us to the site where Gus Glenn’s ferry entered the water. Cables and equipment are still visible and informative signs helped us to imagine immigrants, covered wagons, stock, and freight crossing the river.

A special attraction here is the Oregon Trail History and Education Center where emphasis is placed on the Euro-Americans and Native Americans working together at the Snake River crossing. Many exhibits demonstrate the hardships of the trail. Of particular interest was a packing list for the Oregon Trail and a life-sized covered wagon. The Center also features Native American life, together with a tipi and native craft work. A small theater shows an orientation film about the Three Island Crossing.

Three Island Crossing State Park was a memorable experience with comfortable surroundings and an opportunity to learn of the area’s place in Oregon Trail history.

A Two-Horse Mining Town

In 1864, two prospectors met a man with two bay horses, horses with hair coat color characterized by a reddish brown body and black mane and tail. The man told the prospectors of a rich mining ground he’d seen. Eventually the site was found and the name Bayhorse given to the creek, town and mining district.

Bayhorse, now a ghost town in central Idaho’s Custer County, is a fun and informative place to experience a fascinating part of Idaho’s mining heritage. Nestled in a narrow, rocky canyon about three miles from where Bayhorse Creek enters the Salmon River, the old mining town was at one time a rich silver and copper producing ground, but now its richness is in its history.

Early residents must have developed strong climbing muscles. Although the trails are well maintained, it takes a little effort to navigate the steep paths to view the interesting nooks and crannies. Go ahead: Stop to rest while looking at the breath-taking view of lush hills covered with aspen and Ponderosa pine.

Informative signage gives visitors the flavor of those long-ago days when, in the early 1870s, a rich vein of silver was discovered. Soon a smelter, mill and eventually a town of 300 sprang up around the steep rocky slope. Before families came, the area was a tough place with lots of whiskey consumed. With the presence of wives and children, the drinking was cut down considerably and it became a much more peaceful, civilized community.

With the success of the smelter, the town grew and businesses thrived. People flocked to the area, including mining engineers, miners, stone masons, loggers, merchants, mill men, businessmen, doctors, cooks and laundrymen. The town included several saloons, meat markets, general stores and boardinghouses. The majority of the buildings were made of wood with local stone foundations. Some of these old buildings still stand.

The Bayhorse Mill is the dominant structure of the site. The multi-level mill was built on a hill in descending stair-step levels. It relied on gravity to move the rock through the mill and used water to wash the pulverized rock through the millworks. From there the ore moved across sluice boxes, to settling tanks, and finally to the concentrating tables at the bottom of the mill.

During Bayhorse’s most productive years, 1882 through the 1890s, ten million dollars worth of metals–silver, gold, copper and lead–were extracted from the region. By the turn of the century only a handful of miners remained. In the end, nearly 100,000 tons of ore was pulled from the mountains, leaving more than 25,000 tons of tailings and mine waste. Eventually, devastating fires, dwindling reserves of high grade ore and failing silver prices doomed the town’s existence.

An intriguing stone building, locally called the Wells Fargo Building, is one of the more intact standing buildings. It was possibly named after the design of early Wells Fargo buildings. Although its use is unknown, the sturdy building was possibly used to store bullion before it was transported.

The construction of nine charcoal kilns in 1882 saved transportation costs and created jobs. The conical “beehive” construction needed no bracing and was built of native stone. The kilns were easy and cheap to build and were strong enough to endure the operation’s low heat requirement. More men were required to cut and supply wood for the kilns than to actually operate them. In total, it took 48 men to supply wood and operate the kilns to produce the charcoal to keep the smelter operating. The kilns were abandoned in 1895 and coke was shipped in from Ketchum, ID to operate the smelter.

Transportation was a big problem from the early days around 1870 through the early 1900s. The remoteness and difficulty getting the product out of the area for processing made it almost impossible for the small claim owner to survive. Snow-blocked passes made winter travel impossible. The closest railhead in Blackfoot, Idaho was 375 rough and dangerous miles away. By the time the product was delivered to its destination, the minors often spent more for transportation than they took from the rich earth.

Bayhorse is a part of Idaho’s State Park system and there is a $5 entrance fee. Although there is no overnight camping, the spacious parking lot can easily accommodate RVs. Further up the road, there are a few small campgrounds with no water. We stayed at nearby Bayhorse Campground, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, a nice little place with 14 campsites suitable for RVs, available water and pit toilets. The campground is near the town of Challis, Custer County seat.

To get to Bayhorse mining town: From Idaho Highway 75, between Challis and Stanley, just east of milepost 236, cross a one-lane bridge and you’ll see the signs to Bayhorse.

MOLOKAI: The Most Hawaiian Island

“Slow down, this is Molokai” the road sign advised as we drove our rental car from the Molokai airport. It’s good advice, but challenging when you’ve just arrived from a rush-rush and highly scheduled world. It didn’t take long to get into the swing of things though and oh! letting go and slowing down was one of the best parts of our two-week visit to Molokai, the Most Hawaiian Island.

