Trip to Lucky Ladd Mine traces remote, unique UTV route that goes deep into the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho


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Willy Wright cruises along on the single-lane mountain road to the Lucky Ladd Mine with a convoy of side-by-side UTVs.

By Steve Stuebner The City of Cascade, Idaho, is a great jump-off point for accessing hundreds of miles of backcountry roads in the Boise National Forest, located just minutes away from downtown. Mountain roads are a perfect place to ride ATVs and side-by-side Utility Terrain Vehicles. On a Saturday in July, we went for a fantastic ride full of adventure with some locals to one of their favorite destinations, the Lucky Ladd Mine. The old gold mine is very remote, located at almost 9,000 feet, surrounded by the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho.

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The Boise National Forest, located a few minutes from Cascade, has thousands of miles of dirt roads to explore. The dirt roads, two-tracks and jeep trails are a perfect place to ride with side-by-side UTVs.

“I love it! To look in every direction and see mountains, that’s the greatest thing in the world. There’s so many places in this area like that,” says Willy Wright, who drives a Can Am Commander Max XT, a four-seater side-by-side machine. Our group drove on pavement to Landmark, a Forest Service outpost an hour east of Cascade. We unloaded the UTVs in Landmark, and then we rode 30 miles over 4.5 hours to reach the Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 4.19.32 PMmine. David Saxton, a good friend of Wright’s, says the ride is very unique. “It’s a corridor into the wilderness. It’s not that common to get this far into the backcountry, and you get to see a lot of country that that most people have no idea is here.” The narrow forest road might be described as a “goat trail” that winds through gnarly mountain terrain, following ridgetops and the shoulders of mountain peaks the whole way. It’s remarkable to imagine that the primitive road was built with a one-way plow pulled by several teams of horses in the early 1900s.

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Our group was the first to go into the Lucky Ladd Mine this summer. Willy Wright and Dave Saxton cut more than 50 downed trees out of the road along the way. Our group of 10 helped to drag them off the trail.

Our group had to work a little harder than expected clearing green or dead trees that had gotten blown across the road on the way in. A wildfire in 2007 burned many thousands of acres of timber along the route. Wright and Saxton had chainsaws all gassed up and ready to go in the back of their UTVs. They cut the trees, and our group of 10 quickly cleared the timber off the road.

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Wildflowers bordered the road all the way to the mine.

The riders hope that the Forest Service can step up its maintenance of the road to ensure long-term access to the mine. “All it really needs is some basic maintenance, cleaning out the water bars and things like that,” Julian says. “It’s quite a sense of accomplishment to be the first group to make it in here this summer. Little bit of work to pioneer through all the downfall, endure a little change in the weather, but yeah, it makes you feel good that you made it,” he says. When our group reached the mine, Saxton chopped up some firewood and made a quick fire to warm up his daughter, Cedar, and the rest of the group. He points out that it’s important to be prepared for clearing timber or mechanical breakdowns on a remote mountain ride. “That’s all part of the adventure, you’re going to be cutting wood,” says Saxton, who’s an auto mechanic in his day job. “It’s no fun if you can get somewhere too easy. You learn to be self-reliant. You come back this far, you’d better have a lot of tools or everything you need to stay the night or fix yourself and get back out.”

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Ronn Julian checks out a hydraulic scoop shovel at the Lucky Ladd Mine.

We took a few minutes to tour the Lucky Ladd Mine, a gold mine that was developed in the early 1900s. Some old tailings piles, mine shafts, a cabin and mining equipment are still visible at the mine site. “There’s not a lot of documented history on the Lucky Ladd Mine,” Julian says. “They did extract ore from here, endured quite a bit of hardship to do that. It was taken out on horseback and mule at first, and then the road was created at a later date.” It’s neat to be able to ride to such a remote outpost surrounded by one of the nation’s largest wilderness areas, Julian says. In fact, the ride may be unique in the nation to go that deep into a wilderness area. “The uniqueness of this area is that this mine sits in the boundaries of the Frank ChurchRiver of No Return Wilderness,” he says. “So there’s a motorized opportunity to come out into the center of Idaho here and there’s not a lot of other inhabitants for miles and miles around.” Often times, Wright and Saxton see wildlife on the ride to the Lucky Ladd, particularly elk, maybe a black bear, and certainly deer can be seen along the way. Birds of prey also patrol the mountain tops, circling in the sky, looking for prey.

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There’s more old mining equipment, mine shafts, a cabin and ore piles that can be seen at the mine site.

One thing is clear, the side-by-side trail machines, with their beefy suspension, are the vehicle of choice for the smoothest ride on topsyturvy backcountry roads. “Side by sides are way more comfortable to ride on these rough roads than pickups,” says Saxton, who rides a Kawasaki teryx 4. “It’s tough and reliable. I’m really pleased with it.” Another member of our group, Wayne Hine, rides a 60-inch Polaris side-by-side to smooth out the ride. “I love it. My wife and I used to ride 4-wheelers all the time and she said, if I’m going to go with you, you’re going to get a side-by-side.” On our way back to Landmark from the mine, the ride took just 1.5 hours, with all of the trees cleared off the trail. Wright and Saxton try to ride somewhere different in the mountains near Cascade every weekend. There’s so many places to go, so many roads to explore, they look forward to the next adventure. “This is what we do,” says Wright, who works as a mechanic in his day job. “This is an every weekend type of deal. Whenever we have a free day, we do this.” They often bring their camping stuff and camp out in the backcountry with their families after a long day’s ride. The Boise National Forest has many developed campgrounds and primitive self-support camping sites where people can stay overnight for little to no cost.

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Mule deer, elk, black bear, birds of prey and other critters often can be seen while riding in the Boise National Forest.

“It’s awesome, Cascade has a little bit of everything,” Saxton says. “Try to get out in the outdoors, get away from the hustle and bustle and get into the backcountry.” Thousands of miles of forest roads and trails await in the Boise National Forest. The Payette National Forest, located 30 miles to the north, also offers thousands of miles of roads and trails. The community of Cascade has multiple RV parks and Lake Cascade State Park has multiple units where people can stay overnight. Plus, there are deluxe rooms at the Ashley Inn in Cascade. See the Cascade Chamber of Commerce web site ( for more information. Have a great ride! Steve Stuebner is a widely published outdoor writer, based in Boise.

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