Trail’s four loops and 14 fine courses invite discovery
When captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led their ‘Corps of Discovery’ out of St. Louis in 1804 to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent,” as President Thomas Jefferson had directed, they began with over 40 men, a keelboat, two pirogues, a dog and the faith that somehow they would return. The story of their journey through the uncharted West, including present-day Idaho, is one of courage and challenge, loss and triumph. Two centuries later, much of the topography first glimpsed by the explorers remains the same: Wild rivers, majestic mountains, deep canyons, rolling hills.
When my young daughter Jordana and I decided to escape the suffocating humidity of Connecticut a few summers ago to explore the newly formed Idaho Golf Trail, we began with two sets of clubs, a state highway map, a spotless rental car, a double CD set of “The Very Best of the Eagles” and the hope that the Trail’s resorts and courses would measure up to the untamed wilderness we would see during our 800-mile windshield tour through the state.
In their quest for a Northwest Passage, Lewis and Clark made contact with Native peoples, identified hundreds of plants and animals, and mapped countless landmarks as they wrote the first story of the American West. Golf-wise, we were pioneers blazing a trail created by the state to inspire players to haul their sticks to an unheralded region of the northern Rockies.
To most westbound travelers, Colorado, specifically Vail and Aspen, defines the Rocky Mountain summer experience. Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Big Sky, Montana are both on the trend meter. But Idaho, which only joined the Union as the 43rd state in 1890, was virtually off the charts as a golf destination until the state’s Travel Council linked up six courses in 2003 to attract visiting players.
We circumnavigated the state from capital city of Boise in the southwest to the forested panhandle up north, traveling from sagebrush-covered hills to enchanted Sun Valley to a vast central realm with more dedicated wilderness than any other state in the lower 48. The scenery beat the courses, 1 up, but with a new eastern loop recently added to the Trail, I’d reckon the match is now even.
Our first stop was Boise, a friendly city with a revitalized downtown area. Many believe Boise will be the next Denver in a decade or two. The sprawling city occupies high desert and anchors the Treasure Valley, which grows the sweetest peaches in the West. For visitors embarking on the southern loop of the Trail, the logical starting point is BanBury Golf Course in the suburb of Eagle, site of the 2005 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. With a sub-$40 green fee for walkers on weekdays, it is the most expensive facility in Boise but the least expensive course on the Trail.
After touring the layout, a classic parkland spread routed around the south channel of the Boise River, its slippery greens running at 12 on the Stimpmeter, we sat down with Carl Wilgus, a state tourism administrator and one of the Trail’s major advocates. Like other golf-minded officials across the nation, Wilgus and his colleagues were inspired by the success of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a landmark development that significantly raised the Dixie State’s tourism profile. As a first stab, Idaho joined together several fine daily-fee and resort courses in the southern, central and northern sections of the state. The courses are widely spaced, the better to showcase the state’s extraordinary natural beauty.
After covering the basics, Carl and I were soon talking about our favorite golf spots in the West. Bandon. Pebble. Tahoe. We were about ready to cross the border into Mexico when Jordana, realizing we had drifted off the main topic, set down her lemonade, stood up and said, “Are we done here?” The two words every married man has committed to memory were uttered simultaneously: “Yes, dear.”
The 2 ½-hour drive east from Boise to Sun Valley took us across a broad expanse of high desert into steep brown hills studded with black volcanic rock. Gold country. The trappings of wealth appeared shortly.
Sun Valley was founded in the mid-1930s by W. Averell Harriman, the Union Pacific Railway chairman who decided that a destination resort was the best way to boost passenger traffic. A frequent visitor to the Swiss Alps, Harriman hired a friend, Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to scour the Rockies to find the perfect place to build a winter resort. Despite its remoteness, the Count pronounced the isolated valley in Idaho’s southeast corner, a valley blanketed with powder snow in winter and blessed with abundant sunshine, to be the ideal place. And so it was. After engineers were challenged to improve on the rope tow, a cable and pulley system was devised and the nation’s first chairlift was born. Harriman’s PR guy coined the Sun Valley name and brought in Hollywood stars to give the place the patina of celebrity. The framed black-and-white pictures in the hallways of the Sun Valley Lodge—Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe–tell the story of the resort’s early days, but all the glory is not past. While having a look round the game room and bowling alley downstairs in the Lodge, I spotted Jamie Lee Curtis at one of the lanes with her young son. I could have sworn he winked at my daughter.
