NORTHWEST TOUR 2011 PART XVI -
Whitefish, MT to Macks Inn, ID
August 21 to August 30, 2011
Start 66,687 miles (106,699 km) cumulative:
End 67,030 miles (107,248 km) cumulative
Steel lookout tower at the trumpeter swan wildlife refuge
Wander up the fertile Bitterroot Valley in unbearable heat
Lost Trail Pass from the north is the toughest direction
There’s a full blown Monitor windmill in Wisdom
Oh those Jackson hot springs felt good
There’s a new display on Big Hole hay production and ranching
Two passes and a good downhill gets you to Dillon
There are a lot of bike routes passing through this area
Dell’s renovated store is still doing great
Lima looks about the same as ever
Hikers will miss the payphone that was at Monida
August 24 - Hot
We spent 2 very full days working on the bikes. After so many miles on the road things were breaking down. Brian’s cassette needed replacing. We needed new cables, brakes, chains. To top it all off we had to rebuild one of Brian’s pedals and replace our tire pump. We’d thought 1 day would be enough. No chance.
The Bitterroot valley extends for about 80 miles north/south on the west side of the Continental divide. This tends to trap the moist air as it rises over the mountains making for a much greener area than just one mountain range east. There’s a lot of agriculture in the valley.
There are 2 main roads that go up the valley. The soon-to-be entirely 4 lane to Hamilton route 93 and the 2 lane East Side Highway. What is really nice is that as they 4 lane Route 93 they’re adding a new, wide bike path as well.
Unfortunately for us they were just in the process of building the 4 lane section from Victor to Woodside. The road was completely torn up and the bike path not done. We had to hop over to the East Side Highway for a while.
It was one hot, hot day. Even with a fairly early start we found ourselves suffering in the afternoon. By the time we got to Corvalis we were absolutely roasting. We had to stop in the Subway sandwich shop for an hour scarfing down cold drinks.
Hamilton is one long town. It’s grown over time to extend for at least a mile along the highway. We could have stayed in an RV park in town. Instead we had dinner at the grocery store and pushed on for another 4 miles. We were glad we did as the Angler’s Roost was a nicer campground than the one we looked at in town. Plus we got in an extra 4 miles in cooler temperatures.
Aug 25 - Hell of a climb
We started early as the temperatures were supposed to be brutal again and we had close to a 3000 ft climb to Lost Trail Pass.
Early, before it got too hot, we paused at Darby to get a cold drink. Darby is probably the valley’s quaintest looking town. It’s got new western style buildings housing quaint shops. For a tourist this would be a good stop on the way to Missoula.
the quaintest town of the Bitterroot valley
From there the road continues nearly flat up to Sula. The mountains surrounding the valley are closing in on both sides. To the west are some spectacular ranges one of which includes the towering Trapper Peak. Some day we’d love to get into the backcountry here.
around the Bitterroot valley
Sula has a small RV park with a tiny store, cafe, and gas station. It makes for a good stop before tackling the real climb. From here it’s a steep 13 miles of 6% or more grade the entire way.
store and Campground
It was blistering hot. We steadily crawled up that hill while watching our temperature gages rise into the high 90s. This was difficult and possibly dangerous. For every few miles we rode we’d stop for about 1/2 hour to rest in whatever shade we could find. It was just too hot.
Lost Trail Pass rest area/visitor center
As we finally approached the pass dark clouds started to roll in. Just as we arrived at the rest area/visitor center an afternoon thunderstorm hit. There was thunder and lightning. So we were very glad to be off the road.
Trail Pass rest area and visitor center<
With all that heat and climbing we had no strength to go further. We’d find a place to camp at the pass. Besides it has a nice flush toilet complete with hot water and covered picnic tables. What better place to stay.
Aug 26 - Hot Springs
There are no electrical lines running up to Lost Trail Pass. So to power the parking lot lights, the toilet lights, the electricity in the visitor center and give power to the annual visitor center hosts they run a generator 24/7. To have peace and quiet you have to move a fair distance away to camp. There’s a ski area at the pass plus other dirt roads. So finding a nice camping site is easy.
Early in the morning there was a nice chill to the air. The valley along the road looked green and inviting in the early morning sun. It was a beautiful morning.
Here is where we first encounter one of the longest wood fences we’ve ever seen. This fence is made up of 3 layers of tree trunks placed in a zig-zag pattern. It runs for miles and miles, about 14, on both sides of the road. We were told that back some 50 years ago they came up with a make work project for unemployed young men. They were told to go build a fence. After all these years it’s still there, albeit falling apart in some places, but generally in reasonably good shape. Amazing.
A 50 year
old fence that goes for miles
The drop down to the town of Wisdom is only about 800 ft. So you still have a lot of pedaling to do to get to town.
Just after leaving the forest service lands you pass by the Big Hold National Battlefield. In 1877 Chief Joseph and his band stopped here to rest thinking they had outrun the military. Early in the morning they were ambushed. Men, women, and children were mowed down by the US Calvary. It’s incredible that some even got away to continue their flight.
The site now has a large information center, a path through the field, and lots of ranger housing.
