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Making Time in Magruder

A trip through some of the West's most panoramic wilderness

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Carved perfectly between the Main Salmon and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers is the fs.usda.gov">Magruder Road Corridor--named for Lloyd Magruder, whose 1863 pack train fell to mutiny when Magruder's hired hands robbed and murdered him along the trail. The corridor sits between the Selway-Bitterroot National Forest to the north and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to the south, running from Elk City to Darby, Mont. Because of its off-the-beaten-path location, it is one of the only major access roads in what is commonly referred to as Central Idaho's sea of mountains.

A couple of weeks ago, I set off on Geronimo, my trusty Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle, for my first trip through the Magruder Corridor. This historic part of Idaho's epic mountainscape bisects some of the most remote country in North America, and during the 700 total miles I traveled--from Boise and back--I came to see why this area is held in such high regard by recreationists.

My first stop was in McCall, where my brother joined me on his motorcycle. We pushed north to Grangeville before descending the Harpster Grade to scenic Highway 14 and on to Elk City, where the more than 100-mile dirt trek that constitutes the Magruder Corridor begins.

Part of the original Southern Nez Perce Trail, the Magruder is often regarded as the Holy Grail of adventure recreation in Idaho, and it's easy to understand why. Picturesque start-to-finish views, excellent hiking, camping and fishing, and a complete absence of modern comforts make this an appealing route for those looking to get away from it all for a few days.

A stop for fuel in Elk City led to a chat with some locals and a slight shift in expectations for Magruder. I had imagined that the ride could be done in five or six hours, but after asking around a bit, we realized that most people plan for anywhere from one long day to three or more days.

As I was asking around, I met Cheryl Sims at the Elk Creek Station Cafe. She pointed out that we ought to be careful about trying to make time on Magruder.

"There's a lot of motorcycles on the trail this time of year ... even more than in years past," Sims said.

She reminded us about the lack of services along the route and noted the substantial burn area from recent fires between Idaho and Montana. These intermittent scorched tree lines proved to be intensely beautiful but served as a powerful reminder of how much damage can result from forest fires.

A 15-minute haul to the Magruder trailhead near the Red River Ranger Station just outside of Elk City, and we were on our way.

We stopped at several lookouts to admire the tranquility and remoteness of region, and we really got a sense of what it must have been like making the trek on foot back in the 1800s. The road--while well kept in most places--turns very rough and unforgiving in certain sections. Crossing the trail's central saddles on a clear day is especially rewarding since you can see for hundreds of miles in all directions. We scouted several well-kept public campgrounds along the way with the intent of making a return visit this fall to spend a little more time exploring and fishing.

The highlight of the ride was undoubtedly Burnt Knob--a weather-beaten lookout station at 8,196 feet in elevation. This 1.5-mile out-and-back detour offers those bold enough to attempt it arguably the best 360-degree panorama in Central Idaho. Giving new meaning to the phrase "head in the clouds," this alpine perch showcases everything from the aftermath of recent fires to crystal-clear mountain lakes to the rocky spires of the adjacent Montana wilderness.

The biodiversity of Magruder is certainly best observed from Burnt Knob. The side road up is particularly rough and rocky, so tread cautiously and pack for pinch flats if you go. As we descended into where the Selway River meets the Magruder, we began to realize that our trip was coming to an end all too soon. Just shy of four hours from when we started, we were in Darby, Mont., refueling. My brother and I concluded that the Magruder by car should take about eight hours--as indicated on the trailhead sign near Elk City--but the ride can be done in about a half-day on a motorcycle if you're on a nimble bike and pack light.

Thankful for no major mechanical malfunctions, we headed south on scenic Highway 93 to Challis. The Magruder had given us a fantastic day of exploring, fishing, riding--not to mention lungs full of dust--and just south of Darby, we were looking forward to wrapping up by meeting friends at the Braun Brothers Reunion Festival in Challis.

Unfortunately that's when my bike decided to call it quits. My motor was blown. We towed Geronimo back to a small, friendly roadside bar, where I was able to negotiate a ride for me and my broken two-wheeled friend as far south as North Fork Road near the Main Salmon. The guys who gave me a ride were the owner/operators of Booker's Retreat and Mother Chukar's on the Main Salmon--a hunting and fishing lodge and restaurant. They refused all of my attempts to pay for gas or their time, and then they arranged for me to store my bike until I could bring a truck a few days later. I jumped on the back of my brother's Suzuki DR650SE--imagine Dumb & Dumber--and we rolled into Challis just after dark.

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