Navigating Forest Service Roads

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Navigating Forest Service Roads

Planning ahead for the ride

Riding a motorcycle out onto a Forest Service road can sometimes be a gamble. Anyone who spends more than about 30 hours a year exploring forest service roads knows the heartbreak that comes with riding down a road that eventually becomes impassable. Washouts, downed trees and other obstacles have a way of forcing one into doing a re-route on the fly. Good maps and a GPS are handy tools to have when this occurs.

But today there's a system in place you can check before you drive off into the great unknown. For several years now the Forest Service has been developing a road conditions section that is functional across all district websites throughout the US. With a few clicks of your mouse you can get some idea of what unpaved road conditions are out there.

To begin, you must know how to get to the USFS district website for the area you plan to ride. That's not always an easy task, but the best way to begin is to identify where you want to ride via a good road atlas like those produced by Benchmark Maps. For this exercise let's plan on exploring the roads around the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington. The elevation on this area is low enough for year-'round riding, but the area, like so many in the Northwest this last wet season, has been plagued with heavy rains and high winds. Our atlas tells us that this area is on the outer edge of the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest.

So we make our way to the USFS website, which by the way is not at Instead you'll find it parked on the web at Probably not your second choice for a possible website address which is an indicator of things to come when navigating the Forest Service web.

Here you can ask it to take you to your state and then locate the area you're looking for, in our case that would be the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie national forest. But wait a second, I asked for Washington and it took me to a list of states? Why? Poor website design. If you scroll down the page you'll find a listing of all your state's national forest districts under the listings for all 50 states. Geesh!

Wait a second… We can circumvent all this silliness by doing a simple Google search for the keywords - Road Conditions Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It'll get you directly to the page you want.

Now we're there. The plan is to ride on FR57 and explore its two alternates of FR5730 and FR5740. On this page, you'll find a road-by-road assessment of what's going on with each road. You'll have to drill through the districts to find the area you're looking for. In this case we had to go nearly to the bottom, past the Mt. Baker, Darrington and Skykomish districts to finally get to the Snoqualmie district report. Today's report says there's partial snow along FR57 and there are no listings for FR5730 or FR5740. We can assume this to mean that these roads have been put to rest or are impassable and there's no future plans to maintain them. If you assume it's any rosier than that, you're probably asking for trouble attempting to ride them.

Each status line carries a date with it. I'm told by one district ranger that the reports are updated about every four weeks from October to May and then weekly from June through September. That may be true for his district, but all districts will vary. There's no doubt about that, as we'll soon see.

The reports on the FS web site only cover federal lands, not necessarily the approach or surrounding roads which could be county, state or even privately managed. It's critical to know who owns and/or manages the roads people ride on to get the best information. People tend to assume that all roads in the woods are "forest service" roads, but that's not usually the case. For example, most of what is known as the North Fork Snoqualmie River road is actually managed by King County and Hancock Timber.

Let's change our plans. Instead we'll contemplate a ride to Wynoochee Lake in the Olympic National Forest from say – Hood Canal. We change our Google search and ask for: Olympic Forest Road Conditions. Bingo, the page we want is the first listing. However this time we get a rather sparse page with some cryptic 7 digit road numbers and not a date to be found anywhere. Fortunately the phone number for the district office is on the left side of the page. Take that to mean it's in your best interest to call the district office ahead of time and confirm the accuracy of the report as it pertains to where you want to ride.

How about a ride in Oregon? If it's winter, perhaps a trip out on the coast where there are many gravel roads. In fact, it's possible to ride the entire Oregon coastal region using Forest Service and public land roads. So if we begin our ride at the California-Oregon border, we're actually in the public lands region of the Kamiopsis Wilderness. Our Google search of Kamiopsis Wilderness Road Conditions takes us to the Public Lands info center that provides us with nothing more than a link to ODOT's TripCheck website which provides road conditions for paved roads, but not gravel.

Bummer? Perhaps. However we do note that this region is actually managed by the USFS Chetco Ranger District. We redial our Google search for Chetco Road Conditions and we land at a familiar looking page on the USFS site, this time for the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. And yes, there is some dated information specific to the region that would be useful in trip planning.

And when summer comes, how about a trip into Idaho? I've heard the legends of riding over Lolo Pass on a dirt road, rather than along the pavement of US12. A good look at the map and I see Forest Road 500 which runs along many peaks and ridges just to the north of US12 through the Clearwater National Forest. So I Google: Clearwater Forest Road Conditions.

Also known as the Lolo Motorway, FR500 retraces the Lewis and Clark pass a little more closely. The USFS site offers little in the way of road by road conditions in the area, but has quite a bit of info about the road itself.

All these resources are far from perfect and perhaps over time they may get better, but don't count on any standard of excellence to arise and be followed in the near future. The important thing to note is that before you traipse off into the wilderness on two wheels, take the time to look ahead, use what information is available and wind up with a better ride experience for having done so.

PT/Spring 07 - Assistance with this article was provided by Mitch Comstock.

Use our Road Conditions link in the top left menu bar to access all the Forest Service links in the Northwest.

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