The fifth largest of the Hawaiian chain and located just south of Oahu, Molokai has made no attempt to keep up with the tourist attractions of its big sister islands, Hawaii, Oahu, Kauai and Maui. Rugged mountains, crashing surf, sweeping empty beaches, a definite lack of tourist catering and strong Hawaiian culture lure only a certain type of traveler. You won’t find a commercial lu’au, big resorts, mega shopping centers, or a number of fancy restaurants here. But if you’re looking for a true Hawaiian adventure, where native culture is woven into everyday life, Molokai is just the place for you. Outdoor activity is supreme here with horse-back riding, biking, hiking, kayaking and swimming, all under the umbrella of wild outdoor beauty. Going for a drive is a pleasure with very little traffic. We drove as long as two hours without encountering another vehicle.

While the main roads going west to east, Highways 460 and 450, are paved, many roads are not. No road circles the island. You can pretty much drive from one end to the other, but then you must turn around and return on the same road. There isn’t a single stoplight on Molokai and we never saw a building over two stories high.

The people of Molokai love to share their culture and sites. For a small island–40 miles long and 10 miles wide–it possesses numerous natural wonders. One of the first things I would recommend is buying a good map. The most accurate one we found is published by the University of Hawaii Press, available at many of the Molokai stores. Road signs aren’t always posted and if you’re like us, poking around back roads is what we love to do most, but getting hopelessly lost isn’t.

Lodging is available through condominiums, bed and breakfast, home and cottage rentals and small-scale hotels. One constant condition in Molokai is the ever-changing ownership and availability of lodging, stores and restaurants. A good idea is to check the Internet for rental opportunities. We did, and were delighted with our condo located close to the beach, and only a few steps from a gorgeous pool.

Molokai’s main town, Kaunakakai, is located in the center of the island on the south coast. In appearance Kaunakakai is unassuming with its tin-roofed buildings but you’ll find pretty much everything you’ll need–a gas station, groceries, clothing, hardware, pharmacy, and bakery. At Molokai Fish & Dive you can make arrangements for a cruise, a fishing expedition, a snorkel dive, or a kayak adventure at the largest barrier reef in Hawaii. Another excellent stop is the Kamakana Gallery, featuring local craftsmen and artists is located in Kaunakakai on Ala Malama Avenue.

We noted that most Hawaiians speak Hawaiian to one another; even the children, a strong indicator of their cultural pride. Most people do speak English as well, so language is not a barrier for visitors.

We brought our own, but you can also rent snorkeling gear. You must be cautious though and inquire first before swimming. Many of the beaches are treacherous with strong currents, rough wave action and rocky shores. Swim only at recommended locations. Generally, south shore beaches, such as Murphy’s Beach Park, are sheltered and quiet within the protection of the barrier reef, while east end beaches outside the reef can be dangerous with pounding surf. North and west shore beaches range from quiet to rebellious, depending on the season. Ask about local conditions before you enter the water.

Guided and unguided hiking trails abound here. The Halawa Valley guided hike is beautiful and not too challenging. Cool off by taking a delightful swim at the base of Moa’ula Falls. Another splendid guided hike is to the Mo’omomi Beach Preserve where you see unique coastal dunes that are an important nesting site for the endangered green sea turtle. On the Kamakou Preserve guided tour you follow a boardwalk through rain forest near the summit of Molokai’s highest mountain, home to more than 200 species of plants found nowhere else in the world. Unguided tours are all over the island–follow mountain trails, miles of sparkling beaches or red-dirt roads winding through lush fields of crops including sweet potato, watermelon, coffee, corn, tomato, onion and papaya..

Camping is popular on Molokai at state, county or private parks. Horseback riding and bicycling are available through various outlets. Contact the Molokai Visitor Association for names of camping sites, hiking guides, bicycle rental and horseback riding opportunities.

A drive to the Halawa Valley at the extreme eastern tip of the island is a spectacular destination and is known as one of the world’s great wilderness regions. As you enter the valley, the road narrows to one lane, so drive with caution, but the view is worth the adventure! The end of the road opens up to a tiny bay and a breathtaking view of a valley so green I had to keep reminding myself it was real.

One memorable day we rode mule-back down the 1,786-foot Kalaupapa Trail to visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park on the northern coast to learn about Father Damien’s work in a leper colony. The adventure was sobering, yet inspirational.

If your idea of a great getaway is wide open space, crashing seas, pristine barrier reefs, breathtaking views, all wrapped up in friendly local culture and a low-key, old-fashioned “aloha” spirit, you’ll surely find your dream on Molokai. For more information, visit

Treasures of Old Town, Albuquerque

San Felipe De Neri Catholic Church. Photo Courtesy of Heidi Thomas

Strolling down Old Town Albuquerque’s cobbled streets lined with brightly colored adobe structures, I sense the area’s ancient, rich history. Haunting melodies from a Native American flute drifts among the ancient buildings. To the east, the Sandia Mountains sprawl in their majestic beauty.

The Albuquerque area has been inhabited for hundreds of years, first by Native Americans, then beginning in 1598, the area was conquered and reconquered. Finally, in 1706 Francisco Cuervo y Valdes founded a villa first named San Francisco Xavier de Albuquerque. It was later renamed and finally called the name recognized today, Albuquerque.

