Riding the Alps of Idaho
TThe summer of 2002 was not a good one for motorcycle vacations. Due to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Kris’ job shut down for two weeks forcing all employees to take vacation. Being a relatively new employee, she only had about a week and half of vacation to cover the two and a half week, mandatory furlough. As a result, Kris was in deficit for time off work.
All year we had hoped to get some time off to take our traditional 10-day vacation. Unfortunately, the way the year turned out, we were forced to pack our vacations into three-day holidays. Holidays are not our favorite time to be out on the road because everyone else is on the road too. Nevertheless, we had to make the best of the situation.
Preparation is Key
We figured that we could take Labor Day, the last holiday of the season, and head north into Idaho. One of my very first motorcycle rides took me up to Salmon Idaho and back, but it had been years since then and I had always heard of the many great roads up there that I had never experienced. Well, this seemed as good a time as any. If we stayed on task and did at least 350 miles a day, we should be able to loop the majority of Idaho in four days.
Day one, we rode north out of Salt Lake straight up I-15 and into Cache Valley. We stayed out of Logan and crossed along the west side of the valley by using a small county road, highway 23, that took us all the way up into Idaho where we hopped onto another tiny road, highway 36, more commonly known as Weston Canyon. This tight little road crosses the Caribou National Forest between Weston, Idaho and Malad, Idaho. These small roads are near where I grew up and even though they were still very familiar to me, it had literally been years since I had ridden them last. Used only sporadically by locals, I had forgotten how much fun this great little canyon, empty from automobile use, was to ride.
It was turning into an impeccable September day. The long grasses were still curing and fading from rich greens to the blond shades of autumn and the soft southern breeze was combing through the fields creating a soothing warm mood. The perfection of the moment made riding through the great little canyon almost perfect. Unfortunately, Weston canyon ends abruptly at Malad where we stopped to get fuel.
I had visited this town countless times and its name always seems fitting to the condition of the small municipality. Malad was named by the French who settled the area, malade is French for sick. Local legend has it that, the water there was so bad, even 150 years ago, that it made everybody who drank it ail. The putrid water has not improved much, but I still wonder why they thought it was a good place to build a town.
In an attempt to avoid I-15 to Pocatello, we headed straight west out of Malad using more farm roads; starting with highway 37. For about 20 miles we followed this cute road through empty grassland, passing occasional farm houses and barb-wire patrolled pastures until we turned north onto the Arbon Valley Highway. Highway is a definite misnomer; the road is smaller than highway 37 and is easily the smallest road we had been on all year. In fact, I had to stop and ask a local rancher to make sure I was on the correct road and to make sure that asphalt covered the route all the way to Pocatello. “If you want to stay on pavement, take the right-hand fork,” he warned. That was good enough for me. We forged north at an expeditious pace. The road was engineers-ruler straight with occasional arching corners connecting the arrow-straight sections. The homes became more rare and even the fencing slowly disappeared as we entered into the Curlew National Grassland. I am excited that these grasslands are set aside. For a few brief miles, the ribbon of macadam was the only connection to the modern world.
Not long after leaving the National Grassland, we were buzzing up the road when I noticed the asphalt changed to a lighter color, but dark paths remained from tires. I assumed it was just a patch in the road. I could not have been more right. Without slowing, we rode straight on and discovered the reason for the change in color. The road featured about a three to four inch deep layer of pea-gravel. At a slower pace, it would have been no big deal, but at 90+, it made for a tense moment. MSF proved its value again as both of us used the same tactic. Gently rolling off the throttle, staying clear of the brakes and avoiding any abrupt movements, we eased our way to the other side, back onto solid road, without incident. We then promptly decreased speed substantially. That’ll be an experience we will often tell friends about while sitting around a table nipping beer.
We took the right hand fork, labeled Bannock Highway, and I was encouraged as the road began climbing up over a small mountain pass. Near the top, the road turned immediately to gravel and with great trepidation, I feared that we would be stuck on dirt road until we reached Pocatello, Fortunately, pavement returned a mile or so later and we rode north through a very tight and unpredictable canyon, tightly lined with small homes, into Pocatello.
