Written by David Peterson.
By March, the worst of the winter is behind us. Days are getting longer and daylight saving time will arrive any day now. The time for summer planning is here, and if you haven’t started already, you’re thinking about trekking to the MOA Rally in Great Falls, Montana, now only four short months away.
“Hmmm,” you think. “That’s a long trip! I can’t take too many like it this summer. But what a beautiful part of the country. I really want to go. What if I add a week and make it a real vacation?”
Add another rally to the mix and really make it a trip for the ages. Join the BMW Riders of Oregon for the 42nd Annual Chief Joseph Rally in John Day! Then, make it an epic tour of the west by meandering on to Great Falls!
When nonresidents think of Oregon, they often describe it as ocean on one side, Idaho on the other. One big city and nothing else, but we do like to shop there as they charge no sales tax! That’s a start, but only a start. Oregon does have an ocean coast — a stunning one at that — and a mountain range that parallels it, making valley-to-coast travel a motorcyclist’s dream.
Crater Lake in Oregon’s southwest corner sits at more than 6,000 feet and is the deepest lake in the U.S. Hell’s Canyon in the northeast corner is among the deepest canyons in North America. In fact, Oregon’s mean elevation is 3,300 feet, which means plenty of topographic variety in every ride you take. Virtually every rural drive in Oregon is over a ridge, along a river, through a forest or over a canyon. Wherever you’re from, we’re willing to bet the Oregon portion of your journey will rank first among its highlights.
The Chief Joseph Rally in John Day
John Day is a quiet farm and ranch community located in Grant County, Oregon, between the Strawberry Mountains to the south and the Blue Mountains to the east. Over the last 135 years, the area has transitioned from a bustling mining and timber economy to one of agribusiness and outdoor recreation and tourism. The Grant County Fairgrounds offer the perfect rally venue. Its lush main lawn is heaven on earth for campers and its location in the center of town is an easy stroll from motels and restaurants.
The Chief Joseph Rally will entertain attendees morning, noon and night. There will be free showers for campers, door prizes, vendors, rider awards and seminars. In addition, there will be Friday and Saturday night dinners, a beer garden and complimentary morning coffee and tea. Guided road and adventure rides will be held, along with rider skill classes offered by Team Oregon, with maps available for self-guided touring and GS routes. Motorcycle movies will be shown each evening, and live music will be featured on Friday night!
On to Great Falls!
Just when you thought there couldn’t be more, it’s time to move on to the MOA National Rally in Great Falls. The shortest route is 632 miles, an easy two or three day ride if you go mostly on the interstate highways. We hope you had your fill of interstates on the way to John Day. Instead, try one of three sublime alternatives that capture some of the choicest roads to be found in the northwest. Plus, if you’re really looking for an adventure, there is also a bucket list GS alternative.
Option 1: Lolo Pass
The first option measures out at 840 miles. It includes the Dooley Mountain Highway (OR 245), a 40-mile carousel that gets the juices flowing as you begin your trek east. Mountains give way to valley as you follow the Oregon Trail toward the Snake River. Crossing into Idaho, the road follows the river up the canyon before aggressively ascending ID 71 to the high valley along US 95. At Cambridge, the route continues north with lots of camping opportunities, but few motels. New Meadows at the 247-mile mark might be a good target for day one. Grangeville, at 330 miles, will have more lodging options.
If you stay the night in New Meadows, day two starts off with a bang. First, the sweeping ride along the Salmon River will delight. Next, keep an eye out for White Bird, 30 miles north of Riggins. Here, new US 95 grinds its way out of the canyon, 2,900 feet up along a steady 8%, 6.5-mile course north. Along the way, a viewpoint overlooks the valley where 100 cavalrymen lost their lives in the opening battle of the five-month conflict in 1877 known as the Nez Perce War. What has always stirred the motorcyclist is the paved scribble on the other side of the valley. Old US 95 climbs the same 2,900 feet in 14 miles, in such a dizzying array of twists that if laid together, they would form 37 complete circles. Don’t miss it!
