Bikepacking the Idaho Hot Springs Route—South loop: Part 1

WARNING: If you are young and fit you can skip the text in this post and just enjoy the photos. This story may come across as whiny to those far more capable than us.

I’m lying flat on my back on a dirt road under the shade of pine trees. My brother Jason is somewhere up ahead, emphasis on “up.” I’m about 2/3 the way up a monster climb, 14% grades, switchbacks, unrelenting, 2600′ in nine miles. I don’t know that I have ever felt this wiped out on a bike trip. And it’s only day two of a six day trip. I hear a truck coming down, so I sit up, pretending I’m just taking a break and not having a crisis. A couple in a truck tell me my brother is only about 5 minutes ahead. Yeah right. Never trust anyone in a car when it comes to time and distances. I sit there for awhile, completely worked. If we turn around we can get back to the car without too much trouble. Maybe I’ll just try to get to the top and see how Jed (aka Jason) is feeling. I’m running on fumes. I stagger up the road, head down, pushing my bike.

After what seems like a long time, I finally top out on the first of two summits. Jed’s sitting in the shade. He doesn’t seem like he’s struggling too much. I’m really glad to be at the top, and only vaguely tell him how I was feeling down lower. I tell him once we bomb down the other side of Steel Mountain, we’re committed, no turning back. Without much discussion, we begin descending.

Three years ago Jed, his son Harrison, and I rode the north half of the Idaho Hot Springs Loop (here). We really enjoyed it, felt strong, and were anxious to get back to finish the complete route. Sunday afternoon we drove up to Boise. Just as we turned off toward Idaho City, where we planned to begin, my stomach sank. I forgot the tent. Jed was incredulous. It’s not like forgetting your spoon or your headlamp. We checked into a motel, ate some lousy gas station burritos, and crashed for the night. The next morning we went to the hardware store and bought a new shelter.

New “tent.”

I was more worried about mosquitos than rain. Improvise. That’s the best we were willing to do. At the recommendation of a Forest Service firefighter, we parked at the Idaho City Community Center and started rolling about 10:00 am. About a mile and half outside town we turned off onto a dirt forest service road and began climbing. Most of the climbing wasn’t too steep, but it did get up to 11% in places. After 16 miles and 3200′ we topped out. It was cold up there, threatening rain, blustery. We put on arm warmers and shells and enjoyed a nice 14 mile descent down to Arrowrock Reservoir, then began pedaling up the valley along the Boise River.

We rode about 18 miles up this very pretty river valley before stopping for the night at Troutdale Forest Camp, a pretty basic campground along the river. We were pretty tired but feeling quite good about our day.

At one point during the night, around 1:00 am, I heard the drop cloth crinkling. I looked up to see a baby skunk about 8 inches from my head. I yelled and it scampered off. I think it was just curious. I chased off the momma twice during the night when she got a little too close.

Day 1 totals: 48.9 miles, 4441′ gain, 4810′ loss.

The weather the whole week was fantastic. Except for the last day, everyday was in the 70’s with nightime lows in the 40’s. And shockingly, the mosquitos hardly bothered us. We really dodged a bullet there.

The next day we continued pedaling up the Boise River valley, rolling up and down, with an uphill trend. It was really pretty and the riding was enjoyable.

After 20 miles we crossed the river on a bridge and took a lunch break. We then began ascending Phifer Creek Road up Steel Mountain. The road was much narrower and much less traveled than the main road along the Boise River. It was immediately steep. Up above is where I had my meltdown.

Earlier in the day we met a guy from Missoula who was riding the loop, but he started in Missoula. He was packed pretty heavily, pulling a BOB trailer. But he was in no hurry and told us that the previous day he had only ridden 15 miles. At the top of Steel Mountain we met a group of four from Australia that were riding the loop. They were young and fit looking, unlike us, two middle-aged, slightly overweight, struggling guys. The descent down the other side was fast, dropping 2000′ in eight miles to the tiny town of Rocky Bar, just a few houses. After another small climb we dropped down into the slightly less tiny town of Featherville. We were looking forward to a sandwich at the cafe, but to our dismay, it was closed, at 5:45 pm. We chatted with the couple that ran the place and they were in the process of closing it down and moving next door to a bigger space. There was a bar next door, but they only had pizza and that sounded a bit heavy.

Filtering water.
Dropping into Featherville.

We decided to press on. There were numerous campgrounds along the Feather River. We ended up pedaling another 12 miles to Baumgartner Campground where we knew there was a hot spring. About my crisis up on Steel Mountain—I’m not sure what happened to me, but by the time we arrived in Featherville I was feeling okay, actually pretty good. And I felt good riding up the Feather River Valley to the campground. Maybe I ate the right food, maybe it was a good moral boost to have the main climbing over for the day. Not sure. But it was strange to go from feeling like I couldn’t go on, to feeling pretty good in the space of a few hours.

At this campground the hot spring was piped into a concrete pool, and it was a good thing. The water in all the rivers were running really high and most of the riverside natural hot springs were underwater, flooded. We found a camp spot then changed and soaked in the hot spring for awhile. It felt really good.

Nice views like this every night.
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We were getting a little low on food. We had enough for another day or two but would definitely need to restock in Ketchum. It was another hard, full day, not leaving much time to cook dinner before we were ready for bed. It wasn’t even quite dark when we turned in. We slept quite well, and didn’t get up until around 7:30 am.

Day 2 totals: 56.5 miles, 4996′ gain, 3513′ loss.

On day three we rode another 16 fairly casual miles up the Feather River before turning off to begin the climb up Dollarhide Summit. This climb turned into 16 miles with 3000′ of elevation gain. More pushing the bikes. It was really beautiful, too bad we couldn’t linger too long to enjoy it. We finally topped out feeling tired, worn out.

We didn’t stay long on the summit, just a few minutes to eat a snack. It was a long steep descent down the other side, about 20 miles dropping 3000′. We enjoyed it very much. There’s nothing like bombing down a big hill after climbing for hours.

It flatted out a bit as we entered the forest and rode along yet another river. We stopped at some hot springs but they were flooded. We were aiming for a campground that a couple other bikepackers, headed in the opposite direction of us, told us about. They said it was a nice campground. Somehow we missed it. We rolled onto pavement and a cabin development. We could have gone all the way into Ketchum, but it was getting late, restaurants would be closing, and our camping options would be limited. So we turned around and rode a couple miles back up the road, found a dispersed camping spot off a little spur road and called it good. It was a lousy spot, nothing but an old fire ring. The creek was about a ten minute walk away, but we were exhausted and ready to stop. By now, everything was routine. Unload gear off the bikes, lay out the drop cloth, blow up sleeping pads and pillows, spread out the quilts, cook dinner, walk around a bit because it’s not dark yet, then collapse into bed. For whatever reason, neither of us slept well that night. It took me hours to get to sleep, which is very usual for me.

Day 3 totals: 59.3 miles, 4738′ gain, 3126 loss.

To be continued

One thought on “Bikepacking the Idaho Hot Springs Route—South loop: Part 1

  1. Shoot, with the mileages and climbing elevations, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Looks like a challenging route. Looking forward to Part 2!

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