Stopping again briefly in Pocatello, we topped off with gas and continued on our way. I knew the next section would be flat and straight, but I expected by the evening we would be into the rich canyons and mountains of Idaho. We actually had to get back onto I-15 for a few miles, past Fort Hall Indian Reservation, before we turned west in Blackfoot onto highway 26. Flat, straight and hot with lots of cops, we kept our speeds legal and we suffered the bleak flat road that crosses the Snake River Plain on our way to Arco, Idaho.
Arco, originally named ‘Root Hog’ in the early 1900s, took advantage of two intersecting Idaho stagecoach routes. The local postmaster thought the name too common and suggested the town be renamed after the German inventor of the radio transmitter, Count George Arco, who was visiting Washington D.C. at that time. Surprisingly, his suggestion took and the small community was renamed. However, the town is most proud of, in 1955, becoming the first city in the world to be lit with electricity generated by nuclear power, a fact that should not escape any visitor. Every single sign and business name refers to this fact with atomic symbols and atomically charged names like “Atomic-mart” and “Nuclear-Powered Video Rentals” proudly displayed on local storefronts. “Radioactive Days” is even the title of the towns’ annual celebration. We stopped only for a photo; don’t mind the glow, its harmless.
We began heading westward down highway 20 towards Craters of the Moon National Monument where we stopped to check out the youngest basaltic lava field in the U.S. The black shale-like rocks created odd sensations of depth that we could not resist. We even did the rare hike to enjoy a panoramic view of the area. Never ones to miss a photo opportunity we snapped a few shots as this was one of the rare stops for the day.
Not having the time for many stops, and not having much worth stopping for, we played around the Craters of the Moon. It really tweaked with your sense of depth perception.
We continued west along highway 20 and the road got surprisingly more entertaining with several miles of fast sweeping corners combined with interesting elevation changes. We stopped again briefly in Carey Idaho where we filled with gas and discussed where to stay for the evening. We were both getting hungry, but assumed that a restaurant would not be far away. Carey was not the kind of place we really wanted to spend a lot of time in so we chose to stop at the next appealing campground or town.
We continued west through the town of Picabo where, supposedly, Picabo Street, the famous Olympic athlete, is named after. Then we turned north towards Hailey and Ketchum on highway 75, where we planned to spend the evening. According to my map, we should be climbing in elevation, but the terrain was not changing much. We were riding up a large valley with tall steep mountains on either side creating an early sunset. Autumn was closer to arriving the farther north we went and the leaves on the aspens were already fading to yellow. The road into Hailey was chilly and the onset of winter felt like it was looming.
Without warning Kris, who was in the lead, suddenly slowed way down and veered into the center lane, executing a tight U-turn, she headed back south. I tried my best to follow but was not paying that much attention and had to use a grocery store parking lot to get back around to follow her down the road to where she had stopped.
Just like Lily Tomlin, Kris relaxes in a really big chair. How can you resist this photo op? Kris had discovered a very large chair that we needed to photograph. Happy for the impromptu break, we hung out around this large chair as the evening waned.
Back on the road we passed through Hailey with no sign of campgrounds and then into Ketchum. Our first thought was to find lodging, but our progress was delayed as the town was shutting down for a parade. Clumsily, we navigated through the back streets looking for a way around the spectacle to find a place to sleep. Our tactic was simple; if no campgrounds, then hotel. We found no campgrounds and started asking about the local hotels. Apparently their was a huge mountain bike convention occupying all the local rooms with the nearest hotel suggestions 100 miles south of us in Idaho Falls. I did not like that answer, so we rode around even more looking for, if not a campground, then a discrete section of grass that we could safely occupy for the evening. We found nothing.
Ketchum is probably most notorious as the final resting place of the Nobel Prize winning author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway first visited the area as a guest in 1939 for a new resort near Sun Valley hoping to use celebrity endorsements for promotion. Hemingway immediately fell in love with the area and continued to return throughout his life and eventually bought a house in 1959 and used the area as his primary residence until July 1961 when he took his own life. The official word is still that he died from “a self inflicted gunshot wound.” Looking around Ketchum, one sees subtle reminders of Hemingway: the Nature Conservancy now owns his house. Their are collections at both the Community Library and Historical Association and their are stone markers in the cemetery where pennies and cigars are often left, a memorial along the Trail Creek and even the Ernest Hemingway Elementary School.
