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Coeur d'Alene River Region

The Northern Panhandle

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St. Joe River Road Scenic Byway

 

St. Joe River Road Scenic Byway

Technical, twisty, remote and stunningly beautiful

 

Technical, twisty, remote and stunningly beautiful

 

A serious fisherman seldom reveals his hot trout hole, and elk hunters won’t discuss that particular drainage where they find the big bulls every fall. If they did, those spots would soon be fished and hunted out. Maybe access would be lost.

So it’s almost with a sense of reluctance that we

publicize this absolute gem of an Idaho motorcycle road. However, we doubt that double or triple the number of bikes here – unless the accident rate makes a steep climb and attracts patrols – would do much to diminish the quality of the resource.


Coeur d'Alene River Country Map

When riding the Northern Rockies, and of course Idaho, we invariably seek out roads with maximum turns and scenery and minimum traffic. Scoring those criteria on a one-to-ten scale, this honey is a 9.5.

Given its remarkable attributes, two-wheeled traffic is remarkably light. We suspect that is because the east end, from the Bitterroot Mountains summit at the Idaho-Montana line down to St. Regis, Mont., is almost 14 miles of gravel. Some can’t stand a little dust while others would never risk the increased chance of a rock chip.

The Montana gravel, though, is exceptionally well maintained, smoothly graded and amply graveled. Curves are numerous but they are broad, constant-radius and easy to negotiate. Go ahead and build your loop!

Gravel, schmavel: whatever... The paved 89 miles from the summit and border down to St. Maries makes anything else encountered worth it, especially considering the top 12 miles – the gnarliest of the twisties – was all completely rebuilt in 2013! Talk about smooth! And the design engineers got those corners right: proper banking and constant radius. Even striping and signage was upgraded as the roadbed was widened.

The Bitterroot Mountains pass is around 6,000 feet so you’ll find snow up here in May or September. It isn’t plowed during the winter. We used to be able to get through in late April or early May. We tried that a few years back and were told the county hadn’t the money in its road fund to plow it open. Apparently it is now left to melt itself out. You might check before you plan this trip.

As you roll down from the summit you’ll drop into a fairly tight and steep canyon and see Gold Creek, a St. Joe tributary. You don’t actually start running along the St. Joe until eight or 10 miles later. The creek, then river, have been carving the canyon for several millions of years and the river and roadway run in erratic tandem along the bottom.

The top section, say the first dozen Idaho miles, is quite technical. It is all turns descending a steep grade. Curves can surprise you with their small radius: heed the recommended speed signs, depending upon skills, equipment and tires.

There are just a few bona fide 180-degree switchbacks but there are dozens that we would describe as “hairpin.”

Often the grade runs well above the river, cut into the canyon flank, leaving a steep drop to one side and a stone face or scree slope to the other.

If run with zest, the top section miles can be a lot of work, especially if doing it downhill and especially doing it on a heavy bike; “work” like extreme whitewater rafting is “work.”

You’ll be scrubbing off a lot of speed at the turn entries and front suspension will be substantially compressed, reducing front end compliance. You’ll need to stay very focused, even while the stunning timbered vistas tend to distract.

We strafed this downhill a decade ago. My brother was in the lead and got burned in a hard right-hand turn marked at 25 mph, we recall. There was a jersey wall on the outside of the turn, a mountain face on the inside.

We saw his brake light come on...and stay on. His bike stood up, he crossed the centerline, then the oncoming lane and was headed for the concrete barrier, nearing a skid.
He got it slowed and turned a couple of feet short of impact.

In retrospect, when he believed he had too much speed and grabbed all his brakes, we believe he fixated on the jersey barrier and that’s why he headed for it; you know, “you go where you look.”

No kidding! We had fixated on his tail light and nearly followed him into the concrete! We got my porky ST turned when almost two feet over the center stripe. We cooled our jets...just a little, after that. He’s a much better rider these days. Now he’d just shift some weight to the inside and feed in more steering.

After 20 minutes of this intensity, we’d recommend a break to rest, hydrate and let the adrenalin dissipate. We love running a long set of good turns, but there comes a time when you’ve had enough of that extreme concentration and laser focus. It’s fatiguing!

Once things begin to flatten out, the surface deteriorates somewhat. Corners exhibit a little more radius but keep on coming, one after another, though less brake is required in dealing with them. Most of these can be run at 35 to 45 mph, maybe even a little faster. Here, too, a pilot can begin to take in more of the splendid river scenery.

We also like to take a break at tiny and historic Avery, a

former Milwaukee Railroad whistle-stop about 35 miles below the pass. There is lodging and a small store that can provide cold drinks and fuel. Further along is a funky resort with rooms (last time we were there), a full bar with micros on draught and a restaurant.

One day while enjoying a cold beverage there, we heard the high-pitched yowls of three Japanese four-cylinder sport bikes at full throttle pulling maybe 13 or 14,000 RPM and doing at least a buck-ten. As the squids screamed past, several of the locals – they looked to be loggers – shook their heads in disbelief and dismay.
“Don’t them boys know there’s deer on that road?” one of them asked.

Yes, we thought, it would just be a brief burst of pink mist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is surprising how little bike traffic there is on such a splendid road. Heck, run it up and back if you won’t do gravel. Bret Graden photo

 

Riders R

 

Up on the flank of the pass, traffic will be very thin, a few sportsmen or hikers. Further down the watercourse, you’ll begin to encounter the occasional fisherman, their rigs parked in one of numerous turnouts. I understand the St. Joe fishes well with good populations of several trout species.

The further you descend down river, the more recreationists you’ll encounter. Still, they’re never much of a factor or impediment to your fun. Mid-week traffic will be lightest; Friday evening, early Saturday morning and Sunday evening will have the heaviest traffic. Some will be big camping and boating rigs. Most of the public campgrounds are along the lower stretches.

Weekdays the log trucks begin running at daybreak and go until dark. Watch for them!

If you like exhilarating sport riding, the higher you go, the better it gets. If you want to lope lazily along, the bottom stretch as you proceed toward St. Maries will suit you better.

The valley gradually opens up and flattens out. The valley floor gets swampy in areas so expect moose. You’ll also see where the river frontage has been sold off and is lined with camp trailers during the summer.

Closer to St. Maries the permanent residences are found. Still, the traffic remains light, except for pokey school buses early in the weekday mornings.

To access this awesome specimen of superb motorcycle riding from St. Marries, proceed north out of town on Hwy. 3 and cross the river. Be looking for the St. Joe River Road to your right in about a half-mile.

If you are short on experience, or your companions are, set a leisurely pace. Continue to dial it back as you leave civilization behind and begin to gain altitude. The riding will become increasingly demanding until you hit the Montana border. Then it’s an easy cruise on good gravel down to St. Regis and I-90.

I’ve probably ridden this route a half-dozen times. I hope to be able to ride long enough to do it at least a dozen more. It’s one of those that you annually put on your summer riding calendar and anticipate with relish.
Give it a try. You’ll be back!

urc