Idaho earned its nickname as “The Gem State” because you can find everything from gold to garnets underneath its soil. It’s also home to the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return
wilderness areas, all 3.4 million acres of them. They’re separated by a narrow, 10-foot wide, 95 mile-long road known as the Magruder Corridor, described as one of the wildest, most remote roads in the Lower 48.
Last year I nominated a trip over the Magruder to members of the Helena, MT-based Rocky Mountain Land Rover Club. Wayne Phelps of the Pacific Coast Land Rover Club had also been pursuing the idea, so in mid-August, we met up to give the trail a run. The group included great people and interesting Land Rovers.
I rode with Jay Swant is his ‘86 ex-Canadian military Land Rover 90 with its 2.5 diesel. Anthony Were and Ligia Teny-Were packed their son, Atticus, into their ‘83 Land Rover 110 with its 200 Tdi. Wayne and Cathy Phelps brought “Smokey”, their ‘84 Land Rover 110, with a 300 Tdi. Ryan and Kristi Phelps followed the family lead with their ‘84 Land Rover 110, newly re-framed, with a 200 Tdi. Dennis Bell and Deb Evans traveled in luxury in their ‘93 Range Rover Classic and Jeffrey and Brenna Carpenter brought the kitchen sink in “Waldo”, their ‘67 Dormobile with its GM 6-cylinder conversion.
The Magruder Corridor traverses trails established many hundreds of years ago as indigenous peoples traveled seasonally over the mountains to hunt the bison-rich plains. Some locals have named the route the Southern Nez Perce Trail. At the west end, the road begins just outside of the small town of Elk City, ID, where gold was discovered in 1861. Bonanza strikes in Montana Territory, and subsequent years saw mule-packed trains using the trail to deliver supplies out of the newly-minted town of Lewiston in the-then Idaho Territory. Return trips sometimes included gold bullion and you know what that means; Lloyd Magruder, a merchant and politician, made halfway along the trail that bears his name before someone robbed him of his gold and murdered him.
In the mid-1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers built the current road. Portions of the Montana side of the road were later paved with an eye toward timber development. However, the remoteness of that resource allowed the area to remain untouched until congressional wilderness designation arrived in the late-1970s.
On the 320 mile trip from Helena, MT, to Idaho, Jason’s 2.5 diesel experienced minor top-end power issues out on the Interstate, but otherwise performed well, delivering about 20 mpg—an important consideration given the absence of services over the 120 miles of the Magruder. As a certified amateur radio operator, Jay was able to contact the Portland contingent as we approached the informal rendezvous of Grangeville, Idaho. The two meter radios kept us in closer contact than we could have had with CB’s or handhelds as we headed out for Elk City.
The pavement ends at the historic Red River Ranger Station east of Elk City and the narrow dirt road immediately ascends toward ridge tops. As a wilderness road, the Magruder does not offer many side trips, but three roads do lead to Forest Service lookouts. Our first evening out entailed a run up to the abandoned Green Mountain Lookout, from which we spotted an ominous-looking storm building to the west. Ryan and Kris Phelps generally ran lead, aided by their GPS. Wayne and Cathy Phelps (aka Dad and Mom) drove the sweep rig. Several in the group also had GPS’s, while the Montana boys relied solely on old Forest Service maps and dead reckoning. Ryan and Kris located a sheltered, but open spot to camp and we waited out the two-hour storm.
Day two saw the group spreading out along the road, which generally runs along ridge tops with descending switchbacks to the head end of drainages. Over the past twenty years the area has been visited by numerous major forest fires, yet the vistas remain stunning. A fairly technical one-and-a-half mile side trip to the Burnt Knob Lookout let the Land Rovers prove their mettle. The 8,200-foot summit features an abandoned lookout perched precariously on a large granite boulder. It seems more cartoon than real. Electronic equipment in place at abandoned lookouts like this one collect forest fire data.
We spent lunch at the Horse Heaven Cabin just off the Magruder road. The spartan, one-room log building is available to rent through the online U.S. Forest Service rental system. From ridge saddles at about 7,500 feet, we descended sharply to the bridge crossing the famous Selway River. Known as the Nez Perce Crossing, it marks the junction with the Selway River Road, which can be taken for about 18 scenic miles downstream to Paradise Campground and the river launch site. The Selway offers Class IV and V whitewater in spring, but permits are coveted and hard to draw. The permit system is lifted on August 1, but the river is usually too low to float by then. The river gauge at the put-in read four feet on August 11, marginal even for kayakers.
The group camped at Paradise and relaxed in the warmth of the 3,000-foot elevation. The storm from the previous evening had blown down trees along the descent to the Selway, and we encountered the effects of the 74-mile per hour winds as we continued west the next day. On the way out of the Selway the group stopped at the Indian Creek salmon channel, a long-abandoned experiment in planting fry near headwaters. Pete Fromm, the celebrated Montana writer, penned the Indian Creek Chronicles, A Winter Alone in the Wilderness when he worked here as a 20-year-old biology student in the late 1970s. A visit to the historic Magruder Ranger Station, near the junction with the main road, revealed yet another cabin available to rent—this one with hot and cold running water and showers and nestled among mountain meadow scenery. There is no camping here, but the water is potable, cold and excellent. The roads improved somewhat as we approached Nez Perce Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide into Montana.
The group made one more trip up to a manned lookout called Hell’s Half Acre. The road was good with just a few sediment traps. True to its name, though, Jeffrey and Brenna Carpenter managed to break a right front parabolic leaf spring on the Dormobile during descent. Jeff is a gifted and imaginative mechanic and that evening in camp along the West Fork of the Bit-terroot River in Montana, he produced two spare spring shackles which he was able to press down on the break for a nifty field fix. No adventure like a misadventure.
Idaho served up another gem with this trek; I’m rather confident this trail will see more Land Rovers in the future.
By Paul Driscoll
Photos: Jason Swant
[If you go, a general review is available at: www.everytrail.com/guide/magruder-corridor-guide A stop at either the Elk City, Idaho, or Darby, Montana Forest Service Ranger Station is advised for current road conditions.]