Over the Hump

No Country for Codgers

By Ray Brooks

I had been warned about the road from Orogrande Summit southwest of Elk City to the old mining towns of Buffalo Hump. It was OK for about a quarter-mile after the summit, and then it narrowed and steepened. It also developed a tilt towards the valley of Lake Creek, a thousand vertical feet below. My high-clearance 4WD SUV suffered through several sections where I had to drop down over boulders the size of kitchen stoves in the roadbed, which then smacked the spare tire secured under the back of my vehicle and nearly bounced me over the edge of the road. There was no place to pass another vehicle or turn around and in several narrow and rocky spots it seemed prudent to scrape against tree limbs on the uphill side of the road. Finally, after much white-knuckle driving and a little road repair on my part, I reached a small campground in the canyon bottom. I truly did not know if my now-abused vehicle could climb back out of there.

This near-epic journey from my home in southern Idaho to the wilds of northern Idaho occurred in mid-August 2022. After spending the first night in Grangeville, I got an early start on the drive east to Elk City. I had forgotten how curvy the highway up the South Fork Clearwater River from Grangeville to Elk City is. If there is a straight stretch longer than a half-mile of these fifty-six scenic miles, it escaped me. Posted top speed is 45 mph, with many curves marked 35 mph.

I lived in northern Idaho from 1967 to 1983 and often drove up the South Fork Clearwater to a favored rock-climbing area named Lightning Dome. This was my first visit since 1982 and when I bought a Forest Service map in Elk City, the words of warning about the rough road came from a friendly Forest Service employee who looked at my vehicle and insisted I should not attempt to drive it past Orogrande Summit. After a few miles of pavement back down toward the South Fork Clearwater, I turned left and drove eleven miles of very good gravel up Crooked River to the former mining town of Orogrande. I remembered how much I had feared loaded logging trucks on backcountry northern Idaho roads, so of course I soon met one on a blind corner. Happily, we were both going slowly and he pulled over and stopped so I could get around him, which was far better than the alternative of me becoming people-juice.

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Ray Brooks

About Ray Brooks

Ray Brooks is a native Idahoan. Beyond retirement age he remains an active rock-climber, river runner, and hiker, who keenly appreciates Idaho history. His climbing career started in central Idaho in 1969. To support his outdoor habits, he worked on Forest Service helicopter fire crews, was a Middle Fork Salmon boatman, ran an outdoor shop in Moscow, and became a sales representative for outdoor gear.

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