Moscow, Idaho: Rural Oasis
My green Forester snaked through the snow-covered hills of the rural, 4,000-square-mile Palouse region of northern Idaho and eastern Washington. I thought that if it weren’t for the occasional painted barn and towering grain silo, I could very well be on another planet entirely – a planet where every corner might as well have an artificial frame with an accompanying sign that said, “Place camera here for perfect picture.”
My destination was the quaint town of Moscow, Idaho, for a wintry weekend escape. It didn’t require too much of a commitment because, well, I live there. A western oasis of 26,000 people, Moscow is a bit of an Idaho cultural oddity. Home to the University of Idaho, the town embodies the American tapestry, from artists and hippies to students, musicians and lumberjacks – all of whom, it seems, can regularly be found at the Saturday farmer’s market.
Even in the icy grasp of old man winter, downtown Moscow has an inviting air, with its wide sidewalks, strangely appealing blend of 1880s-to-1980s architecture, and trees twinkling with frost and Christmas lights. The real prize, however, is a dense, three-block area of Main Street, largely insulated from traffic noise by the one-way streets that surround it. This helps create a pleasant, no-rush vibe for those wishing to dine, shop or stroll. At least that’s the idea. On this weekend in late February, there isn’t a parking spot to be found. Every winter, thousands of students arrive for one of the biggest jazz fests in the country, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Culminating each year with a unique student/professional performance, the four-day fest has hosted performances by Taj Mahal, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Lionel Hampton himself.
Once parked, I set off around downtown to stretch the legs, grabbing an Americano coffee at One World Cafe. The building’s drab green metal exterior is a deceiving cover for the open, brick-and-mortar, two-tiered interior. Inside, doors, of all things, hang high above in suspended animation. They are art installations, but also I suspect, helpful with acoustics for musicians performing on the bright red stage.
Properly caffeinated, I strolled to The Storm Cellar, a wonderful consignment shop with a truly eclectic range of offerings. A green velvet picture frame sits across from a pile of old books carved into big letter-shaped decor. Across the room I spied a pair of ivory-colored women’s dress shoes. “They’re a pair of Alexander McQueens,” store co-owner Austin Storm said. “McQueen was a remarkable British fashion designer known for his pageantry of fashion shoes. They probably would retail for more than $500.” I loved Austin immediately, as his sincerity and genuine passion for his wares was contagious.
Co-owner Austin Storm inside The Storm Cellar, an eclectic consignment store in Moscow, Idaho.
Having temporarily gotten my fill of the cosmopolitan side of Moscow, the next day I headed out to explore the hills, which regularly draw painters and photographers from around the world. Early May brings one of the most picturesque seasonal transitions in the western U.S., as maturing winter and spring wheat transform the dune-shaped hills into a vast emerald landscape. A photographic encore occurs in late July when the wheat turns from green to gold. Though sans vegetation in the winter, the smooth gradients of the landscape are accentuated to an even greater degree, the tapered troughs and peaks sometimes startlingly reminiscent of a reclining human form.
The rolling hills of the Palouse region.
Armed with snowshoes from local outfitter Hyperspud Sports, I headed with friends to Steptoe Butte State Park to execute a photo idea I’d had in the works for a few years. The 800-foot butte, though not a brag-worthy summit in itself, still towers above the sea of hills and is a perfect spot for a good view. Due to snow drifts, we parked at the bottom and slogged up the normally drivable spiral road. The drifted, windy slopes resulted in less-than-ideal skiing conditions for my friends, but it made for some great shots for me, including one of a skier soaring through the air with the rolling farmland extending to the horizon.
We headed back toward Moscow with damp feet and contented hearts, another backyard adventure in the bag. In Pullman, Washington, we made a mandatory stop at Etsi Bravo for a happy hour Rye N Gosling cocktail, a drink that is at least 500 times better than the film The Notebook. The speakeasy-style bar boasts an eclectic crowd, but I wasn’t sure where we fit in with our GORE-TEX® pants. The welcoming co-owners Cory and Blake Preston, however, never seem to mind appearances. Another draw? Etsi offers no less than five ages of Van Winkle bourbon, ranging from 10 to 23 years. Also, for hungry patrons, some of the best chops and pastas this side of the Snake River can be found downstairs at the Black Cypress restaurant.
After attending the grand finale of the jazz fest, which, as always, wowed as the students strived to impress the myriad jazz icons in attendance, I finished the night with a Terminal Gravity IPA at the comfortably divy John’s Alley Tavern. Following, I made one last evening ramble through downtown, passing under the 100-year-old Hodgins Drug and Hobby. Of course Moscow has a drugstore/toy store, I thought. Doesn’t every town? You know, that funky, one-stop shop where you can pick up Lord of the Rings-edition Lego® sets and a refill of antibiotics? As strange a combination as it is, it really is a fitting addition to a town with an accommodating air and little concern for pretense.
