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IDBDR Pt. 6 - Macgruder Corridor and Hell's Half-Acre

July 22, 2019.

Wanting to get an early start to the day so we could try to get ourselves through all of the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route's Stage 4 from Elk City to Darby along the Macgruder Corridor, we were both up and out of the tent right around 7:00am - the plan to show up at the awesome Elk City General Store right as they opened at 8:00am.

Or so we thought. But now I'm getting ahead of myself. So let's back up for just a minute...

As usual, I set my alarm for o-dark-thirty to see if I could catch the orange glow before sunrise. I think it was technically 4:00am that I figured was the right time, since my phone was still on Pacific Time, and I figured 5:00am Mountain Time would be about 30 minutes before the sun crested the horizon.

I was a bit worried that the trees to our east would block the view, but it they turned out to be a great foreground for the orangey-purpley-bluey show - the best we'd had on the trip so far.

Of course, after a few minutes I decided that - as usual - bed was a cozier place to be and I crawled back in for another couple hours - content with the knowledge that it was going to be another beautiful day. But nature's a cruel beast, and when I awoke from my pre-breakfast nap and looked to the west, I knew we needed to get a move on - because even though there was still sun streaming in under them from the horizon, those were some dark clouds!

We were dressed, the tent was stowed, and breakfast was made in just under 15 minutes - if not a record, dang close for us doddlers. And just in time too - because as we ate breakfast, the first few rain drops started to fall. These weren't just any drops, they were enormous drops.

Not that it really matters one way or the other - they were just water, and only lasted about 5 minutes. But hey, it got us up and moving, and that was a good thing.

We headed back into Elk City where our first stop was at the Station Cafe to refill both the tank and Jerry Cans from the last few days and couple of sections of the IDBDR. The place - as usual - was buzzing with customers in for breakfast, its menu something of a legend around these parts.

Then, we hopped up the street to the General Store where we needed to pick up just two things for the rest of the trip - some tortillas, for breakfast burritos and some sandwich bread, for making sandwiches. As we pulled up, things looked a little off - we could see people walking around inside, but the OPEN sign was off, and the lights looked dim. A quick glance at my phone and yep - sure enough - it was 7:30am Pacific Time, so 8:30am Mountain - we should be just fine; they probably just forgot to turn on the sign.

I pushed open the door and said good morning - a greeting that was enthusiastically returned by all three employee's. It was then followed by a, "Can we help you - we're not open yet." Obvious that they'd caught me off-guard, they immediately knew what the issue was. Turns out, this far north, Idaho is in Pacific Time - even though directly south, it's in Mountain time.

So yeah, the time zone isn't split vertically. Weird.

But, in a show of awesome, they were happy to have us come in and pick up a couple things early so we could get on our way - and five minutes later we were headed out of town - out along Red River Road to our first stop - one that I'd clearly passed the last time I was out this way, but don't remember at all. Gold Point Mine.

Still in good shape, the mine is across the river from the road, so it doesn't get many visitors to hasten its demise. In service for only a short time - due to a lack of gold ore to process - the mess hall and mill were left intact, and are a great reflection of the 1930s boom in lode mining in Idaho County.

Unable to make our way across the Red River without getting wet, we decided that a closer investigation would have to take place on a later trip. We continued on to the start of the Macgruder Corridor, marked only by an 11"x17" printout stapled to a wooden board. Classy.

The Macgruder - by and large - is a narrow corridor situated between the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. 115 miles long, much of the route has been burned over the years - as a result and indication of it's remoteness. That of course makes for a two-edged sword, the lack of foliage offering plenty of views; the views perhaps somewhat stark.

Cruising along and making good time, it wasn't long before we happened on a sign advertising Green Mountain lookout. Unsure if it'd be open given our last several (failed) attempts at lookouts, we ultimately looked at each other and decided it was worth a shot - after all, we were here and who knows when we'd ever get a chance to return.

