To the Top and Back Down

Sunday, October 27, 2002 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Day 7
Butte, MT to Missoula, MT.  In Butte this morning, the temperature was at 17° under a clear sky.  The city is a mining town surrounded by mountains.  After breakfast, we got an early start toward Lemhi Pass.

At an elevation of 7,323 feet, Lemhi Pass is a rounded saddle in the Beaverhead Mountains of the Bitterroot Range along the Continental Divide between Montana and Idaho.  There, in 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition first saw the headwaters of the Columbia River, flowing toward the Pacific Ocean, and crossed what was then the western boundary of the United States.

Clark Canyon Reservoir

Driving south on I-15, we saw very little traffic on this Sunday morning.  By the time we arrived at the Clark Canyon Reservoir about 10:30, the sun had warmed the temperature considerably.  From the reservoir, we headed west on MT-324 toward the Lemhi Pass.  Replete with several winters' worth of patches, this state road didn't have the smoothest surface.  As we would later learn, however, it was one we would wish for in a couple of hours.

Ten miles or so outside the tiny town of Grant, MT, we turned onto the Lemhi Pass Road, a dirt and gravel trail leading through a number of large private ranches.  Since many ranchers don't keep their herds fenced, we passed over many cattle gaps.

From the highway equipment we saw parked on the roadside at various spots and the condition of the road, we could see that Montana officials really try to keep this road in good condition.  On some portions, it was so smooth we were able to drive 50 miles per hour.
Lemhi Pass Road

We reached the pass a little after 11 a.m.  The views were spectacular.  If we hadn't already met several vehicles carrying hunters on the way up, we would have been more surprised to find a camper and pick-up truck parked in the woods at the pass.  Big game hunting season opened today, and we saw many hunters (though no game) before the day was over.  

The landscape at Lemhi Pass today looks very much like it did when the Corps of Discovery passed through.  Fields of native sagebrush and bunch grasses are edged with Douglas fir and lodge pole pines.  

At the top of Lemhi Pass
 The trip down to Idaho was a totally different experience from the climb in Montana.  At the top, we had to choose between two roads.  The more direct route, according to our information, was very steep.  We were concerned about traction on this gravel road, and based on our trip up, we didn't expect any guardrails.

So we chose the Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway/Adventure Road, although we didn't know it was called that until we reached the other end some two hours later.  The road quickly came to a fork after we'd gone about a half mile.  With no signs to guide our selection, we chose what we later realized was the wrong road.  A Montana sign for hunters let us know we had gone back into that state.

Backcountry Byway

Returning to what we thought was probably the correct road, we found abysmal road conditions.  To describe this as a gravel road would give a new definition to the term.  Many stretches were more aptly described as rock-strewn.  In some parts, the sun had yet to penetrate the tree cover enough to melt the previous week's snowfall.  On other sections, the rocks were so big and so sharp that we very concerned about tire punctures.

The lack of cell service, our uncertainty about whether we were on the correct primitive road, and the knowledge that we had only a "temporary spare" which might not fare well on that road, combined to create a somewhat harrowing adventure— one of those experiences that was much more exciting and "fun" after it was over.

Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway
Finally we returned to the "civilized" world of Tendoy, ID, about 1 p.m. and drove up US-93 back into Montana.  The Salmon River tracked alongside the road, as we have seen so often, and we wound through valleys with high peaks all around.

Salmon River
We got into Missoula and into a hotel about 5 p.m., finally an early evening.  We even had time to watch the Atlanta Falcons' victory over the Saints and saw Anaheim defeat the Giants in game 7 of the World Series.

Miles today:  304
States today:  2 (MT, ID)


Lewis & Clark still pointing the way

Mail service in remote areas doesn't happen at your doorstep

Nearest neighbors may be a ways off

Where the cattle roam

The scenic Salmon River

Along the banks of Idaho's Salmon River

Long views from Lemhi Pass