by Steve Larsen, photography by Bob Meador
[This Motorcycle Ride Through Montana, Idaho and Washington was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
The ride begins with members of the American Flyers Motorcycle Club trickling into Missoula, Montana, on planes, bikes and automobiles from all over the country. Are we tempting the sprits of Lewis and Clark by expecting no rain or snow in September, over the mountains in which they spent so much time and nearly died?
We meet at a large home rented for the first and last night of the trip in Hamilton, Montana. Our eclectic group of bikes has taken on a definite BMW tilt this year. Three were rented from Mike Bender of Adventure Motorcycle LLC (406-273-6000 or www.advmotorental.com) in Missoula. Bender has an excellent selection of BMW, Suzuki and KTM bikes. They are low-mileage and in top condition. Mike does have a strict cancellation policy, so be sure you understand it before you rent. Shipped bikes arrived via Rick’s Classic Transport Inc. Rick Sheehan of Hayward, Wisconsin, proved popular with the half-dozen or so riders whose bikes he brought out (and then returned) to the East Coast. Sheehan can be reached at (715) 558-4972 or via email at email@example.com.
A brisk 40-degree temperature greets us on our first day’s ride. In less than 50 miles we take the first of what will be many side trips, heading 27 miles east on Highway 43 to Wisdom, Montana, passing through the Big Hole National Battlefield. Gray drizzle and cold air convince us to quickly turn around on the main street of Wisdom and high tail it back to Highway 93. We proceed south to Lost Trail Pass and the sun comes out as we ride into Idaho. As we enter North Fork, we pass a roadside restaurant claiming “Lewis and Clark ate here,” but continue on to Salmon and stop at Bertram’s Brewery for lunch.
Fully warm now, we continue on to Challis where we turn onto Highway 75 and head east toward Stanley. Before turning into the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, several of us continue south over the Galena Summit and down into Sun Valley. We begin this hour-long side trip in the Sawtooth Valley. The road climbs steadily to the 9,000-foot summit with the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains on our right. Approaching Sun Valley, we turn around when we begin to see more and more cars and head back to the ranch. Earlier riders emerge from a natural hot-springs-fed swimming pool as we arrive.
Awakening we emerge from our various ranch cabins to 34 degrees and major frost covering all the bikes. We think back to how Lewis and Clark must have felt when they left what is now Salmon, Idaho, searching for the Salmon River—and what they hoped was a waterway to the ocean. They eventually changed their minds about the Salmon River and gave it the name “The River of No Return” and set off dejected, in the cold, over the Lost Trail Pass, heading north into the coming winter in Montana. We follow their path north to Stanley, then turn west on Highway 21 and at Lowman go west on NF 24 on the Banks-Lowman road.
Stopping at the Hot Springs campground, we sit at picnic tables to eat sandwiches, happy with how warm the day has become. The Payette River Scenic Byway provides breathtaking scenery as we climb into McCall, Idaho, named after Tom McCall, who homesteaded the place in 1891. Mostly sedate today, even in top form it’s unlikely to reach its wild turn-of-the-century reputation, which included brothels, dance halls and gambling.
After the first day, a new member of our ragtag band, a woman on just her second ride with the Flyers, falls frequently to the back of the pack, causing a bit of a wait on occasion. Most of her riding experience has been on cruisers and in the eastern part of the United States, where the roads are a good bit straighter than the tangled lines that follow the cascading rivers here in the Northwest.
At an extension ride into Idaho City on Route 21 she leaves her bike and rides pillion on the BMW R 1200 GS of a more experienced rider. For the next 25 miles, over a particularly technical set of twisties, he points out key aspects of cornering —slow entry speed, correct line selection, late apexes and how this all affects the ride. On the way back she rides the route in reverse on her bike, tucked closely behind the ad hoc instructor to get a feel of doing the turns herself. It works. She spends the rest of the week up near the front of the pack, enthusiastically welcoming the signs with the twisty squiggle and the words “Next 54 miles” underneath. “That used to just scare me to death, now I just love it,” she exclaims.
Leaving McCall on Highway 55 we bid good-bye to beautiful Payette Lake, turn north onto Highway 95 toward Grangeville and then to Highway 12 east toward Clarkston, Washington. We manage to follow Highway 12 clues through Clarkston with only a minimum of detours and are soon on to Dayton and the Hotel Weinhard in the center of town. Lewis and Clark also stopped in Dayton—twice. Dayton is known for being part of the “Forgotten Trail,” a portion of the Corps of Discovery’s journey that historians often leave out, perhaps in the same way that an unfortunate fold in a Minnesota map caused Garrison Keillor’s hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, to disappear. Lewis and Clark camped on the banks of the Patit Creek, not far from the site of the Columbia County Courthouse.
The Hotel Weinhard is a rare find, one of those classic restored hotels that dominate the down- towns of small towns with an old-fashioned lobby full of period furniture, cozy seating nooks and fresh flowers.
The sun is bright as we split off from part of our group heading back to Salt Lake City the next morn, while the rest of us head toward Walla Walla. We spend the day exploring different runs to and around the Hell’s Canyon area before heading to the Quality Inn in downtown Clarkston. Relatively mild winters and an abundance of wildlife drew people to the Hell’s Canyon area more than 7,000 years ago. Pictographs and petroglyphs are scattered along the river where Native Americans spent their winters. Extraordinary scenery is often found at the ends of the poorest maintained roads, but well worth the visit, and the tight turns and twists keep everyone on their toes.
The last 70 miles from Enterprise into Clarkston is perhaps the most extraordinary of the trip. It begins with beautiful sweepers across the top of the Wallowa mountain range toward the Grande Ronde River. This section, and another as we descend into Clarkston and the Snake River, have us whipping the bikes from side to side. Clearly the Northwest has its own candidates for Deals Gap-class roads, with some pretty lofty elevation thrown in for good measure.
The next morning we traverse the incredible roads of Lolo Pass, and late in the afternoon arrive back at our starting point in Hamilton, Montana. We toast a safe trip—no crashes and no run-in with our esteemed colleagues in traffic enforcement—and perhaps the most incredible weather on any trip ever. Was it the spirits of Lewis and Clark watching us? We’ll never know.