Gas up in Grangeville, the largest town for the next 160 miles. Then enjoy the 26-mile roller coaster that is ID 13. The next scenic stretch follows US 12 across the Idaho panhandle into Montana. Following the Clearwater and then the Lochsa Rivers, this 133-mile stretch crosses the Bitterroot Range at Lolo Pass before descending into the Bitterroot Valley, teeing into US 93. There is plenty of camping in the Bitterroot Valley, but few motel rooms. Back up the road, a favorite of mine is Lochsa Lodge, located just west of Lolo Pass on US 12. Of course, Missoula is just another 15 miles up the road, making for a 260-mile day if you stayed in New Meadow.
At this point, you’re only 169 miles from Great Falls – but it’s only Tuesday. You could just lope into town and relax until the rally begins. Of course, Glacier National Park and the Going-to-the-Sun Road are tantalizingly close. If you’ve never been, you must take this ribbon of wonder; it is one of the most scenic roads in all of America. Check on conditions first as the road often opens only in mid-June and the Park Service has already announced pavement preservation will delay this year’s opening until at least June 22nd. Taking in Glacier puts you 349 miles out from Great Falls. You’ll probably want to enjoy the park, spend the night in St. Mary or Browning, then roll into Great Falls on Wednesday or Thursday.
Option 2: Lolo Pass II
The second options spans 839 miles, wending through Oregon gold country and climbing the Blue Mountains before steeply descending 3,500 feet to the valley below. Scoot north through the towns of Union, Imbler and Elgin before descending toward the confluence of the Wallowa and Minam Rivers. Gas up in Enterprise, for there is no gas to be found along the next 103 spectacular miles through Joseph Canyon and the Rattlesnake Grade ascent on the other side.
At the 299-mile mark, Lewiston, Idaho, might be an ideal stop the first night. You’re going to be chomping at the bit to hit the road the next day, but before leaving town for good, find your way to the Old Spiral Highway. Built in 1917 to accommodate the early automobile, it enabled residents along the river to climb the 2,000 feet to the top of Lewiston Hill. With 64 perfectly engineered corners along its 7.3-mile length, it is often cited as Idaho’s windiest road.
Now eastbound, the route crosses Lolo Pass on US 12, this time heading south at the junction with US 93. Spending the night in or near Hamilton, Montana, might be the right call, making for a 240-mile day.
Day 3 heads south on US 93 before climbing into Montana’s Sapphire Mountains. This is Indian country, with many markers and waysides denoting the Nez Perce War. Along MT 43 you’ll find Big Hole National Battlefield, site of the conflict’s largest battle. From there, it’s 235 twisty mountain miles to Great Falls, allowing for a leisurely day or two in Great Falls before the rally begins.
Option 3: Beartooth Pass
If you’re ready for an adventure, this 1,239-mile option makes the most of the week between the rallies. Day 1 will follow much of the first Lolo Pass route across the Snake River. Heading south on US 93 and staying in Payette, Idaho, will put Day 1 mileage at 245 miles. Day 2 is a long day of 354 miles; the route bisects the Sawtooth Mountains on your way toward the Grand Tetons. After spending the night in Idaho Falls, you’ll continue 265 miles to Cody, Wyoming, passing through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks along the way. Day 4 at 112 miles is short but spectacular, as you carve the magnificent Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and crest 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass on your way to Red Lodge, Montana. A final press of 262 miles across the high prairie puts you in Great Falls by Happy Hour.
A GS alternative
There are myriad ways to roam off-road between John Day and Great Falls, but one passage stands out. In the heart of the Idaho panhandle lie two of the largest untrammeled wilderness regions in the continental United States. To the North is the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness; to the south, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Together, they cover almost 3.4 million acres of rugged solitude; between them lies a 95-mile fire road built in the 1930s. The Magruder Corridor is just one section of the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route, but I mention it specifically because to access it, you must ride ID 14 to Elk City, one of the most delightful and picturesque ribbons of tarmac anywhere. To find it, follow the first Lolo Pass Option to ID 13. The Magruder Corridor terminates at US 93.
While all roads may lead to Great Falls, the most memorable ones pass through John Day. Visit the BMW Riders of Oregon at bmwro.org, start your planning today and Saddle Up & Ride!
To John Day from…
- From Portland, 272 miles
- From Seattle, 396 miles
- From San Francisco, 620 miles
- From Great Falls, 685 miles
- From Los Angeles, 873 miles
- From Las Vegas, 756 miles
- From Denver, 1,001 miles
- From Chicago, 1,879 miles