The Idaho Hot Springs Loop was full of 5 things.
Elevation change, smiles, numb fingers, sore asses, and chamois butter (+ tea tree oil... try it).
this journey was by far the largest adventure any of the 3 of us had ever embarked on. That brings me to the 3 of us. I (@grafton) reached out to Blake (@blzke) earlier in the year just trying to put the feelers out for if any of my friends would be crazy enough to want to bikepack with me. Once Blake and I had decided upon the Idaho hot springs loop as our route we decided we needed a 3rd member to join in the fun as having 3 of you back there is much smarter than 2. So I asked James (@pn_nizzy). James didn't have a mountain bike yet, never had really ridden mountain bikes, and originally thought bikepacking was crazy. Much to my surprise he was all in. within a week or two he had bought a bike and was very excited to spend sometime in the mountains on two wheels.
We chose to embark on this adventure in the middle of august. sounds hot right? no, we woke up to frozen water after our first night under the stars and continued to wake up in 35-45 degree temperatures each morning after. leaving our nice warm hammocks was quite possibly the hardest part of each day (apart from actually getting on your saddle...)
we all come from different parts of the northwest, myself from Spokane, blake from Salt lake, and james from Boise. That said we decided we would meet and begin our route in Stanley. We stayed our first night at stanley lake, a lake that sits at the base of the sawtooth mountains. From there we rode north west through rolling hills for the first half of the day before coming to the base of our first mountain pass.
That first half of our first day on the road was full of gear adjustments (to be expected) but we also hadn't taken into account how long it would take us to actually get on the road. My original goal (which was quite lofty) was to ride an estimated 80 miles or so and end our day at warm lake... we did not achieve this. finally getting on the road as 11 am approached was our first setback. That first mountain pass was only a taste of the mountains to come, we were high in elevation but started over 6000'. the descent after that climb was beautiful however. once we dropped over the cape horn summit it was as if we were truly in the backcountry. prior to the pass we were quite close to highway 21 and we were now headed over the mountains and into the next valley.
once we had hit what seemed to be the valley floor of the bear valley we thought we could really make up some ground on our lost time. we were wrong. the roads had all been recently graded and watered so our time was filled with lots of pedaling and little ground covered. we made our first stop for water at the bear valley campground. water was one of those things I was actually quite worried about. I knew I could carry enough food for the trip and I knew that once we made it back into any sort of town we could, but with all the energy we were putting out I was most worried about staying hydrated. That was silly. the route is not only littered with hot springs but also littered with water. rivers, creeks, lakes, springs, they're all over this route. I ended up only filling my 3 liter bladder half way each time we'd stop to save on weight. along with us we had one msr water purification system and it worked quite well in keeping all of our bottles full. For my bladder however I chose to use a sawyer inline water filter on the hose. it made stopping and filling up so easy, just dunk my bladder in the stream and close it up. no wait times of pumping or waiting on your tablet, no strange taste, and very lightweight/compact. the only downside i could give that little guy is that it won't last as long, but at less that $30 I can't complain.
we didn't stop for much of a real lunch on day 1. my nutrition consisted of huma gels, gu chomps, and some good ol' trail mix for the day. I tried packing along those little squeeze pouches of apple sauce but they ended up being much to acidic and giving me some crazy heart burn. at this point in the day we were quite certain that our original goal had no chance of being reached. a couple of other riders on the route had caught up to us and after passing one another a few times back and forth they proposed we camp with them.
that leads me to the people we met on the route. every cyclist we ran into was so nice. in general everyone in the idaho backcountry was abundantly kind to us (minus calling us crazy or saying that our bikes were defective because they didn't have a motor). so we stayed with Matt and Rebecca our first night on the route. we found a little spot right below the deadwood summit. it was late in the evening and we knew we would run out of light before making it over the next pass so we stood defeated on our goal for the day and quite possibly a little surprised at just how difficult riding your bike all day on washboard roads could prove to be.
The next morning the saddle sores really started to settle in. I swear I woke up to my fingers being more numb than they were they day before. we woke up early; we wanted to get a little better start than we had the day before. packing everything up along with cooking breakfast takes a surprisingly long amount of time. we knew that we were in for two big passes right off the bat that morning so we drank plenty of coffee, downed our oatmeal, and chamois buttered up before getting back in the saddle. james had made the silly mistake of trying to ride through creek just before we went to bed the night before and ended up with soaking wet cotton shoes for the next morning.
