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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Backcountry Discovery Routes eyes Montana motorcycle adventure ride

By Joshua Murdock Missoulian

MISSOULA – It will wind over Montana mountain ranges and course through valleys like a river: A ribbon of dirt roads, double-track and rare bit of tarmac traversing Big Sky Country from south to north, and offering motorcyclists a taste of the best riding in the state.

Tailored for adventure riding – a self-reliant style of long-distance tours mostly off pavement, mainly on dirt roads and fire roads, and often with some camping – the forthcoming Montana Backcountry Discovery Route will visit classic small towns and take riders through some of the state’s most scenic landscapes.

“It’s everything from really fun, challenging Jeep trails to really nice county roads with great scenery and a little bit of pavement – and the little bit of pavement that we do have is really fun pavement, but not much of it,” said Russ Ehnes, board chair of the American Motorcyclist Association and a Great Falls resident involved in developing the route. “It really shows you what the backcountry of Montana is all about. And we made it a point to keep the gas stops close enough together so that it can be done without big problems, and that means that it stops in a lot of small communities.”

Based in Seattle and founded in 2010 after the development of its first route – Washington – the nonprofit Backcountry Discovery Routes has since gone on to develop routes across every Western state, except Montana, and the eastern regions of the mid-Atlantic and New England. There are even two routes in California: a southern route and a new northern route released earlier this year.

The routes, often more than 1,000 miles long and commonly abbreviated as BDRs, are renowned among adventure riders for their scenic value, off-the-beaten-path routing, advice on pacing, and detailed maps of gas, lodging, food and other attractions along the way. But Montana has long been a blank spot on the BDR map, devoid of such a curated adventure route.

“There’s a glaring missing spot in Montana,” said Bryce Stevens, BDR’s co-founder and director of route development. “I’ve been working on Montana, my guess is five years.”

The adventure riding sector of motorcycling is surging in popularity, according to industry data. BDR routes are well known and popular among riders, and the organization has noted on its website that a Montana route is coming.

Moto mystery

For all the popularity of BDR and adventure riding, the yet-to-be-released Montana route is a closely held secret. Stevens said he couldn’t divulge even a hint about where the route will go, and people involved in developing it are legally bound not to disclose the route in advance.

“I can’t tell you where it goes, but I can tell you it’s a long route, it’s big,” with up to eight or more days averaging 150 miles a day, Stevens said. “I can’t really divulge anything, we send NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) to everybody.”

In recent years, he said, BDR has released one new route a year, generally in late winter. Route releases are accompanied by screenings across the U.S. of a BDR-produced film of the team and some local partners riding the entire route the prior summer.

The final stages of route development and release are staggered: Northern California was released earlier this year; this summer the team will conduct final verification rides in Montana and film their forthcoming Southeast U.S. route. In 2025 the BDR team will release the Southeast route and, in summer, film the Montana BDR.

Stevens said he anticipated the Montana BDR would be released in late winter 2026, complete with the group’s feature-length film and detailed print, digital and GPS maps of the route.

The Montana route is mostly set, he and Ehnes said, and will cover the state from south to north in mountainous western Montana. In creating the route, Stevens said, the team brought Ehnes in for local input on where it could go.

“It’s hard to find somebody who knows Montana backroads better than Russ,” he said.

Although he couldn’t speak to route specifics, Ehnes did detail the qualities he and the BDR team built the route around.

“I think, compared to other BDR routes, Montana has probably the most scenery from one end to the other. The scenery changes, there’s a variety and a real change from south to north – but it’s almost always in mountainous terrain. There’s no desert … Montana doesn’t really have that. It’s mountainous, beautiful country from one end to the other,” he said. “We worked really hard to find roads that were really fun and offered challenge, and in a few places offer a lot of challenge. But in those places we also have some alternate routes to avoid the things that might be a little more than some people want to take on.”

Education and economy

Those expert options – more technically challenging alternative roads or trails in specific areas – fit with BDR’s educational mission around safe and responsible riding, which Stevens mentioned before route development when asked about the nonprofit’s focus.

“Our mission is fairly diverse, but if you really break it down into the two most important things it’s that we educate the adventure motorcycle community on all things safety … (and) we want to help small towns, we want to give an economic lift, if we can, through adventure tourism, our specific form of adventure tourism.”

The safety mission has four main components, he said: Ride on the right side of the road; ride responsibly; ride safely around pets, livestock and wildlife; and know your limits.

Stevens also expanded on BDR’s economic mission. Simply put, people who can afford adventure bikes – the cheapest are about $6,000, the most expensive approach $25,000 – and can take multiday trips on them are people who will spend time and money in places they visit. So BDR sends them through interesting small towns and areas where most people otherwise wouldn’t go.

“If you have time and the money to do what we do, you’re probably financially secure,” he said. “These people come into these towns and they spend money. We encourage them to spend money. That’s why we exist and that’s what drives us.”

Even though Montana doesn’t yet have its own BDR, the Idaho BDR from Jarbidge, Nevada, to the Canadian border at Porthill, Idaho, swings into Montana’s Bitterroot Valley to skirt around wilderness areas. The route comes over the Magruder Corridor from Yellow Pine, Idaho, to Darby, heads up U.S. Highway 93 to Lolo, then goes over Elk Meadows near Skookum Butte back into Idaho. It nears Montana again when it passes through Wallace, in Idaho’s Silver Valley and just a few miles from the state line.

Even though the route doesn’t quite reach Missoula, Idaho BDR riders often make the trip to town for supplies, according to Nate Bertland, founder and owner of Big Sky Motorsports. He said riders from around the U.S. and across the globe complete the Idaho BDR, with many popping into his shop on South Avenue for service, parts or other gear.

Bertland said having a Montana BDR will increase the economic impact motorcycle tourism has on the state.

There’s a lot of in-state motorcycle tourism – Montana has the highest rate of motorcycle ownership in the country – but Bertland also sees riders visiting from around the country and world who come to Montana to ride through places like Glacier National Park. Some of them ship their motorcycles in and out of his shop.

Ehnes said he knows towns on the Montana route – he was careful not to say which – would feel the same economic boost once the Montana BDR is released and riders flock to the state to ride it.

“There’s three or four of the towns that people are going to want to spend some time in,” he said. “And the towns are excited, the ones that we’ve spoken with. They know how important tourism and things like BDR are to their economies.”

But for the riders, Ehnes said, the focus is all about seeing Montana.

“You’re not going to get just a so-so ride out of it,” he said, calling the route “really the best of what we have in Montana.”