Idaho: The Harley rider's Gem State
Idaho’s nickname, the Gem State, is just about perfect. Our five-day tour of Idaho was just about perfect, too. We happened to pick a week in July that was unseasonably hot, with temperatures sometimes over 100, not a drop of rain anywhere, and 1,000 miles of gorgeous roads ahead of us.
Although I had to make one emergency stop before leaving for Idaho, the folks at Skagit Harley-Davidson in Burlington, Washington, were nice enough to slip me into their schedule because they knew where we were heading. Rob, Jay, and the crew (mostly from Idaho) installed a new cruise-control module to replace my failing one so Sue and I could make it across Washington and into Idaho with a little more comfort. Cruise is a great convenience for transiting eastern Washington.
We elected to start our exploration with Idaho’s only port city. That’s right, a port city. Lewiston, Idaho, is at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, which deep-water ships navigate via the Columbia River all the way from the Pacific. Our route would take us eastward across Lolo Pass to Missoula, Montana, south along the Bitterroot Mountains and across Lost Trail Pass, then farther south along the Salmon River and into Sun Valley. From there, we hooked westward, bordering the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness Area (whew, that’s a long one), the Sawtooth Mountains, and into McCall, Idaho. The loop was complete when we arrived back in Lewiston from the south, having traveled almost exactly 1,000 incredible miles.
We left early, in the cool of the day, knowing it was going to top 100 degrees. US-12 heads east through small mining towns like Orofino, where we found a great little local café for an all-American breakfast. Idaho has a relativly small popultion compared to other places. That makes many of the small towns that line the highways great places to meet local people, talk about their towns, and enjoy local cuisine. The food often arrives at your table with a “Here ya go, hon!” Definitely not something you hear often in the big city.
One thing we noticed in Idaho was people talking to us at just about every single stop, and we stopped a lot. The temperatures kept us stopping more often for water than gas. I don’t know if it was because Sue was with me, or because the bike started out kind of bug-free, but people always asked where we were from and where we were heading, and to my delight I usually got a comment about the “nice-lookin’ Harley!” People have good taste in Idaho.
From Lewiston, the Clearwater and then the Lochsa Rivers hug the highway almost all the way to Lolo Pass and the border to Montana. It is an awesomely beautiful ride. Early in the day there is little traffic and it’s easy to ride and still see the sights because they’re right there next to you. Every few miles there is a turnout, usually with a Lewis and Clark Historical Marker containing an interesting bit of history. Sleepy little towns dot the highway until you start the climb into the Bitterroots. I naively thought this was going to be the prettiest part of the ride. Boy, was I wrong!
One stop you should make is the town of Lowell, population 23. Gas up (last service for 35 miles), get yourself hydrated, pass the time, and stretch your legs, because the ride to Lolo Pass will take some serious concentration. The ride starts with gentle winding curves along the river and then mixes in some tight hairpins, all of it climbing to the 5,233-foot summit. All the way, you’re surrounded by the Clearwater National Forest, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Bitterroot National Forest. It is a difficult proposition to watch the road and not the scenery, but you also have to watch for wildlife. Deer are everywhere. Small, unidentifiable (except by locals) animals scamper across the road. Large identifiable bears lurk in the bushes, although we didn’t see one. We did see many, many riders, though. Nearly every rest stop had an equal number of riders and Lewis and Clark historical markers. We split our time equally, reading and talking. At every rest stop, I wondered how Mr. Lewis and Mr. Clark managed to get across that country without nice smooth pavement.
Lolo Pass, the first of our three passes, was “only” about a mile high. The staff at the visitor’s center was delightful and full of interesting information. Sue checked out the Lewis and Clark information and explored the walking trail. I was anxious to explore the highway leading back down the mountain, which was every bit as stunning as the ride up the pass. More intense concentration got us safely down the pass and past Missoula, where we turned south onto US-93—still no bear sightings.
The high-desert area was hot, fairly straight, and very dry, so we made our way quickly towards Lost Trail Pass and the border back into Idaho. Lost Trail Pass is a full 2,000 feet higher than Lolo. It is not for the faint of heart. Although the road is very nice indeed, the uphill switchbacks made the ride to Lolo Pass seem comparativly easy. There are true 25-mph turns where you had better be going 25 because you cannot afford to miss a turn unless you have packed a parachute. At 7,014 feet, you will probably notice the relative lack of oxygen if you’re a middle-aged rider like me. Again, the views are amazing and you owe it to yourself to stop at the viewpoints, read about Lewis and Clark, catch your breath, and let your engine’s oil temperature cool.
We were truly awed by the views as we descended, looking far, far below us at the winding highway we would eventually descend to. I was very glad we were on the Electra Glide, as a sportbike would tempt me beyond reason, although Sue would certainly bring sanity back to the equation with sharp whacks to my helmet.
