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Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route


The first thing almost everyone asks when you are in the middle of nowhere, riding a bike, looking somewhat like either a really dirty hippy or a slightly upclassed bum, is why? There’s always a bit of a morbid curiousity to it. The question has a bit of an implication that the very activity is ludicrous, that an adult should not want to ride a bike for 500+ miles, but that’s exactly what we set out to do and exactly what we did. To answer that question, I’ll try and lay out what turned out to be one of the biggest rides we had ever done and one that the memories still bring a smile and a starry eyed look of wanderlust.

The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route creeped into our list of things we wanted to do a couple of years ago. The route was developed by Adventure Cycling. A couple of friends had planned out a summer vacation around the route and had prodded us to join. Unfortunately, due to injury they were never able to attempt the route, but our interest was piqued and I purchased the route maps in December with the hopes of giving it a go this summer.

The route technically starts in Idaho City and over the course of about 560 miles rolls through Featherville, Ketchum, Stanley, Warm Lake, McCall, Donnelly, Cascade, Crouch, Garden Valley and back into Idaho City. Due to logistics, we chose to start in, or planned to start in Ketchum and then ride the route counter-clockwise. One of the big draws of this route is the some 50 natural hot springs along the way. We had debated back and forth what our objective was, to finish or soak in hot springs. It was still somewhat up in the air until we started pedaling, then it became finishing the whole route.

One of the other big plusses for this loop is that almost all of it is on dirt. Just guestimating, I would say 85% of our riding was done off of pavement. In addition to the main route, there are several singletrack options. We chose to ride the main route and leave the singletrack to those who weren’t on a time schedule. Despite missing out on those trails, we found the secondary roads we travelled to have almost no traffic, but tons of amazing views. I mean, have you ever seen the Sawtooths?



The Ride

Day 4. We had 50 miles to ride and we knew that around mile 17 we would begin the longest climb of our journey yet, Lick Creek Summit. The summit was over 3000 feet of consistent climbing over about 14 miles. It wasn’t the steepest climb we would encounter, but it was certainly the longest in terms of miles and time needed to get over the top. Some time around noon, we stopped for lunch. We had been riding since 7 AM that morning and it looked like we still had plenty of mileage and elevation to go. The canyon we were climbing was guarded by towering granite peaks that just kept going up.

Had you seen us at this point and judged us by our outward appearance, you probably would have concluded that there was a more than decent chance we would not be finishing our objective. We were dirty. My shirt probably could have walked away by itself. We had been camping and riding for 4 days straight. The only thing that was keeping us going was the insane amount of calories we were consuming and pure will power. However, by Lick Creek Summit we had fallen into a deep groove that often overtakes one as they settle into the routine of the road: wake up, eat, ride, eat, ride, camp, sleep, repeat. We had learned that the passes weren’t going to kill us even if they hurt us, a lot. We would make it to the top so we should enjoy the scenery, the vast vistas, the bears dropping out of the forest in front of us and the jagged peaks surrounding us.

While we may have looked a little ragged, we made it to the top of the 14 mile climb, descended into McCall and found our way to our first shower in 4 days. It was at this point I realized that barring some accident, we were going to be just fine. Something that I wasn’t so sure of when we started, after all this was to be the longest tour Kathleen and I had done together. Despite plenty of adventures, you never know exactly how things are going to tick when you are on the side of the road, days without a shower or a bed and hundreds of miles to go. Things like that can wear on one’s mental stability. Luckily, it seemed the longer we were out, the smoother our routine became.

Good Ole Placerville.

We hit Placerville on Day 7. If you could imagine a village that would define the stereotype for what a place called Placerville would look like, it was this. There were no paved roads into the town nor within. Although they had used some liquid to seal the road and keep the dust down. Right smack in the middle was a city park that consisted of a big green, grassy field and a pavilion with picnic tables under it. A lot of the old mining buildings were still in tact and a couple had been restored and turned into museums for the tourists who happened by. An older gentleman was hanging out on the porch of one and greeted us as we arrived, letting us know there was a spring where we could procure water. We thanked him for the tip, but found a bag of ice in the general store that was stocked the hilt, was more in line with what we were after.

We were able to stock up on a few things that we had been needed and then enjoyed a celebratory beer in the park. Unfortunately, the brutal climb into Placerville was not our last for the day. After our stop, we headed out toward the last climb into Idaho City at the hottest time of the day. It wasn’t incredibly long, but had some steep grades to it. We summited and then dropped into what I can only describe as the Wild West that still hasn’t grown up yet. While there were paved roads, almost all the buildings were from the mining area and looked like they hadn’t had any upkeep since. There were more saloons than restaurants and lodging was a bit dicey.

After settling in, we gathered all of our clothes and headed to the laundromat down the street. We were met with a sign informing us that there was a water shortage and only to laundry if it was absolutely necessary. We had been wearing the same clothes for a few days and felt like our situation fell under the necessary category. After dropping off the wash, we ventured into one of the saloons and were met with similar warnings and could only get water if it was in a bottle. Beer flowed freely.

Behind the “hotel” we were staying at, there was a big backyard, outdoor bar and grassy area. I had been worrying about my brake pads since about day 2. Utilizing this space, I flipped my bike over and decided to take a close look at how things were coming along. I popped the wheel out and pulled the pads only to find that my worrying was unwarranted and that I would fine for the remainder of the trip. Guess I should have taken a closer look sooner.

