HAMILTON — The road to Paradise is never an easy one.
This year’s early season drive to the remote boat launch site on the wild and scenic Selway River at the Bitterroot National Forest’s Paradise Campground has been nearly impassable due to almost 60 snow slides that poured over the road this winter.
In their wake, the slides left desk-sized rocks, large trees and other debris that a Forest Service contractor has been digging through this week with an excavator.
The road officially reopened Tuesday.
The rough going created a challenge for the lucky few who drew early permits to float the pristine Selway River this spring.
The float through the heart of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is one of most coveted river trips in the continental United States, second only in permit scarcity to the Grand Canyon.
This year, 4,477 people sought a permit for the one daily launch from Paradise Campground. Only 62 received one.
“For some people, drawing a permit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said the Bitterroot National Forest’s Deb Gale. “Others put in for 10 or 15 years and never get one.”
Monday was the first day of the season for permit holders.
The party that received the launch permit for Monday was forced to cancel due to the impassable road conditions.
“That one launch a day makes this float really special,” Gale said. “It gives that group a chance to have a wonderful experience where they might not see anyone else for the entire float.”
The wilderness float typically takes about five days, but can be faster or slower depending on the amount of water in the river.
Gale said there have been years when getting to the launch site has been a challenge due to deep snow, but this is the worst that she’s seen for avalanches.
West Fork District Ranger Ryan Domsalla said most the avalanches occurred during January and February. A warm snap created just the right conditions in an above-average snowpack to send huge slabs sliding down the mountainside to cover the road.
“We estimate that it initiated about 60 slides between McGruder and Paradise,” he said. “They ranged from about 50-feet wide to the longest being close 300-feet across. They were impossible to cross with any type of wheeled vehicle.”
In their wake, Domsalla said the slides left a great deal of debris that has to be removed before traffic can resume on the road again.
“At this point, we don’t know if the road has been compromised,” he said. “That could create its own set of issues.”
Gale said the roadway was clear all the way to Paradise early Tuesday.
“That’s great news for floaters,” she said.