Big skies, big peaks, big history: cycle touring Idaho’s pioneer trail

Scott overlooking the historic Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway

Scott overlooking the historic Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway

LEAVING Boise was tough.
So tough, that it took until mid-afternoon on a Tuesday before we could pry ourselves loose from Rachel and Patrick’s cosy home and their cake stash to wobble uphill in a direction that was definitely not towards Mexico.
The Warmshowers hosts and world travellers had wasted no time telling us we should scrap our plan of beelining south east for Utah “it’s just boring desert and nothingness” and instead head north for Yellowstone “you’ve come this far, you might as well make the detour”.
“In fact”, they urged, “you should really go north to Montana first because the scenery along the way is as good as anywhere we’ve seen”.
In the end it was a no brainer. After all a three week detour to see one of the world’s most famous parks is a drop in the ocean on a 40,000km ride.
The sun hammered down across a baked set of barren hills as we pushed the pedals upwards and north from Boise and by 7.30pm we’d made it a pitiful 40km. We threw up the tent in a patch of scrub next to the river and massaged our cake-loaded calves before falling asleep.
Camping next to the river just 40km north east of Boise

Camping next to the river just 40km north east of Boise

Roughly eight passes lay between us and Yellowstone and the following morning we threw the bikes in granny gear and inched slowly up the first of many long, pine-covered climbs as dark grey clouds brewed on the horizon. The descent spat us out near a rustic campground next to a roaring river and we threw up the the tent and dove into our sleeping bags as the mother of all storms struck.
Gail force winds violently shook the tent and lighting flashed above us while thunder roared a nano second later.
Then came the hail.
Marble sized chunks of ice thrashed into the rain fly as the storm raged above us and we wondered just how much our Nemo tent could take. An hour later we emerged victorious albeit feeling a bit stupid about camping underneath so many trees.
Hail strikes the tent during the storm

Hail strikes the tent during the storm

The moment our feet hit the pedals the next morning we were climbing and two hours later we conquered another pass before barreling down into a lush valley next to the Payette River. By mid afternoon the storm clouds were back and this time rain came down in torrents.
As we rounded a soggy corner a campground with hot springs popped up on the left and without a second’s through we veered into their little cafe and gave up on the rest of the day. Instead we soaked in a steaming pool followed by a mammoth veg out in a tiny house the owners had offered up for the price of a tent.
From the hot springs the road rose another 50km uphill to the Copper Mountain Pass and the following morning we ground them slowly out as the Sawtooth Mountains stood like sharp, snowy sentinels in the distance.
The spectacular Sawtooth Mountains make their appearance

The spectacular Sawtooth Mountains make their appearance

From the summit we pumped out another 50km to Stanley through fields teaming with deer and something that looked like a pterodactyl returned from extinction but was in fact an enormous crane.
Stanley – population 94 – turned out to be two streets, a bunch of log cabins and one bloody expensive supermarket where apples cost more than a gold brick. We should have just bought the apples and moved on but we were tired and hungry which meant “terrible decision making time” so we re-mortgaged our parents houses and bought a large pizza.
For reasons that remain a mystery pizza costs roughly the same as a Malibu mansion in the US and you honestly can’t find a pretty basic large one with eight slices for under $20 USD (plus tax and tips if you eat in) making it the caviar of fast food. It really wasn’t in our budget but according to Stanley’s grocery store neither were apples so we splurged and then pedalled out of town with the post pizza guilts.
Early morning cycling along the Salmon River

Early morning cycling along the Salmon River

The next day we pushed out 90km to Challis along a breathtaking gorge that was home to the feisty Salmon river. It was also home to a sea of aromatic ponderosa pines and a handful of not so aromatic natural hot springs that gave off a pungent sulphur stench that Scott was quick to blame on my guts.
Later that day, while scoffing down lunch with a hint of fart, we chatted to a ranger about Idaho’s understated beauty and its wildlife variety.
“You know,” the ranger said.
“This area right here is just like Yellowstone without all the tourists.”
And he was right. There were a few cars on the road but considering the scenery it should have been a carpark and for not the first time it felt like our own private Idaho.
Scott enjoying a dip in a road side hot tub fed from nearby hot springs

Scott enjoying a dip in a road side hot tub fed from nearby hot springs

Twenty kilometres out of Challis the sage bushes and high desert returned and the mercury cranked up to “egg-frying level”. I was in dire need of a rest and a shower and so we again ignored the budget to hand over a 20 in exchange for a tent site and a hot shower at an RV park.
The following morning I felt like death and mere minutes after forcing down some breakfast I broke the hundred metre dash record to the toilet before exploding – Central Asian Giardia style.
Scott wasn’t far behind me and we decided another day in hot and windy Challis was on the cards.
An osprey flies home to the nest near Challis

An osprey flies home to the nest near Challis

With recovered stomachs we eventually escaped “hell’s furnace” to spend one and half days covering a mere 95km to Salmon. This time it wasn’t hills, churning guts or winds that slowed us down but scenery so beautiful it made you want to learn the banjo just so you could play a song about it.
Beautiful Idaho!

Beautiful Idaho!