Hunger was getting the best of us, so out of desperation we stopped at a local eatery for sustenance. The food wasn’t so good, but the waitress was very helpful giving us directions to nearest Forest Service campground. Having great experience dealing with Forest Service campground hosts I was confident of success.
Dark had long since fallen and we slowly navigated east onto the Sawtooth National Forest. The road continued to narrow and the dark hills drew closer closing us into another narrow canyon. I found the Forest Service campground and pulled in and rode straight up to the campground host. They came out and we had a long discussion about our current situation. The campground was full and the hosts were reluctant to help at first, the hosts eventually agreed to allow us to drop a tent on the tent pad in their site. The hosts were an amorous couple. Jim, Kathy and their two loyal travel companions, Mooch the Great White Pyrenees and Charlie their small poodle, named after the great Steinbeck novel, Travels with Charlie. The couple took up campground host duties across the country as a way to enjoy their retirement. They used a fantastic orange and very recognizable, vintage Ford F-150 to pull their trailer with them during the summer months, then back home again for the winter months.
It was already dark and the temperatures were dropping. Kathy offered us blankets, unaware that so much stuff could be stuffed into the bags on our two motorcycles. She seemed fine when we pulled out the tent, the blankets, pillows but her eyes grew with wonder as I pulled out the air mattress with pump and began airing up the mattress. “How do you get so much stuff on those bikes?” she asked.
We went to bed, delighted to have a place to sleep and with the added assurance that Mooch would keep an eye on the bikes for us, we quickly fell into a fitful sleep.
But Always Just out of Reach
The next morning, we arose early and started quietly packing up, not wanting to disturb our very gracious hosts. Kathy quickly came out offering steaming hot cups of tea and some of the most wonderful cinnamon toast one could ever ask for. It made packing up our belongings so much easier with the warm tea to warm our fingers and spirits.
Early morning in a National Forest campground. The home of our gracious hosts in the background.
Before progressing on what was fast becoming an odyssey of sorts, we enjoyed a very pleasant and nice conversation with Jim and Kathy, thanking them profusely for their hospitality. People like Jim and Kathy are truly the salt of the earth. Their generosity, despite their better judgment towards two wayward motorcyclists who showed up at their doorstep after dark, dressed in black and looking for a place to sleep, was refreshing and gave us a little more hope in humanity. We left Ketchum happy and ready for a good day of riding.
North on highway 75 we rode into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and towards Stanley. We stopped briefly at the top of Galena Pass that overlooks the amazing Sawtooth mountain range. After a few photos, we soldiered north into Stanley where we stopped for a late breakfast and had a brief discussion with some local riders who were out from Boise for a last frolic in the mountains before the onset of winter.
Kris poses in front the impressive Sawtooth Mountain range, then snaps a photo of me, before heading north for breakfast. After breakfast, I grabbed a shot in front of the Sawtooth mountains before heading on. They are a spectacular set and at least as cool as the Tetons.
On highway 21, we rode west, then south on our way toward Lowman, where we would fork off and head west towards highway 55 that leads from Boise to McCall. At Lowman, instead of immediately turning off, a series of highway signs warning of extremely tight and treacherous road ahead beaconed to me with the force or a rare earth magnet. I could not turn away. I am happy that I did not resist. The next several miles were some of the tightest and most technical set of corners I have ever enjoyed. First gear corners with steep banking and predictable asphalt made the next 15 minutes highly entertaining. When the road started to mellow out, Kris and I found a turnout that we used to reverse our direction and head back towards Lowman and then off towards Garden Valley.
I rushed ahead so I could catch a few action shots of Kris as she expertly navigated the extremely technical section of canyon.
Scenery was very pleasant and despite the roads long, straight sections, with just enough gentle sweeping corners to keep us entertained. The mountains struck their high peaks far above us in defiance, casting shadows down even during the day’s zenith. The road towards Garden Valley was a bit narrower with a few really fun uphill, tight corners that just begged for hard roll-ons’ with the throttle. By the time we reached Garden Valley, the temperatures were climbing and our fuel tanks were nearing empty. A sign advertising gas and ice cream was all the excuse we needed for a short break.
