Words: Roderick Eime
When I received an invitation from Idaho’s petite and glamourous official tourism manager, Diane Norton, to ride a Harley-Davidson around her state, I didn’t expect that she would be coming along for the ride.
Normally in a smart suit and fashionable heels, Diane transforms into bad girl ‘Lady Di’ astride her Dyna Street Bob. She even has the plates to prove it.
Before the off, we meet at High Desert Harley-Davidson, one of the biggest Harley dealers in the country, with its own hire department. Here, linebacker-sized Todd Godfrey handles things. Actually, Todd looks like the type of guy who could handle most things.
Under the ‘Motorcycle Alley’ arch in the Boise suburb of Meridian, our team pauses for the obligatory photo opp. Diane, Todd on his Road Glide and myself on a Softail Heritage are joined by Lady Di’s hubby Brian on his 2003 Centenary Softail Custom.
To give you some idea about this territory, landlocked Idaho has the population of South Australia in a state a tad smaller than Victoria. Tucked away in the US of A’s northwest, Washington and Oregon form the western border, Nevada and Utah are to the south and Wyoming and Montana to the east. The northern tip nudges Canada and it’s all mountains, rivers and wide open spaces where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play. The famous motorcycle town of Sturgiss is one state over east in South Dakota, making Idaho an easy inclusion if you’re heading there from the west coast.
To stretch the ‘home on the range’ gag a little further, the ‘range’ in question is the Sawtooth Range, part of the fabled Rocky Mountains, and where we’ll head on Highway 55 after we shake municipal Boise.
Blessed with an enviable variety of well-maintained roads, Idaho is not shy in promoting itself as a motorcycle-friendly state, especially with Diane at the helm. There’s even an official “Motorcycle Idaho” map with lots of tips and marked routes.
“We have 31 roads designated as ‘Scenic Byways’,” Diane tells me with more than a little pride, “which equates to about half of all our roads. Then we have four official wine regions and about seventy microbreweries dotted around the state .. for when you’ve finished riding for the day.”
Apart from tourism, Idaho earns money from agriculture (yep, potatoes, but also lots of hops and barley), dairy, technology and aquaculture (trout, in particular).
Sometimes I think the whole US northwest is just one great big park with roads heading off to forever. Of course, there are busy Interstates like I-84 which joins Portland with Salt Lake City and slices through the lower southwest of Idaho, picking up Boise along the way. But we’re heading north on State Highway 55 on a 200 mile (322km) leg around to Sun Valley on County Highways 17, 21 and 75.
But Idaho doesn’t ride by numbers, oh no. We’re taking the evocatively named routes (aka Scenic Byways) Payette River, Wildlife, Ponderosa Pine and Sawtooth. Remember, Idaho has 31 of these and they start just a few clicks out of town.
“The Payette River,” Diane is quick to point out, “has world-class white water with Class three and four rapids.” The Extreme Kayak World Championships were held there in June.
It’s easy to make comparisons to our own high country with sweeping mountain vistas, woody green valleys and little villages dotted along the way but we’re quickly at an altitude of 8500ft (2600m) where, just a couple days shy of summer, there’s still more than enough snow to whip up a lumpy Mr Frosty mannequin in the parking bay. Our Mount Kosciuszko, by comparison, is a trifling 2200m.
For the snow bunnies out there, Idaho is one of the USA’s premier winter destinations with more than a dozen top-shelf resorts scattered throughout the state. Our overnighter at the swank Sun Valley Lodge, just out of the former mining town of Ketchum, has been the epicentre for celebrity snow escapades since 1936. The walls stand testament to the A-List clientele with the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and Ernest Hemmingway once frequenting the place. Hemmingway, as it happens, is still in Ketchum and will be forever.
Direct air links serve Ketchum and Sun Valley (SUN) from six US hubs including LA and San Francisco so the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and dozens of others can come to visit their properties.
