Idaho fire lookout motorcycle tour.

I left Portland Oregon after work on Tuesday with a lightly loaded 79’ R65 and two friends on their motos with plans to head East to Idaho to explore and stay in a few old fire lookouts. Ethan and I were doing the whole trip and planned to take 4-5 days before heading back to puddle-town but Tony needed to be at work and could only swing an overnight trip. Quite the motley crew of motos with Tony riding a rebuilt and custom Yamaha XS650 cafe racer and Ethan on his thumper. With no way to carry gear on the bike, Ethan wore a backpack with his super-light backpacking tent and sleeping bag inside. His Honda XL650 had dry bags lashed behind the seat and topped with a half dozen bananas for breakfast. It had been a long time since I have ridden with other riders so it was fun have a group to roll out with.

We intended on making it to a campsite in the Columbia Gorge after we stopped in White Salmon for a beer and dinner but didn’t have a specific stop in mind. We opted to avoid I-5 as much as possible and instead choose to carve our way out Hwy 14 on the Washington state side on the river. Smaller towns, tighter turns and more smiles. We rode into the darkness and finally found a campsite out of the wind along the river. A few more beers next to the Columbia river before a good nights sleep.

The next day we woke up and parted ways with Tony as we headed east and he rode back to Portland. Being Wednesday, there was minimal traffic on the long roads toward I-82 and Umatilla. Once you make it past the Cascade range, the sky opens up and the landscape turns drier with huge rolling hills and canyons branching off every couple miles. Highway 14 was beautiful but short on gas stations. Ethan’s big thumper could only go about 90 miles between petrol stops and even less at 70+ mph. We slowed down to 50 mph as a precautionary measure when he switched over the reserve just a few miles before we crossed the Columbia to fill up. Total miles on a big freeway thus far, 4.

After a quick fill up at the truck stop on the Oregon side, stretch and more coffee, we jumped on SR 730 towards Walla Walla. The Gorge opens up to rolling hills, rocky canyons and wide open skies at this point but in the distance we could see grey clouds and some rain streaking the sky.
SR 12 took us north and east through Dayton and offered nothing but sweeping turns with the occasional tractor or pickup truck. The motorcycle allows one to travel just as fast on smaller roads as you would on a Interstate but offers a lot more character and quality. We continued onto SR 127 to Colfax, WA. where we had to stop and put on our rain gear next to a grain elevator that stood alone on a long stretch of good pavement.
Crossing into Idaho near Potlach we stopped for gas and found ourselves in a smoky little town from all the wild fires burning south and east of us. Trees and a slightly more rugged landscape greeted us as we traveled towards to mountains.

The R65 was running great and I was happy to be on a smooth bike. With a range of over 200 miles between petrol stops, I felt comfortable the whole time. Even though the top speed isn’t much over 75mph, the smaller roads are a perfect fit the shorter wheelbase and peaky power. A simple oil change, valve adjustment and a few tools under the seat is all it takes to ride across the country with complete confidence.

Ethan’s range of 100 miles worked out well for pit stops and getting off the bike helps make the trip enjoyable for multiple days in the saddle. The Idaho map showed only a few roads north to I-90 so we opted for SR 6 to SR 3 to take us up to the interstate. Twisting and rolling on a quiet Wednesday afternoon was a treat as I followed Ethan through the treelined route knowing that we only had a few hours left to get to our first lookout. Our plan was to meet a few friends who drove out and then caravan up the gravel road to the final stop. After about 30 miles on I-90 at 75 mph, I was grateful to have not had more freeway miles on this route to Idaho. With no fairing getting bounced around by trucks and crosswinds is no fun.

Wallace, Idaho is a cute old mining town and we met up with Daniel, Keiren and Rachel where we got groceries, water and a few camping supplies. Everyone was in good spirits and we turned south into the wilderness to climb to the Arid Peak fire lookout. Ethan’s thumper with knobby tires was much more at home on the loose gravel road but the R65 rode well and was steady on the gravel with it’s low center of gravity, predictable handling and balanced riding position.