We caught up with highway 55 and the Payette River just a few miles north of Horseshoe Bend and were delighted to find a very interesting and fast canyon that followed the meanderings of the Payette River. Traffic was a bit heavy, but the road designers were generous with passing lanes and we were able to find gaps in traffic for almost every series of corners. The road got exciting with very tight corners on the very edge of the river making for a joyful ride full of chicanes, just before we reached the North Fork of the Payette River where the road suddenly became straight and dull. Even the great scenery disappeared as the world opened up to huge, alpine valleys. Unfortunately, not much changed for the next 50 miles until we reached McCall. The corners virtually disappeared and traffic grew heavy as families migrated into the popular town of McCall for the weekend.
McCall got its name from Tom McCall, a prominent town leader who arrived in 1891 to homestead. McCall was a wild and woolly place, notorious for its lakeside whorehouses, dance halls and gambling establishments. Until the early 1980's firearms were still allowed in local bars. Now, it is a much tamer place and a popular tourist trap. We stopped at a Chevron near the lake for gasoline and some Mrs. Fields White Chocolate Chip Cookies to munch as we sat for a moment on the waterfront.
The well-deserved break gave us a chance to enjoy watching the small watercraft navigate the small, popular lake and observe as an oblivious father got a verbal bombardment from his wife when he slapped a damp towel against his son in a meager attempt to dry him in preparation to jeans and a dry t-shirt. It was quite entertaining. Dad was wearing a very expensive pair of tassel loafers, pleated khaki pants and was constantly on his cell phone, obviously agitated at getting sand in his shoes while his family tried to make the best of their vacation despite the fathers blatent disdain for being there.
We also spent some well deserved time on the McCall lake. The air grew chilly as clouds moved overhead. Dressing in layers on a day like today proved its value.
>Clouds had drifted overhead making the afternoon feel much later than it actually was, creating a sense of urgency to move forward. We stayed for only 45 minutes before the call of the road got us back on our bikes.
We got ready to get on the road again, only stopping briefly to ensure we would make it home in time to get back to work.
We stayed on highway 55 out of McCall and were treated to several miles of great twisty roads. As the road straightened out to connect with the much larger highway 95, Kris was suddenly not behind me any more. I immediately turned around and found her parked on the side of the road walking down the barrow pit. Apparently, her Throttle Rocker had slipped off and she watched as it bounced off the side of the road. I was sure we would never find it again, but in an attempt to be a good guy, I went up about 100 meters from her location and started walking back towards her looking for it. Right before we met in the middle, she found it and ran back to her bike. Amazing! Retrievals of that nature are extremely rare but it was well worth the time, the Throttle Rocker eases a lot of stress on the throttle hand without being a throttle lock.
Highway 95 was quite bland as it followed a small river that eventually branches into the Salmon River at the small town of Riggins. When we arrived in Riggins, we decided it would be a great place to rest for the night. A group of four ladies on huge cruisers were stopped in front of a small motel on the north end of town, so we did the like and pulled in looking for a room. We unpacked, showered and went off for a nice dinner in a small, quaint local eatery in town before turning in for the evening.
The next morning, we were up and at ‘em pretty early hoping to make Grangeville for breakfast. The road north was pretty cool and a great way to start, what would be the best day of riding. The road was not particularly technical, but as we passed through the very small community of White Bird, aesthetic value improved and endless sweeping corners amplified as the road climbed far above the valley floor, hung to the mountains east facing slope.
Mornings are a great time to ride and today was no different. Long shadows, stretched by the suns low altitude in the sky, showed every detail and contour of the land. The golden orange hue of the early sunlight complimented the autumn shades displayed on the face of local foliage. The road climbed high enough that we had encroached into light layers of morning mist that was hovering near the tops of the softly rounded, treeless hilltops. The bitter chill in the air served to awaken ever sense and created a feeling of lucid awareness and a very explicit feeling of being alive.
Dropping down again into the large open valley that holds the community of Grangeville, we came up onto a lone Harley rider; helmet-less, swaddled in black leather with pipes blaring and hair streaming behind him. As we passed him, he was obviously as impressed with the morning as we were. The differences in our bikes disappeared and were replaced by a large smile and huge thumbs-up.