And let me tell you - we were glad we did. Green Mountain lookout is a great, old, wooden lookout. It was unstaffed, but the gate was open - as was the lookout itself... though, in the case of the lookout, it was unlikely that it had been left open purposely.

The views - as you can imagine, and perhaps by definition at a fire lookout - were vast and magnificently dramatic under the cloudy skies.

Lookouts - little did we know at this moment - would be the highlight of the day, helping to break up the long trail, and providing surprises that we'd never imagine. And so it was that as we kept up a reasonably good clip back to the Macgruder from this first lookout, that we ran into the dual sport riders we'd encountered in camp just a couple days before.

"Hey, we know you guys!" one of them said, a smile apparent under his helmet. "You're making great time in that truck. We thought we'd be way ahead of you!"

Smiling, we shared a joyous greeting as well, politely refrained from mentioning that this trail was perhaps the definition of perfect terrain for our Tacoma, and recommended that they absolutely make the side trip up to Green Mountain. With that, smiles, and safe trips, we parted ways once again; not for the last time.

For an hour, we racked up the miles. As we did, I pointed out various - meaningless to most - landmarks to @mrs.turbodb. Here's a place where we stopped to take photos last time; oh, we stopped at that restroom since Mike had a couple cups of coffee that morning - that kind of thing. Probably boring, now that I look back on it, but she was nice enough to humor me with her attention.

And then, we came to a side trip that we were absolutely going to do - the road up to Burnt Knob lookout. Burnt Knob is perhaps the most appropriately named lookout we'd encounter all trip, standing atop a knob of granite, views as far as the eye can see.

And the road is fun too! Where most of the Macgruder rocky or "rough," in decent weather, none of it really requires a 4WD vehicle. The road up to Burnt Knob is different - here you need 4WD and high clearance if you want to make it to the top unscathed.

That said, even if you find yourself unable coax your vehicle to the top, this is a place I recommend finding some way to achieve the summit. Walk if you have to. Because it's worth it.

And once you're there - do as we did, and enjoy it. Even if - as it did for one of us - that means getting out of the truck while some numskull drives it to the edge of the cliff. Because this is a place to really soak up.

Having spent at least our personal allotment of time on Burnt Knob, we headed back down and along on our way. It was getting on lunch time, so there were only a few stops here and there as we looked for the perfect spot to enjoy PB&J.

A nicely built Land Cruiser, three generations out enjoying the wild together.

Eventually we did find the perfect spot - aptly named Observation Point - where we pulled over not only to fill our tummies, but also to say hi - once again - to our dual sport friends, who must have passed us while we were exploring Burnt Knob!

Finding a bit of shade (necessary even on this mostly cloudy day), lunch was a reasonably quick affair today - Observation Point marking the halfway point of the Macgruder; our plan to make it an additional ~70 mostly-pavement miles beyond that before stopping for the night. Luckily - at least on the Macgruder proper - there only quick photo stops for us to make until we got to the old Macgruder Ranger Station, a couple miles off the main road.

And it was here that we ran into the motorcyclists one last time. Residents of nearby Hamilton, they were almost home - a 5-day ride less than two hours from completion, showers already on their minds. We chatted for a good 20 minutes - about bikes, about trucks, and of course - about adventure. Eventually, we let them go (or they let us go) - the end of one of the longest games of leapfrog that any of us had played. And enjoyable game to be sure!

A bit more exploration of the ranger station, and we were ready to get on the move as well - our assumption, that we'd be airing up shortly for the drive into Darby and then on to Lolo.

But you know what they say about assumptions. (So I won't repeat it here. 😉 )

East of the Macgruder Ranger Station, the road can only be described as amazingly good. Where we averaged ~25 mph on the western 75%, here we were tooling along - dust trailing behind us in the stagnant air - at twice that speed.

Which may be - but don't quote me on this - why we missed our turn.

