Our neighboring, and often overlooked, state of Idaho is home to a nearly contiguous 3.4 million-acre area that comprises the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The areas are not fully connected, but only because they are separated by a narrow, 10-foot-wide, 95-mile-long road known as the Magruder Corridor.
The Magruder has been described as one of the most remote, wildest roads in the Lower 48.
The Magruder Corridor actually traverses trails established ages ago as indigenous peoples traveled seasonally over the mountains to hunt the bison-rich plains. Some locals refer to the Magruder as the Southern Nez Perce Trail. The northerly addition would be the trail Lewis and Clark used to the north of today’s U.S. Highway 12 over Lolo Pass.
The Magruder is considerably south, with access well up the Bitterroot Valley, closer to Lost Trail Pass into Salmon, Idaho, and the upper Big Hole Valley. The road exits the Bitterroot Valley at that precise spot that Montana looks down its nose in profile on the state of Idaho.
At the west end, though, the road begins just outside the small town of Elk City, Idaho, where gold was discovered in 1861. Bonanza strikes in Bannock and Virginia City saw mule pack trains on the trail delivering supplies out of freshly established Lewiston in Idaho Territory. Return trips might include gold bullion and you know what that means.
Lloyd Magruder was an early-day merchant and territorial politician who was robbed and murdered about midway along the trail that now bears his name. The murderers had apparently ingratiated themselves with the Magruder party, offering to help guard the stash. Magruder was killed with an ax by Christopher Lowery while he slept, and the rest of the party was killed and the bodies dumped over a cliff.
James Romaine, Daniel Howard and Lowery were eventually tracked down and arrested in San Francisco by a Lewiston hotelier and friend of Magruder’s. They were hanged in March 1864 in Lewiston, in what were believed to be the first legal executions in Idaho. You can read a bit about it on a plaque along the road, or go into more detail with the book, This Bloody Deed, The Magruder Incident. Interestingly, that same winter witnessed less lawful executions of road agents by vigilantes on the Montana side of the Continental Divide.
Roads into north-central Idaho were first established after the Big Blowup forest fire year of 1910 as a means to build and supply lookouts. Today’s Magruder Corridor was built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the mid-1930s. Portions of the Montana side of the road were later paved with an eye toward timber development. However, the remoteness of that resource from sawmills in the Bitterroot Valley allowed the area to remain largely untouched until congressional wilderness designation arrived in the mid-1970s.
The author and his friend Jason Swant of Helena are enthusiasts of old Land Rovers and so we fired up Jay’s ex-Canadian military rig and set out for Idaho at a pace suitable for fishermen. The 30-year-old 2.5-liter diesel engine is a little weak on top-end power while out on the interstate, but otherwise performs well, delivering about 20 mpg, which is an important consideration on the Magruder, since there are no services over about 115 miles.
Several Land Rover owners from the Portland area had informally assembled at Grangeville, Idaho, with an eye toward doing the corridor. Since each rig had a two-meter radio on-board, we were able to make contact and set out together for Elk City. The vehicles ranged from 1967 to 1994, with all but one burning diesel.
Gold mining has not ended entirely in this district of Idaho, and along the canyon up to Elk City we observed quite a number of floating suction dredges at work in the South Fork of the Clearwater. These portable operations are controversial in that disturbed gravels and sediment can affect the spawning beds of salmon, steelhead and other trout species.
While generally permitted by the state, the federal Environmental Protection Agency also issues permits for dredging, and it is much more restrictive, and claims trump. A level of tension has arisen between the itinerant miners, federal officials and some members of the community.
I briefly contemplated robbing the gold miners in the time-honored fashion, but was disabused of the notion by employees at the Elk City Ranger Station, who insisted that I would be badly outgunned.
A friendly UPS driver suggested we take a shortcut out of Elk City eastward toward Red River, which led the group past more active gold mining. Pavement ends at the historic (i.e., abandoned) Red River Ranger Station and the narrow dirt road immediately ascends toward ridge tops. As a wilderness road, the Magruder does not offer many side trips.
Three roads do lead to Forest Service lookouts, two of which are “historic.” Another lookout can be reached by a one-mile hike off the main corridor.
