On March 23, 2017, I set out on my BMW R1200GS to ride the Owyhee Backcountry Byway, a 104.5 mile gravel road that travels from Jordan Valley, Oregon to Grandview, Idaho. I had learned of the byway back in 2013 while traveling through Grandview.
At around 8:30 A.M. on the 23rd I left my home in Parma, Idaho and set off for Jordan Valley. The weather was clear and the sun had just began to come up. The thermometer on my bike read 35 degrees. I was wearing my Klim jacket and pants, which I am usually comfortable in down to the low 30’s. We will see if that stands true today.
As I left my house I immediately began traveling southbound on US Hwy 95 towards the Oregon border. I made a quick pit stop in Marsing at the ION truck stop, topped off my fuel, and hit the road again.
It is a quick 46 mile jaunt from Marsing to Jordan Valley on a smooth highway. The highway from Marsing to Jordan Valley is filled with rolling hills and smooth slow curves.
I arrived in Jordan Valley around 9:45 and decided I better fuel up again before hitting the Owyhee Byway. I stopped at the only gas station in Jordan Valley, a Shell located just off Hwy 95. As I pulled up to the pump I was quickly reminded that it is illegal to pump your own gas in Oregon. A gas station attendant slowly sauntered over to me and stood looking at me until I stated I would like to fill my bike. I handed the attendant my credit card, he swiped my card, asked if I wanted a receipt, handed me the nozzle, and walked away.
After filling my bike up to the absolute brim of the tank I proceeded to the quick mart that was adjacent to the gas station to purchase a snack before I departed from Jordan Valley. Inside the quick mart I noticed they had breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches all of which were inconveniently missing an expiration date. I decided to go with a breakfast sandwich. As I left the store I opened up the sandwich package to find two dried pieces of bread with what had previously been a egg sandwiched between them. Despite my better judgement I bit into the sandwich and quickly realized I had made a mistake…. The egg was rock hard and no longer tasted like egg anymore. After my first bite I decided that one bite was enough and I would rely on the snacks I had brought along to keep me going for the day.
I snapped a quick picture of the bike in the parking lot in its prime, undamaged, unscratched, condition before setting off east out of town. About 1 mile east of town I was met by a sign that indicated the start of the Owyhee Backcountry Byway. The sign warned that this was the last stop for fuel for the next 100+ miles. The sign also warned that you were responsible for any search and rescue costs associated with your rescue should you continue beyond this point. Not the most encouraging thing you could see at the start of a trip. Despite my trepidation of continuing past this point I decided to push on.
The road quickly turns due south and enters Idaho again approximately two miles in. The roadway changes to gravel and narrows to approximately one and a half lanes. The roadway is decently maintained with small to medium sized potholes but still smooth enough to allow me to cruise along at 40+ MPH.
As I continued father south the scenery changed from dense sagebrush to large juniper trees that dot the hillsides. The temperature on my bike read 29 degrees and despite my jacket and pants vents being completely zipped up I begin to feel the chill of the cool spring air.
Approximately 30 miles in I came to the first and only established campsite along the byway, the North Fork Recreation site. There are six developed campsites equipped with fire rings as well as barbecue stands. There is a vault toilet at the entrance to the campground which was clean and in good working order. The campsite was free to use. I made a quick stop in the campground to check it out and continued down the road.
Immediately upon exiting the campground the roadway climbs up quickly as it leaves the canyon. There are several tight switchbacks that are a joy on the bike. At the top of the canyon there is a extensive view of the valley below.
As I neared the 40 mile mark I was again pleasantly greeted by a sign warning that rescue beyond this point was extremely difficult and the road was closed. I decided to take a chance and check if I had cell service. Prior to beginning the trip I activated my Delorme GPS tracker which allowed my wife to track my location at home as well as enabling me to send and receive text messages. To my surprise I had a single bar of cell service. I called my wife at home and asked her to call the Bruneau office of the BLM to inquire if the road was passable.
Service was spotty at best and required a great deal of walking around arduously holding my phone in the air on order to obtain the best possible signal. I eventually was able to connect to my wife and relay my message to her. A short while later my wife called me back stating the BLM official stated they had heard about a week ago that the road may be impassable due to snow.
I looked at the fuel gauge on the bike, it showed I still had a nearly full tank. Knowing that I have around a 200 mile range I decided I would continue on. I figured I would have enough fuel should I need to bail out and turn around.