We stopped in Grangeville for breakfast at a small eatery where all the locals seemed to hang out, including the local law enforcement. We enjoyed warm coffee as we enjoyed a good meal and watched as the day grew warmer.
Back on the bikes, we began heading east along the much smaller and very technical highway 13. The slender road twined over hills and drops, skirting trees and rivers as a purely indulgent road. The road continued like this for about 25 miles until we arrived at Kooskia and linked up with highway 12. More commonly known Lolo pass, highway 12 is one of the more popular motorcycle roads in the county. It features the famous sign “Tight Winding Road Next 77 Miles”. This is a terribly inaccurate sign and motorcyclists would do well to ignore it. Lolo pass between Kooskia and Lolo is over 130 miles of tight winding road, and if you were to take the route we did from Grangeville, you will be blessed with just under 160 miles of tight winding road; plan for at least three hours of solid riding to complete this superlative section of tarmac.
Do not believe this sign! The road is actually much better! They must have lied so as not to scare off other traffic.
In fact, after two straight hours of riding and as we were nearing the end or our bikes fuel range I just had to stop and rest. We stumbled across the Loska Lodge in Idaho, just before we crossed into Montana. They had a gas pump and small store that sold cold drinks, ice cream and trendy t-shirts and fleece. While resting and enjoying the warm Sunday afternoon, an older FZR1000 pulled in. Motorcyclists flock together and the couple pulled in and parked next to the super-twins.
Corey and his girlfriend Violet had just ridden in from Missoula and were heading towards some hidden hot springs that are somewhere along highway 12. We immediately broke into conversation and idly chatted for some time. We talked bikes good roads and tires. Corey even warned us of local cop hangouts and a few tricky corners between us and Lolo.
Violet was looking for a good starter bike and we mentioned that we were MSF instructors and gave her some advice on what types of bikes we thought would fit her needs. The best part of the whole thing is that several months later, I received an email from Corey who happened across the website looking for information. Violet had just purchased a sweet little 1988 Honda Hawk and was getting it ready for the summer. He had found my Hawk GT page looking for jetting advice and promptly sent an email. It was pretty darn cool to hear from them months after actually meeting them.
“My name is Corey; we met at the Loksa Lodge in Idaho last summer. My girlfriend, Violet, who was with me has her first bike now. It happens to be identical to your nt650! I love the bike and am very happy for her to have it. I must say I was pleased to find your site as I searched the web for answers. I will save it to my favorites and hopefully we can meet up on a ride this year.”
When we eventually arrived in Montana, we turned south on highway 93 heading towards Salmon. The road was now on the eastern edge of the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Areas and therefore, on the floor of another huge valley. The road was now straight and bland. I was unaware at the time that the best riding of the vacation was now behind us. We raced southwards hoping to make Challis for the evening but soon had to stop for two police cruisers blocking the road. The truck immediately in front of us started tossing half-full beer cans out of the cab and into the bed of the truck. That really gave me a warm-fuzzy feeling and was the second occurrence of local Montana drivers drinking beer as they drove that I had been aware of. Earlier in the day, I watched as shirtless, shoeless bloke walked to the back of his truck, pulled a Coors from a cooler, popped it open and took a deep swill as he climbed into the cab and drove away.
Sadly, the cops were not doing roadside sobriety tests. A car was passing another, lost control and went off the long, straight road at a very high rate of speed. Emergency crews were already on site and a helicopter had been dispatched to the scene. We were told it was going to be a while before the road was open again, but no other route was available to us. So, we waited.
Once cleared to move forward, we were near the front of the pack of cars as many impatient drivers had turned back. We only had a few passes to make before we were free of traffic to enjoy the stodgy road without the distraction of slow moving traffic. A few miles past Gibbonsville I was modestly surprised with a mountain pass. The road had been widened to three lanes to allow for passing up the steep grade and was filled with wide sweeping 35mph corners that allowed for a speed comfortably faster than the posted limit. We even passed a blue TL1000S, going much faster than we were, heading the other direction. On the far side of the pass, however, the road returned to its dull self and we motored into Salmon.