Our first evening out entailed a run up to the historic Green Mountain Lookout, which revealed an ominous-looking storm building to the west. Ryan and Kris Phelps generally drove lead in their red Defender-110, aided by a Gaia Global Positioning System. Ryan’s parents, Wayne and Cathy Phelps, drove the sweep rig at the rear.
Several in the group also had Gaia systems or GPS, while the Montanans relied solely on old Forest Service maps, the North Star—which most nights I see plural—and of course dead reckoning. Consequently, we were placed midway in the convoy. Ryan located a sheltered but open spot to camp and we waited out a two-hour storm until dusk.
This storm was minor for us, but it built 74-mph winds in the lower Bitterroot Valley and knocked out power in Missoula for several days. We would see evidence of the storm over the next several days as Forest Service crews worked to clear fallen trees from the roadway and campgrounds. At least nine lightning-strike fires were started by that storm in north-central Idaho, some of them still burning when this was written.
Day two saw the group spread out along the road, which generally runs along ridge tops with descending switchbacks to the head end of drainages. Over the past 20 years the area has been visited by numerous major forest fires, including the 2013 Gold Pan Fire that began in the River of No Return Wilderness. That fire blew up and, incredibly, reached deep into Montana without causing significant property damage.
The vistas here remain stunning. A fairly technical mile-and-a-half side trip to the historic Burnt Knob Lookout is worth the trip. The 8,200-foot summit and lookout seem out of a cartoon, since the structure is mounted on a crowning granite boulder.
A short detour to the Horse Heaven Cabin just off the Magruder road revealed a one-room log structure that was built in Darby and moved here as a firefighting base. Today it is available to rent through the online Forest Service rental system. It’s spartan, though, and a sign on the front door warns users to take precautions against Hantavirus.
From ridge saddles at about 7,500 feet, we descended sharply to the bridge crossing the upper reach of the famous Selway River. This is known as Nez Perce Crossing and marks a 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 each Aug. 1, but the river is usually too low to float by then. The river gauge at the put-in read four feet on Aug. 11, which is marginal even for lightly equipped kayaks. Give full consideration to your shuttle logistics before planning this river run and pay heed to the sage advice offered at the end of this piece.
Our group settled into Paradise and relaxed in the warmth of the 3,000-foot elevation. We were told by Forest Service workers that two commercial outfitters now offer “glamping” at their respective facilities in this area. We preferred to rough it at the juncture of White Creek and the Selway River.
The next morning we stopped at the Indian Creek salmon channel, an experiment in planting migratory fish fry near headwaters. The well-known writer Pete Fromm penned Indian Creek Chronicles, A Winter Alone in the Wilderness as a tribute to his time here as a 20-year-old University of Montana biology student in the late 1970s.
Your editor, Ed Kemmick, and I attended Journalism School at UM at that time, but I’ll be damned if I can remember Fromm, probably because he was wintering on the Selway while we were hunkered down in Eddy’s Club. Good writer, though, and his novel As Cool As I Am was made into a movie a couple of years ago.
A visit to the historic Magruder Ranger Station near the junction with the main road revealed yet another cabin available to rent, this one plush, with hot and cold running water and showers. The station is nestled among mountain meadow scenery. There is no camping here, but the water was potable, cold, and excellent.
The roads improved somewhat as we approached Nez Perce Pass over the Continental Divide into Montana. The group made one more trip up to a manned lookout called Hell’s Half Acre. Betraying its name, the road is good with just a few sediment traps.
Jeffrey and Brenna Carpenter were driving a 1967 Land Rover camper conversion known as Dormobile and broke a right front leaf spring during the descent. Jeff is a gifted and imaginative mechanic and that evening in camp along the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, 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.
If you go, a general review is available here. A stop at either the Elk City or Darby Forest Service Ranger Station is advised for current conditions. Several-day Idaho fishing permits for trout are available in sporting goods shops in Missoula, Darby, or along Highway 12 at Powell Junction.
An adage among users of the Magruder holds that no matter how much beer you bring, you should probably have brought more.
Paul J. Driscoll is a public information officer with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in Helena.