Sun Valley’s current owner, Earl Holding, head of Sinclair Oil, is a self-styled hospitality tycoon who acquired the ski mecca in 1977 and has invested millions since on new day lodges and restaurants, snowmaking systems and lift equipment. Holding has steadfastly preserved the scale of the resort and has never, according to locals, built anything ‘for sale.’ A tree-hugger, not a golfer, it was he who decreed that thousands of blue spruce trees be planted around the resort’s golf course, a William P. Bell design opened in 1938 and revised by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. 40 years later. I don’t subscribe to the theory that trees are a defect on a golf course, but there is no recovery to be made from these spiny conifers should your ball disappear—FFFffffftt!–into one.
While unforgiving to offline shots, the layout itself, now called Trail Creek, is magnificent, the holes moving up, down and across a narrow valley threaded by the eponymous creek, which flanks or crosses seven holes on the front nine. The back nine, highlighted by fairy-tale mansions and the original 1936 chair lift, builds in interest. The finishing holes are carved into a ridge high above the river. Situated at 5,800 feet, you won’t gasp for oxygen during the round, but you will get a little extra distance off the tee. It’s only useful if you’re straight. Otherwise, welcome to Santa’s workshop.
In 2008, Sun Valley significantly boosted its appeal to golfers by opening White Clouds, a 3,605-yard, nine-hole alpine-style links set on mostly treeless high ground. A polar opposite of Trail Creek, this expansive layout serves up exalted views from its slanted fairways of the Wood River Valley and surrounding mountains. For a gentler outing, there’s the 18-hole Sawtooth Putting Course, patterned after the Himalayas putting course at St. Andrews. To invite family participation, fees are nominal and putters are provided.
Because Sun Valley is located at the western limit of the Rocky Mountain time zone, the days, even in late summer, are unusually long and languid. Through mid-September, the best time to tee off is 4 p.m. By the dinner time, when shadows fall and the sun turns the hills to gold, it’s easy to see why Ernest Hemingway retreated to Ketchum, Sun Valley’s sister town, in his final years. While he completed For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Sun Valley Lodge in 1939-40, it is the early Nick Adams stories, written about fishing in Michigan, that come to mind while walking along the banks of Trail Creek, one of his favorite fly-fishing streams. His memorial is located above the creek a mile from the resort.
The healthy lifestyle reigns supreme in Sun Valley, an all-encompassing destination for fitness enthusiasts. One fine morning, Jordana and I rode a series of chairlifts, which run at half-speed in summer, to the top of Bald Mountain at 9,150 feet. We hiked the Broadway Trail, a rock-strewn path trail lined with wildflowers, to Seattle Ridge, taking in distant views of furrowed peaks in the Sawtooth and Smoky Mountains. Their north-facing slopes were still pasted with snow in mid-August. At this altitude, the silence is deafening, the grandeur palpable. As we hiked back to the chairlift, paragliders, like great colorful birds, began to circle the summit, climbing high into the sky before gliding down the face of the mountain towards the base lodge. What a thrill. Maybe next time.
Following our descent (on the chair lift), we enjoyed a buffet lunch on the terrace of the Lodge overlooking a covered outdoor ice rink where neophytes as well as world-class skaters practiced their leaps and spins and toe loops. Later, we saddled horses at Sun Valley Stables and climbed a narrow trail up the flanks of Dollar Mountain, its slopes popular with novice skiers in winter. Had we more time, we could have joined mountain bikers and in-line skaters on the resort’s extensive trail system. Windsurfing, water-skiing, jet-skiing and swimming are available in three nearby lakes. Warm weather brings music, too. The Summer Symphony offers pops, classical and chamber music concerts on the esplanade. Admission is free.
A word about the social scene in Sun Valley. Sun Valley is an Establishment getaway. Moguls and their families have been vacationing in this remote cleft of the Rockies for generations. Holding’s fiefdom is Nantucket with mountains. The staff at the Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn, both recently updated hostelries that date to the 1930s, is primarily European. Their attire is Tyrolean by day, formal at night. Their accents come as a bit of a surprise in these woodsy parts, but for them, the Rockies are the Alps. The food is a match for the crisp service. The Ram Restaurant, attached to the Inn, is one of several first-rate dining spots at the resort. Jordana, who watches the Food Network religiously, pronounced its haute cuisine, prepared by a French chef and served on a flower-decked terrace, flawless.
