For our annual bike tour we decided to head north. I originally wanted to do Southern Montana then down through Yellowstone, but my daughter Natalie nixed that idea since we did Yellowstone two years ago. I have a good friend in Boise so I began looking for loops out of there. I settled on an ambitious loop through the Sawtooth Mountains and Sun Valley, about 375 miles. As the time for the trip approached I realized that we may not be able to do the whole loop. My daughter has been living in New York City for the past year, and though she commutes on her bike, she didn’t have much time to train. And my son Niels has been living and working in Moab and also did not train much. I figured if the loop looked like too much, we could just do an out and back route.
Last week, on Sunday afternoon we drove the 5 1/2 hours to Boise and stayed with our good friends Mike and Kristiana. They used to live here in Provo when Mike when getting his M.S. at BYU and we lived in the same neighborhood. Our kids played together all the time. We got a late start from Provo and didn’t arrive in Boise until 10:30 pm.
By the time we got to bed it was late, so we had a leisurely morning with a fabulous and huge breakfast. We left the house at 10:00 am with directions on how to get to the Greenbelt bike path along the Boise River.
They live in north Boise, near Eagle, so we had some city riding to get to the south end and the beginning of our route. We took a wrong turn on the Greenbelt and headed north instead of south. Within a few miles the trail spit us out on a road. Natalie was also having issues with her brakes. So I looked up a bike shop on my phone and we hit the road (now heading south, the right direction). After a few more miles we arrived at Bob’s Bicycles.
They were great about getting her bike right in. It turned out that her rear rim was out of true and rubbing on the brakes. We had to wait about an hour and a half for them to fix it, but they only charged us $15. We then headed back to the Greenbelt, heading south and rode the nice shady bike paths for several miles, past Boise State University, to the southern end of Boise. After 20 something miles we were finally on the outskirts and riding up Highway 21 toward Lucky Peak Reservoir. It was nice to finally be out of the city. Natalie joked that we were like the Boxcar Children, always trying to run away, but never quite able to get out of town.
We had to some good climbs, first up to the top of the dam, then another long steady climb to a place called Hilltop.
It was very hot and we were nearly out of water. Our plan was to make it to Idaho City and a campground the first day. But I was having doubts as it was already into mid-afternoon, we were hot and tired, and running low on water. We were surprised and happy to find that there was a cafe and store on the side of the highway there at Hilltop. But to our great dismay, it seemed to be closed. The sign said it was open Thursday through Sunday. We were really disappointed as we were all craving an ice cold Gatorade. So we sat and rested for awhile out front, then prepared to leave. Lars hopped on his bike and rode across the parking lot and discovered that the cafe was open. It was literally next door to the closed cafe. So we got our Gatorade, some snacks, and refilled all our bottles.
We were now feeling much better about continuing on. We had a nice downhill run to a bridge across the river, then we began a very gradual climb into the mountains. It was very pleasant riding as the sagebrush gave way to pine trees. All the while we rode along the very pretty Mores Creek. After rehydrating I was feeling quite good and enjoyed the riding very much. Our original plan was to take a break in Idaho City, then continue on past the city to a campground on the other side.
Everyone but me prefers to ride in sandals.
We arrived in Idaho City around 6:30 pm and headed to Trudy’s Cafe and had hamburgers and fries for dinner. We were really hungry having just snacked all day. After dinner we went next door to the grocery store and bought more snacks and some food for breakfast. Locals had told us that the road up ahead began climbing right away and that the nearest campsite was still a good five miles off. So we turned around and headed back the way we had come and rode about a mile and a half to the Grayback Gulch Campground. By the time we had camp set up it was 9:00 and too late to head over to the nearby hot springs.
That night a big storm blew in with high winds, thunder and lightning, and heavy rain most of the night, but we stayed warm and dry. In fact, it was pretty warm and muggy.
Day one totals: 63.8 miles; saddle time: 5:34; average speed: 11.4 mph.
The next morning we rode back into Idaho City and talked with a Forest Ranger about camping options up ahead. She told us about Pine Flats Campground with a great hot spring. It was only about 5 miles west of the small town of Lowman. We decided that would be our destination for the day, even though it was not as far as we had planned to ride.