This however was an important turn. We had no idea at the time exactly how important it was, but lest I get ahead of myself, it was the turn to Hell's Half Acre and it's fire lookout. So, we got ourselves turned around and made our way 11 miles off-route until we finally found ourselves atop of Hell's Half Acre Mountain - the gate open, much to our relief!

The lookout obviously occupied, we grabbed some chocolate - a little gift we like to offer to these fine folks who find themselves without such creature comforts over the long summer months - and headed up to the lookout itself.

It's good practice when you approach a lookout to call up before heading up. That, in my mind gives the occupant - some of whom prefer solitude, or may be working a fire - the opportunity to keep you on the ground and out of their hair. In this case though - Austin was happy to have us up so we could take in views that were even better than what we'd seen just 10 feet below.

The youngest fire lookout we've ever met, we had plenty of questions for Austin and he had plenty for us. His third year at Hell's Half Acre, he put into words something that I've thought many times but never acted on - "It's the best job in the world. You get paid to look at mountains all day, and on your days off - you get to go fishing!" Touche!

Well, a bit more back and forth - he learning a bit about our trip and where we'd come from - and we got onto the topic of where he was from. "Well, it's a small town in Northern California that you've probably never heard of..." he started. And then, as I thought it in my mind, he mentioned a little place that I've spent many a summer - two of my family members living in exactly that small town.

Talk about a small world!

At any rate, it turns out that he not only knew my relatives, but hung out with some of the same crowd. And, as I'd find out later - but could have easily told you at the time - he and his family had a pretty good reputation around the town. Probably a lot better than the @turbodb's!

It was, I think - one of the top 2 highlights of the trip for me. It was a good 45 minutes or so that we spent in his lookout - sharing surprise and memories, and talking of adventure.

Oh, and let's not forget his cat. This must be the perfect place for such an animal. Endless windows and sunny areas in which to nap. #SpoiledCatLife

We finally pulled ourselves away - our Macgruder adventure now in the rear view mirror (well, side view - the rear view only has a view of the CVT, hahahaha). In Darby, Montana, we aired up since the rest of the day's miles - with the exception of a few as we found camp - would be paved - and headed to Lolo where found a bite to eat at some fast food joint.

Nearing 8:00pm now (we were back in Mountain time), we also decided that having gotten hot and sweaty for the last several days, an hour-long stop at Lolo Hot Springs wouldn't be the end of the world. After all, a good soak would be followed by a warm shower, and who ever complains about such a thing?

I mean, besides kids.

Refreshed - especially in their "cool" pool - I conveniently left the only hat I'd brought at the springs. As the sun set, we headed west over Lolo Pass. Our goal this evening was to find ourselves that perfect camp site somewhere along the eastern edge of the Lolo Motorway - a great jumping off point to finally tackle a road I'd been unable to run just 11 months before.

By the time we reached The Lolo, the sun had set. A look at the map, and @mrs.turbodb found what she thought could be a nice place to make camp - if we could get there without running into a locked gate:  Rocky Point fire lookout.

So, we headed up. And - as was a theme for the trip - up and up and up. Finally arriving at the lookout - no gates in our way - there was a car. It seemed the lookout was staffed, but I figured that as long as we were quiet and unobtrusive, it'd probably be just fine for us to camp some 50' below, and out of the way.

And then, from the deck around the lookout - a red light and a woman's voice, greeting us - and ultimately letting us know that of course we could camp here, just as long as others could get by on the road. Sweet!

As we set up the tent, lightning in the distance. This, of course, was why the lookout was out on her deck, binoculars in hand - it was her job, and she was doing it well. With the tent up, we pulled our our chairs and faced them east - a light display better than any fireworks, the perfect cap to what had been a wonderful day.

Looking forward to The Lolo the next day, we had absolutely no idea what surprises were in store. And boy, were there surprises - highlights for sure, but of a completely different ilk.

 

 

 

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