The first gravel road took us over Moon pass (el. 4946) and down the other side towards Avery, ID. We discovered the directions we had were from the south and we were quickly discussing, speculating and predicting how lost we were and where the right turn was. After one of those “let’s just go a couple more miles down this road” moments, we found our turn after going through some old rock tunnels cut into the stone. Very J.R.R. Tolkien!

The gravel got rockier and rougher as we climbed up the mountain. I was hungry, tired and it was getting dark but I knew that every twisty, rocky turn might be the last one for the day. We climbed for miles. (I think it was about 8 total) By the time I found Daniel parked, I was ready to be off the bike but just thinking how few people come to a remote place like this on a moto made me happy. I was grateful I was there and that my bike was running like a top.

With a 3 mile hike in, we got our packs ready and headlamps ready before starting up the trail. Pitch black and quiet but we walked along singing songs to scare off any bears.
Arid Peak lookout was like most lookouts with weathered wooden beams cris crossing under a glass box about 30 feet up off the ground. Set on the rocky point of a ridge the views are amazing! Complete with old boxes of Kraft noodles and a small wood stove it’s easy to imagine the quiet life you could have up here for months at a time. We slept well.

The next day we all packed our gear back out along the trail but enjoyed a better view in the sunshine. We were surrounded by jagged mountain peaks in every direction. The trip down the rocky road proved slower than the trip up. Packing the Krauser bags and tank bag to ensure stable and quiet gear was key but I still took my time as Daniel roared past in his 4Runner and Ethan on his XL650. I enjoyed the trip and stopped to take a few photos.

At the bottom, we regrouped near the last turn to find Daniel flatted both his front tires on his truck. Adding further complications, he didn’t have the tool to lower the spare from underneath the truck. Ethan and I offered to moto into town and get some fix-a-flat and Ethan took off. As we are standing there sorting things out, a retired local on a street legal quad stopped and offered his air tiny compressor. By this time, Ethan was back with two cans of flat fixing goo and we added all the goop to the tires. It seemed to be leaking as fast as it was going in but Daniel sped off towards Wallace and the closest mechanic. Ethan and I followed for a while, stopped to snap some photos and eventually met them at the service station in Wallace.

Our schedule was thrown off for the day and being able to make the second fire lookout before dark was out of the question at that point but we were back on the road soon and opted for the fast route to Coeur d’Alene along I-90. Thinking that Hwy 95 north towards Sand Point would be nice and quiet was wrong as we were in stop and go traffic most the way. Add some rain to the mix and it made for a long day on the moto even though we weren’t covering a long distance.

The views in the Idaho panhandle are amazing and watching the clouds open up with rain and sunshine made for some gorgeous scenes. Past Sand Point and onward to Bonners Ferry where we stopped for more coffee to stay warm and caffeinated.

The Kootenai River valley is one of the most beautiful places I have seen and being within a stones throw to Canada made the route feel otherworldly. The late afternoon sunshine bounced off the mountains and golden grass in the valley. The road leading to the Shorty Peak lookout was paved most the way up and offered some twisty corners before crossing a cattle guard and turning to smooth crushed gravel for the last 7 miles. Seeing large signs every couple miles describing the difference between grizzly and black bears made us cautious about wandering too far into the woods without a loud voice and big stick. An occasional cow on the side of the road was the only large animal we saw the whole way up.

Another 3 mile hike uphill lie ahead in the dark as we got our packs ready and turned on our headlamps. The lookout stood on a short concrete box but was obviously taken care of with nice wood floors and all the glass in place. It rained hard that night and beat against the glass but we slept well after a few more beers and some whiskey.
The next day the mountains around us were green and lush and we surveyed the view for 360 degrees without any traces of towns or cities to be seen below us. The hike down offered fresh huckleberries the whole way and we found our motorcycles unmolested by bears or man.

Wearing the signs of 3 days on gravel roads, my beemer was streaked with dirt, dust and water. Very different than the clean bike I started out on a few days prior. I was happy to have a working choke as opposed to the ticklers on my old /5 and the 65 started right up despite the elevation and cold mornings. The roads were wet so we took our time on the corners and enjoyed the views in the sunny valley below.

