Sean Dempsey of Go Anywhere in Wisconsin recently called to connect us with Chris Todd. As Sean explained it, they had just completed an adventure with their Four Wheel Campers and Chris had the story. What follows is what Chris sent in, words and pictures from an off-road truck camping adventure in the American West.
Chico Hot Springs Resort: Pray, Montana
Two days of soaking, eating, cocktails and gearing up at the foot of snow capped mountains in the Paradise Valley.
We all came from different directions. The Dempseys arrived from the Midwest. I drove in from the Southwest. We met at the Chico Hot Springs Resort as the higher elevations got their first dusting of snow. It was a reminder of how wild and rugged the landscape is in the West and what we may be in for as we head into the backcountry.
We ate like royalty the resort’s four-star restaurant. Smoked trout appetizers, locally raised beef, and more delights were accompanied by fresh herbs and veggies from grandma’s garden. We fattened up on the great food, comfortable beds, and warm fire in the lobby of the classic 100-year-old dog friendly lodge.
The following cool morning, we packed our trucks with gear, food, and dogs and set out towards Challis, Idaho. On the way, we stopped in Ennis at the famous Restvedt & Son Meat Market where we picked up a tri-tipped roast, home made salami, and snacked on their complimentary fresh spicy sausage. Lunch was in Virginia City.
We decided early on that the best route into Idaho would be across the rugged Lemhi Pass. This is where Sacajawea helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition thru the mountains to the West Coast. This road was graded, switch-backed, and probably impassable in the winter. It took us longer than we had expected due to frequent stops as we got the feel for our trucks on this terrain.
Pahsimeroi: Challis, Idaho
Around 4:30pm, we met up with our new travel companions Kurt and Jeanie Flora and their freshly restored 1985 Four Wheel Hawk truck camper. Kurt found this camper for $200 and now it looks like a million. We were late, a little tired, but revitalized quickly by their energy and the promise of great travel soon to come. We filled up the rigs with fuel, our coolers with ice, and were soon heading South on 93.
Traveling in caravan, we turned off the pavement on to FR 116. Mt. Borah, elevation 12,655’, is to our right as we head up into the Lost River Range. As many call them the “Alps of Idaho”, these snow-covered peaks rise abruptly from the yellowing grass which leads down into numerous springs and rivers below.
On the dusty trail we saw elk. A heard of twenty or more warmed by Alpenglow as they disappeared over a ridge. It’s the beginning of hunting season here and the animals flee.
It was getting late and due to an unexpected tire issue we camped in a saddle below the turn off to Horseheaven Pass. All of the dogs were happy to get out of the trucks, have a run, and some food. Diana made drinks. Jeanie and Kurt started to prep for dinner while I helped Sean with my portable air compressor, tire plug kit, and a lot of sarcastic comments about being unprepared!
After plugging the tire, the coals were lit in the Lift-N-Grill and we started to chef it up. Quesadillas to start are my new specialty. With sautéed vegetables and cheese, they helped soak in our hard-earned drinks. For supper, we cooked up bratwurst and beans. A fire was lit and a warm glow soon spread over our faces and our conversation.
Horseheaven Pass: Restvedt’s bacon, Kodiak pancakes, and coffee
Morning woke with deliberate rustles from the individual campers in our caravan. Soon coffee was brewed and dogs were let out to run. There was frost on the ground. The air was cold, but morning tasks warmed us and once again the grills were sparked. Kurt fired up his vintage Coleman double-burner stove and the smell of pancakes soon filled the air.
With our stomachs full and the sun above the shadow of the mountains, we cleaned, packed our gear, and studied the maps. Smiling, we fired up the trucks and rolled towards the white-capped peaks surrounding Mt. Borah.
We were all impressed that the plug held in Sean’s tire overnight and we cautiously headed up over Horseheaven Pass. Each rock reminding us of the potential hazards of backcountry travel. It always seems to be the tires which are most overlooked, taken for granted, and yet are the most obvious points of failure. We could have returned to town, but relied on the fact that we had more plugs and a working compressor. In this part of the country spares are essential, but useless without the proper jack and gear to fix and change them.
Mahogany Creek: Today we found our camp by choice, not chance.
After a long day of roaming and testing trails in hopes of camping at the base of Mt. Borah, we settled into a valley next to a bubbling creek. Like an oasis in the high desert, we found this ideal spot with room for the three trucks, flat ground, fire wood, and peace.
Sean and Diana immediately got to work on cooking up a whole chicken in a large Dutch oven. They had a smaller Dutch oven on top with red potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, and onions. I was amazed how good camping chow could be. With a couple of grills rolling and Kurt’s Coleman stove roaring, we had dinner served within an hour and a half. Warming drinks of whiskey, tea, and honey helped to fight the shadows of night as the sun set prematurely on our low ground camp. Over a fantastic dinner and around a fire, we talked of Kurt and Jeanie’s kids, relationships, the campers, this land, and a rather extensive Coleman collection.
