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30 Hours through the Magruder Corridor

From issue 82 • Words by Eric Walle/Images George Thoma

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It was somewhat by accident that I discovered the Magruder Corridor. As a recent Idaho transplant, I was poking around the internet trying to learn a bit more about my newly adopted state when I stumbled upon a photo blog written by a four-wheel-drive enthusiast who had recently driven the route. The road’s gravel surface looked sublime, and it traversed wilderness terrain that was as rugged as it was beautiful. Additional research revealed that the road was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, roughly following a historic Native American migration route called the Southern Nez Perce Trail. The road is named, somewhat ominously, after Lloyd Magruder, a prominent Idaho merchant who was robbed and murdered, along with four of his men, on the original trail back in the fall of 1863.

Largely unimproved since it was built, the Magruder Corridor Road meanders 125 miles west from Darby, Montana, across the Bitterroot Mountains to the mining town of Elk City, Idaho. In doing so, the road divides the largest swath of dedicated wilderness in the lower 48 states, making it one of the most remote roads in the nation.

From a cyclist’s perspective, a remote and scenic gravel road with a bit of dark history sounded almost too good to be true, yet I could find no concrete information suggesting that anyone had ever ridden the entire route unsupported. The road’s terrain is challenging and its isolated location and point-to-point nature present cyclists with a logistical challenge. So it came as no surprise that it wasn’t on many cyclists’ bucket lists. I was truly captivated, however, and when I texted my friend George to ask if he’d ever heard of the Magruder Corridor, I already knew we were going to ride it.

The U.S. Forest Service plows and maintains the road at a level that enables ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles to pass through for about five months each year, beginning in July. But we were planning to ride it in late June….

On a rainy morning, after pedaling 325 road miles from our home base in Boise, George and I strapped our camping gear to our bikes, checked in with our families, and rode out of Darby toward the wilderness.

Possessing neither the towering peaks of Colorado nor the massive granite monoliths of the Sierra Nevada, the Bitterroot Mountains of central Idaho appear outwardly approachable. The forests are thick and dark, with the gushing sounds of countless rivers and streams ever present in the background. And the Magruder, at lower elevations, often feels more like a serene jungle road than a rugged alpine corridor. The innocuous appearance belies the true nature of the territory, though, and it’s easy to underestimate the challenge that lies ahead.

If the southern Bitterroots are lacking in dramatic alpine landscapes, they more than make up for it in their extreme remoteness. The Magruder Corridor Road forms the northern border of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, which at nearly 2.4 million acres is the single largest dedicated wilderness area in the contiguous United States. Directly north of the Corridor lies the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which adds another 1.2 million acres, to create a combined preserve that’s slightly larger than the state of Connecticut. To make things even more interesting, the entire 3.6 million acres of wilderness is surrounded by 15 million additional acres of rugged National Forest land that covers the majority of Idaho’s central core. Once you’re deep in the Corridor, there is simply nothing out there, and to ride it is both exhilarating and disconcerting.

At Fales Flat, only 15 miles into the Corridor proper, the road angles rather harshly upward as it begins its long trek toward the Continental Divide at Nez Perce Pass. In the early 1960s, just before Congress designated the area as wilderness, much of the Bitterroot National Forest was slated for logging, and asphalt was laid down in a few sections along the eastern section of the Corridor. Nez Perce Pass is one of those sections, and although the decaying road surface is nearly 60 years old, it felt like a freeway to us after several miles spent on slippery rock and mud. Though formidable with its 2,000 feet of elevation gain to a 6,598-foot summit, taken on with relatively fresh legs and possessing a gradually decreasing gradient, Nez Perce Pass was the least demanding obstacle we encountered.

