by Dan Thompson, Ravalli County Off Road User Association
Given the lack of opportunities for motorized recreation in the Bitterroot National Forest, it should come as no surprise to anyone that jeepers, motorcyclists, and ATV enthusiasts routinely flee Ravalli County for other parts of the country that offer more attractive routes and enjoyable experiences. And they take their money with them.
Intrigued by stories from our friends and associates about the opportunities offered by other forests and agencies in west central Idaho, my wife and I took off in that direction on a five day trip over Memorial Day weekend. We had a great time – ended up at the St. Anthony sand dunes, but stayed at several BLM campgrounds on our way to and from Rexburg. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to explore the miles and miles of roads and trails that the area offers.
West central Idaho consists of a series of valleys separated by mountain ranges. Typically, the valleys and foothills are sage brushy and managed by the BLM. The Forest Service manages the vegetated mountain ranges. The primary access routes to and from the mountain ranges are generally all weather roads that the BLM maintains regularly. There are also an abundance of lower quality BLM roads suitable for high clearance vehicles that provide satisfying opportunities for jeeps and UTV’s, with plenty of elevation variations and tight turns. Many of the primary BLM roads lead to routes in the mountains, where the old road systems in various mining districts provide interesting opportunities for exploration. In one case at least, we found a 25-mile loop route that originated on BLM land in the Lemhi Valley, traversed the Lemhi mountain range to BLM land in the Lost River Valley, and returned to the Lemhi Valley by a different route. We were gratified to note the close cooperation between the BLM and Forest Service to establish these kinds of routes, although the infrastructure is in far better shape on BLM land than on Forest Service land in general.
Our BLM campground experiences were extraordinary. We stayed at four different BLM campgrounds. All had modern chemical toilets; three of four had trash collection facilities; all were well signed; clean; fire rings and picnic tables; two had courteous and informative camp ground hosts; informative and interesting historical and cultural kiosks; and only one was a fee campground with electrical service, dump station, and potable water. The BLM Birch Creek campground extends for over seven miles along Birch Creek and contains at least 50 campsites. Birch Creek is also the access point for the Eightmile and Skull canyon routes. If you haven’t visited the St. Anthony sand dunes you should add it to your bucket list. Riding an ATV or motorcycle in the sand is a whole different experience. It’s kind of a cross between riding an ATV and riding a snowmobile. Traveling on sand requires adjusting your weight on the machine and the timely application of power – and it is much more strenuous than road riding. With a little cautious practice, we soon mastered the technique and explored a good portion of the area. This facility is managed by the BLM as a Special Recreation Area, and they do a really good job of it. The BLM campground is located on the south shore of Egin Lake and has direct access to the dunes from the parking lot.
All things considered we had a great trip in spite of cool and occasionally wet weather. We were especially pleased with the facilities and opportunities provided by the BLM and felt that their policies and practices encourage the public to visit. There is a lot to be said for feeling welcome to use public land!