Riding the Tour of Idaho
Written by Stephen W. Clark
This story first appeared in Upshift Online Issue 25 - September 2018 View HERE
“The Tour is in no way a casual undertaking… it is not for everyone.” - http://www.motorcyclejazz.com/TID.htm
It’s funny coming into the Tour of Idaho. We had all these plans: we were going to eat steak and shrimp at Sandpiper in Pocatello the first night, get some great Wings at lunch in Sun Valley on day three and you know get a fairly early start every day – probably get on the bikes at 8am after breakfast. Ha! Absolutely none of that happened. About four hours into the ride on day one it quickly became apparent that this ride was going to be a lot more challenging than we had expected. What ensued was nine of the longest toughest days of our lives.
People had warned us by telling us to start in the dark, skip breakfast and lunch and just get to our destination as soon as possible, which was hopefully before the restaurants closed. But as is the way with things like this you always think, “well we are pretty fast riders, I don’t see that happening.” So on day one we got a relatively late start departing the Utah border in Southern Idaho, we rode a selection of dirt roads, ATV trail and singletrack taking us over three mountain ranges and dumping us into the small vacation town of Lava. We stopped for a fairly leisurely lunch and chatted about how good of time we were making. The route Martin lays out has a challenge section on all nine days however you only need to complete three of these challenge sections to be an official finisher. We didn’t really think too much of this, so immediately after lunch we hit the first days challenge section. Pretty much out of nowhere we hit this crazy steep rutted out rooted hill and what went from a leisurely trail ride somehow escalated into a coolant boiling, bike dropping scene that resembled Erzberg. I got stuck and took several attempts to get to the top and Tony ripped his saddlebag bag off on a tree and got a flip flop caught in the chain. Following the nasty climb we went around an exposed sidehill section that really wasn’t overly difficult but the type of trail that if you go off the side you might spend a couple of days getting your bike back up. Jesse also lost a shoe on this section and developed some clutch problems. Battered and a little shocked by what all went down we rolled into our hotel in Pocatello at dusk. Day one was a big wake up call and a great warning for how the next eight days were going to go.
It’s absolutely amazing that there is a primarily dirt route that extends the entire length of a state, and we aren’t talking dirt roads like the ones you ride on a BMW GS. We are talking technical off-road trails that are really only passable on a small single-cylinder dirtbike. We did have to re-route around a fire in Challis that added some asphalt but had it not been for that section I would estimate the total distance of asphalt to be less than 30 miles total out of nearly 1600 miles. All of the trails are completely legal and open to motorcycles with most of trails on Forest Service Land and some on BLM. Some of the trails on the Tour are so remote and only ridden and cleared by Tour of Idaho riders. Coming from the UK where there are essentially no legal dirtbike trails it’s absolutely incredible that a trail system like this even exists.
Martin has lots of recommendations about how to tackle the Tour and few of them make much sense until you actually do it. One of those recommendations is to take a rest day in Pocatello at the end of day one. However, not wanting to add another day to an already long trip, we decided to just keep going on day two. In hindsight, this day off is really valuable; part of what makes the tour so difficult is that it’s a completely different style of riding and requires a completely different kind of setup than what we usually ride with. The Tour of Idaho requires you to ride a bike that is light and agile enough to ride extremely technical singletrack but still have the fuel capacity, navigation and luggage for long distances. Inevitably these setups take some time to get dialed-in and a day off on day two would allow you to make those changes. So we ended up staying up till midnight working on bikes and then we were back on the bikes the next morning in the dark.
Day two is the longest distance of the Tour and widely regarded as the toughest day. We left Pocatello early and rode some great singletrack right out of town followed by a hundred or so miles of gravel, ATV trails and asphalt taking us across several mountain ranges and bringing us to American Falls. We ate lunch and fueled there then headed out across the desert and across the dreaded Lake Channel sand dunes. There is an absolute maze of trails in this area and Martin’s route seems to zig zag across them all. The sand is soft and navigation is a huge challenge. And in the desert you don’t realize how much you need shade until you don’t have it. For me personally this was the most mentally challenging and frustrating section of the whole ride, but we worked as a team to navigate. We got through the sand and began making our way across the desert towards Big Southern Butte and eventually ending in Arco.
After suffering through the less desirable southern section of the state on the first two days it was great to get into the good stuff over the next few days. The riding on day three through five was absolutely incredible. Tons of great singletrack and trails that took us above 10,000 feet in several different spots. Grand Prize trail out of Smiley Creek took us right along the edge of the Hemingway Wilderness, watching the sunrise above those incredible peaks while riding epic singletrack was one of those amazing moments on the trip where you can’t believe it’s all actually happening. Fires are alway a huge concern on the Tour of Idaho and we got to experience that first hand. On day five outside of Challis from a ridge about a mile away we watched the crews fight the Rabbit Foot Fire from the air with a slew of aircraft. Down on the roads it was a hive of activity with tons of water trucks flying up the road to support the aircraft. After a chat with a USFS Ranger we were forced to re-route. We took a section of highway and rejoined the route near Salmon.
