Idaho May 27, 2017
The Crazy Reason Idaho Is Full Of Underground Hermit Caves Will Surprise You
If there’s one thing you learn by researching Idaho’s history, it’s that the Gem State was founded on stamina, sweat, and vision. The sheer desire to carve a living out of the landscape dates much farther back than the Gold Rush; instead, Idaho’s place in pioneer and trail-blazing history is a fascinating one.
The remnants of the men and women who contributed to forming the state we know and love today left their mark on history and on the landscape itself, often literally. Wagon ruts, pictographs, and ruins dotting the state are all unique places to explore, offering glimpses into the past that can’t be found in history books. One such place is perhaps the most overlooked of all, but it’s hidden away in the heart of one of Idaho’s most historic regions: the Salmon River Valley, birthplace of Sacajawea and landmark town for the Corps of Discovery. Here, you’ll find the remnants of a dugout cave system that is fascinating, to say the least – and few people know about it.
According to the one who knew him best, Idaho's most down-to-earth curmudgeon was 92 years old and lived in a hole - to others, he was Idaho's one-man tourist attraction: the "Salmon River Cave Man."
a.k.a Richard "Dugout Dick" Zimmerman. As legends have it, he was the last of Idaho's "river-canyon loners," a group consisting of famously un-famous names like Beaver Dick, Cougar Dave, and "Buckskin Bill."
He and his peculiar, hermit-like caves, which he painstakingly dug by hand into the hills alongside the Salmon River, that is.
A curious, eccentric, and musical Idaho community member, he left a mark on one of Idaho's most rugged and cherished landscapes: the Salmon River Valley.
Dugout Dick lived on a hillside above the Salmon River from 1948-2010, where he built his first home in the side of the mountain. Over the years he built a dozen or so, living in each at various points and renting out some of the rest until his passing.
But as luck would have it, few people who drive by this stretch of riverway even know that there is a unique history here, or what artifacts and memories lie buried beneath what is now volcanic dirt and hardened rock.
Truth be told, he didn't own the land where he built his dugouts -- essentially, he was a squatter. Eventually, the BLM gave Dugout Dick a lifetime lease on the land he had occupied for decades. The former cave sites can be seen from Highway 93, despite being nearly 18 miles from the center of town.
Whether called "eyesores" or labeled unique by locals, either way, by the 1980's, Dick's dugouts had become a local landmark in Salmon.
After digging directly into the hills, the cave entrances were formed and repurposed from whatever materials Dugout Dick could haul across the river on a makeshift cable: car doors, barn scraps...
As Dick would have told you, he ran away from Michigan decades prior, and living off the land in Idaho - gardening and enjoying the quiet of nature - was a dream come true.
He carved switchbacks into the mountainside with his bare hands, bored refrigeration units into the dirt walls to use the earth's natural cooling system. The dugouts had no electricity or plumbing, however; he got his water from a small spring trickle out of the mountainside.
Altogether, he built over a dozen of these dugout caves, renting them to any passerby up for the challenge.
Even as he aged, he enjoyed giving tours of the caves to visitors, proudly showing off newspaper clippings about the renowned "Salmon River Cave Man."
Later in life, he had to endure multiple nursing home stays, but he eventually hitchhiked his way back to his home along the river, where he lived out his remaining days.
After Dugout Dick's passing, the BLM bulldozed and filled in the historic caverns.
Today, you won't be able to decipher from the hillside that the caves still exist, buried beneath the earth.
The odd collection of shelters is no more, and gone are the fragmented remnants of his pieced-together, foraged lifestyle.
All that remains is a single cabin and a memorial tribute to this unique pioneer who lived off the land.
The one thing Dugout Dick might've told you if you had paid a visit 20 years ago? These caves are haunted by the spirit of his own former sweetheart, Bonnie. So while seeing this historic hermit cave-turned-cabin is worth the trip, there might just be a little extra spook in it for those willing to take the risk.
Talk about one of the most interesting characters and interpretive sights in Idaho!