By Shelly Romine
For Inland 360
This approximately three hour round-trip drive begins at Greer, ascends the Greer grade to Weippe, Pierce and Headquarters and then loops back around to Orofino along Grangemont Road. Explorers, historians, photographers, and adventurers alike will enjoy beautiful scenery, many historical sights, a multitude of hiking trails and even a reservoir near the end of the trip for swimming or fishing.
The Gold Rush Historic Byway begins at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Idaho Highway 11 at Greer. A steady climb up the Greer Grade will provide breathtaking views of the Clearwater River and valley below. There are several turn-outs for photography options along the way. At the top of the grade, the rolling hills of the Camas Prairie unfold in a carpet of grass and wildflowers – an oasis on top of the world. Old homesteads, dinosauric relics, dot the landscape – gentle reminders of those who came in hopes of striking it rich and left when the gold ran out.
The drive from the top of Greer Grade will take you right by Fraser, an unincorporated settlement, as well as Fraser Park, a nicely wooded day use area, a great place to stop and enjoy a picnic.
The Weippe Prairie is designated a National Historic Landmark site. It was at this location that the Nez Perce first encountered Lewis and Clark on Sept. 23, 1805. As the story is told, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition had just crossed the Bitterroot Mountains and the men of the expedition were starving when they met the Nez Perce. Members of the tribe fed and cared for the expedition members before the group continued on its way. A sign commemorates the location.
The town of Weippe lies just miles from the landmark site. Fur trappers moved into the area after the Corps of Discovery expedition’s visit. This was followed by an influx of prospectors when gold was discovered in 1860. By 1861, the Pierce and Weippe areas saw a flood of homesteaders arrive after the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed.
In Weippe, stop by the Weippe Discovery Center at 204 Woods Road for an impressive display of painted murals and maps which will point visitors to the original Lewis and Clark Trail and campsites in the area.
CHINESE HANGING TREE
After leaving Weippe, the next stop along the route is at milepost 27.5, the site of the Chinese Hanging Tree. Visitors can take a short hike up the trail from the parking area to view a memorial for five Chinese immigrants who were charged with killing a local merchant. The five men were being taken to Murray, Idaho for trial when a group of vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands. Markers along the trail to the memorial tell of the discovery of gold in the area, the role of the Chinese and the vigilantism which occurred.
Pierce has the distinction of being the location of the first major gold strike in Idaho. Wilbur F. Bassett first made the discovery of gold on Sept. 30, 1860 at Canal Gulch, located at milepost 28.6. Elias D. Pierce, also credited with the gold strike, led 12 prospectors, including Bassett, from Walla Walla to the area a month prior to the discovery. Once news got out that there was gold in “them thar hills,” it wasn’t long before the area was inundated with treasure seekers. The town of Pierce City was built two miles from the gold strike, as was the little town of Oro Fino. Oro Fino would become the business capital for this region and was prosperous until the gold ran out. The town was destroyed by fire in 1867.
Pierce is one of the oldest towns in Idaho and is home to the oldest courthouse which still stands in the state. It was named the county seat of Shoshone County in 1861 by the Washington Territorial Legislature. When Idaho Territory was established in 1863, Pierce City incorporated into it and the county seat was moved.
There are several points of interest in Pierce. On Main Street is the J. Howard Bradbury Logging Museum. Inside this quaint cabin built back in 1928, visitors can explore artifacts and learn about the area’s mining and logging history. After Labor Day it is open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays by donation, according to the Pierce-Weippe Chamber of Commerce website.
Adjacent to the museum is the original Shoshone County Courthouse.
Another point of interest is the Chinese Cemetery, which is just around the corner from the Our Lady of the Woodland Church at 101 Woodland Ave. The cemetery once held the remains of Chinese immigrants who died in the area.
DEER CREEK RESERVOIR
Heading north on Highway 11 toward Headquarters, a few miles off the byway road is Deer Creek Reservoir, a fun stop for those wanting to do some swimming, fishing, hiking, or wildlife viewing. This 80-acre reservoir built by Idaho Fish and Game and the Potlatch Corporation is open all year to visitors but motorized access to the reservoir is only allowed between May 20 and Sept. 30. Outside those dates you’ll need to walk in and it is about a half mile hike to the lake from the parking area.
The last stop on the Gold Rush Historic Byway is the small town of Headquarters, once a busy and thriving logging community. Created by Potlatch Corporation, it was once the hub for 15 different company logging operations.
From Headquarters turn around and head back on Highway 11 until you reach Hollywood, Idaho which is the entrance to Grangemont Road and will lead you back to Orofino. The return leg of the trip to Orofino will take about a half an hour, but there is no shortage of beautiful scenery along the way.