There’s Plenty to Do in Moscow, Idaho
For fun and adventure in Moscow − check out where to find food, drinks, music, shopping, outdoor activities and special events like festivals, plus a special food discount for Subaru owners.
Food & Drink
Bucer’s Coffeehouse & Pub: Fresh, in-house roasted coffee.
Moscow Food Co-op: Organic brew done right.
One World Café: Offers fair-trade and organic coffee varieties.
The Black Cypress (Pullman, WA): Superb Mediterranean cuisine in a comfortable, old-meets-new atmosphere.
Bloom: Healthy, light breakfasts made with fresh ingredients.
The Breakfast Club: Diner-style breakfasts − try the huckleberry-zucchini French toast.
Humble Burger: $5 burger Subaru owners mention this article for $1 off order (for a limited time)
Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana: Wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas.
Mikey’s Greek Gyros: A lunchtime favorite that is tastefully divey − try the deluxe gyro with feta.
Moscow Alehouse: Great $10 burger and lots of taps − Monday is wing night.
Moscow Bagel & Deli: Post-bar munchies and open ’til 3 a.m. most days.
Moscow Food Co-op: Delicious organic and vegetarian deli foods and salads − the gluten-free mac-and-cheese and BBQ tofu are downright tasty.
Nectar: Wine bar with $10 Meatloaf Mondays that will change your idea of gourmet meatloaf.
Red Bento: Deluxe sushi and teriyaki.
Sangria Grille: Mediterranean fusion with a novel-sized menu that will have you coming back.
Wet Your Whistle
Corner Club: A Sports Illustrated “Top 25 Sports Bars.”
The Garden Lounge: $2.75 well drinks every Blue Monday.
Hunga Dunga Brewing Company: Expanding the gospel of outstanding Northwest microbrews.
John's Alley Tavern: Good microbrews and frequent live music.
Moscow Alehouse: Home of the featured brewery night and $1.75 Tuesday tap-a-keg pint night.
Tapped Taphouse & Kitchen: Wide beer selection and brick-and-mortar atmosphere.
Bucer’s Coffeehouse & Pub: Live music with classic UK ambiance.
CJ’s (Cadillac Jack’s): Country Swing Night Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Dust off the boots!
Etsi Bravo (in Pullman, WA): The swankiest joint north of the Columbia – a speakeasy bar on weekdays and dance club on weekends.
John’s Alley Tavern: Regular live bands and $2 tubs of PBR will get the feet moving.
One World Café: Live music and cool architecture.
Bill Chipman Palouse Trail, Palouse Path and Latah Bike Trail: Twenty miles of paved trails connect nearby Pullman, WA, to Moscow and east to the forested foothills of Troy, ID.
Moscow Mountain (15 minute drive) and Palouse Falls State Park (1.5 hour drive): A stunning 200-foot waterfall and rugged canyon.
The Snake and Clearwater Rivers (40 minutes away): World-class steelhead fishing; rent SUP boards or kayaks at the University of Idaho Outdoor Rental Center or take a jet boat tour into the deepest river gorge in North America, Hells Canyon.
Steptoe Butte State Park (40 minute drive): Panoramic view of the picturesque hills − best in late May or early June (for green hills) or late July (for golden hills). For mountain biking trails, rent bikes from Paradise Creek Bicycles or Follett's Mountain Sports.
Sports Gear & Rentals
Follett’s Mountain Sports
Hyperspud Sports: Broad selection of outdoor gear and apparel for camping, skiing, climbing and backpacking. Rentals available.
Paradise Creek Bicycles: Rentals available.
White Pine Gear Exchange & Fly Shop: Affordable used and new outdoor sports gear and clothing, plus fishing guiding services.
University of Idaho Outdoor Rental Center
Ampersand Oil & Vinegar Tap House: Refillable olive oil and vinegar varieties.
BookPeople of Moscow: Independent, new and used bookstore since 1973 − used-book sales benefit nonprofits and schools.
Cowgirl Chocolates: Gourmet chocolates with a “spicy cowgirl kick.”
Hodgins Drug and Hobby: Drugstore/toy store combination that is a 100-year-old Moscow fixture.
The Storm Cellar: The latest in pre-used classic apparel consignments.
Other Activities & Events
The National Lentil Festival: In Pullman, WA, every August. Enter a recipe in the Legendary Lentil Cook-off.
Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival: One of the biggest and oldest jazz festivals in the world, during February, that is organized by the University of Idaho.
Moscow Farmer’s Market: Spring through fall every Saturday on Main Street.
Moscow Mountain Madness: Running races during September on Moscow Mountain, with 50K, half marathon & 5-Mile races available.
Wild @ Art: Great for groups of all ages − paint your own coffee mug, plate, bowl or more.
A skier getting backcountry airtime at Steptoe Butte State Park.