I underestimated the difficulty of the climbing. There were two summits, both 6000+’ high, which doesn’t seem all that high, but when you are coming from 2400′ (the elevation of Boise), it’s all relative I guess. What made the climbing more difficult was that it was quite sustained all the way to the top of the first summit. In all we climbed for 24 miles, with 8% grades in places. It was especially difficult for Natalie with her lack of training. We would ride for a few miles then pull over and wait for her to catch up. At one stop I pulled out my very wet tent, spread it out on the ground at a large turnout and let it dry in the sun. The boys loved the climbing. Niels made it to the top of the first summit first, then Lars beat him to the top of the second summit. We then had 10 glorious miles of downhill with up to 10% grades. It was fast and exhilarating, with top speeds around 40 mph.
We rolled into Lowman tired, hot, and nearly out of water. We had filled up a couple times at various campsites on the way up, but it was a hot day and we drank a lot of water. There were no services in Lowman. There was an old boarded up gas station and that was it. I stopped a young woman who was jogging and asked her if there was anywhere we could fill our bottles. She told us to follow her home to her parents house and we could fill up there. We were grateful for her hospitality. She invited us in where we met her parents. They filled our bottles and we had a nice visit with them. They had lived in Lowman for 20 years, and referred to themselves as mountain folk.
We then turned off on the Banks-Lowman Cutoff road and rode about five rolling miles to Pine Flat Campground. There were quite a few people camped there for a Tuesday night, but we learned that it is a very popular campground because of the nearby hot springs. After setting up camp and eating dinner, we changed into shorts and went out in search of the hot springs.
There is a signed trail that winds along the South Fork of the Payette River, but we were not sure where to go when we arrived at a series of big cliffs dripping with hot water. The boys scrambled up top but didn’t see anything that looked that good. Then I remembered that the ranger told me that you need to wade into the river and go around some big rocks to get to the good pools. Niels waded into the cold swift river and disappeared around the corner. In a few minutes he came running back excitedly telling us to follow him, that he found a great hot spring. We all waded in nearly to our waists. The water was very cold and bracing, but it was not far to get around the rocks and up onto the bank around the corner.
A short scramble up some rocks and we were at the most spectacular hot spring we had ever seen. There was a about a forty foot waterfall of hot water pouring into a nice largish pool deep enough to cover your whole body when laying down. Or you could sit or stand under the waterfall and have a nice natural shower. It was really wonderful and felt great after forty miles in the saddle, most of it climbing.
We would soak for awhile then take a quick dip in the cold river, then back to soaking, back and forth a few times. It was wonderfully exhilarating. We soaked for about an hour, the pool to ourselves. When another group arrived, we headed back to camp.
At this point it was pretty clear that we did not have the stamina to do the whole loop through Stanley and Sun Valley. It was just too long with too much climbing. So we began looking at an alternative route. I suppose I should have had a plan B, but did not. Fortunately we met a really nice retired couple from Colorado. They were camping with their trailer hitting all the hot springs in the area. It turns out that they were both cyclists, years earlier having ridden the Great Divide mountain bike route from Banff, Canada to the southern border of New Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. They did it in legs during 6 summers, 4-6 weeks each summer. They showed us their maps, I took some photos of them with my phone, and we plotted a new shorter route back to Boise. They even shared their fresh baked chocolate chip cookies with us. We really enjoyed visiting with them.
Day two totals: 43.9 miles; saddle time: 4:47; average speed: 9.1 mph
The morning of day three, we woke up and headed back to the waterfall hot spring. Again, we had the place to ourselves soaking in the early morning chill. It was very relaxing and rejuvenating. We also soaked in a different pool, higher up the cliffs. It was not as hot, but was deeper and had a nicer view.
Since we didn’t plan to ride too far that day, we took our time relaxing and packing. Instead of heading East, we turned West on the Banks-Lowman Road toward Garden Valley and the small town of Crouch. I didn’t really know what to expect there, and thought it would probably be like Lowman, with no services. Along the way, we stopped in at a Ranger Station and talked to woman who told us about the area. Garden Valley, just a couple miles further down the road, had a gas station and convenience store, but she also told us that the town of Crouch had all services including a grocery store and restaurants.