Salmon Idaho lies about 20 miles northwest from the estimated birthplace of Sacajewea who was captured at the age of 11 and sold to a Canadian Fur trader named Toussiant Charbonneau. Charbonneau signed on with the Lewis and Clark expedition five years later and brought the 16-year-old Sacajewea as an interpreter. Her notoriety and recognition exceeds her actual role but the most interesting part of Sacajewea’s story occurred in August of 1805 when Lewis and a small advance party crossed the Continental Divide for the first time at Lemhi Pass. They had left the water passageways and were hoping to buy horses to complete their journey. When the explorers finally found the Shoshones, a council was held and Sacajewea was called to interpret. She and the Shoshone chief joyfully recognized each other as brother and sister. This remarkable coincidence resulted with the Indians supplying horses for the Lewis and Clark expedition’s journey over the mountains. Without Sacajewea’s presence, the expedition may never have accomplished their nearly impossible task of reaching the Pacific Ocean and returning.
Paying no homage to the American Indian woman, we merely gassed the bikes and continued towards Challis. The road between Challis and Salmon was another pleasant surprise. The highly technical road was filled with minor elevation changes and very tight, unmarked corners. As with many other roads, the right amount of forward velocity made this one an unexpected treat. The roadside had mass amounts of seagulls plucking bugs from the nearby river. I was mostly ignoring them, but as we neared Challis, one unfortunate gull dove straight into the front wheel. I heard and felt the buzz saw of the spokes and disk rotors chewing the unfortunate bird into an early oblivion. All that remained was a cloud of white feathers and white seagull excrement streaming across the right side of the TL. I was surprised at the negligible effect the bird had on the handling of the bike and my forward momentum. If I was not paying attention, I may not have been aware of anything. However, I had now managed to maim two birds in as many years and all that evening Kris teasingly referred to me as “bird-killer.”
We pulled into Challis just as the sun was setting and having enjoyed the atmosphere of Challis in the past, a campground was out of the question. We found the nicest hotel in town and shelled out the advertised $23.50 for the honeymoon suite. The almost clean hotel featured a hot tub in an outdoor gazebo. The gazebo had certainly seen better days, every window was broken out and shards of ragged glass remained stuck in the corners of a few pains. The wood had long since faded to a dull grey and was splintering everywhere it had not been worn smooth with use. The tub was filled with tepid brownish green water complete with grass and dead bugs floating on the surface. We went straight to dinner and enjoyed an equally attractive evening meal. We literally watched as the waitress stopped, between carrying unbreakable plain white Correlle dishes to the few customers, to enjoy a beer and cigarette while she bounced her fussy 6-month old on her knee. It was a classic scene and did little for the palette.
After a restless nights sleep of nervously waking up at every loud bang and crash we got up early the next morning and left Challis as quickly as we could muster. We didn’t stop or slow until we reached Mackay where we stopped at a coffee shop for a light breakfast before heading south again toward Arco. We passed straight through and rode straight to Pocatello where we stopped again for gas. The temperatures had risen dramatically and we stopped briefly at Fred Meyer to purchase a couple T-shirts before heading south again. I was disappointed by the amount of straight, boring roads we had been on over the last three days and did not want to ride down I-15 on the way back to Malad. My map showed a series of small county roads that would parallel the interstate and we opted for that route. The roads were mildly fun in their unpredictably as they worked their way between small farming homesteads. I took a few wrong turns due to the absence of signage and we were forced to ride interstate for about seven miles to Malad.
We went around Malad and straight through Weston Canyon again. Weston Canyon was just as fun as it was the first time through. Completely empty of traffic we were able to enjoy the road with no hindrances. We crossed Cache Valley the same way, over Sardine Canyon to Brigham City again, then up 89 to North Ogden Pass through Eden and Huntsville where we stopped for gas and a sandwich at Subway. We were nearing exhaustion but were also nearing home. We were only about an hour away. Instead of opting for the fastest way back, we choose to go over one of my favorite roads, East Canyon to Parleys Canyon, which would add about 15 minutes to the journey . The sun had already drooped low in the horizon casting a soft orange glow over the Salt Lake Valley. As we dropped out of Parleys Canyon, we were rudely welcomed with blazing temperatures in what felt like the 90’s. Off I-80 we off-ramped onto the very familiar I-215, back to I-15 and back home. Road weary and tired we pulled the bikes back into the garage, hastily waxed the chains, and stumbled into the house. The adventure was, anticlimactically, over.