But it wasn’t her favorite restaurant. That accolade goes to the Pioneer Saloon in nearby Ketchum, an authentic western town with raised wooden sidewalks and vintage storefronts. The Pioneer is a landmark eatery on North Main Street, a cowpuncher’s retreat that doubles as a hall of taxidermy. Any animal in the American West that can be shot or reeled in has been stuffed and mounted on the saloon’s wooden walls. Heads of buffalo, moose, elk and bighorn sheep crowd the walls above the booths and tables. So do trophy trout the size of tuna. There are long rifles suspended over the bar that no 21st-century man could ever hold steady. The steaks are thick and juicy. The Idaho baked potato (an extra $2.50) is the size of a football. Served with sour cream and chives, it’s an incomparable spud.
The drive from Sun Valley to McCall took us through the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, some 1,180 square miles of alpine wilderness. From the Galena Summit, the row of jagged peaks in the Sawtooth Range, several of them reaching 10,000 feet and higher, really did look like a saw on its back, as the old-timers described it. Vast and magnificent as they were, the Sawtooths were eclipsed by the Payette River Scenic Byway, a two-lane road that twists along the wild river’s rapids and pools. Steep, forested slopes rise up on both sides of the V-shaped river valley, the Payette’s thundering whitewater a beacon for rafters, kayakers and thrill-seekers.
Our destination was Tamarack Resort, a $1.5 billion ski, golf and lake development located on the outskirts of McCall, a mile-high resort town in the center of a broad valley. McCall has been positioned as “the next great place” ever since a Spencer Tracy movie, Northwest Passage, was filmed there in 1938. Tamarack, the first all-season resort to be permitted in the U.S. in over 20 years, ran into a brick wall called the Financial Meltdown of 2008. It is bankrupt. All of the amenities at the resort have been shuttered, save for one: Osprey Meadows Golf Course.
Debuted in 2006, Tamarack’s key amenity is one of the finest new courses in the Rockies. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. was handed a generous 400-acre parcel that tumbles from the base of the ski mountain to a series of wetlands near the shores of a lake. Jones, who said minimal excavation was required given the site’s “extraordinary constellation of natural features,” built a grand-scale test that moves through lush meadows, waving grasslands, groves of aspen and towering Ponderosa pines. A few specimen trees have been left in the center of a few fairways to keep things interesting. Off the fairways, the spectral limbs of dead trees, called snags, have been retained as nesting sites for eagle and osprey. Streams and ponds stocked with trout come into play at seven holes. The views to the east across Lake Cascade, a reservoir that serves as a staging area for waterfowl, look to distant peaks in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Except for Alaska, there are more acres of roadless wilderness at Frank Church than anywhere else in the U.S.
Osprey Meadows measures 7,319 yards from the double black diamond tees, but the blue square and green circle tees, marked like ski trails, are designed for enjoyment, especially with five par fives and five par threes in the mix. The controversial par-five 18th, a sharp left-to-right dogleg with two forced carries, a pair of island fairways and a paucity of short grass, thankfully was fixed before the auditors arrived.
A short drive north of Tamarack is Jug Mountain Ranch, which opened in 2006 and is one of many fine new additions to the Trail. Laid out by Don Knott, a former Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design associate, the layout is a throwback to another time, an unembellished, lay-of-the-land track where the ball can be played along the ground. Man-made features were kept to an absolute minimum on this 7,265-yard layout. The reasons were two-fold: the land was good; and no tomfoolery could compete with the views across the broad valley. Also, the owner’s mandate to the designer was simple: “Build us a golf course that doesn’t screw up the ranch.”
Knott, who whittled the landscape in small bits to make way for golf, installed only 12 bunkers on the first nine holes. Centerpiece of a low-density development—1,100 acres of the Ranch’s 1,410 acres have been set aside as open space—this walker-friendly links, routed at 5,000 feet above sea level, is an unsung gem. With its turf-roofed, tree-shaded clubhouse benched into the side of a hill, Jug Mountain Ranch makes a virtue of modesty. Given the beauty of the setting, the $40 weekday green fee through June 30 ($50 in summer) is a bargain.
Our last stop in the central portion of the state was the Whitetail Club, a Trail member with an asterisk. Whitetail is first and foremost a member’s club, though guests of the deluxe 77-suite Shore Lodge can play the semi-private course, a solid Andy North-Roger Packard design. Major tweaks and improvements through the years have significantly enhanced the golf experience at Whitetail, especially for the good player. The layout, a straightforward parkland spread dotted with pines and framed by mountains, is very fair and very well-kept, but unlike the lodge, there are no views of deep-blue Payette Lake, which seems a shame. The layout, good as it is, would look at home in nearly any temperate zone in the nation. It’s in Idaho, but not of Idaho.