Stopping at the Starbucks (the only option) in Bonners Ferry for a second (or third?) coffee before heading out to find the third and final tower of the trip, we looked over maps to ensure we wouldn’t get lost. Staying up north in the panhandle, the Deer Ridge lookout was closer to the Montana state line to the east and offered a gravel road all the way to the base of the tower.

Ethan and I headed east on Hwy 95 and soon found ourselves a little off course from our directions but we pushed on and followed our guts and twisting road signs. The gravel was well worn but we worked our way up the valley in what we thought was the right direction. A lot of stopping, discussing and practicing our power slides took place on the quiet roads. We were not worried about time.

Stopping a BLM ranger truck confirmed we were on the right track with a left turn a few miles down the road putting us on the proper road to the peak. Somehow we still managed to work in a few more wrong turns but the roads we found were narrow double track with lots of brush and mud. The boxer’s road tires are not ideal for rough roads or mud but it was fun nonetheless.

Finding the right road and using our keen tracking skills confirmed that Daniel had been up this way (lots of skid fresh skid marks near the edges of the road) and we climbed the washboarded route up along the mountain. Looking up and seeing the sky through the trees is usually a good sign and we followed the ridge to find another 40 foot wooden lookout with a beautiful view. Happy to arrive in the daylight we unloaded gear, relaxed and ate dinner. The sunset was great and you could see clearly for miles.

Friday am we parted ways with Daniel, Keiren and Rachel and Ethan and I planned to ride back to Portland taking a couple days to enjoy a route through central Washington. It was dry for about an hour before the rain started in earnest. The sky looked grey and streaked with rain as far as we could see. We stopped for gas and put on our rain gear. It wasn’t bad for an hour or so but then our hiking boots (hiking in moto boots sucks but hiking boots don’t work as well in the rain at 60mph) got soaked and I was happy to at least be wearing wool socks. The traffic south wasn’t bad but added some stress from Sand Point to Coeur d’Alene on top of rain and soggy feet.

Ethan and I stopped to warm up and eat second breakfast outside Coeur d-Alene at a truck stop style diner and the sun was out for a while so we draped our wet gear over our bikes to dry out a little. After eating camp food for a few days, a hot meal was welcome even if it was sub-par. Things like biscuits and gravy and a big stack of pancakes are all welcome with a moto tour.
We discussed our options for getting back and couldn’t escape the fact that I-90 follows a straight line towards Oregon across the southeast corner of Washington. Assessing our wet feet and thinking about camping in the rain, we opted for the fast route back towards hot showers. The pull of sleeping in your own bed is pretty strong sometimes but looking back, I wished I had all the time in the world to explore on my motorcycle. No regrets, just more options to explore next time right?

The landscape along I-90 is pretty barren and not much to see so just putting your head down and twisting the throttle to 80 isn’t as bad as it may seem. Adding rain to the equation makes for long day but you can cover some miles fast. The amount of tired you feel from fast riding without a fairing adds up quickly if you want to ride for multiple days and cover ground. I would rather go 65 and enjoy the world going by. Going fast also meant poor mileage on Ethan’s bike but I was happy to stop every hour and a half anyway.

We made good time and made it to Kennewick, WA. in a few hours. Looking at the map, we opted for less freeway and could piece together a route from here that took us back to SR14 and Portland. About the time the sun came out, we exited I-82 westbound and took to SR 22 for a nice parallel route to the freeway. Our boots were just starting to dry out but we were well on our way to hit Portland that night. Hard not to feel like a horse to the stable.

Topping off our tanks in Toppenish, WA. we headed south on SR 97 through the Yakima Indian Reservation. The road was sweeping and smooth as we motored over the mountains to Goldendale and the mighty Columbia river. A quick stop at the Maryhill paved test track to see one of the first paved roads built in Washington before we entered the Columbia Gorge was worth it, even if brief. The smooth asphalt looks like a snake slithering up the hillside. It makes you want to take a couple hot laps.

SR 14 took us along the mighty river back towards Portland. It was dry but Ethan’s night vision wasn’t great with his tinted visor so I lead most the way so he could follow my taillight. It is always nice to find a rhythm on the motorcycle after days in the saddle and my beamer was running great.

Like most adventures we just parted ways back in the city and headed home without any long goodbyes. A hot shower and cup of tea before a restful sleep.

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