There’s no river quite like the Selway. Wild, remote and swollen by the endless spring rain, the Selway in late June represents everything a “Wild and Scenic” river should. Thirty-four miles into the Corridor, the river runs north from its headwaters, cascading through a beautiful green meadow adjacent to the old Magruder ranger office. The office is one of a handful of weatherworn buildings built in the 1920s and ’30s that once served as the original district ranger headquarters. No longer staffed, this collection of structures now provides a picture-perfect stopover for those seeking adventure deep in the Bitterroots. Having just descended from Nez Perce Pass over 10 miles of wonderfully tacky gravel along Deep Creek, our spirits were high as we sat on the office porch, laughing and drinking the hot coffee that George had magically concocted. The sun even made an unexpected appearance, and we hung our jerseys to dry and let the mountain air warm our bare skin as we lingered to extend the perfectly fleeting moment.

Thirty minutes later, the climb out of Magruder Crossing was nothing short of brutal. Spanning 10 miles and gaining 4,500 feet by way of relentless inclines exceeding 12 percent, the climb was a rude awakening after the exuberance of descending through the Deep Creek valley. The climb itself was difficult enough, as the road’s surface quickly transformed from overly soft and sticky clay into loose and rocky scree. More troublesome than the terrain, however, was the vast number of deadfall trees we began to encounter as we approached our trip’s high point.

Three major fires have swept through this part of the Bitterroot Wilderness over the last 30 years, leaving a colorless landscape of decaying trees behind. An unusually wet and windy spring had taken its toll on those trees, leaving an astonishing number of spiny trunks spanning the trail, often in tight succession. Some downed trees were high enough for us to crawl under, the stiff limbs often digging into our backs as we dragged our bikes along the ground. Others were low enough that we could smash clear the branches and scramble over them like oversized cyclocross barriers. Others still were simply impassable, and each of these required a circumnavigation of unpredictable length and difficulty that generally forced us to climb, crawl and stumble our way to the other side.

At 8,000 feet, the rain had turned to sleet and the road was completely covered with deep snow as we traversed the northwest face of a steep, tree-covered ridge. We had given up entirely on riding our bikes and we now dragged them by the handlebars on the downward side of the slope as we kick-stepped our way through the icy snow. The highest section of the Magruder Corridor consists of a 4-mile-long series of narrow ridges connected by saddles, and we spent the better part of three hours fumbling haphazardly across them through an endless cycle of snow, mud and deadfall.

Having covered nearly 70 miles, we had hoped to camp on the ridgeline in order to enjoy the panoramic view, but the conditions said otherwise. We had packed light in order to ride fast and we simply didn’t have the equipment to comfortably spend a night in cold and wet conditions at high elevation. Though thoroughly exhausted, we made the decision to push on to Poet Creek, an established campground 3,000 feet below the ridge…except that Poet Creek was not just below the ridge.

After climbing two more snowy passes and descending repeatedly through more loose rocks and deadfall, we arrived at a saddle spanning the terminus of a fire-damaged valley. Unsure of our location on the map, and with too little daylight left to safely ride, we made the decision to simply stop for the night. The cold set in immediately, so we quickly ate, laid down our bedding and tried to get our aching bodies to fall asleep.

The rain was light at first and I lay in the fetal position in my down quilt as the tiny drops tapped against my bivy sack. I had nearly fallen asleep when a huge clap of thunder rattled me wide-awake and the skies truly opened up. For the next several minutes we were treated to a storm of near-biblical proportion. The giant drops came fast and hard, and eventually my ancient bivy gave in, drenching my quilt.

Before long, rainwater was flowing directly into my bed from the temporary streams created by the deluge. I tried my best to stay calm but I was already shivering and on the verge of panic. I yelled to George to let him know my situation but the sound of my voice was lost in the storm’s clamor. When the rain finally let up, allowing us to talk, we agreed there was no option but to pack up and get moving. Without saying a word, we quickly stuffed our soaked clothing and equipment into our bags and began pushing our bikes up the trail in the dark.

