Our Northwest

Driving Idaho's twisty, harrowing highways

Wednesday, July 30, 2014by  Jon Osterberg

Last Saturday I survived driving Idaho's U.S. Highway 95, labeled the deadliest road in the state and often listed among the nation's 10 deadliest (according to NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration).
   I took delight in driving U.S. 95's steep, serpentine Old White Bird Hill, once derided by former Gov. Cecil Andrus as "the goat trail." The hill also marks the site of a lopsided 1877 Nez Perce victory over U.S. Army soldiers who pursued Chief Joseph's Wallowa band when they refused to relocate to the Nez Perce reservation.
   In June 1975 a new 7.2-mile, 7% grade (top photo, in background) replaced the old U.S. 95 White Bird route, eliminating 10 switchbacks, nearly five miles of narrow blacktop, and countless frazzled nerves.
   My wife and I had driven up White Bird Hill exactly one year earlier, on June 15, 1974, in route from Arizona to Rathdrum, Idaho. The steep, winding, scenic two-lane road etched itself into my memory, and I had long wanted to drive it again.
   On Saturday I stopped several times to hop out on the road and shoot photos. Not a problem
in the 45 minutes it took to ascend the hill, we never encountered another car.
   What baffles me is, as much as White Bird impressed us in 1974, the comparable harrowing Lewiston Hill of U.S. 95 etched no memory at all in 1974. Not for me or my wife.

   It's baffling because the 1917 "Old Spiral Highway" twists 2,019 vertical feet up a hillside for 10 miles, reputedly with 64 turns and nine or 10 switchbacks. It offers a spectacular view overlooking Lewiston, Clarkston, and the Clearwater and Snake rivers. We looked down on the old road last weekend after ascending the steep multi-lane Lewiston grade, which opened in October 1977.
   How could I not remember that old twisty road? We would have reached it about 90 minutes after topping Whitebird Hill.
   Someday I'll return and drive the Old Spiral Highway, which may seem like an odd ambition for a guy who fears heights. And when I do I'm sure it will make an impact, much like driving White Bird Hill, Montana's Going To The Sun Highway, Colorado's Independence Pass, Dead Horse Point on the Hart's Pass Road, or any mountain highway lacking guardrails.

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