Alf Alderson takes a road trip through the sublime landscapes of Idaho and Montana
IT'S POSSIBLE that you've never heard of Boise, the state capital of Idaho, yet it's a vibrant and diverse city full of green spaces and great bars and restaurants.
Boise is a good starting point for exploring the splendid Rocky Mountain scenery that surrounds the city - point your steering wheel north and venture on a 305-kilometre drive to the iconic Idaho mountain resort of Sun Valley.
En route pass one of America's chilliest towns, Stanley (annual average temperature 1 degree Celsius) before topping out on 2,652-metre Galena Pass in the evocatively named Sawtooth Mountains. Stop to admire the serrated ridges and peaks before dropping down to Sun Valley, holiday home of movie glitterati such as Tom Hanks, and the associated town of Ketchum - once known as Leadville for its lead mining connections and later as the largest sheep-ranching centre in the West.
It's worth spending a day to hike in the nearby Sawtooths; or stay locally and take a ski lift to the summit of 2,788-metre Mount Baldy, where one can walk or mountain bike on dusty trails that in winter become some of North America's longest ski runs; or just enjoy the views.
Next day head east on the 358-kilometre drive to West Yellowstone, crossing the bizarre Craters of the Moon lava field. Drive right through the lava formations and stop-off to see the surreal cornucopia of cinder cones, spatter cones, lava bombs and tubes is a must.
From here cross the arid Snake River Plain to the town of Idaho Falls (look for the "wedding cake" Mormon temple in passing) then start climbing back up into mountain country on US Highway 20 crossing into Montana at 2,155-metre Targhee Pass. If time permits take a short detour to the spectacular 34-metre torrent of Upper Mesa Falls; it's not the end of the world to miss it as one soon hits Yellowstone National Park with enough natural phenomena and scenery to blow your mind.
West Yellowstone reveals time-honoured spectacles such as Old Faithful geyser (which blasts up to 30,283 litres of superheated water up to 55 metres every 91 minutes) and roadside wildlife like elk and coyote.
The next leg of the drive is the longest - 434 kilometres from West Yellowstone to Missoula - so get an early start as there's plenty to see along the way. The journey north along the Gallatin Valley is glorious - the setting for Robert Redford's film A River Runs Through It - and it's commonplace to see fly fishermen at the river's edge and even a moose or two supping from the river banks.
Stop for coffee or lunch at the stylish Gallatin Gateway Inn on US 191, a former railroad hotel just south of the university town of Bozeman, or try the art deco Baxter Hotel on Bozeman's Main Street. From here head northwest on Interstate 90 past the former mining town of Butte, once called "the richest hill on earth" for its immense silver and copper deposits.
Things are considerably quieter since the mines closed in the 1980s, but there's a strangely compelling attraction to the town and the massive toxic pool of Berkeley Pit, once the largest open-pit copper mine in America. It sits oddly with the surrounding wild landscapes on the way through the Garnet Range to Missoula.
Spend a day in this leafy town before continuing north on US93 to Whitefish through yet more lovely mountain scenery and past the occasional buffalo ranch. On the way encounter the blue waters of Flathead Lake, the biggest natural body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. Since the drive is only 198 kilometres there's time to enjoy the water at the town of Polson, in a rowboat or passenger steamer, or swim at one of the lakeside beaches.
Next stop, the funky town of Whitefish, an excellent base for exploring Glacier National Park. The park has over 700 lakes, 563 streams, 25 glaciers, awe-inspiring peaks and wildlife such as bears, wolves and mountain lions. Get out and hike those inspiring landscapes on one of the many marked trails.
The penultimate day of driving involves 322 kilometres through some of the wildest and most remote territory in Montana, through the deep forests of the Purcell and Cabinet mountains, past the blue collar logging town of Libby and back into Idaho and the bustling town of Sandpoint, set beside the dazzling blue Lake Pend Oreille.
This is an easy place to spend a day on the beach, or take a hike in the local hills before making the short drive to Spokane from where to catch the flight back to Boise.
Or you may prefer to retrace your journey through some of America's magnificent mountain landscape.
Hotel 43 (www.hotel43.com) is a well-located downtown boutique hotel; doubles from US$123. Chandlers (www.chandlersboise.com), next door to Hotel 43, is a great dining option specialising in steaks and offering seafood specialties.
Sun Valley Resort (www.sunvalley.com) has been the choice of the rich and famous for almost 80 years. Doubles from US$200. The Grill at Knob Hill Inn (www.knobhillinn.com) offers casual but refined dining and focuses on locally sourced produce, particularly game.
Firehole Ranch (www.fireholeranch.com) is an award-winning fly-fishing lodge with upscale cabins on the shores of Hebgen Lake from US$515. It also makes a great place to dine, with gourmet western cuisine being the speciality.
Hilton Garden Inn Missoula (www.missoula.hgi.com) is situated downtown close to Interstate 90 with rooms available from US$139. Red Bird Restaurant (www.redbirdrestaurant.com) specialises in sustainably grown local produce and is located in the historic Florence Building in Missoula's attractive downtown area.
Kandahar Lodge (www.kandaharlodge.com) is seven miles outside the town at top ski resort Whitefish Mountain, offering luxurious rooms from US$129. Café Kandahar (www.cafekandahar.com) in Kandahar Lodge is one of the region's top dining options with an award-winning wine list. Alternatively head into town for Wasabi Sushi Bar & Ginger Grill (www.wasabimt.com), one of the most popular eateries in northwest Montana.
The Lodge at Sandpoint (www.lodgeatsandpoint.com) is a lovely boutique hotel on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille with rooms from US$179. The Bistro Rouge Café in Pend d'Oreille Winery (www.powine.com) has a varied menu complemented by an award-winning selection of wines.
Getting there: Flights from Hong Kong to Boise cost from HK$8,360 with United Airlines.