Day six, seven and eight were where things got really interesting for us and honestly looking back it’s a bit of a blur. Day six took us across the famed Magruder Corridor that is also on the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route. While this road through Wilderness is incredible on an ADV bike it is much less fun on a single cylinder dirtbike. It’s a long pull and we had to stop off in Elk City to get fuel before another fifty mile section to Lowell where we stayed the night. In an effort to keep out of each others dust and just push on, our group got seperated and Tony ended up getting lost and not making it to Elk City. Jesse and I waited in Elk City and using the tracking feature on the Garmin InReach watched helplessly as Tony rode off the wrong direction, thankfully not long after his tracks turned around and he began backtracking. So we ordered some food and enjoyed some time off the bike while we waited. There was no gas available in Lowell, where we would be spending the night so we needed to get as much fuel as possible to make the 250 or so mile stretch to the next fuel stop that would be at the end of day seven. When Tony eventually arrived we gassed up the bikes, a fuel bag and a few gas bottles and headed for Lowell. The rough trails made my gas bag fall off and in the process knocked the cap off and I lost all the fuel. Jesse also lost a fuel bottle off the back of his bike. After losing a couple of hours with Tony getting lost we were now way off schedule and ended up riding in the dark for several hours getting into Lowell at about 11 pm, only to find the hotel that we booked was closed for the night. So we went over to a nearby campground where the owner got out of bed and Tony somehow sweet talked her into opening up the store so we could get some frozen pizzas and PBR, then she let us sleep in her staff accommodation. While nothing glamorous, we were so thankful to have a bed and a roof over our heads.
By pure luck the sleeping situation had worked out but the next morning we still had the lingering issue of not having enough fuel to make it through the day. We went to work asking everyone we could find if they had fuel. Aside from a splash of gas from a side by side owner, we were unsuccessful. With little option we headed out on the trail and rode in the most fuel conservative way possible. We had heard the challenge section on this day was the hardest of the Tour but it also knocked off about 45 miles so we went for it. It wasn’t easy, but we made it through and kept moving. Then at about 9 pm the inevitable happened and I ran out of fuel. We made the conservative decision to put all the fuel we had into Tony’s bike and send him the 30 miles or so down to Lochsa Lodge to get fuel and come back. This all worked out and we got into Lochsa right at 10 pm. We spent the night and woke up in the morning to a flat rear tire. The hits just kept coming.
Day eight brought more technical singletrack and some of the most remote terrain I’ve ever ridden- the kind of stuff where you just can’t mess up. Any significant issue out here and it’s going to be a long time until someone comes to get you. Then we got into some trail that hadn’t been cleared and it was literally log after log after log. Some we were able to ride over, some we drug our bikes across and some we cut. It was really slow going. Towards the end of day eight we were in a seemingly endless section of logs and I distinctly remember coming round a corner and letting out a little whimper as I saw another long section of downed logs. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast but we all worked together and made our way through to Wallace.
The official end of the Tour Of Idaho is on top of Sundance Mountain near Priest Lake which is close the Canadian Border. The final day of the Tour takes you from the cool old mining town of Wallace over a bunch of ridges on dirt roads over to Athol, then some sections of Asphalt and more dirt roads up to Sundance Mountain Lookout. It’s one of those rides that would be an absolute blast on a big bike but on a small bike is a bit monotonous. We spent some time sitting on top of Sundance chatting and reflecting on the nine days that had preceded. We had seen parts of the world that almost nobody else visits, we had eaten fresh huckleberries at the side of trail, drank from a high mountain spring and met some amazing people along the way. It had been quite the ride and we all felt really thankful that we made it to the end. We had our fair share of problems but thankfully we managed to get out of them. Feelings aside nobody got hurt and we all had the adventure of a lifetime. Would we do it again? Probably not, but we would for sure go back to certain sections of the Tour, just on a bit more relaxed schedule with more time for hot springs, huckleberries and beer.
What is the Tour of Idaho?
The Tour of Idaho is a dirt bike route that starts on the Utah border in Southern Idaho and extends almost all the way to the Canadian border in Northern Idaho. The 1600-mile nine day trip follows as much singletrack as possible and each night you stay in a different small town. The creator of the route, Martin Hackworth, has turned it into a challenge where you have to follow the route exactly. It’s a test of riding ability, endurance, navigation, friendships, mechanical skill and many other things. The waypoints are available online and you are free to ride the route as you please. However, if you wish to become an official Tour of Idaho finisher you must join a Facebook group, follow the rules, submit selfies at challenge points along the way, complete the challenge sections and submit a GPS file with your route within 72 hours of finishing. At the time of publishing, in over a decade only 55 riders have ever finished the Tour of Idaho. For more information visit www.motorcyclejazz.com. A special thanks goes out to KLIM, Idaho Tourism and Motonation for their support of the trip.