From Lost Trail Pass we continued along the Bitterroot Range. The mountains were now on our left. High desert or not, the rock formations were stunning and we caught glimpses of antelope looking down from the hills at the highway. (I was very disappointed not to see a bear chomping berries along the route.) The town of Salmon, at a mere 4,004 feet, is chock full of local hideaways that reveal themselves only when you stop to talk to the folks that live there. That led us to the Salmon River Café, which was a totally local breakfast hangout where we heard about John Deere tractors and the local grange. Great food and a lot of it. We spent that night at the Stagecoach Inn, right on the River. The staff took extra care, allowing us to park under cover and in sight of the front desk, which was a definite plus.
The next morning took us farther south, with the Lost River Range to the east and the Challis National Forest to the west. Our southernmost point was the town of Arco. A dot on the map, Arco hides its famous roots quite well. Known as the town of “Root Hog” in 1901, Arco was the first town in the entire world to enjoy nuclear-generated power in 1955. Arco is also the home of the Idaho National Laboratory.
Just west of Arco are the Craters of the Moon National Monument, billed as “The Strangest 75 Square Miles on the North American Continent.” It does look like an alien place. Volcanic action along the Great Rift has turned the area into a barren, black-rocked landscape that looks like something from a science-fiction movie. Locals told me that astronauts actually trained there briefly before making the first moon landing.
As we rode farther west approaching Hailey and Ketchum we nearly missed the town of Picabo (“Peek-uh-boo”), which of course inspired the Street family to name their daughter Picabo, who won a silver medal in skiing at the 1994 Olympics.
As we approached Sun Valley, roads became busier, slower and much more tourist oriented. The airport near Hailey was well stocked with private charters and Lear jets, likely belonging to the rich and famous who frequent Ketchum all year. Very large SUVs and Hummers with matching trailers inhabited the roads, so we were busy watching for them. Ketchum was a great place to spend the night. If you have only one night there, you need to have dinner at the Pioneer Saloon in the center of downtown. It is clearly the hot spot for the best steaks you will find in southern Idaho. The baked potatoes were about the size of my helmet.
The next morning, we awoke to the sound of roughly 30 Harleys firing up in the parking lot. A group of Ohio riders had snuck in during the night and were getting an early start. What a great way to wake up! Thankfully, most had quiet touring mufflers, plus the riders were courteous with their throttles as they motored out of town.
Little did we know that once we passed out of Ketchum and into the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, we would be right on even more beautiful roads. Just north of us we found the area where we really did need to watch for bears (finally!). A few years back, when “problem” grizzly bears were identified in Yellowstone, they were captured and relocated here. Again, according to local lore. I just know they were out there, perhaps waiting near a Lewis and Clark historical marker.
While keeping our eyes peeled for grizzly bears, we discovered a road with signs indicating Redfish Lake, just 6 miles outside of Stanley. It turned out to be an excellent stop for breakfast. The Redfish Lodge, built in 1929, is home to an entire complex, with boat and bicycle rentals, rental cabins and lodge rooms, a general store, restaurant, and gas station. Redfish Lake, pristine, gorgeous, and absolutely crystal clear, is a 5-mile-long glacial lake surrounded by the Sawtooth Mountains.
We started climbing again. This time we went even higher than before, to Galena Summit. At 8,701 feet, it is nearly 2,000 feet higher than Lost Trail Pass. Coming down from Galena Summit I saw my absolute favorite view of the entire ride. Looking west into the Sawtooths, we could see a stunning vista stretching 180 degrees from north to south. The Sawtooth Mountains were in the far distance, with the valley floor spread out below us. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest most of my life and I have never seen a view like this. It is worth the trip to Idaho. We spent a long time at the viewpoint, reading the Lewis and Clark historical marker, and trying to get a little tiny squirrel to come closer for a very small portrait. I never did get that picture. The bears were apparently afraid of the squirrel, so I didn’t get that picture either.
We made our way back down through the mountains again, roughly paralleling the South Fork of the Payette River. This is rugged country and the thought persisted that our forefathers were tough nuts indeed to have traveled this way on foot. At the town of Lowman we took a right onto a nearly unmarked road that wound down about 40 miles to intersect Highway 55. From there we continued north to McCall. All along Highway 55, and then US-95, we spotted river rafters braving some class-three rapids. The area around Riggins is one of the most popular areas in Idaho for river rafting.
After the views we had seen on this trip, the remaining few miles into Lewiston seemed tame, although if you were to reverse the route and see this portion first, it would be stunning as well. In just a few hours, we rode out of the Sawtooths into hot, rolling hills along the Salmon River leading into Lewiston.
If you are looking for a gem of a place to ride, Idaho is it. The sparse population gave us a feeling of riding alone. Plus, despite never actually spotting a bear, it was nice to know they were watching us from a distance riding our Harley through the Gem State.