Apparently Kurt has over 200 examples of this brand! For the most part, he leans towards the older Coleman equipment. “You just can’t beat the build quality,” he would say and we would repeat. From the brass hardware, OEM mantles (the older the better), to the Coleman fuel, he has it all in an extensive collection that is slowly taking over the cellar of their house. He and Jeanie, a newer recruit to the passion, hunt stores, yard sales, and the internet to find the real jewels. He rebuilds them and, from the shiny examples he brought along with him, we know he doesn’t just pose.
The fire, food, whiskey, and set sun, soon had our camper’s heaters blowing and our toes under covers. The sky was brilliant with stars, a lovely cover to pull over our eyes.
Out of Mahogany Creek: Steaming coffee and frost ended the first leg of our trip.
Next morning began with the usual suspects. Milo and Johnny hunting and barking. Ella persistently playing with a horse hoof. Us with coffee and chat of the comfortable cold nights sleep. It took a while for the rising sun to reach our low camp so we bundled up around our daily chores.
Today we would be splitting up. Diana, Sean and I would be heading north to the entrance of the Magruder Corridor Trail that winds thru the Bitterroot National Forest. Jeanie and Kurt were to be heading south to get a couple more days in their new/old camper before the calls of work reeled them back into schedules and responsibility.
A little deflated by the trips end, we delayed as much as possible to break camp. Kurt sold a vintage lantern and stove to the Dempseys, and I sat on my step with my journal. We let the sun move us.
One of the best things that I have found truck camping with Four Wheel Campers is that there is ample space to store supplies. We all had more than enough gear and food to last weeks in the backcountry allowing us time to appreciate where we were and not what you left behind to get there.
With a relatively easy drive out on FR-117, we stopped when we got to the junction at Doublesprings Road. To the north we would head up thru the Pahsimeroi Valley eventually arriving in Conner, Montana.
“Good bye,” was said amidst hugs and handshakes. With just two days camping together, we had formed a compelling bond around campers, great food, drinks, conversations built over warming fires, and a mutual love for backcountry adventures. We had made new friends and will meet again, hopefully soon.
Into the Magruder Corridor
The plug in Sean’s tire did not hold and the other front decided to give up the ghost as well. Luckily we were just outside of Conner, Montana in a campground at the head of the Magruder Trail. We decided to temporarily fix the issue with plugs and onboard compressor again, then turn back towards the town of Darby to search for a set of replacements.
Sean was directed up to the larger town of Hamilton so Diana and I stayed behind to roam the quaint town of Darby. Filled with antique shops, hunting stores, and little restaurants, we split up to have a look. We were soon occupied with the locals stories of wolves coming into town and a church yard sale. After some time, we headed up to meet Sean who surprisingly opted to replace all four tires instead of fix the two.
With fresh rubber and renewed hope, we had lunch at a local bar-b-que and headed back onto the Magruder Trail. Located in Nez Perce Country, this trail twists through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain so far. As we left town, we were warned about the trail’s condition; “In inclement weather and after sunset the trail can be very deceiving, and unforgiving!” New tires gave us confidence over these warnings and we proceeded with enthusiasm anyway.
We stopped for the first time at Deep Creek Ranger Station by one of the many rivers we crossed that day. Here we were welcomed by mules and horses, the only signs of life. It was later in the season and we had our doubts weather rangers even wintered here. We had a bite, I fed my dogs, and soon we headed out to find a place to camp. There are numerous camps along this trail, only making the decision harder where to stop.
Trip Out:The next morning we got on the trail early, with coffees in hand.
It took us a day-and-a-half to travel the Magruder Corridor, 100 plus miles of dirt, dust, and potentially dangerous rock and switchback sections. We were glad to have fresh tires, plenty of fuel, and good weather. In the winter, chains would be necessary if you could even get through the potential depth of the snow often encountered here.
The rest of the Magruder Trail rose and fell through the Selway/Bitterroot National Forest. Towards the end, as we descended in elevation, the landscape changed from burnt out forest and rocks to beautiful fertile Pine trees close to the Clearwater River.
We stopped in the old mining town of Elk City for supper and a well deserved beer at the Reno Club. As Diana put it, “Our bartender Caroline was as accommodating as could be. Busy, busy, busy. We had the most wholesome satisfying corned beef and cabbage dinner with a fresh, hot, homemade slab of bread”. Apricot beer washed our travels down and we soon headed to find a place to camp down by the river.
The next day we rolled into Graingeville to visit Ray Holes’ saddle shop and pick up supplies. Diana is an equestrian and accordingly there were many detours across the west to places like these. Ray Holes’ saddle shop one was by far the most interesting. There is an in-house custom saddlery and I got a tour from the owner’s daughter. She showed me the different leathers used and how to stamp and shape them into intricate and beautiful pieces of art some of which have been on display for many years. If you want a custom saddle, this is the place to call. Just don’t hold your breath as the waiting list is over one year.
