Take a drive on Idaho's Grangeville-Salmon Road

The first 35 miles of old trade route are paved — luckily
A group of sightseers looks over vast canyons and mountain ranges on Aug. 18 off Forest Road 444, high above the Grangeville-Salmon Road in Idaho. Mountain ridges, carpeted in pine and fir and spiced with gray-white granite outcroppings, go in all directions along the Grangeville-Salmon Road in Central Idaho. AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Pete ZimowskyAP

RIGGINS, Idaho — Viridescent mountain ridges, carpeted in pine and fir and spiced with gray-white granite outcroppings, go in all directions along the Grangeville-Salmon Road in Central Idaho.

It's amazing country. The road leads to vistas where you can see the Salmon River canyon, the Seven Devils, Camas Prairie and the 206,053-acre Gospel Hump Wilderness.

It's ridge running Idaho style in the comfort of your rig, whether it's a pickup truck or SUV, and what's even better, the road is paved for the first 35 miles south of Grangeville.

My wife and I would have never discovered this country if it hadn't been for countless trips up and down Idaho's famed White Bird Hill on U.S. 95 and a nagging question.

Looking east from U.S. 95, we'd always wonder what was on the other side of those ridges.

Well, lots and lots of ridges. Hungry Ridge. Tamarack Ridge. Dentist Parlor Ridge. Telephone Ridge.

You get the picture. Miles and miles of ridges. Ridges as far as the eye can see.

We answered the question on a mid-August drive where we discovered the scenic Forest Road 221 — the Grangeville-Salmon Road.


Backcountry pavement

The recreation highway goes from Grangeville south to the Salmon River and then about 10 miles downstream to Riggins.

In the old days, it was a main route between the two towns. It also was a toll road and part of the Milner Trail, which was a supply line from Mount Idaho to the historic mining town of Florence.

It's paved and a gateway to some of Idaho's most remote backcountry, including hiking and ATV trails, trout-filled alpine lakes, mountain meadows and old fire lookouts.

Depending on what route you take to get to the Grangeville-Salmon Road, you'll be driving in a mountainous region with elevations ranging from about 1,800 feet on the Salmon River to 8,940 feet at the summit of Buffalo Hump.

The road and spur roads will take you through the heart of the 2.2 million-acre Nez Perce National Forest with a diversity of terrain from rugged dry canyons to moist cedar forests.


Let's get going

There are several ways to get to, and drive, the Grangeville-Salmon Road.

We chose to go north to south with the beautiful canyon of the Salmon River as the finale in scenery.

OK, let's head north out of Riggins on U.S. 95.

  • You can drive all the way to Grangeville and take off out of town toward Snow Haven Ski Area and Fish Creek Campground. They are located along the Grangeville-Salmon Road. From there you continue on Forest Road 221 all the way to the Salmon River.
  • You can go north out of Riggins to the Slate Creek Ranger Station and take Slate Creek Road 354 to connect with Road 221 and then head south. The U.S. Forest Service says this road gets really rough near the top and you don't want to pull a trailer.
  • You can head out of White Bird and take Free Use Road 243 and connect with the Grangeville-Salmon Road.

(With the Slate Creek and White Bird routes, you miss more than 15 miles of the Grangeville-Salmon Road from Grangeville south, but they are shorter loops for a two-day weekend.)

You can do the road south to north by driving to Riggins and heading east on the Salmon River Road to Allison Creek and turning north on the Allison Creek Road, which turns into Road 221. Then head north to Grangeville.

We didn't want to drive all the way to Grangeville but wanted to come out of the canyon opposite White Bird Hill to see the area we had been wondering about all these years. We still wanted to do the road from north to south.

So we took Free Use Road (243) out of White Bird, but not before stopping at the Canyon House in White Bird for a chocolate milk shake. (Now you get the excuse for picking this route.)

We headed out of White Bird on the old White Bird Grade into the land of the Battle of White Bird Canyon, which was fought on June 17, 1877, in Idaho Territory.

White Bird Canyon was the opening battle of the Nez Perce War between the Nez Perce Indians and the United States. We had visited the historic battleground site on a previous trip, so we opted to immediately turn off on the Free Use Road and head to the top of the ridge.

Within 11 miles we had climbed from 1,700 feet in elevation to 5,000 feet.

The road wound its way through dry rangeland and along rugged canyons to lush forests.

We camped the first night in an undeveloped campsite in the forest just before hitting the top of the ridge.

The next morning, we continued on Free Use Road until we reached its intersection with Road 221 (the Grangeville-Salmon Road), which was a surprise. Pavement! After coming off a dusty gravel road, Road 221 was a luxury in driving.

We were in a timbered hallway with occasional views of ridges in the distance.

It isn't long before you have to make some decisions about exploring spur roads. We went up steep and narrow Forest Service Road 444.

It was worth it because of the lush patches of huckleberries and magnificent views.

We drove along an open ridge where you could see where we had come from in the canyon at White Bird and a ridge off in the distance overlooking Hells Canyon. Pittsburgh Saddle was out there somewhere.

The 11-mile road took us up 3,000 feet in elevation past meadows, near trailheads to alpine lakes and along a finger going into the Gospel Hump Wilderness.

Along the way there were dropoffs of thousands of feet that left you hugging the inside bank of the road.

It wasn't long before we arrived at Square Mountain Lookout with a panorama of the Gospel Hump Wilderness.

We camped the next night near a meadow between 7,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation on the way down the mountain.

The next day we headed back to Road 221 and south with a turn off to the historic site of the mining town of Florence.

It's eerie to stand in the forest and try to imagine that 9,000 people lived there during the mining heyday of the mid-1800s. The forest has reclaimed the town site, but the cemetery remains. It's interesting to read signs that explain the gray, weathered grave markers and people who lived and passed through the area.

On Road 221 again, we headed south to the Salmon River canyon, where you come out of the forest and are greeted with another incredible panorama of the mountains, canyon and river below.

The road, laced with hairpin turns, drops from about 6,200 feet in elevation to 1,800 feet at the Salmon River. It keeps you on your toes. No, make that your toes on the brake pedal, hoping not to smoke the brakes.

It was a downhill ride in low gear crawling around blind curves.

As we arrived at the bottom of the Allison Creek canyon and the Salmon River, we looked at the highway sign. It said Grangeville was 67 miles on the road we had just come down. That's 67 miles of beautiful mountain ridges, remote backcountry and forever views.

The Grangeville-Salmon Road is one of those places you can visit many times to take in all the beauty.


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