Picturesque Salmon proved to be a quintessential Idaho town that plated up mountain scenery alongside the kind of juxtapositions America does best. One-hundred-year-old log cabins sat a stones throw from a Burger King where toothless cowboys chewed the fat in a slow drawl while sucking down a Whopper.
We’d scarcely pulled into the town’s main drag when a leathered looking local ambled over for a chat and his lengthy thoughts on where we should go.
The plan from Salmon had been to cycle north over the Lost Trail Pass before veering east in a zig-zag towards West Yellowstone but our new friend had a better idea: the Lewis and Clark Scenic Byway.
This historical stretch of gravel was made famous back in 1804 when its namesakes crossed the western portion of the country in what was the first expedition of the continental divide through to the Pacific Coast for scientific, geographic and economic reasons.
When they reached the Hidatsa Villages in Wyoming they found a Shoshone Native American camp and there set about recruiting a Quebecois man and his Shoshone wife – Sacagawea – to help them traverse the country and most importantly (using Sacagawea) interpret and negotiate with any tribes they would meet along the way.
History tells us that much, but the story goes that Sacagawea became a crucial guide for the men, saving all their equipment during a river capsize, helping them secure horses and supplies and essentially ensuring the success of what was one of the country’s most famous and earliest expeditions.
Most remarkably, the young Shoshone woman did it with a newborn baby (whom Clark would later “adopt”).
No one really knows what happened to the young mother and guide however some say she died of an unknown illness in her mid 20s in South Dakota while members of the Shoshone people insist she made her way back to Wyoming and lived out her days as a revered elder. Either way her name has become immortalised in American, and particularly Idaho’s, history which goes some ways to giving her the credit and reverence she should have earned while still alive.
A statue of Sacagawea with her son

A statue of Sacagawea with her son

And so like two loaded up, fancy packhorses (who carry a coffee grinder and pillows) we decided to follow in their famous footsteps towards the one horse town of Tendoy – the birthplace of Sacagawea and the namesake of a famous chief of the Shoshone tribe.
From there the Lewis and Clark Byway turned left onto a gently ascending gravel road framed by rolling hills and endless sage bushes interspersed with bright desert flowers. The smells, sounds and scenes were intoxicating and as we ambled up the ancient track and I couldn’t help but wonder if Lewis and Clark had been just as mesmerised and if Sacagawea had roamed these exact slopes.
Climbing the long and steep Lemhi Pass - spot the cyclist!

Climbing the long and steep Lemhi Pass – spot the cyclist!

Seven kilometres up the road we pulled into a free campsite which was full to the brim with flashy RVs. The monotonous drone of a half dozen generators burst my romantic bubble and reminded me of a Sunday afternoon in Brisbane, Australia when half the city fires up their lawn mowers.
From the campsite the rocky road ran another 12km uphill to the summit with the final 500 vertical metres spread over a back breaking 5km.
The following morning it took more than three hours of pitifully slow cycling, pushing and tantrums to reach the top and we cerebrated with a freshly brewed coffee before farewelling Idaho and taking our first steps into Montana.
Taking a break on the long slog to the top

Taking a break on the long slog to the top

The summit at last!

The summit at last!

This northern state is dubbed “Big Sky Country” and after flying down the other side of the pass the horizon opened up to reveal an expansive blue sky framed by mountains. I was pedalling along feeling like an adventure queen when all of a sudden the wind cranked up and I was blown halfway across the road.
Montana's Big Sky Country!

Montana’s Big Sky Country!

From the Lemhi Pass we wound our way to the once gold mining hot spot and now ghost town of Bannack and its state camp grounds.
Cattle ranches framed the gravel trail and after just a few kilometres on the Bannack Bench Rd the winds died down only to be replaced by a horde of hungry mozzies. It was a few minutes before I realised my legs and arse were being drained of blood and I immediately jumped off my bike in a wild screech before whipping out my DEET spray and wielding it like a sword.
Soon after the road bucked and dipped like a demented rollercoaster and with just 10km to go Scott pulled on the breaks and yelled” Food! I need food!”.
We squatted in the gravel and smeared Nutella and banana onto wraps as the wind whipped up dirt for the seasoning.
I shoved half the wrap into my mouth with an audible “crunch” and Scott muttered: “Living the dream…”
Sage bushes and cow ranches.

Sage bushes and cow ranches.

Nine hours, 80km, one pass, a few thousand mozzies and a dirt sandwich later we rolled into Bannack State Campground. The park was doing its best impression of sardine city and we were given the final patch of turf before throwing up our tent and scowling at the nearby families who were cooking up fragrant feasts.
The mozzies were back with a vengeance and we were just in the throws of a mad DEET dance while screaming profanities when two women from a nearby camp strolled over and asked if we’d like some food.
“We’ve cooked way too much and we’d love it if you joined us,” one of them said.
The women were part of the global Sisters On the Fly group that organises camping trips, micro adventures and camper travel and they’d put on a spread worthy of Christmas and the end of Ramadan combined. Two long tables were groaning under pots of pasta, bowls of meatballs, plates of pizza and even homemade ice-cream with rhubarb crumble and we quickly loaded up on everything before joining the fun.
We chatted with doctors, vets, scientists, nurses, teaches and everyone in between before a local band wandered in and fired up some folk tunes behind a crackling fire.
Montana, we thought, you’re going to be great!

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One Response to “Big skies, big peaks, big history: cycle touring Idaho’s pioneer trail”

  1. Hi guys. Had a thought today you would be back on the road by now and have caught up on your last two posts. Love your humour and tenacity. I have recently returned from travelling and the kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me. Looking forward once again to “armchair” travelling with you both. Debbie


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