I continued down the road as I slowly gained elevation. I checked my elevation on my GPS, 5200 feet, a bit above the 2200 feet from where I had began my trip. As I was traveling down a straight stretch of the roadway I observed a late model Willy’s Jeep approaching from the opposite direction. I pulled over to the shoulder of the roadway, hoping the Jeep would follow suite. Sure enough the driver pulled over next to me. The driver greeted me while skeptically inspecting my bike. “Feeling pretty adventurous” the driver said to me. I could immediately tell by his statement and the smile on his face the roadway up ahead may not be as pleasant as what I had already encountered.
I asked the driver if there was snow ahead and if he believed I would be able to continue on. The driver stated there was indeed snow, but he believed I could still pass. He stated the stretches of snow last at most a quarter mile and were not very deep, 6 inches at most with the majority being packed down. He also stated that many times there was a dirt/mud path alongside the snow that I may be able to navigate through. He stated the snow lasted approximately 10 miles. I thanked the gentleman for his information and we parted ways.
As I continued on I began pondering if riding 10 miles through snow was really a challenge I wanted to undertake with a nearly 600 pound bike. I began seeing patches of snow along the shoulder of the roadway. Before I could talk myself out of continuing I came across my first patch of snow on the roadway. The snow was barely an inch thick and there were large patches of dirt scattered among the snow. Was this the extent of the snow I was to encounter?
I pressed on with a new found enthusiasm. I was no longer worried that I would not be able to finish my trip. I was wrong………
The small sporadic patches of snow became increasingly more consistent and began to get larger and larger. At this point I was still able to pass by in the narrow stretches of dirt along the shoulders. I was feeling a little over confident and was maintaining a speed of around 30-40 MPH.
I looked ahead and observed a stretch of snow ahead that did not have a dirt shoulder I could traverse. I stood up on the pegs and slowed the bike to a prudent 25 MPH. Apparently 25 MPH was not as prudent as I had thought…
I entered the snow patch and quickly realized I had made a mistake. My rear tire began coming around my right side until my bike was nearly sideways. My handlebars whipped right and I was thrown over the top of the bike. I landed in a relativity soft pile of snow beside my bike.
I got up, and after inspecting myself, I found nothing was broken or torn. I took a quick look around and realized I was by myself in the middle of nowhere with my bike laying on its side. I grabbed my bike and hoisted it upright. I looked it over and did not find anything other than some minor scratches on the crash bars and cylinder cover. I threw a leg over the bike and and started it up. With my legs dangling along side the bike I waddled my way through the snow.
On two other occasions I laid the bike over in the snow; luckily I had learned my lesson from my first crash and had reduced my speed appropriately while traveling through the snow. The second and third crash on the motorcycle were more “tip overs”, as I had maintained my waddle along technique dangling my feet beside the bike. As the gentleman I had encountered earlier had stated, the snow lasted approximately 10 miles. Once I began losing elevation the snow quickly disappeared.
At around mile 84 I came upon the Poison Creek Picnic area. I decided this was a great location to stop and cook up the ribeye steak I had brought along. Thankfully there was a fire pit with a grill grate on it. I quickly built a large fire in hopes of it reducing to coals that would be suitable to cook a steak over.
After approximately 25 minutes the fire had reduced to a glowing pile of coals. I pulled my two inch thick ribeye out of my cooler and situated it atop the grill. The steak quickly began sizzling and emitting an enticing odor. After a few minutes I flipped the steak over to reveal a perfectly cooked steak. Another couple minutes on the other side and my steak was ready.
I quickly devoured the steak alongside a granola bar I had brought from home.
After cleaning my utensils and thoroughly extinguishing my fire I packed up my gear and continued on. The roadway from this point on was a well maintained gravel road. I met Highway 78 and was somewhat relieved to be back on asphalt. From Grandview it was approximately 82 miles back to home. Highway 78 is a remote roadway that travels through the small towns of Grandview, Murphy, Marsing, Homedale, and Wilder on the way back to Parma.
Approximately an hour and a half after leaving the Owyhee Byway, I arrived back home.
The Owhyee backcountry byway is a remote road leading from Jordan Valley, Oregon to Grandview, Idaho. The route is “U” shaped traveling south out of Jordan Valley then turning north again as it ends in Grandview. The roadway is generally well maintained and very scenic. I look forward to making the journey across the desert again in the future.