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Salmon River Region

South Central Idaho

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White Bird Grade

 

White Bird is stunning in every respect, especially as a technical and serpentine specimen of moto road.

 

Hwy. 95 south of Grangeville
‘Old’ and ‘New’


The first time I heard the name “White Bird” was as the title of great 1969 rock ballad by the San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day: “White Bird must fly or she will die...” etc.

I came across the name again when reading some Nez Perce history. The man was a great battle chief and led his people, along with Chief Joseph and Looking Glass, on their epic flight to avoid being caged on a reservation. White Bird and a few others avoided capture or surrender and slipped into Canada, but the chief was murdered there by another Nez Perce in 1892.

Finally, it was as a motorcyclist learning the best roads in Idaho that I came across White Bird, this time as a hill, canyon and town.

This is the section of Hwy. 95 that runs south out of Grangeville 12 miles to the little town of White Bird situated at the bottom of the Salmon River Canyon.

When we went looking for it we knew there was an “old” version and the new modern rendering along Hwy. 95. We missed the turn to the “old” White Bird Road but still had a marvelous run down 95 to the canyon bottom.

Hwy. 95 sports excellent pavement, perfect engineering, substantial shoulders, high-lean sweepers all the way down...and substantial traffic. The gnarly part is only seven miles from White Bird Summit to the river but seems twice that due to the amped up fun factor. You’ll lose (or gain if running it up) 2,700 feet of elevation in that seven miles where some of the pitch is at 7 percent. The temperatures may rise as fast as the grade drops.

The terrain is all treeless, grassy, bald mountains, stunningly green in the spring but usually going brown by July. Still, it is a treat for the senses...and a treat for a rider. You can get some serious lean on while slicing along the east side of the mountain ridge.

Big cruisers and touring rigs will probably favor Hwy. 95. Those of a more sporting and adventurous bent will want to locate “Old Hwy. 95,” also called the “Old White Bird Hill Road.” This runs on the opposite side of the canyon and is more demanding than 95 by several multiples.

We would rate this as “quite technical” if a rider plans to run it with some zoot. It is almost primitive, drops-offs are fearsome and there are a dozen true hairpins with catastrophic potential.

Coming out of Grangeville heading south, just past the golf course on your left off Hwy. 95, look for the sign for Johnston Road on the right. Precisely opposite of this on the left is the beginning of “Old Hwy. 95,” barely denoted by

Map of Salmon River Region

a small sign.

You’ll run along on fairly hammered asphalt for several miles, heading off the south end of the Camas Prairie. As the descent begins, so does the velocity of the fun. The roadway pitches steeply down while corners come with increasing frequency and smaller radii.

Down, down, left, right, down, right, left... Now this is fun! But, oh my! It’s just getting started! The old road intersects Hwy. 95 and you must run that south for under one mile I believe, then get back onto the old highway, again on your left to the east.

Very shortly you’ll encounter a series of switchbacks descending the side of the mountain. It literally goes like this: right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right...that’s within a mile or so!

Yes, it mellows after that, but not much! Several more sets of dramatic switchbacks are presented as it continues down the canyon, finally straightening some as it runs along Whitebird Creek and into the village of White bird.

What a ride! This may be the most technical – exciting, challenging, exhilarating...even exhausting if pushing hard – of Idaho’s collection of great grades. Winchester is in this class, maybe Greer and a few others. Frankly, if your skills are poor, even if you’re not at the top of your game for some reason (stressed, fatigued, dehydrated, hung over), you might be wise to stick to Hwy. 95.

Otherwise, hang on for the ride of your life! Simply world class!