Overland Destinations: Montana's Magruder Corridor

Overland Destinations: Montana's Magruder Corridor

by Stephan Edwards

Welcome to Overland Destinations, a regular feature from the Overlander Notebook - practical and inspirational ideas to fuel your next overland adventure, whether it's close to home or a world away. 

This week on Overland Destinations we follow in the footsteps of the Nez Perce Tribe, Lewis and Clark, and the miners and explorers of the old Montana Territory. The 101-mile primitive Magruder Corridor Road rolls through a vast undeveloped area, offering solitude and pristine beauty as well as expansive mountain views.

Winding over the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho from my home base in Montana, the Magruder Corridor Road cuts a remote path through one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48. With the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the north of the Corridor, and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the south, it's about as remote as you can get in North America without getting out of your car.

Beyond the Magruder Corridor, there are multiple opportunities for further exploration in the mountain ranges and valleys that more than two centuries ago pushed the Corps of Discovery to its limit. Give yourself plenty of time, go at the right time of year, and you'll have an overland adventure that will test your own mettle.

"Tremendious Mountanes"

You can see the Google interactive map of this route here.

It covers 345 miles of backroads that zig-zag in and around some of the wildest and most remote terrain in the Lower 48. The vast majority of this sprawling landscape is protected wilderness: the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area (the best name for a wilderness area ever) and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Nearly 3.8 million acres of rugged mountains, deep canyons, and rushing rivers.

map

The route - Magruder Corridor, Lolo Motorway, Hoodoo Pass - western Montana and eastern Idaho, south to north.

This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s completely inaccessible. A number of US Forest Service roads cut through the mountain passes, some of which retrace the historic travel corridors used by Native Americans for thousands of years, and more recently, by white settlers.

These include:

The Magruder Road Corridor

The Magruder Road Corridor straddles the boundary between the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Primarily a one-lane, sparsely maintained track, it does boast several scenic campsites along the way.

It’s a classic overland route in Montana and Idaho, and it’s named after this guy. Lloyd Magruder, Jr.:

magruder

The sadly doomed Lloyd Magruder, Jr. (Photo: A ghra)

In 1863, Magruder was a successful dry goods merchant serving the mining towns and cities in Idaho and Montana. He had been in Virginia City, Montana selling his wares, and was traveling west to Lewiston, Idaho over the southern passes of the Bitterroot Mountains. In his possession was approximately $30,000 (in today’s dollars) of gold and paper money.

Lloyd was betrayed and murdered on the road by his traveling companions - they split his skull open with an axe, stole the money, and fled to California, where they were eventually captured, returned to Idaho, tried and hanged. Today's road follows the trail that Magruder would have passed many times in his days as a traveling merchant. 

The Lolo Motorway

The Lolo Motorway roughly follows the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition over Lolo Pass into Idaho. It had also been used as a road by Native peoples for centuries before.

lc

Hear all their greatest hits on this spectacular double album! (Photo credit: ThingLink)

The expedition nearly perished in their first crossing of the Bitterroots in September of 1805. Beaten down by an early season blizzard, and forced to eat their horses, they were saved by a small band of Nez Perce Indians who offered them food and shelter. 70 years later, descendants of those Nez Perce who came to Lewis and Clark’s aid would be ruthlessly hunted over the very same mountains, and ultimately massacred at the battle of the Big Hole by the US Cavalry.

Lewis and Clark struggled through eight feet of snow on Lolo Pass again in June of 1806 on their way home, with William Clark writing,

“Descended the mountain to Travellers rest leaveing those tremendious mountanes behind us–in passing of which we have experienced Cold and hunger of which I shall ever remember.”

Nice. Today, the route is primarily for ATV’s and other OHV’s, but is usually cleared enough for full-sized trucks by late season.

Hoodoo Pass and the Great Burn

Finally, Hoodoo Pass traces a route through the terrain that was leveled by the largest forest fire in American history: The “Great Fire” of 1910.

gb

The Great Fire of 1910 (Photo credit: USFS)

I recently finished reading Timothy Egan’s stunning account of the 3 million acre, three-state fire that killed almost 90 people in only two days. Hoodoo Pass cuts through the heart of the landscape that was leveled by the giant inferno.

It’s also part of a swath of land that has been a proposed Wilderness Area (The Great Burn Wilderness) for some time. Rumor has it that Ronald Reagan vetoed a bill that would have created the Wilderness Area as a personal favor to then US Senator from Montana Conrad Burns (irony!), who was protecting corporate timber interests.

Getting There

The Magruder Corridor Road starts just south of Darby, MT at the southern reaches of the Bitterroot Mountains near US Highway 93. Hoodoo Pass ends at the northern end of the range near Superior, MT, emptying out onto Interstate 90. In between, the paths are up to you.

When To Go

From October the end of June in most years, the passes in the high Bitterroots (over 7000 feet) are generally snow-bound. Just ask Lewis and Clark. The period from the end of August to early September is the best middle ground. Cold enough to zap the bugs, warm enough to keep away the heavy winter snows. That said, be prepared for snow. It can happen even in August. 

Special Considerations

The wilderness of the Bitterroots is heavily timbered and downfall in the road can be a significant obstacle. Recent wildfires have increased this problem. Carrying a good axe or saw, and even a winch will help your passage.

Have you explored the back roads of Idaho's massive wilderness?


2 Responses

S.Clukey
S.Clukey

May 02, 2022

I Highly recommend this trail, I did it in semi lifted Suburban, even made up to the Fire tower midway point, The area has been badly burned do to fires in the past few years, however well worth the efforts of going, if ya like fishing, there is some great back country stuff along the way, be prepared to pay big money in Elk City for fuel, if they have any, it can be a hit or miss.
Bring “everthing” you need there well be no venues, except Elk City along the way $$$, they have to truck everything in . . .
Again highly recommended, it truly is a BACK COUNTRY ADVENTURE for all off-readers
Go have some fun, I know I did and will be doing it again

Michael Perez
Michael Perez

May 02, 2022

Nice article. Below is a link to an article I wrote for Toyota Trails magazine in Aug 2020 “A Long Time Gone-Magruder Corridor Trail” I hope you read it for a first hand experience traversing that route

https://badlandsexpeditions.wordpress.com/2022/04/14/magruder-corridor-trail-2/

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