The grueling Tour of Idaho

By Martin Hackworth

For The Journal


The Tour of Idaho is a 1,300-mile dirt bike ride that begins in the Malad Range of southern Idaho and ends in the Selkirk Mountains near the Canadian border. The tour is approximately 5 percent single-track trail, 15 percent double track, 70 percent dirt road and 10 percent pavement. Though street legal dirt bikes are recommended the tour has been completed on every type of knobby-shod motorcycle imaginable (as well as a few that are probably not). 

Most of the tour traverses wilderness areas far from the nearest town, including the Frank Church, the largest designated wilderness in the lower 48 states. Cell phones are useless much of the way. Water, food, tools, emergency supplies and fuel must be carried and bikes and riders must be capable of a 200-plus mile range between supplies. Radios, satellite phones or an emergency beacon are prudent insurance in the event of emergency as one is usually very far from assistance. The Tour of Idaho is at least as much of a wilderness adventure as it is a dirt bike ride and is not a casual undertaking. Completing the tour requires a high degree of riding skill, outdoor acumen, physical conditioning, route finding ability, mechanical skill, a strong knowledge of emergency first aid and a healthy dollop of good luck. Bikes and bodies take a pounding. Those who disdain dirt bikes as a method of wilderness travel for the lazy or physically unfit would find even a single day on the tour to be a revelation. The small cadre of riders who have successfully completed the tour consider it, to the person, to be among the adventures of a lifetime. 

The tour encompasses extremes of elevation (1,486 feet at Lowell to 9,613 feet at Copper Lake), moisture and temperature. The variety of plants, animals and geological features found along the way is nothing short of amazing. The tour is generally passable by the middle of July and remains rideable through early October during most years. There is a distinct possibility of extreme heat, rain and even snow along the route during the entire riding season.  Though the tour is normally done over 5 – 6 long days the bulk of it has been done in a single day. 

The tour begins in Jenkins Hollow, just north of the Idaho-Utah border, and proceeds north through Steel Canyon along a series of roads and ATV trails to Dry Creek Campground. The route then heads east, crossing state Highway 36, and following a series of roads and trails north to the spectacular Oxford Ridge (elevation 8,281 feet).  Before Oxford Peak the tour leaves the ridge and descends a rocky and rugged ATV trail steeply into Oxford Basin. A series of ATV trails leads north to Aspen Hollow then down into Marsh Valley and Downata Hot Springs.  

After crossing U.S. Highway 91 the tour jogs south then east following a series of farm and logging roads that ascend over 20 miles north to the spectacular summit of Sedgwick Peak (elevation 8,659 feet). A series of rugged dirt roads follows the crest of the Portneuf Range northwest from Sedgwick Peak some 10 miles down to Lava Hot Springs. The tour heads west out of Lava Hot Springs on U.S. Highway 30 and turns north about a mile out of town to the Boundary Trail. The Boundary Trail is traversed around the east side of the Portneuf Range some 20 miles to Inman Canyon Road. The route then descends Inman Canyon to Rapid Creek and into Inkom.  The route out of Inkom follows old Highway 30 north to Blackrock Canyon. A series of dirt roads and ATV trails leads to the summit of Chinese Peak (elevation 6,700 feet) and into Pocatello. 

The route out of Pocatello ascends Kinport Peak and follows trails south to Crystal Summit then through the Arbon Valley to Knox Canyon. The tour crosses the Deep Creek Range, descends into the Rockland Valley, and heads up Flint Canyon to the crest of the Sublett Range. A series of rugged dirt roads leads north to Badger Peak (elevation 6,500 feet) eventually intersecting Register Road near Register Rock Roadside Park. A series of farm roads leads east into American Falls. 

The tour leaves American Falls and proceeds west along state Highway 39 across the American Falls Dam then north along a series of farm roads to Big Butte-Springfield Road/Goodale Cutoff — a northern variation of the Oregon Trail that follows the original wagon ruts northwest to Big Southern Butte. The trek to the summit of Big Southern Butte is not to be missed.  On a clear day the view from the top (elevation 7,560 feet) includes a dozen mountain ranges and parts of Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho’s Snake River Valley from the Tetons nearly all the way to Boise. From Big Southern Butte the tour proceeds west along a series of roads that skirt the Idaho National Laboratory to the south and eventually lead north into Arco.

The route out of Arco is found near the southeast edge of town right by the large submarine parked on the east side of the road. One may then take either Beverland Pass (elevation 7,416 feet) or Arco Pass (elevation 7,144 feet) north to Pass Creek Road.  The tour follows a series of roads that run north up the eastern slopes of the Lost River Range on the west side of the Pahsimeroi Valley to Horsehaven Pass (elevation 8,100 feet).  From the pass the route follows a series of trails to White Hills/Trail Creek road which heads west toward Grouse Peak (elevation 8,307 feet) on the Lost River Range Crest. From here the tour descends Leaton Gulch to Round Valley and takes a short jog north along U.S. Highway 93 to Challis. 

The route proceeds east out of Challis to the scenic divide between Darling Creek and Morgan Creek (elevation 7,291 feet), then follows the Morgan Creek/Panther Creek road north some 60 miles to the Salmon River. From here the tour heads east about 8 miles into Shoup. The Shoup Store is the last chance for gas and grub before Elk City — 162 remote miles away. 

From Shoup the tour heads east about a mile then veers north to a spectacular climb up to Beartrap Ridge (elevation 8,303 feet). The route then proceeds north a few miles along the Idaho-Montana border before descending into Montana for a brief jog around Painted Rocks Reservoir. At this point the tour embarks on a trek through the heart of the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 states — the Frank Church. The route heads west on the Nez Perce Trail (also known as the Darby-Elk City Road) to Nez Perce Pass (elevation 6,597 feet) then down to the Selway River. The road then ascends steeply to Salmon Mountain (elevation 8,228 feet) and the halfway point of the tour.  The route continues along the Nez Perce/Magruder Corridor/Darby-Elk City Road, generally west, some 70 miles to Elk City. 

The route out of Elk City proceeds north to Selway Falls and follows the Selway Road to the town of Lowell (elevation 1,450 feet) — the lowest elevation of the tour. From Lowell it is 235 miles through some of the most rugged wilderness in North America to the next town. The tour follows NFD 101 to the Lolo Motorway and continues northeast some 50 miles to Cayuse Junction then north along Toboggan Ridge to the remote Cayuse Creek landing strip. The route continues north to Kelly Creek and Deception Saddle eventually descending into the North Fork of the Clearwater. The tour climbs out of the North Fork of the Clearwater and proceeds north over Gospel Hill (elevation 6,457 feet) to the headwaters of the St. Joe River and Red Ives.  From Red Ives the route goes east to the spectacular State Line Trail, which is followed some 60 miles to Moon Pass (elevation 4,826 feet) before descending into the scenic mining town of Wallace. 

From Wallace the tour heads northwest to Moon Saddle (elevation 4,669 feet) then descends to the Coeur D’Alene River. A series of logging roads leads north to the town of Athol. The tour goes west and north out of Athol to Hoodoo Mountain (elevation 4,665 feet) then descends to the Pend Oreille River and the town of Priest River. The tour proceeds north to the small burg of Coolin on the southern shore of Priest Lake. From Coolin the route heads north along the eastern shores of Priest Lake and Upper Priest Lake. The final sprint along NFD 1013 ends at a gate a few miles south of the Canadian border in the wild heart of the Selkirks.