She also told us about some nice campsites up the Middle Fork of the Payette River. She gave us a map and a description of the hot springs in the area. We were really excited to learn that their were restaurants up ahead. We stopped at another hot spring along the river, but it was very hot out and we were not too motivated to get in, so we continued on.
Around 3 pm we rolled into Crouch and found a restaurant that was open, the Dirty Shame Saloon and Cafe. We had a late lunch. Natalie and I shared an enormous platter of nachos, much bigger that we anticipated, Lars ordered Buffalo wings and tater tots, and Niels ordered chicken fingers. We ate and relaxed, again in no hurry.
We couldn’t even eat half of our food so had it packed up to go. We strapped it on the back of Lars’ bike for later. We then headed up the Middle Fork road past ranches, farms, and cabins along the river. It was a really beautiful valley and we enjoyed the riding. It was mostly gentle uphill with occasional downhills to break it up. After nine miles the paved road turned to dirt, and less than half a mile later we arrived at a campground.
We set up our tent, unloaded our bikes, then continued up the canyon in search of a hot spring. Three different people told us where it was, and all three directions were different. We probably rode another 4 miles up the canyon and searched all over for the hot spring but could not find it. It was pretty disappointing. So we turned around and rode back to camp.
We cleaned up in the river, that ran alongside camp. The water was cold, but refreshing and we all felt better washing off the sweat and grime from the day. We had a nice evening around a campfire talking and laughing. For dinner, Niels reheated the tater tots over our stove, and we ate cold nachos. And it was all pretty good.
One of the things I love about these trips is spending time with my kids. They are a pretty captive audience when you’re all sitting around a fire, or snuggled up in your sleeping bags in a tent. We had some nice talks, and laughed a lot. The next morning we planned on riding the rest of the way back to Boise.
Day three totals: 39.6 miles; saddle time: 3:49
When I woke up the morning of our fourth day, I felt like I often do on the last day of one of these kinds of trips. I simply didn’t want it to end. So I lay in bed and let the kids get up and cook breakfast. I fell back asleep and the kids had to really coax me out of bed. It was a leisurely morning and I really didn’t want to head back to civilization and home. I was disappointed that we were cutting the trip short, even though I knew it was the right thing to do. Also, Niels was getting married in 10 days, and there was a lot to do at home to get ready for that. Because of my reluctance to end the trip, we got a very late start that day. We rode the nine miles back to Crouch and went to the grocery store to buy more snacks. We then rode over to the Sweet Shop and had big ice cream cones.
We finally got on the road sometime after lunch. The highway continued along the South Fork of the Payette River. It was beautiful and the riding was pleasant. We took a break at the junction of the Banks-Lowman Cutoff and Highway 55, where the North Fork of the Payette Rivers joins the South Fork.
There were many river rafts in this area running the whitewater of the Payette. At one point we stopped at a rapid to watch the rafts go by. The day heated up as we rode. In the late afternoon we rolled into the town of Horseshoe Bend, went to a gas station and rehydrated with Gatorade, and refilled out bottles.
At the station, the woman working there suggested we take the old highway 55 so as to avoid all the traffic on the new highway. She told use where the turnoff was outside of town. It was wise advice. The old highway was not maintained and was a bit rough in spots, but is was quiet and pretty. Only 3 cars passed us the whole time. It was 7 miles of continuous climbing with grades up to 6%. Because it was late in the day and it was hot, and because there was no shade, it was a long grind.
Lars was happy to announce that he beat Niels to the top by about 2 minutes. They were sitting in the shade of a broken down car at the top when I arrived.
We waited for Natalie, took a break up top, then headed down the other side. Once again, we had a nice, fast, downhill run all the way to Eagle.
We stopped at another gas station and drank more Gatorade, then headed the last 4-5 miles back to Mike and Kristiana’s house. We arrived around 7:00 pm.
Day four totals: 55 miles; saddle time: 4:51; average speed: 11.3 mph
Even though the trip was shortened, we still had a great time. The highlight was the Pine Flats hot springs. We’re already talking about next year.
Trip totals: 202 miles; average speed: 10.5 mph.
Total elevation gain: 13,272′.