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Marcia Rogers is a Northwest native who enjoys writing non-fiction.

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North Idaho Activities Travel Article

Silver Valley Mine Tour

Idaho's Silver Valley by Marcia Rogers

Rich in "Wild West" history, and natural beauty, The Silver Valley in North Idaho has year round activities for the whole family.

Have you ever been down into the pitch black, chilly depths of a silver or gold mine? Have you ever wondered what a miner must do to earn a day's wages? If you remember learning about mining and railroads in school, a visit to Idaho's Silver Valley, the richest silver mining region in the world, will make those lessons a reality.

We stopped in Wallace, Idaho, for the Sierra Silver Mine Tour, a unique family experience. Hard hats, distributed by the experienced miner who leads the tour, were mandatory. The miner explained that we will be making a short loop through the tunnels in the side of the hill and gave animated explanations of displays and exhibits located along the length of the tunnel. We watched demonstrations of both modern and historic mining techniques, including the drilling of smooth cylindrical core samples from the walls. We got to take home palm-sized pieces of rock containing silver ore.

Even with up-to-date equipment, mining is dangerous and backbreaking work. This type of employment pays well, but requires physical strength and endurance. Workers need not apply if they frighten easily, fear the dark or are claustrophobic. The jackhammer operation is noisy, and the gravel floors a little muddy and uneven, so children under 4 years old aren't admitted. For everyone else it's a real eye opener.

About 1000 people still work the mines in this region. Ore from the Sierra Silver Mine wasn't abundant enough to be profitable. It was first converted into a teaching facility before becoming a tour. A course in mining was an elective at the local high school up until a few years ago.

Wallace, IdahoThe town of Wallace itself is well worth spending time in. Every building is on the U.S. National Historic Register. Walking through the town on foot is like stepping back into the early 1900's. Free maps pinpoint and describe historic homes and downtown buildings. Check out the visitor attractions, such as the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum, the Wallace District Mining Museum, and the Sixth Street Melodrama theatre. Although there is nothing risque here, the Oasis Bordello Museum isn't for children. Many jewelry stores, antique, and specialty shops are interspersed with eateries of all kinds.

The raw beauty of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains and ambience of the vicinity attracts not only tourists, but the Hollywood film industry as well. Dante's Peak, a major motion picture starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, was filmed here in 1996. Remnants from the set are still in evidence. Rent the volcano disaster movie when you get home and let the kids identify the familiar background scenes.

During our visit, a weekend long Mountain Man Rendezvous was taking place in a camp right across the river from Wallace's main street. Hazy smoke drifted over the area from the campfires and the black powder muzzle load rifles being fired into the air. Tee Pees were pitched for sleeping, and rustic pine log chairs and benches were crafted on the spot. Participants of all ages wore buckskin clothing, heavy with fringe. Visitors were welcomed with samples of food cooked over campfires in crusty bottomed cast iron spider skillets.

Wallace, IdahoWallace is located in The Silver Valley, which has year round activities for the whole family, including alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. Lookout Pass Ski Area is known for its family atmosphere and free ski school for kids 6 to 17. Nearby is Silver Mountain Ski and Recreation Area. Both resorts are praised as being inexpensive, fun, and only about a five-hour drive from Seattle.

If winter sports are not for you, how about fishing, camping, mountain climbing, river rafting, kayaking, golf, or seasonal deer and elk hunting? Particular tracks have been designated for ATV or 4-wheel vehicles, too.

For mountain bikers and hikers only (no motorized vehicles allowed), the Route of the Hiawatha is a beautiful section of abandoned railroad bed converted into a wide trail. Ten tunnels and 7 high trestles enliven the 13-mile route. Wildlife and scenic views abound. This is just one small section of the Rails to Trails bike routes in the area. Mountain bikes, helmets with lights, and other equipment for adults and children can be rented at the Lookout Pass Ski Area, a few miles east of Wallace. The reluctant rider can upgrade the rental to a bike with front suspension and a more comfortable seat. Maps of the trail are available at the ski area and the Best Western Wallace Inn.

Does a 13-mile ride sound a little too ambitious, or is your family a little out of shape (like mine)? Newly opened for the summer of 2001 is the 1.7 mile long Taft Tunnel. Originally build between 1907 and 1909, it was part of the world's most expensive railroad project. Take Taft Exit #5 off I-90 and follow your map to reach it. From there, inexperienced or time-limited bicyclers can ride all down hill! The grade slopes moderately, making this a fairly easy ride.

A shuttle runs daily during the season between the Roland and Pearson trailheads. For more information on the Route of the Hiawatha trails, call Lookout Pass Ski Area (208) 744-1301 or write to them at P.O. Box 108, Wallace, ID 83873.

Story (c) Marcia Rogers
Photos (c)

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