Bikepacking In Idaho
At it again… The Idaho Session
Year One witnessed an unlikely pairing take a bit of blind faith in their weather window, skill set, and ambitious itinerary; and deliver an Oregon Outback plus Portland trip for the ages.
In Year Two, that same unlikely pair were nearly broken out of the car park, but eventually unlocked a magical tour of Grand Staircase Escalante and some hard hitting lessons about our Public Lands.
So, when Year Three inevitably came calling, the sights were turned to the big mountains of Idaho.
Planning a trip this year has been hard. My lungs still haven’t forgotten last year’s disastrous attempt on the Oregon Timber Trail (see “Thank You Failure”), so avoiding fire season has been paramount. By mid-June last year, Colorado was engulfed in the 416 fire, one of the worst in state history. This year stands in contrast as much of the Rockies have had a snow season for the ages. Consequently, finding a route that could be unlocked in June would require extensive research, local knowledge and a bit of reconnaissance. None of which Brody and I had time for. The day before we were supposed to leave, I was working the day job at Outdoor Retailer and trying to tie up loose ends while Brody was guiding a group of young climbers in The Grand Teton. Neither situation conducive to burying our noses in maps and weather reports. We agreed on one point however, The Sawtooth and Pioneer Mountains of Idaho’s interior were tugging at us, and we decided to answer the call.
Within minutes of arriving in Ketchum I was completely charmed and kicking myself for letting it take so long to finally check out the area. It didn’t hurt that our rendezvous coincided with Sun Valley hosting Outerbike. You couldn’t turn around without seeing a Sprinter van resplendent in bike brand decals and loaded to the gills with next generation, long travel shredders. But we had another style in mind as we loaded up our hardtails and headed North pursuing the big peaks…at 6pm.
I slept like shit
Every sound was a bear...At least I thought it was a bear.
6pm may seem an unlikely departure time. We actually weren’t due to start riding until the following day, but the opportunity to get a few miles under our belt and sleep beneath the stars was too hard to resist. The golden hour on those front country trails were unbelievably serene and the perfect introduction to what Ketchum had at its doorstep.
After about 5 miles cruising the local bike paths, we hit gravel, then single track, then ran into the post-work weekday shootout on single track as a group of about 10 caught us on the Fox River Loop. Plenty of hoots, devil horns, and “hell yeahs” directed our way as the locals seemed a bit envious of our apparent ambition. Truthfully, I was a bit envious of their light, squishy machines with no additional weight because I BADLY wanted to go fast with them. But we had other things on our minds, like a good campsite, a restful sleep, and preparation for the meat of the trip to come.
I slept like shit. I always sleep like shit; at least for a few days anyway. Every little noise is a giant Grizzly, every gust of wind is going to bring an arctic blast and expose my inadequate sleeping bag, every bug is inside rather than outside, and I DEFINITELY left chapstick or sunscreen, or some other smelly, lotion-y item in a bag that didn’t get hung in the bear-bag with all our food.
But, for as shitty as my sleep was, I woke early, made my coffee, and held it close while my morning gaze rested on the Pioneer Mountains and their glowing purple grey bands delineating the promise of day and severity of terrain. We breakfasted, cleaned up, and got out of camp.
WEST, I mean EAST.
For our first full day, we allowed ourselves to drift off the pre-mapped Smoke ‘n Fire 400 route to opt in on more dirt and singletrack. The rewards were immediate and abundant as we glimpsed a pair of moose feeding on willow and birch shoots along the Big Wood River.
The day warmed, we were joined by magpies, our constant companions as we climbed to the pass at Galena Summit, 8,700 feet. South facing and clear of snow, we took this as a good omen and began the sublime dirt road descent off the North, into the Salmon River valley that widens into the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains, and eventually, reaching the alpine town of Stanley.
Our valley transition would soon give way to another punchy climb and a brief side trip to the shores of Red Fish Lake, a viewpoint we were instructed we were not to miss.