We bought food, iced our coolers, and headed out for the next adventure that afternoon. From Grangeville we headed northwest on 95 into Lewiston, Washington. Then we snaked south on 129 then 3 into Enterprise, Oregon. On the map this looked to be the quickest path to the access road that would lead us down into Hells Canyon. We were wrong. This road between Washington and Oregon entertained us with some of the steepest switchbacks we had seen so far on pavement, a consistent feature that we would soon be following down to the Snake River. Thousands of years ago this area must have been inundated with huge waters and lush vegetation. As the years passed and the water levels dropped, the land dried up. Only at the bottoms of these huge valleys and canyons is green found. The rest is a silvery yellow grass.
We camped at the edge of Wallowa Lake, an enchanting place fed from the Wallowa Mountains and Sacajawea Peak rising some 9,839 feet above us. Tired from the unexpectedly long day on the road, we took our first showers of the trip and crashed under the warm stars of Northwestern Oregon.
The Reno Club. Home made food and a great beer selection made this place one of our favorites.
In the Town of Joseph, Oregon:Under the Wallowa Mountains
We ate breakfast as if it was our “last supper”. All were clean and replenished from a good nights sleep and today we were on our way into Hells Canyon. This trip is twenty-five miles of switchbacks, washouts, and drop-offs into very inhospitable land. We feasted and lingered. The drive from Joseph to Imnaha is over fifty-five miles downhill, a precursor to what may lay ahead after we leave the pavement. This is one of the deepest canyons in the country averaging 6,600 feet from overlook to riverbed.
Outside of Imnaha, we aired our tires down. On pavement, with our load, we run 65 pounds. In the dirt we found that 40 pounds is more than enough to soak up the smaller rocks and challenges we encountered on these summer maintained roads. Immediately we saw the scope of terrain that we would be traveling over the next two days. It was early afternoon and we were confident that we would make the rivers edge a couple of hours later. Again we were wrong!
The road down to Dugs Bar is used as a shuttle route for ranchers, rafters, and fishermen. From our experience, four-wheel drive and high clearance is recommended. After our tire issues earlier this trip we err on the side of caution. In some spots the road is not maintained. Some hills had axle hop whoops and the rocky terrain was often loose and slippery. We had dry weather. It was in the 50s over breakfast but half way through our march it climbed into the 80s.
After our first stop for water and a snack, we dropped down to the Imnaha River about ten miles in. We found another oasis in the barren, water deprived West we’ve been traveling. Thankfully we could follow this waterway most of the way down to the Snake River. If not, we would have questioned our intentions more seriously.
The road got substantially worse as we left the Imnaha to rise again. On the way down into the Hells Canyon there is no direct route. Roads do not always follow rivers. Up and down we went following a drunken surveyors joke. Shelf roads occupied us into the late afternoon. This is when we first got our first glimpse of the Snake River. To smiles we stopped to cheer! Then we rounded the corner. As the crow flies it looked as if we could reach out and touch it. From the road, winding and twisting like a staircase in a highrise, it was a different story. It took us almost another hour to reach the bottom. The road dictated our pace, but not our enthusiasm.
Snake River:Final days
We made the Snake River later in the afternoon. Heavy shadows collected fast in this deep valley. The river helped us for a moment reflecting ambient light upon the tree we decided to camp near. Soon tops were popped, and cheese, sausage, peppers and crackers were served. It had been an unexpectedly long day of travel and we all were dry and tired. We had made it to the end of our trip and all we could think about was another soak at Chico. I had a light wash at the rivers edge and the dogs had a sip.
This is a magnificent river, huge, powerful, and warm, perhaps because of its depth in the valley. Also, because of its remote location, there are few signs of human interaction with the land. On the way down, many of the hills were terraced from cattle grazing. I found a black widow spider and watched a wasp drag another larger spider from the waters side. We heard coyotes as the stars rose. Our dinner probably smelt good to all.
Our conversation did not last long to the beautiful evening. Thoughts of bed with the windows open and a warm breeze soon dragged our tired eyes to sleep. We had traveled a long way to get here and had long trips once we made our ways out in the morning.
In the backcountry, truck camping the path you take to get somewhere is usually more exciting than the destination. This held faithfully true during the last two and a half weeks. Chico, Montana and the Snake River were the only specifics of our trip. The rest of the travels were the adventure; the maps, the food, the camaraderie, the fixes, the flats, the sights and sounds, the dust, the snow, the sunshine, and the freedom of wandering the West in September of 2008.
If you want to get into the back country where other campers can't go, step up to a Four Wheel Camper. We are a factory authorized dealer. 2018 Go-Anywhere.us email@example.com (262) 370-4255