At the store in Wisdom
We’ve visited the battlefield on previous passes through the Big Hole valley so we went on to Wisdom. Wisdom is basically a crossroads town. There’s a store, restaurant, motel, RV park, trading post, auto shop, and town park. As with so many western towns it’s got that half ghost town appearance. Some houses look well kept up, others look abandoned and falling apart.
downtown Wisdom. MT
We were delighted to see a full Monitor windmill behind one house. Monitor was built by Baker Mfg, Inc out of Evansville, Wisc. That happened to be Caryl’s former bosses family business. We’re always on the lookout for good examples of Baker pumps. Occasionally we’ll even find working models in Forest Service campgrounds. Although they’re becoming rarer and rarer.
It’s a long open road running between Wisdom and Jackson. A line of telephone poles marks the location of the road and appears to run way out to the horizon. This year the valley seemed greener than we’ve ever seen it before. It must be the result of that late, wet spring.
The Big Hole valley is known for its hay production and cattle raising. Even Lewis and Clark recognized the fertility of the lowlands. Initially ranchers and farmers came to support travelers along the Oregon trail. Later they would drive cattle to the rail heads and ship the beef back east. They say they were able to obtain the same prices as corn fed beef.
Today they still grow hay, lots and lots of hay In August you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of hay rolls lying around the fields ready for pickup.
of hay rolls in the Big Hole valley
Every time we’ve ridden this route we’ve stopped at Jackson just long enough to get a drink or eat a meal. Usually we were headed toward Wisdom where we could camp at the city park.
This time we decided to stay at the hot springs. The nicest building in town is the saloon, restaurant, hotel, campground, and hot springs. The old western style building has a pleasant shady front porch complete with 2 wooden swings. In back they keep a well watered lawn where tents can be pitched. Plus for the price of the tent pitch you get use of the pool. Now the price is rather high, $30, but we’ve always wanted to give it a try. So we paid the fee and spent a good hour or so soaking. Oh that felt so good.
The nicest building in Jackson, the hot springs resort
Jackson Hot Springs
The Jackson Hot Springs was originally noted by Lewis and Clark on their return trip from the coast. They’d broken their last thermometer at Lost Trail Pass so they tried to estimate the water’s temperature using time. The time each of them could stand to stay in the pool. The time it took to cook different size pieces of meat. Today we know that the real temperature is about 140 deg F.
The simple old fashioned Jackson hot springs pool
The pool at the lodge appears to have been there for a long, long time. It’s a simple concrete structure that has been patched and repaired many times. It’s clean, just old. In some ways that gives it character. It doesn’t have fountains, showers, slides, or other fancy additions. It’s just a plain simple pool. And we had it all to ourselves. Perfect.
Jackson Hot Springs Lodge pool
Aug 27 - Interesting hay stacker
With the heat of late August greeting us every morning we were still getting up at the crack of dawn each day. Having lain in bed listening to music from the bar until late the previous night, it made for one early morning indeed. We’ll need a day off soon just so we can sleep in late.
The first pass to climb this day was about 800 ft high. Near the top is a brand new display. Put in place by an organization trying to preserve traditional ranching techniques, it includes an example of the valley’s unique Beaver slide hay stacker.
A beaver slide hay stacker
You see these unusual structures scattered throughout the valley and no where else. Basically the hay is placed on a platform that is then hauled up the slope of the structure and dumped into an area contained by a fence. When the fence is removed the haystack looks a lot like a loaf of bread. This was a lot faster way to stack hay than with just a pitch fork.
display on the unique Big Hole Valley Beaver Slide hay stacker
The one ranch that is preserving traditional practices is still using the Beaver slides. So you can still see a few of those bread loaf hay stacks around. Most ranches, however, are now using the new hay rollers. They don’t preserve the hay for as long as the old stacks did. But they’re faster and easier to make with modern equipment.
One fellow told us they’re going to outlaw the hay rolls. “Do you know why?”, he asked, “Because the cows can’t get a square meal.” OK it’s a bad joke.
After Big Hole pass we had a short downhill followed by a second pass. We passed by the Bannack State park since it’s 4 miles off route and we’ve seen it several times before. Instead we climbed the pass and had an easy cruise down to Dillon.
Aug 28 - Highway
The TransAm route heads north out of Dillon before turning south toward West Yellowstone. The Lewis and Clark route goes south by the Clark Canyon reservoir before heading over the hills to Lemhi Pass. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route stays to the west of the hills coming to meet highway 15 at the town of Dell thus avoiding Dillon alltogether.
We’ve ridden all three routes. So this time we’d just hop on the highway or the frontage roads to go directly to Lima. No need for anything fancy.
Dell was easily reached before lunch. We’ve seen a few changes in this small town since our first visit. The store used to be “really bad” as the new owner said. It was run by an older fellow who obviously had lost the energy to do much with it years before.
The new owners gutted the store, rebuilt the interior while keeping the old exterior, put in a gift shop plus a nice new food section, and added gas. I asked them how business has been doing since the renovation. They said it’s great. It’s amazing what a little building renovation can do.
looks about the same outside, a lot different inside
Now they’ve also added 3 small cabins out back that you can rent. If only they could get the town to upgrade the small park out front then things would really be looking up.