It made for an excellent snack stop, with some tremendously good pro-instagrammer/influencer watching as a young woman risked life and limb on some floating logs to get the shot. She did, and we liked it virtually.
The brief stop at the beach gave way to an easy roll into Stanley and a 90 minute map and route building session only slightly overshadowing the mountain of nachos and vegeburger we were served. I was ready to call it quits and establish residency at this point, but Brody insisted we keep riding. Probably not a bad call as the waiter assured us that the -25 degree average temp for most of last winter would be challenging with my slight build.
With the clarity of full bellies and the promise of cold temperatures above 7,000 feet we set ourselves to the task of finalizing a completely new route. A route that would venture East instead of West (“what’s West of Westeros?” It’s cool if you don’t get it, Brody hasn’t seen GOT either). This new route would venture off my downloaded tiles, and even off my paper maps for a bit, but that wasn’t the concern. The concern was, we’d routed a thread through the eye of a needle, between two Wilderness areas where bikes would be forbidden. Our A plan would have us climbing up close to 10,000 feet, rallying the South side of what looked like some pretty rowdy terrain, and then dropping in on Galena Lodge from the North. Plan B was only marginally less dramatic, but included revisiting some terrain we’d already seen, and so was deemed less desirable. Plan C was a gnarly backtrack. But we wouldn’t know until after our “transition day”.
Day 3 was that transition, but it was no less glorious. We woke on the banks of the Salmon River amidst random Hot Springs and endless descending of about 2%. Having eyed the dirt road across the river the evening before, luck was with us and we soon found a single lane bridge to cross over and pedal the dusty goodness through to the town of Clayton. A brief showdown with a herd of cattle had us backing down so they could have the right of way, but it wasn’t an unwelcomed break in the morning sunshine. Soon on our way, we turned South on East Fork Road, riding through Spar Canyon, Dry Hollow, Dry Gulch, and eventually rounding the bend alongside the newly established Boulder White Clouds Wilderness. Arriving at the Grand Prize Trail, we soon were faced with one comical stream crossing, and a rapidly climbing drainage promising higher elevations, colder temps and steady winds. We decided to shut it down early to be ready for what the following day might bring. Making camp at 5pm is so foreign to us, we kind of didn’t know what to do! But it was a beautiful spot, and with a brutal climb on the immediate horizon, we knew we’d need our rest. So, an early dinner, some stories, some gear tightening, and we were off to stare at our respective tent ceilings, waiting for dark. Which apparently comes at like 11:30 PM in Idaho. Seriously, it’s like the Alaska or something.
BIKEPACKING WITH SKIERS
Day four would bring no surprises because we’d prepared ourselves for the worst. Our rapidly shrinking valley was turning into a canyon, and the steep walls soon became snarled by debris flushed down by a severe avalanche season. This gave us the opportunity to dial in our bike shouldering technique, practice that we would soon be relying on for completion of a somewhat ridiculous climb.
As we approached 8500 feet, the occasional North aspect snow patch had turned into the occasional sunny patch of mud amidst snow fields. We spooked a couple of very large elk at close proximity, but the real wildlife intrigue was in these massive cougar tracks. It’s one thing to see big, fresh, cougar track, but it’s another thing to literally be following them for like two miles. This big kitty was walking straight up the trail and I kept my head on a swivel making sure it hadn’t doubled back on us or we snuck up behind it. Both incredibly unlikely, I know, but look at this size of those mittens!!!
It took us the better part of the morning to get wedged into our drainage far enough where we finally met our intersection. To the South, our intended route. Close to 1,000 feet of vertical climbing on snow. To the West, our bail out option, some visible dirt, lower elevation, known dirt roads, and no sign of cougars.
the giant hurumpfff of us shouldering our fully loaded bikes, and blasting head on toward the saddle
Clearly South was the call.