Mindful of the state’s superlative off-course attractions, we had arranged for a jet boat tour of Hells Canyon, a dramatic cleft in the Snake River, a 1,000-mile-long artery that forms Idaho’s western boundary with Oregon. Brush fires ignited by lightning strikes had filled the canyons of North America’s deepest river gorge—yes, deeper than the Grand Canyon—with clouds of smoke, but the trip, offered by Killgore Adventures in White Bird, was stupendous. The triple-engined boat, co-designed by Curt Killgore, son of the company founder, resembles a scaled-down PT boat with a reinforced steel hull. This vessel can turn on a dime and is powerful enough to maneuver upriver through the rapids. We headed south from Pittsburgh Landing, roaring through cathedrals of rock that rise from the river’s sandbars and grassy slopes, the majestic Seven Devils Mountains towering nearly 8,000 feet above the roiling river. We also drifted close to shore to observe a small herd of bighorn sheep. As if on cue, a couple of the rams butted heads, colliding with a loud THUD! We also stopped to explore homesteaders’ ranches and a tall monolith called Sturgeon Rock, which we climbed. After a little coaxing, we leapt 25 feet into the river’s cool waters. The trip took us as far as Hells Canyon Dam, where a visitors center on the Oregon side provided geological details on how the river’s somber cliffs were created.
From the Snake River, we headed for the city of Lewiston, where Lewis and Clark stopped in October, 1805 to purchase fish and dogs to eat. We settled for some Tex-Mex food at a local joint and eventually found I-95, the highway that would deliver us to the Trail’s northern loop. Our first stop was the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley, built on the homeland of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, which encompasses 108 squares miles of mountains, lakes and forests. The resort’s hotel is acceptable, the buffets adequate, the noisy casino (complete with video blackjack dealers) about what you’d expect in this neck of the woods. The reason to visit tribal outpost is Circling Raven Golf Club, which opened to national acclaim in 2003. Designed by Gene Bates, this high-prairie track is currently the finest course on the Trail.
A grand-scale design spread across 620 acres, the layout, seamlessly melded into the terrain, weaves around Ponderosa pines, native Palouse grasses and cat-tailed wetlands. Sightings of elk, deer and moose are common. Black bear are seen on occasion. A few deer carcasses from cougar kills have turned up on the outskirts of the course, but the elusive cats have yet to be spotted. There is no housing to detract from the golf experience at Circling Raven, an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program member.
The golf course reflects the ambitious spirit of the tribe: big, bold holes swept across huge, heaving landforms backdropped by forested ridges. Bates moved plenty of dirt, but except for the giant inkblot bunkers pressed into the landscape, it’s hard to tell where Nature began and he left off. So compartmentalized are the holes on the back nine, the only hole you see is the one you are playing. The four par threes, each averaging well over 200 yards from the tips, are outstanding, though five sets of tee boxes per hole allow the course to play as long as 7,189 yards or as short as 4,708 yards. Each of the large, swift greens is an adventure unto itself. In sum, there’s something for everyone at Circling Raven, named for one of the tribe’s visionary 18th-century chiefs. The rough-hewn clubhouse, including a golf shop, bar and the Twisted Earth Grill, is a perfect match for the course.
We teed it up on a beautiful sunny day with Bob Bostwick, the resort’s public relations director. Bob and Jordana hit it off beautifully, Bob realizing instantly that Jordana is one of those kids who dislikes adults who give her the saccharine treatment. Bob went right for the insults, which is what he and Jordana traded all afternoon. I even think they had a money match. At the end of the day, my 10-year-old daughter walked away with a powder blue logo cap and an enormous jet black raven headcover with a large beak, glassy eyes, and spread wings. Way too big for a kid’s club. Jordana used it as a car pillow for the remainder of the trip.
Prior to golf, a fishing trip had been arranged with Tom Loder, a former engineer who now runs Panhandle Outfitters in nearby Valleyford, Wash. We drove for 90 minutes to angle for wild cutthroat trout on the St. Joe River, the highest navigable river in the world. Tom spaced us along a catch-and-release section of the river and taught us the basic 10-to-2 o’clock motion used to cast a tiny dry fly with a long, willowy rod. Tom warned us that we’d have to be quick on the draw—these were no dumb hatchery trout. I cast into a riffle 40 feet away and watched my sparkle dun fly slurped off the surface. I raised up the rod. Bingo! A trout on the line, my first ever on a fly rod. After I brought a third fish to net, Jordana was fuming. She was happy for me, but…..she was casting in vain. And so Tom took her rod and cast out, rolling the weighted line across the gurgling stream. He hooked a fish and let her play it in. I will cherish always the photograph I made of her holding the cutthroat trout, named for the reddish-orange slash on the underside of its jaw, a young lady in oversize waders, smiling from ear to ear.
