Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Grande Ronde River is a special spring treat

Sweet campsites!

gorgeous canyon

Hi all,

Call us weenies if you want, but we chose to cancel our Selway River permit in early June because of high water, and moved our trip to the Grande Ronde River in NE Oregon. Since we had 6 days carved out for the Selway, we decided to run the full 90 miles of the Grande Ronde, from Minam to Heller Bar, just south of Lewiston.

It turned out to be a fantastic trip. Here's some video. The Grande Ronde is a great choice in the spring because the countryside is soooooooooooooooooooo velvety green and beautiful, the river flows are high enough to cover the rocks and make navigation really easy, and you move fast enough to do the full 90 miles of the Grande Ronde without having to stop and camp in a more developed section of the canyon below Troy.

In terms of difficulty, the Grande Ronde is rated Class 2 - 3, which is pretty low key on the whitewater scale. For our trip at 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of river flow, I would have rated the river Class 2, pretty much the whole way except for the Narrows Rapids on the last day, which is closer to Class 3+. At that flow, we traveled at 7 mph, clocking river miles with ease. Just put the oars under your knees, kick back and sip a beverage while enjoying the scenery and wildlife along the way.

We took three rafts and a double inflatable kayak for 8 people on our trip. It's also possible to canoe the Grande Ronde with experienced paddlers and flotation, and hard-shell kayaks would be fine, except there just aren't that many play wave opportunities.

The primary way most people float the Grande Ronde is to go from the put-in at Minam, northeast of La Grande, and take out at Powatka Bridge, a distance of 39 miles. It's easy to do that over a 3-day trip in the springtime. For the 90-mile trip, it's best to do that in higher water in the spring or it would be a real slog.

From Boise, it takes about 4 hours to get to the put-in -- 3 hours via I-84 to La Grande, and an hour on two-lane paved roads to Minam, a little roadstop next to Minam State Park, a gorgeous place to camp the night before you launch, if you wish.

One of the neatest parts of floating the Grande Ronde is staying in these sweet, grassy riverbank campsites amid ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees. On night #3 of our trip, we stayed in this spacious campsite that was easily as cool as some of the best camps on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It had a large grassy meadow, a sandy beach next to the river, a kitchen area in the shade, and a hike up a ridge behind camp that went to the top of the canyon. What more could you want? Well, OK, a hot springs ... but no dice.

For vehicle shuttles, you can sign up at the put-in, and you can buy BLM river maps there as well. It's no farther to the Grande Ronde put-in than it is to drive to Middle Fork. It just happens to be in Oregon!

As the water drops -- it's running at 6,470 this week -- you have to bring your fishing pole. It's a quality trout fishery, and in the fall, it's full-on steelhead fishing similar to the Riggins area in Idaho.

If you don't have your own rafting stuff, there are three outfitters that offer trips on the Grande Ronde: ROW Adventures, Oregon Whitewater Adventures and All Star Rafting and Kayaking. If you have an interest in learning how to row a raft, renting one to float the Grande Ronde would be a great way to break into the sport.

Have fun!

-- SS

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Route of the Hiawatha near Wallace is a sure bet for a unique biking experience

The 15-mile trail is family friendly

Bring bright halogen lights if you have them

Riding the high trestles

Some of the high trestles are more than 200 feet high

One of the shorter tunnels (photos courtesy Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area)

Hi all,

I've always felt that the Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail near Wallace, Idaho, is one of the neatest rail-trails imaginable. I've ridden it several times since it was opened in the mid-1990s, and I even had the opportunity to do an early test ride on the trail before it was open to the public. Every time I rode it, I thought it was an invigorating and beautiful biking adventure.

The reason it's so cool is you ride through 10 unlit tunnels, including the 1.7-mile-long St. Paul Pass tunnel, and seven high trestles as part of the 15-mile trail. If you take a shuttle, the ride is completely downhill, and it's totally family friendly.

This week, USA Today published an article about the top 10 rail-trails in the United States, and the Route of the Hiawatha was listed as numero uno!

So when you're planning your vacations or long weekend getaways this summer, try to work in a long weekend in the Wallace or St. Maries area and ride the Route of the Hiawatha. The trail is managed by Lookout Pass Ski Resort, located on the Idaho-Montana border on I-90. Lookout Pass provides shuttles, trail passes, etc. The ride is featured in my Falcon Guide Mountain Biking Idaho.

Here's a video about the trail and the railroad history. Believe it or not, former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, had a big hand in obtaining federal funds to develop the old railroad line into a rail-trail. There was a very progressive recreation officer working for the St. Joe National Forest at the time when the trail was only an idea, and she worked closely with lots of people in Wallace and St. Maries to create the trail and a new tourism draw in a town that was reeling from the decline of the mining industry. It's always sweet to see a dream project become a reality.

You stay in the Wallace Inn (formerly the Best Western) or other lodging properties in Wallace while you're in the neighborhood, and check out the Oasis Bordello Museum, or you can camp at the foot of the trail by traveling from St. Maries up the placid and scenic St. Joe River (fly fishing is good!) and pitch a tent in the national forest. Bring a canoe if you'd like to paddle the St. Joe as a side trip opportunity.

Be sure to bring BRIGHT and POWERFUL lights for riding in the dark tunnels, if you have them. Lookout Pass has lights available for rent for $5, plus they have bikes and helmets available for rent, if you don't want to take your own. I've found that night-riding mountain biking lights work great.

More experienced bike riders will enjoy the challenge of riding the Route of the Hiawatha from the Pearson Trailhead, near Avery, in the St. Joe drainage. It's 13 miles uphill at only a 2 percent grade, and then 1.7 miles of riding through the St. Paul Pass tunnel on the Idaho-Montana border, for a total of 15 miles. Then you can turn around and cruise downhill back to Pearson, for a 30-mile ride. It took me less than an hour to climb the trail, and about a half hour to zoom down it, pedaling all the way.

While you're in the 'hood, take some time to ride the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, a fairly new paved trail along the Coeur d'Alene River. You can access the 71-mile trail in Mullan, just up the hill from Wallace, and ride downriver to Harrison and Heyburn State Park, if you want to ride the whole thing.

If you bring the kids, you have to stop at Silverwood Theme Park, north of Coeur d'Alene, where you can enjoy 65 rides, including roller-coasters, insanely steep and fast rides, and water slides. Silver Mountain in Kellogg also has a new indoor water park that the kids would enjoy.

As you can surmise, it'd be easy to spend a week in the Silver Valley-Coeur d'Alene area for a great and affordable Idaho staycation. Have fun!

- SS