Dinner is at the Sawtooth Club, a rustic American steakhouse with the sort of serving size that made this country legendary. It’s a great opportunity to sample the famous local Rainbow Trout that is Henry Winkler’s favourite game fish. The fillet comes apple-wood grilled, brushed with smoked roasted red pepper butter and served with wild rice.
Let’s make for the moon
Up bright and early for a start in the fresh mountain air and we’re heading due south on 75 (aka Sawtooth Scenic Byway) to a place called Craters of the Moon for an otherworldly experience. No, it’s not an extraterrestrial adventure but, by crikey, it could be. Complete with splatter cones, cinder buttes and lava tubes everywhere, the whole (1000sqkm) place could double for the surface of an asteroid or moon somewhere in deep space. The last volcanic event took place here about the same time Jesus Christ was having supper and, like the biblical hero himself, there’s likely more in store. The only earthly giveaway are the few tortured trees among the black gravelly soil. It’s no surprise then to learn that NASA brought the Apollo astronauts here in 1969 for geology lessons. True story.
Further down the road, we stop for a look at Shoshone Falls, one of Idaho’s tourism gems. The locals like to call it the ‘Niagara of the West’ possibly because it is 14m higher than Niagara and 300m wide. Niagara’s peak flow rate, however, is at least ten times that of Shoshone’s, but that does not detract from its undeniable beauty and there are far fewer crowds.
Our journey continues south on US93 to the township of Twin Falls. Here’s one for the history and trivia buffs. What 1974 event put this place on the map? Give up? It was the site for Evel Knievel’s abortive attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, just a couple clicks out of town.
On September 8, 1974, thousands of boisterous fans thronged the grassy fields overlooking the scenic Snake River where the huge earthen ramp still stands to this day. We all know what happened when EK tried to shoot his steam-powered rocket across the river. But in 2016, veteran Hollywood stuntman, Eddie Braun, recreated EK’s attempt in a similar machine, only this time Braun’s jump was a success.
Twin Falls maintains its reputation as a daredevil town as the bridge across the Snake River, the spectacular 148-metre-high Perrine Bridge, is one of the only man-made structures in the world where base jumping is legal. The first jumps were made by ex-Army paratroopers in 1989. If you’re not up for a jump, there are numerous scenic walking trails around the bridge and canyon.
We tick off the 110km Thousand Springs Scenic Byway (old US 30) which joins the Interstate at Bliss for our final run back to Boise. Our otherwise flawless avoidance of weather was upset when we hit a torrential hailstorm halfway back to Boise. Fortunately, we managed to find a truckstop shelter before getting totally smashed by the icy, golf ball-sized ordnance.
Back in Boise (locals pronounce it Boy-C), I settle into a revived mid-20th century motel now given a dose of 21st Century hip and funk. The Modern began life in 1960 as a Travelodge and still portrays the era, if only on the surface. In fact, the architects won a preservation prize for the project. Cool, indeed.
It’s true that you could write a glowing report on riding almost every state in The Union and the relatively minor state of Idaho is nevertheless a great example, especially when packaged with their marketing partner states under the banner ‘The Great American West’. To enjoy a full motorcycle touring experience you want good roads overlaid on fabulous scenery without too much traffic and a range of accommodation choices. Add to that the USA speaks passable English and you have excellent back-up in terms of both medical and mechanical.
Nuts & Bolts
For information on all road travel and attractions in Idaho, visit www.visitidaho.org
– download the official travel guide where you can also find out about hiking, fishing, camping and accommodation options.
For Harley-Davidson motorcycle hire in Idaho, visit www.highdeserthd.com/rentals
For expanded touring options see www.GreatAmericanWest.com.au
Stay at The Modern Hotel, Boise www.themodernhotel.com
See & Do
Warhawk Air Museum, Nampa www.warhawkairmuseum.org
Yanke Motor Museum 1090 W. Boeing St. no website
Atomic Museum inl.gov/experimental-breeder-reactor-i
Farnsworth TV & Pioneer Museum visitidaho.org search: ‘farnsworth’
Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Visit Idaho