After stopping in a few small towns on the return trip, Jordana and I came to the realization that huckleberries are held dear in Idaho. In the course of the day, we saw wild huckleberries, basically a tart blueberry, offered in pies, jams, daiquiris, lemonade, popcorn, gummy bears, taffy and hard candy. The berries, sweetest in late summer, are also dried and chocolate-covered. Our bag didn’t last long.
Our final stop was and is one of the nation’s finest golf resorts. Located on the shores of a lake National Geographic has called “one of the five most beautiful in the world,” the Coeur d’Alene Resort used a gimmick—a floating island green, the only one of its kind in the world—to attract notice at the time the other 17 holes arose on the site of a despoiled sawmill in 1991. The island green has been a double-edged sword: It has achieved iconic status but has detracted from a major makeover by course architect Scott Miller that transformed the course into a much-improved test of golf. Previously, the layout was a bit dainty at 6,309 yards from the tips. The current spread, at 6,803 yards (par 71), is a legitimate test that calls for accurate, thoughtful play.
Getting there is half the fun. From a dock outside the hotel, players hop aboard one of two hand-crafted Honduran mahogany water taxis (Eagle and Double Eagle) that speed across the lake to the course. After hitting floating balls to floating targets at the lakeside practice tee, we were welcomed by a uniformed forecaddie armed with a hand-held laser gun used for distance measurement. Ours, a former PGA Tour looper, was more than happy to let Jordana drive the custom cart with its tilt wheel, heated seats and beverage cooler.
Coeur d’Alene’s front nine boasts three short but tantalizing par threes, notably the revamped fifth, which calls for a dropkick shot to a Y-shaped green defended fore and aft by basalt rock outcrops. The tee shot must carry a sprawling bunker that is three times the size of the putting surface. Beyond the pines that frame the green is the sparkling blue lake.
The revamped back nine is significantly longer and more interesting than the original, especially the majestic par-four 18th, which stretches to 482 yards and has been voted to “Idaho’s Mean 18” list. As for the infamous par-three 14th, well, the floating target is generous—certainly larger than the Cyclopean speck of green on the 17th at TPC Sawgrass—but it still calls for a first-class shot that carries the bulkheading and settles quickly. Overclub, and you’re likely to bounce into a deep nosed bunker or a bed of bright red geraniums at the back of the green. A computerized cable system enables the 15,000-square-foot, 4.6-million pound bentgrass pontoon to be anchored anywhere from 95 to 218 yards from the tee. The green is repositioned daily. Regardless of the distance, it’s a tough shot given the consequences for a miscue. A little electric ferry called Putter shuttles golfers from tee to green. As gimmicks go, this one’s pretty good.
A word about the conditioning of the course. It is flawless. No resort in America pampers its fairways, tees and greens like the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Only Augusta National and a handful of private clubs can match it for attention to detail. There are, for example, no visible waste receptacles. The two rest rooms are subterranean. Rakes are concealed inside specially fitted tubes around each bunker. Course grooming does not begin until play is completed. Mowers are equipped with special lights for night maintenance. You will not see a blade of grass out of place. Few layouts give more pleasure than the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course.
While not much to look at from the vantage point of the lake, the resort’s 18-story hotel tower is exceptionally well-designed on the inside. The premier mini-suites are very comfortable, with large bathrooms and a sunken living room. Most have an outdoor balcony overlooking the lake.
The resort’s top dining room is Beverly’s, which occupies the hotel’s seventh floor. Floor-to-ceiling wine racks, granite floors and copper ceilings now greet diners. The wild game and seafood dishes, paired with a superb array of Northwest and California vintages, are a match for the lake and mountain views at sunset.
I didn’t manage a par at Coeur d’Alene’s raft in the lake, but I did enjoy Cedars Floating Restaurant on Blackwell Island a short drive from the hotel. The pan-fried trout was excellent, and it was fun to watch boaters arrive dockside for dinner. The waiter didn’t have to sell us too hard on the huckleberry ice cream for dessert.
While eclipsed by bigger and better-promoted golf conglomerates, the Idaho Golf Trail, recently expanded to four loops and 14 public-access courses, is well worth the journey. And while the beauty of the courses will grab your attention, the overall excellence of the resorts will be your most pleasant surprise. Along with your sticks, bring your sense of adventure to Idaho. Two hundred years after their heroic push to the Pacific, the place that inspired Lewis and Clark’s fondest journal entries is still incredibly wild and beautiful.
Details: 800-84-IDAHO; www.visitidaho.org/golf