A journey along the Magruder Road – Experiencing True Wilderness
Author: Mike Holland
“There’s a nice eddy. Do we have time to stop and fish?” Louise asked.
“Ahhh, we should probably keep moving.” I replied.
The river looked enticing and inviting. However, I looked over my map to spot a right turn into the wilderness. I felt invited to take a right turn into heaven.
The crystal-clear waters of the Bitterroot River flowed south; the Bitterroot Mountains towered to our west. It appeared we were “in” the pages of the Norman Maclean novel, A River Runs Through It. We skirted the Montana/Idaho border just outside of Darby, Montana, on alert for the right turn. Soon enough, we spotted the sign marking the Magruder Road trail.
The Nez Perce Trail runs east/west for 100 miles as it traverses Idaho and the largest wilderness area (roughly 3.4 million acres) in the lower 48. The trail, is actually a road, is also commonly known as the Magruder Corridor Road. This overland worthy dirt road follows valleys and rivers, traverses numerous mountainsides, and opens gateways into the Idaho wilderness. “The Magruder,” as locals refer to it, was named after Lloyd Magruder who was ambushed and robbed in 1863 while traveling through this wilderness.
My wife, Louise, daughter, Lilly, and friends, Liz and Sam, joined me on this foray into the wilds of Idaho. The Frank-Church Wilderness and Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness create the largest wilderness area. Land designated as wilderness generally bans vehicle travel. However, before it was designated wilderness, it was a national forest with one road crossing through it. This “road” somewhat followed the trail that the Nez Perce Indians created to travel through this harsh, beautiful landscape. When, the designation changed in 1984, Idahoans voiced their desire to keep the road open to access this vast, pristine landscape. They won. We won! This road allows visitors access and to adventure in this wonderful wilderness.
After ascending Nez Perce Pass, we pulled over to check our route. The road was smooth and fairly well-graded. Driving along the western side of the pass, we entered Idaho and noticed our watches updating to the Pacific Time Zone. We encountered no other vehicles. The mountains came “alive” as we visually examined all that surrounded us. The sun’s rays shined through the evergreens and created a magical, picturesque environment. After 30 miles, we stopped at the Magruder Bridge pullout, popped the top of our Four Wheel Camper, and set camp.
Louise prepped the rods to fly fish the evening hatch on the Selway River. All of us walked the bank to the river then waded into the chilly waters to cast our lines into the fish-holding riffles. Within minutes, Bullhead Trout accepted our flies. The fish were hungry, and the action proved fast and furious. Roughly one hour later, we had caught and released 20 or so fish. We prepared dinner and started a fire—all the while, the waters of Selway River flowed further into the Idaho wilderness. We slept in the comfort of silence.
The next morning, we returned to the river and caught and released numerous trout before continuing west. Resuming out trek, the road turned rougher. We ascended from the Selway River Valley and crisscrossed numerous mountainsides. The views were impressive; the land looked natural—untouched by man. Old fire burns and wildflowers covered this wild land.
As the road took a sharp bend, I spotted a small, weathered sign. It recounted the Magruder Crossing. In 1863, Lloyd Magruder, a mule-pack train operator and merchant was traveling with a group of men when they were killed by their “companions.” The murderers left hastily and escaped to San Francisco, California. Later, they were captured and returned to Idaho to be hanged. Many years later, on this stunningly beautiful day, we sat in awe of our surroundings, Mother Nature’s sheer beauty, and peace without conflict.
Back in the 1860’s, the horse trail showed the way. Today, the dirt road crosses the largest wilderness in the Lower 48. For the most part, weather permitting, the road remains fairly mellow and straightforward. It usually offers no surprises. Well, exceptions occur.
“How’s this side road to the lookout?” I questioned of the couple who we met at the intersection.
“Ahhh, your truck and camper are too big. And, you need to have lockers.” I was nervous, so I asked Sam to drive ahead in his Jeep and update me via the radio about the road conditions.
“It’s okay. Take it slow and you will make it without issue,” Sam called over the radio. I shifted the truck into 4-Low and followed the rough road to an old fire lookout. The truck “crawled” up the road slowly. We found an adequate parking spot and hiked the remaining half-mile. In awe, we thought of the rangers who used to staff this tower throughout the summer hoping to spot fires starting anywhere in this vast wilderness. The lookout cabin’s 360-degree view was breathtaking.
Toward evening, on the banks of Poet Creek, we found a grassy campsite and settled there. The fish were hungry again, and I caught ten or so trout on my Dragontail Tenkara Rod before I heard Lilly yell, “Dinner!” After dinner, we chitchatted around the fire. Within the towering evergreen forest, life was grand.
As we continued along the Magruder Corridor Road we spent another day fishing and exploring. We spotted wildlife, we caught trout, and hiked interesting trails. All too soon, we hit pavement—signaling the end of our route on the Magruder. Not many places exist in the US where one can experience untouched, unaltered land. This land is wild in its true sense. This land beckons exploration. Thanks to one historical route, we can travel the Magruder Corridor Road today and discover unimaginable wilderness.
-A standard four-wheel drive vehicle will do just fine. A Four Wheel Camper mounted onto a 4-wheel drive truck proved to be the ultimate adventure vehicle.
–Cell phone signal is pretty much nonexistent. However, both Verizon and ATT phones work at the fire lookouts.
-Bring extra gas.
-Ensure that your vehicle’s tires are good shape. All season tires are ideal.
-Pack a handsaw in case deadfall blocks the road. Better yet, a chainsaw.
-Travel in the summer months.
-Pack fly and tenkara rods to fish along the way. The tenkara rods from Dragon Tail Tenkara packed nicely and were a blast to fish. (www.dragontailtenkara.com)