A sign in Dell’s town park
From Dell to Lima you actually have the choice of 3 roads. The interstate highway, a paved frontage road, and a dirt frontage road. The GDMBR, in its attempt to add more dirt, takes the dirt road. We’ve never opted for that as it’s dusty, slow, and washboarded. Besides, these three roads parallel each other within a few yards. You see the same scenery. Why bother with the dirt.
Lima used to be a much bigger town back when it was a major train depot. You can tell by the quality of buildings that fronted the railroad tracks. There’s a lovely brick building that now looks abandoned plus the large Johnnie Peat’s steak house. There are depressions next to the tracks that show where other large buildings used to sit. There was supposedly even a round house somewhere.
display on the unique Looking at Lima from across the railroad tracks
Today the businesses have shifted toward the highway. There’s a small motel, cafe, and gas station. But for the most part Lima has lost its former glory and now is just a small sleepy little community. If you’re on the GDMBR, though, this is where you get your supplies before heading to Macks Inn.
Aug 29 - Pooped
The morning started right out with strong winds from the south, of course. So rather than struggle along the dirt road leaving directly out of Lima we stuck to the highway for another 15 miles.
At mile zero, the Idaho/Montana border sits an almost ghost town called Monida.
not much left in Monida, MT
Monida used to be a major town. The train went over the pass and Monida was the closest stop to the newly created Yellowstone National Park.
All about the Shambos and their tour guide trade
The Shambo family owned property in the Red Rock valley to the east. They set up a stage station and soon were providing transport and tours to the park. They eventually wound up with dozens of wagons ranging in size from 2 to 12 passengers. This bit of business faded when the new short line railroad was built directly to West Yellowstone.
Cattle ranching became the next big business. Cattlemen drove their cows to Monida to be loaded on the trains. Monida was a huge cattle gathering post for a while.
This business faded when a wildlife refuge was established to protect the trumpeter swan 1935. Also the coming of the truck to move cattle furthered Monida’s decline.
Today there are about 5 people living there. One fellow runs a large junk yard just outside town and supposedly gets requests from all over the country. It’s not pretty, but it’s a living.
About all that remains of Monida’s prosperous past
There’s nothing to see or get in Monida anymore. Just some empty store fronts. Even the pay phone that hikers used to use to call the motel in Lima is now gone.
The Red Rock road leads over the grassy hills then down to the valley overlooking Lima reservoir. It’s a decent dirt road kept open through winter at least as far as the wildlife refuge. There’s a whole lot of open spaces along this road.
A lot of
open spaces keep you company when riding the west
With the wind howling and the sun beating down it was difficult to find a good place to stop for lunch. We finally decided to pull into a lot next to a modern barn. We could sit on the grass on the side out of the wind and in the shade.
Of course the rancher just had to show up when we were sitting. He didn’t seem all that pleased we were there. But we explained we just wanted some relief from the wind to eat lunch. He let us stay. He did seem to think these bikers are crazy.
We camped at the Upper Red Rock Lake campground. It wasn’t very shady. But it was good enough for one night. After fighting headwinds all day we were too pooped to go any further.
Aug 30 - Looks familiar
We’ve passed by this area so many times it’s starting to feel like home.
Not too much further along the road we made one last, short, steep climb to Red Rock pass and then it’s downhill to Henry’s lake. You could wander around on more dirt roads until arriving at Macks Inn. But we chose to go directly to Hwy 20 so as to pass by the Hungry Bear market. It’s not a cheap market, but it’s the best nearby.
Just a bit further south is the Flatrock forest service campground which at this time was nearly empty. Macks Inn and the surrounding is a huge ATV recreation area. Not to mention fishing and rafting on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. In summer and on the upcoming holiday weekend it’s packed. It was so nice to arrive when it was quiet.
APPENDIX A – ROUTE
Aug 24 - Reserve St to Brooks/Hwy 93 to Victor, Victor crossing to East Side Hwy to Corvalis, Woodside Cutoff to Hwy 93 to Hamilton, 58.42 miles
Aug 25 - Route 93 to Lost Trail Pass, 43.71 miles
Aug 26 - Route 43 to Wisdom, Route 278 to Jackson, 45.13 miles
Aug 27 Route 278 to Dillon, 52.70 miles
Aug 28 Hwy 15 or frontage road to Lima, 50.47 miles
Aug 29 - Hwy 15 to Monida, Red Rock Lakes Rd to CG, 47.57 miles
Aug 30 - Red Rock Rd to hwy 20 to Macks Inn, 30.53 miles
APPENDIX B – CAMPSITES, HOTELS
Aug 24 - Anglers Roost Campground in Hamilton ($19.26/night)
Aug 25 - Lost Trail Pass rest area ($0/night)
Aug 26 - Jackson Hot Springs Lodge camping ($30/night)
Aug 27 - Dillon KOA ($19.47/night)
Aug 28 - Lima town park ($0/night)
Aug 29 - Upper Red Rocks CG ($7/night)
Aug 30 - Flatrock USFS CG at Macks Inn ($13/night)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.