As our room was not equipped with air conditioning, we spent the evening lounging in the backyard and enjoyed the sounds of a town that still wished it was the 19th Century.

There’s supposed to be a road here.

Day 10. Had we known what all this day would hold for us, we may have stayed in bed. And to be honest, we were warned.

We had rolled into Featherville the afternoon before with full intentions of having lunch and moving on to the base of Dollarhide Summit, our last and tallest climb. Upon entering the saloon, we were almost immediately assaulted by a local who had some route info. Being hungry and slightly buzzed, it was difficult for me to fully process what he was telling us, but one thing was for sure, we needed to consider what he was saying. He told us the route from Featherville to Dollarhide was impassable as described on the IHSR map. There had been two wash outs and, according to him, the road was gone and it was impossible to get through.

With that info, we ordered another drink and decided to hole up in Featherville while we considered our options for continuing. The local had provided us with some poorly printed maps and a link for a reroute. We regrouped and decided we would head out in the morning.

To say I was uneasy with the reroute would be an understatement. The route would add another day, some serious climbing, singletrack and trails that were reported to be rideable only by someone with a MTB (which we didn’t have) who had serious riding skills and then it would still be a 14 hour day to get back on course. As I tossed and turned, uneasy with the logistics of what lay ahead of us, I pulled out my phone and started researching. There definitely was a wash out ahead, but we found a video that showed one of the washouts and was posted with the caption that it would not be that big of a deal to get through. With that information, we decided to disregard the local reroute and try to push through on the our original course.

Thunder has rattled the hotel all night and just as we were heading out at the break of dawn, it started to sprinkle. A light mist followed us for the next few hours. WE had about 15+ miles to go before we would hit the start of the reroute, we rolled past smiling and thinking we were pretty smart. We reached the first landslide that covered about a half of a mile of road. We switched out of our tap shoes and began the task of dragging, lifting and hauling our gear and bikes over the slide. 20ish minutes later and we were switching back into our riding shoes.

A few more miles down the road and we hit the second slide. It’s much smaller and we attempt it without changer our shoes. We made it but there was a moment when I slipped and watched my legs slide into two separate holes and for a split second, before I stopped sliding, I was certain my legs were gonna end up broken.

Once again, we were moving. There were a few wash outs we were forced to walk through. And then the road was gone. I knew where it was supposed to be and where we needed to get to, but instead of a road there was a river. We found some trails that circumnavigated the wash out for a few hundred yards and then it was evident we would have to cross. We unloaded our bags and began the precarious job of transporting bikes and gear across a thigh deep river. Once on the other side, we again found a trail and followed it till, we had to cross again. We repeated the process only to then run into the river a third time.

At this point, my feet were frozen. I was starting to question the wisdom of pushing on knowing full well that there was no guarantee that we would be able to get to the other side of the wash out. We gave it one last go. I was clearly tired from the effort as on the 2nd trip across (I was doing multiple trips so Kathleen wouldn’t have to) I dipped the front wheel of my bike into the current and slipped on a rock at the same time sending me and soaking everything but my left shoulder. Luckily, Kathleen missed the whole thing and was not aware of the slip till after we had finished our river crossings.

Once on the other side, we were able to push through some vegetation to find the road and a barrier marking the end of the wash outs. We had ventured about 20 miles in just shy of 7 hours. And our day was just starting.

We continued on hoping to get to the base of the summit for an early push the next day. We stopped for lunch next to a hot spring, neither of us were in the mood to even consider a soak. Pushing on we got to the base of the 5 mile climb around 3 PM. Having plenty of daylight left and just wanting to get the climb over with, we continued planning to find a campsite somewhere between the top and Ketchum.

Nearing the top of Dollarhide Summit.

Despite the climb being pretty steep, we click it off PDQ and soon find ourselves coasting. We bottom out and keep pedaling. Our map shows a campground a few miles outside of the city and that has become our latest version of a destination. Another hour or so goes by and we are pedaling right into downtown, either the campground didn’t exist or we missed it entirely. Well, when in Ketchum, you go to the brewery and hope they don’t kick you out because the stench of a almost 12 hours of human powered travels and hope to figure out a camping spot whilst enjoying a recovery drink or three.

After a wonderful meal, a few very strong triple IPAs, we are forced back on our bikes. Hotels are all full and the nearest campground is about 9 miles from town. We start pedaling hoping that we can find a field, ditch or someone’s backyard to camp. No such luck, but we were lucky enough to find the last campsite in the campground just as the last rays of sun were fading from the sky. After 13.5 hours and 77 miles later, we finally had a place to camp.

20170718_161638Overall, it was an amazing ride with breathtaking views, lots of solitude and plenty of adventure. The biggest takeaway we had was to be thankful. That day on Lick Creek Summit, our first big climb, it became evident that if we loathed the climbs, the weather or our bikes, it was going to be a long, very long trip. Instead, as we pushed toward the summit and the wind picked up, we were thankful that we weren’t hot. When the bear fell out of the tree a mere 30 yards away, we were thankful that he was more scared of us then him. When the closest thing to a vegetarian meal we could find was clam chowder, we ate it and then felt sick later, but we were thankful to have something in our gut and every day we found ourselves loving the ride and yearning for the next few miles.




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