The settlement consisted mostly of farms strung out along the Rio Grande. Apache and Comanche raiding made it necessary to create a defensible populations center, so a villa, or plaza, was formed.

The Sante Fe Trail between Missouri and Mexico opened in 1821, after Mexico won her independence from Spain. Albuquerque became an important stop and freighting center along the way. In 1850 New Mexico became an American Territory.

Between 1867 and 1878, Albuquerque was a quiet community with a population of less than 2,000 people. A few businesses served local farmers and sheep herders. With the promise of a railroad coming to Albuquerque, businesses and immigrants flocked to the area.

Then came the discouraging news that the railroad would be routed about a mile and a half to the east of the plaza. Starting in 1880, a “New Albuquerque” began to spring up by the tracks and many of the Old Town business relocated.

In 1912 New Mexico became the 47th state.

In the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Old Town was rediscovered by artists and merchants. In the 1950’s, many buildings were restored in the Spanish/Pueblo Revival Style. Today a stroll through Old Town reveals a delightful mix of businesses and residences in Spanish Colonial, nineteenth-century and modern styles, representing Old Town’s long and varied history.

Winding down colorful brick paths, visitors discover The Rectory, San Felipe De Neri Church, Sister Blandina Convent, Our Lady of the Angels School and many other historical sites. Several of the structures, mostly built of adobe, are still used today, though not necessarily for their original purpose.

Of particular interest is The Albuquerque Museum in Old Town. The large facility is dedicated to preserving the art of the Southwest as well as 400 years of Albuquerque history as shown in exhibits and artifacts of colonial life in New Mexico. Delightful sculpture gardens grace the Museum grounds. Both indoor and outside tour guides share fascinating tidbits of Albuquerque history.

If you travel to Albuquerque, be sure to take in Old Town. Step along ancient streets, do a little shopping and treat yourself to a traditional southwest dining experience. Old Town Albuquerque has a unique flavor shaped by centuries-old cultures.

Sixty Miles of Beauty: Oregon’s Central Coast

One of the most beautiful coastlines in the world can be viewed along Oregon’s Highway 101. The amazing variety of sights include broad, sandy beaches, high, sheer cliffs, craggy shoreline rock outcroppings, historical lighthouses, majestic forests and gigantic sand dunes, all connected by architecturally impressive bridges.

State and private parks abound for RVers and campers, or hotels, motels, condos, and bed & breakfast establishments for those who don’t care to haul equipment. Over the years, we have visited most of the coastal parks and have our favorites. On our last trip, we concentrated on Oregon’s Central Coast which stretches 60 miles from Lincoln City to Yachats with Depoe Bay, Newport, and Waldport in between.
We camped north of Newport at Beverly Beach State Park where getting to the beach is a breeze. An attractive arched walkway leads visitors under the highway and onto a wide, sandy beach stretching from the Yaquina Head Lighthouse to the headlands of Otter Rock. Brave souls surf; beach combers find their treasures along a shoreline known for its fossils.

The park’s interpretive programs and the displays found along nature trails teach visitors about bats, beavers, cocoons and salmon migration. Close by, whale watching is popular at several spots including Depot Bay, Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint and Yaquina Head.

Stopping at a Visitor Center is worthwhile for tips on what to see and do in the area, to purchase books or souvenirs, or talk to the knowledgeable people behind the counter.

We like to make a State Park our headquarters and branch out from there to explore. The seaside towns are fun and we spent time in several. Newport is one of our favorite places and is home to the famous Oregon Coast Aquarium and Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center. Each unique little town offers its specialty and the drive between them is always spectacular with ocean views.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, visible to the south of Beverly Beach State Park, is a must-visit. Its 93-foot tower is the tallest on the Oregon coast and stands 162 feet above sea level. Completed in 1873, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse beacon is visible 19 miles out to sea, flashing its unique pattern of 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 14 seconds off. The adjacent Yaquina Head Interpretive Center helps visitors appreciate the rich history of the area.

The town of Florence, Oregon, south of the park and situated on the bend of the Suslaw River, is the gateway to the spectacular Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The area is popular among off-road-vehicle riders, but also has areas closed to all but foot traffic.

Five bridges cross channels along Highway 101: Yaquina Bay in Newport, Alsea Bay in Waldport, Siuslaw River in Florence, Umpqua River in Reedsport, and Coos Bay in North Bend. Four of the five bridges were built in 1936 and were designed by Conde B. McCullough, Oregon’s master bridge builder. The bridge McCullough designed for Alsea Bay had to be replaced in 1991, but the new bridge pays tribute to McCullough by incorporating an arch, which was a hallmark of his bridge designs. An impressive little free museum, Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center in Waldport, offers good information on Oregon’s McCullough bridges.

The Oregon Coast is a satisfying, exciting destination, whatever your preferred lodging might be. Oregon’s coastline is often referred to by North, Central and South Coast. Each is unique and beckons, “Come, stay awhile.”