My golden retriever, Sadie, has massive anxiety over fireworks and my neighborhood tends to sound like a warzone days leading up to and beyond the US independence day holiday, July 4. I decided maybe heading out would be a good idea, and since the Land Cruiser has been eternally down while I pull the injection pump for service, I took my daily early Tacoma. We left western Oregon, leaving work a little early, and aimed east. I didn’t have much of a destination in mind other than finding places quiet that had no chance of explosive noises. I mostly succeeded.
Our first stop in the early evening was over the Cascade Mountain range and into the high desert of Central Oregon. It was a perfect warm, young summer drive out of the lush western farmland valley of the Willamette, climbing into huge Douglas Fir and Cedar forests and finally into Ponderosa, Juniper and Sage of the high desert. The impact of strong pine and sage smell never gets old.
I knew of an area likely to be empty of people and found a camp spot on a valley overlooking Lake Billy Chinook, near a somewhat unknown feature called Balancing Rocks. I think the BLM (the agency managing the public lands in the area) keeps this off the radar as hooligans like to go out and tip rocks off their towers from time to time. There are only so many rocks left.
That evening, relaxing in the warm summer breezes and watching the sun set behind the tips of two of our volcanoes- Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, the idea of heading toward Montana firmed up. I hadn’t really been in Montana, and tended to avoid the state as there is a lot of inaccessible land from private ownership. But, Montana is a big state with lots of national forest to poke around. I also knew of a good trail book that I had loaned to... someone I’ve forgotten, so that made for a good treasure hunt.
“4x4 Routes of Western Montana” was built by Willie and Jean Worthy. Willie was an editor at Four Wheeler magazine for 40 years. They’ve done a great job at collecting history and interesting information about the routes they’ve developed. They have also worked with other groups to keep the routes clear. Since it was easier to get the book (and it’s subsequent sister release for SW Montana routes) in Missoula, that’s where I aimed.
I figured using smaller, quieter roads over cruising the interstate highways, leaving them as inevitable bombing runs to home. First, I wanted to find a rumored warm spring hidden in the Umatilla National Forest near Ukiah, OR. It seemed to fit my guesstimated time budget for stopping that day and with most people focused on the surprisingly good (so I’d heard) fireworks display that Ukiah gives, I might have the place to myself.
With plenty of daylight left, I eventually bounced my way down washboard and dusty roads to find the springs and a couple that was getting ready to head back to town. We ended up talking long enough that a dad with his 4 kids came down the hillside to the springs to check it out, so I left them to it to go find what was a nice hilltop camp directly above the creek valley that contained the warm springs.
Having accomplished that small side mission, I was up early with the sun and took a quick soak in the bathwater warm springs to start the day. The springs are not that far from one of the Oregon Back Country Discovery Routes, so I’ll likely be back.
Continuing on quiet country highways I snuck along some of the Nez Perce trail route through the corner of Washington and across the panhandle of Idaho, finally up Hwy 12 to Lolo Pass, which divides Idaho and Montana. It makes Montana seem much closer to Oregon than people might think. It is also an extremely beautiful drive following the Clearwater River upstream.
I’d heard a lot about floods this year in Montana and thought finding a creek up in the mountains to try my hand at gold panning might be a fun way to hang out in the woods. I didn’t get to an ideal creek site nor did I have a gold pan, so that was put off.
The next day I headed into Missoula for the route books and found a noob’s gold panning kit at an interesting place called Crystal Imports. I found it through word of mouth, and when I brought it up with the very eclectic owner, he didn’t seem bothered- until I asked, “but how would I find you if I didn’t know how to find you?” He was very generous to give me an involved demonstration in how to pan. Wish I’d thought to record it.
So enduring the agony of traffic, I headed a little east to Rock Creek, which is evidently a very famous trout fishing destination. I was there for ruins of mines and mining camps.
We managed to find our way to an old mill site of the Gold Bug mine, where not much was left of the mill, but still enough to be interesting. We past a few adits along the way and also a few log buildings that I didn’t take enough pictures of. I was just having fun being out in the woods, bouncing around rough roads, running onto a few surprised elk, and seeing what there was to see.
I did manage to get some “wheeling” in. Actually I was in 4x4 fairly often, for a mix of speed control and keeping the totality of workload solely off the rear axle. This was a short, loose, off-camber section of mine road that the Worthys had leveled some and shored up the edge with timber.
Holy cow, is this writeup long enough??
Camp that night was made at the top of the road system in the area. There were standing rounds everywhere in a clearing and neat piles of wood stacked up. What? I’d left my hood up as the ABS was making more cooling/relief noises than usual after a long steep climb to camp. As we came back from a walk, startling more deer in the woods, a really great logger came by in his private flatbed hauling truck and trailer to see if things were ok. He and his daughter were out gathering some large rounds and we had a good chat. Evidently, the area was used as a helo pad during a recent burn and rounds were tipped up everywhere as seats.
My new friend recommended the short drive up to the top of the nearby peak where a fire lookout cabin (and radio repeater shack as the guide book said, much to the logger’s surprise) and nice views could be found.
There was a simple system of posts at cardinal points and an old bolt on a post in the middle pointing North, to locate smoke ups quickly. I thought it was ruins of a tower until I cracked the code.
From there, I headed down a ranching/hunting creek valley that came out near the rustic town of Philipsburg. They go a little heavy on the rustic, but it seemed all in good fun. The logger’s young daughter gave an emphatic recommendation for the sweet shop, so I gave it a try. It was closed. On Saturday. In summer.
At this point I debated whether to do another day of trails. Near-ish Philipsburg is another mining area that also includes some nice looking lakes that the locals use. These are up some interesting and possibly challenging roads, so that was also a good sign to me. Ultimately I didn’t figure I would have time to go up and back, and then push for home, so I headed west toward Hamilton over a “shortcut” of a pass. As it happened, the Magruder Corridor is near Hamilton and that made for another shortcut to get across Idaho and closer to Oregon, so that became the plan. Nice when a plan comes together!
Magruder is about a 70 mile length of gravel and rough rocky road. I think the length without services is about 110 miles or so. On the Idaho side is Elk City. I camped on top of a hill at a pretty decent primitive campground with a rickety outhouse and an overview of the land below. Nearly the length of the Magruder Corridor is black and grey sticks as a devastating fire swept through a few years ago. It’s also a long stretch of rough road, but you can’t beat the views from the lack of branches.
After about 3 hours coming down into Idaho, I did a 550 mile slog home across highways and interstates through more admittedly beautiful country. And passed out after a shower.