Taking The Road(s) Less Traveled North to McCall

Sure, you can drive the 100 or so miles to McCall and reach your destination in two hours; better yet, take the backroads over 300 milles and spend three nights doing it.
The next time someone asks how far it is from Boise to McCall, I’ll say 311 miles.

Adjacent to scenic Idaho Highway 55, backcountry routes between Eagle and New Meadows are a special place to get lost. It can get rough out there, though: bear, moose, fire, venomous snakes and rednecks are part and parcel of any good weekend spent in the Idaho sticks. If someone tells you different, they’re full of shit.

I recently trekked into those sticks with Karp and Nolan, a pair of like-minded, 208-native gearheads and childhood friends. Karp was seated on his rod-modded BMW Dakar 650, Nolan on his BMW F800GS and I was aboard my trusty Kawasaki KLR 650 (a custom build by Happy Trails Products in Boise).

I’ve ridden this bike on three continents, but it’s nowhere more at home than in Idaho’s weird places.

When I was a kid, McCall was my happy place. Summer days were spent hiking, swimming, cliff jumping and wakeboarding. Winters were all about the backcountry skiing and hanging out in hot springs. Now that I’m old and grouchy, I don’t go to McCall to go to McCall anymore; I go because some rad side routes happen to end there. To quote philosopher and man of the road Robert M. Pirsig: “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.” Amen, brother.

Karp, Nolan and I went into some remote places you shouldn’t attempt to get to unless you are a savvy Idaho outdoorsperson and a skilled motorcycle rider—four-wheeled vehicles can’t even get many of the places we went—so I will not reveal routes in detail. But I will share some of the waypoints on our trip: Garden Valley, Yellowpine, somewhere near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Warren and McCall.

Leaving Boise on one of the two dirt routes heading north, we had 160 miles of less-traveled road and two track before reaching camp for the night. Adjacent to Garden Valley sits a reservoir amid some 7,000-plus-foot-high saddles, where thousands of stumps and a steeply sloped airstrip give the shoreline an apocalyptic feel.

From the northernmost side of this reservoir we ascended into the southern fringe of Valley County. The rough-and-tumble road opened up a bit, and it was time to let the bikes run. Rounding the corners at 60 miles per hour with a mild drift prompted a feeling not unlike what I imagine a bird experiences during its first flight.

After a quick stop for a burger and beer at a nearby lake lodge, we were suddenly a little too close for comfort to a pair of freshly sparked fires. Smoke spiraled high above the south end of the lake and began souring an otherwise blue sky. In concert with other area burns, a hot, windy microclimate had developed across central Idaho, which did not bode well for air quality over the next two days.

Following lunch, we goosed three tourists on BMW 1200GS’s before dropping down to one of the most scenic remote river corridors in the state passing through the tiny town of Yellowpine—population 32—by early afternoon on our way into me truly beautiful country on the fringe of the Frank Church wilderness.

We throttled up the road to a magical place where we set up for the night near a long-forgotten hunting camp, complete with two rat infested cabins and a babbling year-round creek.

Located off the last motorized access point to the wilderness, we enjoyed the peace and quiet amid massive peaks and thick lodgepole pines.

After some whiskey-fueled fireside conversation, we called it a night and awoke the next morning socked-in. Fire had reached the ridges, and we knew it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. We climbed north on switch-backed 8- to 10-foot-wide gravel tracks up to about 9,000 feet. Puttering past some of the most beautiful panoramas in central Idaho, we came to what became affectionately known as the “Big Descent”—a 12-mile downhill canyon path, which allowed us to kill our bike engines and coast all the way to one of the many forks of the mighty Salmon River.

The landscape changed from thick forest to aspen groves to high mountain desert as we rode up to the top of another 8,000-footer before dropping into the Baum Shelter bar/restaurant in Warren.

After lunch, we scooted over the hill to the Secesh River and our final camp, navigating five miles of tight, technical single track to a 1,000-foot-high ridge lake a big mama moose was known to frequent. She showed up the next morning, and we said hello from a safe distance before burning tarmac past Upper Payette Lake. After breakfast in McCall, we hit Highway 55 and got in line with all the vehicles heading back toward the Treasure Valley.

Door to door we traveled 311 miles up, 105 miles back. I prefer the prior every time.

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