High-Country Idaho

High-Country Idaho
One of the most absurd advertising taglines ever conceived to appear on a license plate has to be the one chosen for the drivers in Idaho: "Famous Potatoes." Arguably, the Gem State contains the highest concentration of eye-popping scenery in the US, with its soaring, snowy mountains, plunging canyons, and roaring, raging rivers  -  and the best sales pitch its boosters and marketing folks could come up with was...famous potatoes?

Northwest Passage

In the Pacific Northwest, it's sometimes tough to find a route that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark didn't travel on their 1803 - 1806 expedition. So it's no surprise to find a sign noting their passage on Idaho's Highway 12, the Lolo Pass. But of more interest to modern two-wheeled explorers is the big sign just east of Lowell, when the wide two-laner starts to climb, following the Lochsa River to its source in the Bitterroots: "Winding Road: Next 77 Miles."

It's day one of my tour of central and northern Idaho, and the Lolo Pass with its wide, fast sweepers is a great way to start. I'm riding Suzuki's two-wheeled SUV, the DL650 V-Strom, and it loves this stuff. I'm nudging twice the recommended speed in the bends and getting only penny change from a buck on the straights...

Abstract art? Or a drunken farmer's canola field?

The ride is so focusing and exhilarating, I lose track of time and distance. In what seems like only minutes, I'm approaching the Lolo Pass. The road abandons the dwindling Lochsa and soars up the side of a broad canyon, winding toward a crest. As 12 is the only highway crossing central Idaho, it's been "improved" to carry trucks, and passing lanes allow me to sprint past lumbering motor-homes. I wonder why they leave home at all, considering they take most of it with them: Why not just stay there and watch the Travel Channel instead?

There's no real descent on the east side of the pass: I'm now in high plateau country, and 12 opens to a broad straight highway. Increasing clusters of roadside businesses, gas stations, stores and malls tell me I'm nearing the junction with 93, the main industrial and residential corridor between Missoula and Hamilton. But south on 93 there lies some of Idaho's most scenic riding country.

More curves than a canola field: The Lolo Pass.

Salmon Everywhere

My friend Maggie joins me on her cheery yellow R1150GS. In Florence, she steers us onto Eastside Road (Route 203) to avoid the traffic snarl on 93, and we're soon spinning across farmland. Eastside also offers views of the Bitterroots, which peer over the foothills to the west. You can't see them from the highway...

We rejoin 93 in Hamilton and start to climb, leaving the heaviest traffic behind. It's a spectacular ride. The highway winds up into the mountains like a broad tarmac snake, and the jagged peaks appearing around every bend still wear their early-summer coating of snow. The ride becomes more frantic as we approach the 7,000-foot Lost Trail Pass: it's a classic alpine road, all hairpins and Armco barriers. Chasing Maggie's GS, I find I'm pushing the V-Strom's bars further and further down with each turn - the bike's upright stance lends confidence and the excellent handling encourages "assertive" cornering.

Snowy Sawtooth and Danner's Log Cabins in Stanley.

At the summit, much of the remaining car traffic turns east over Chief Joseph Pass while we wind south, down to Salmon, the birthplace of Lewis & Clark's Shoshone guide Sacajawea, and the Salmon River Gorge. Obviously once a much bigger river, the Salmon scoured a broad channel through the Bitterroots; now it weaves a meandering path along the gorge's base. We rush along the river under forbidding bluffs, wind-carved from the steep red cliffs that line the gorge and tower above the road.