I knew I was in real danger of being hypothermic, and it felt good to climb the steep grade up the other side of the valley. The rain had stopped and for a moment an opening in the clouds revealed the twinkling red shape of Mars, looming large in the eastern sky. We stopped and stared upward in the quiet night, momentarily caught up in the spell cast by the immense wilderness around us. However brief, seeing the planet felt like a good omen, and our moods improved as we continued to stagger up the hill.

A swell of relief came over me when my core temperature finally crept up and the shivering stopped, because I knew we couldn’t afford an emergency situation. The deep snow and countless downed trees had led us to two conclusions: Nobody else had been through the Corridor yet this year, and if things were to go truly sideways, nobody was coming to get us.

A heavy fog set in as we neared the top of the valley, diffusing the light from our headlamps and making progress difficult. We had staggered upward nearly 1,000 vertical feet over two hours and snow once again covered the trail. Totally depleted and no longer thinking clearly, we managed to lose the trail in the deep snow and spent a maddening half hour stumbling in circles in the dark to relocate it.

When we finally found the trail and reached the snowline, we agreed to descend slowly, but the excitement of riding at night and our relative proximity to Poet Creek got the better of us. Already riding far beyond my limits for the conditions, I watched as George’s blinking red taillight disappeared around a bend in the distance. A few seconds later I raggedly entered the same corner, my line skewed by the turn’s decreasing radius, and I looked ahead just in time to see a downed tree hanging over the trail. I grabbed the brake levers too late and skidded as a stiff, sharp branch rammed its way between my handlebar and storage bag, stopping less than an inch from my crotch. I carefully dislodged my bike from the tree, took a few deep breaths and continued slowly down the road.

In the pre-dawn light, after 45 minutes of gripped descending, we finally rolled into Poet Creek campground. Like every other campground we’d passed, Poet Creek was deserted and still covered in a soft layer of detritus deposited over the long winter. We threw our bivy sacks and wet quilts on the ground, lay down, and fell instantly asleep, much to the delight of the mosquitos whirring overhead.

The bright sun on my eyelids woke me up. I just had the best hour of sleep in recent memory and though groggy I felt refreshed and ready to ride. We hung our jerseys and bibs to dry, drank a few cups of instant coffee and consumed a goat’s share of oatmeal. As we begrudgingly changed back into our dirty riding clothes, we couldn’t help but laugh at our bloodied arms and legs, exposed awkwardly in the intense morning light. We washed our hands and faces in the cold creek, hopped on our bikes and quietly pedaled out of the empty campground.

The climb out of Poet Creek was steep and long, just as we had come to expect. On the Magruder, no climbs are easy and it helped to make peace with that fact. For the first time in many days, the sun was bright, and clear-blue skies showed through the treetops. Though difficult, the climb somehow felt easy—almost enjoyable—and as we neared the top we stopped to let the sun soak in and admire the snow-covered mountains to the east. We had made it through the worst relatively unscathed and I was already beginning to feel nostalgic as the end of the road drew near.

The final 20 miles of the Magruder Corridor are a gravel lover’s dream. The surface was hard-packed, fast and tacky from the rain; and George and I took turns in the lead, playfully sprinting by each other over the endless rollers. Excited to be nearing civilization, we carelessly ripped down the final long descent into the Red River valley. Every turn was an exercise in futility as we tried to maintain our lines through the apexes, inevitably winding up in a sideways slide in the squirrelly duff on the road’s outside perimeter. It was an exhilarating feeling, though, and we kept our recent track record of poor decision-making intact by continuously increasing our speed.

Surprisingly, neither of us crashed, and we celebrated that fact as we emerged from the forest onto smooth asphalt and headed toward Elk City, Idaho, population 202. Exhausted, filthy and battered, and approximately six hours earlier than expected, we rolled into the tiny, desolate town. We had finished. There were no custom belt buckles or trophies and no costumed fans or hip distilleries to aid in our celebration—just a cold beer from the general store and the bewildered looks on the locals’ faces when we told them we had just ridden our bikes through the Magruder Corridor. That was good enough for us.