I’m not gonna sit here and say we didn’t hesitate and it was all Hell Yeahs and High Fives! Maybe Brody’s inner monologue was, but I was a little more like “Well? I suppose we have the rest of the day to get up and over. I suppose I can carry my bike that far…for hours on end…if I must.”
The best way to sum up our spirits though was after the first 30 minutes when we were both laughing from the ridiculousness, and awesomeness of the ordeal and Brody looked over and said “I’m so glad I have friends willing to do horrible things like this”, to which I replied “I think I have friends who STILL won’t speak to me for putting them through much less than this.”
It was agreed and acknowledged, this was the best kind of suffering.
The next 700 feet of climbing started with the push-brake-step-push-brake-step technique, but was quickly replaced by the giant hurumpfff of us shouldering our fully loaded bikes, and blasting head on toward the saddle. Brody’s technique of 50 ultra fast paces then a squatting rest position in direct contrast to my slow, methodical edging and head down, get the work done pace kept us yoyo’ing proximity. Glad to have him breaking a bit of trail, my glorified skate shoe with SPDs were certainly not optimal, though they were ok for edging as the upper sections firmed up from the cold and wind.
You may expect that arriving at the saddle would fill us with a sense relief and achievement. Greater than that, the sensation of knowing that this was EXACTLY where we were meant to be, and the reason we’d chosen Idaho in a heavy snow year, with only marginal planning. We know our limits, our experience, and our physical capabilities, and this day was absolutely well within those. So far so, that it can honestly be said that for as horrible as this climb looks to do with a bike, we relished every damn step.
But it doesn’t take away from the fact it’s the most ridiculous shit I’ve ever done with a bicycle. Nearly goes without saying.
As we photo op’d the ridge I looked out across the West Fork of the East Fork Salmon River. Later, upon reading summitpost.org I would learn we’d gained the shoulder of Gladiator Peak, and that of the multitude of 10,000 foot peaks we were looking at, many are unclimbed due to the remote nature of them. That makes me feel pretty good about what we’d just ridden through and climbed up
DESCENDING INTO SWITZERLAND
From the saddle, we dropped down Gladiator Ridge into the Galena Lodge trail system. For the second time in just a few days, I was smacked upside the head with how incredibly good Idahoans have it with regards to singletrack. These were the goods, and I was stoked to get this level of riding into our trip. Upon reentry to civilization we were transported through some bizarre wormhole to Switzerland. Seriously, we both agreed that the setup outside Galena Lodge was the most Euro thing either of us had ever experienced in the States. It was just like being high in the alps and stopping in a mountain hut for a meal and sleep…minus the sleep.
We pounded a lunch and got right back on the Herriman Trail, Ketchum-bound.
We maximized the single track again, got outpaced by some 65 year old locals, and found that perfect balance of talking and not talking as we pushed through the final 25 miles in what seemed like 30 minutes.
Back in town, the option weighed a bit on me. We could go back out, find another loop, spend one more night under the stars. But this was such a sweet ending, I was moved to exit stage left and get home to Alison. I’d missed her having been gone nearly two weeks at this point.
Hugs, thanks, promises for more in the future, and just like that my partner was on his way. OK we may have collapsed in the parking lot, half stripped of our wretched riding clothes and recovered with a sparkling water first, but yeah, we kinda pulled the chute and went home.
It’s not the length, the type of fun, or even how highly I’d rate the scenery that made this trip for me. I think it’s the level of gratitude I have for it happening in the first place. To be well and strong enough to do it, for having a job that affords me some time off, a spouse who always pushes me to purse these adventures, and for an adventure-partner who after three of these trips still hasn’t killed me and shows signs of wanting to continue on to Number Four. I know just how lucky I am. And while it may have nagged me a bit that I didn’t push for us to take on the more ambitious extra day, or the original route with so many more risky outcomes, I got myself righted pretty quick. Etching those mountains in my memory, storing away the sweetness of fields of wild lilac, opening up to listen deeply for rivers we traced for days.
It's these that will keep, and bring us back again and again.