So we then started up the deadwood summit. the morning was absolutely gorgeous. the climb wasn't easy by any means but it wouldn't be the toughest we'd see. after summiting we got to ride through some awesome high alpine meadows that seemed just continue on for days. it was funny being in what seemed like a valley right after having climbed up the pass. we then traversed along the valley until we came to our next pass, warm creek summit. warm creek summit is currently under construction and being paved so we had a nice little break waiting for our pace car to come around (their pace quickly out ran ours of course). it was honestly quite refreshing to have a little pavement in the route after so much sand and wash board. as paving trucks passed us they all looked at us as if we had lost our minds (the breed of bikepackers might all be a little crazy, i'll give them that). As we reached the summit of the pass we were all ready for some downhill... not to mention this portion of the pass was now freshly paved. the whole way down i was wishing my strava was going just so i could see how close we could come to grabbing a KOM on our 70lb bikes.
we were soon rolling down into warm lake. not sure if you'd consider it a town, a resort, a location... the center of the universe... whatever that little place is, it was a piece of heaven at the time. we had heard from others on the route that they have the best burgers. i'd love to go back and try one when i'm not extremely exhausted and baked by the sun to find out their true taste but hey at the time i'd completely agree.
continuing onward we were headed for the lick creek mountains. i full well knew that this pass wouldn't be easy but i was no where near prepared for just how "relentless" (as a fellow hot springer put it) this pass would be. the views on our way down the south fork of the salmon river were nothing short of amazing. by mid way through our descent down along the river I knew were going to end up really low in elevation by the time morning came.
along the south fork we knew that there was one hot spring we couldn't miss. at mile point 16 there is a little hot spring down by the river with a mix of spring water and river water that is the perfect temperature. we rolled on to the hot spring in the middle of the afternoon with high morale and for how much we'd eaten, pretty high energy. we contemplated setting an alarm for when to get back on the road to stay on track for time but decided we'd chance enjoying ourselves too much. much like the community surrounding bikepacking, the community of people that soak in natural hot springs is very unique. at this pool we met two couples. one couple was on their honeymoon heading north from colorado in their toyota tacoma while the other was from star idaho (a now near suburb of boise that was once the middle of nowhere) and were on their utv. they were asking all kinds of questions about where we'd come from and where we were headed. when we said we were about to head up the lick creek summit the couple in the utv wouldn't stop talking about how hard it would be. (i'll drink to that!) so we sat in a pool, drank our free coors lights we got at warm lake and listened to how much our lives were going to suck within the next 24 hours. "you're just in a hole right now" was a common saying until we really did start climbing the next morning and we all slowly realized how right he was...
we ended up setting up camp on the secech river just before what we knew would be the beginning of our climb.
end day 2
day 3 begins... time for oatmeal with maybe a little gu mixed in and maybe a little bit of some left over half pop or maybe some trail mix... really just whatever calories you can get in there. team morale was pretty high for being with no one but each other for the past 48 hours. we packed up and were ready to roll faster than any other morning i think (might have been because we decided to pass on coffee in an attempt to hold off on bowel movements if possible). we started riding. on our way out i keep on wondering "when is it going to become relentless?" a few miles down the road and the mountains surrounding us just keep on getting bigger and there doesn't seem to be any feasible saddle summit anywhere close by. we start up what seems to be the big climb. blake climbs everything like he's a mountain goat. he just gets to that uncomfortable spot and stays there, perfect little circles all the way up.
up up up. the whole way up I was looking for potential saddles we might be dipping in to and finishing off our climb with but none of them were our way out. we kept on climbing up into an area littered with alpine lakes and granite peaks. if you ever get the chance to go to the lick creek, do it, its the shit. it seriously looks like idaho's version of yosemite.
when i reached the summit blake had already stripped down to his bibs and was laying out with his bike on the ground. under most normal circumstances climbing 3500' over 15 miles first thing in the morning is tough... climbing 3500' over 15 miles first thing in the morning on 70lb bike... its another beast.
downhill should be rewarding right? usually feels good after a big climb. this descent was much the opposite. we knew we were on our way into mccall but we weren't ready for just how washboardy the road was. (i believe thats a real word) our entire bikes were trying to rattle themselves apart. we couldn't wait for pavement and good food in mccall.
we arrived in mccall. felt like finally. we had only ridden about 35 miles for the day and we all were exhausted. fish tacos and a few beers lifted our spirits before heading south for donnelly. we stopped off at the gas station to get food and more beers for our last night on the route. with 12 beers evenly divided and enough brats to feed us plus some we were off.
we rolled into a "primitive" (complete with split wood in bundles and a bathroom) campsite on the west side of lake cascade where we would stay the night. we decided it'd be best to cut out goldfork hot springs and ride down the west side of lake cascade and onto highway 55 due to time.
that night we celebrated around a fire and woke up with "fresh legs", heartburn, and ready to begin our last day in the saddle. we took off down west mountain road for more of the same washboard roads. all of this time the pioneer fire was burning in the area that we had sort of skirted around in the boise national forest. we had seen very little smoke but this morning it started to roll in.
we were able to put in quite a few miles this morning without any stops for gear adjustments or nutrition stops. our gear was getting lighter as we ate more and more of what we had been weighing us down and i'd like to think that over time we had become better at setting up everything properly to stay in place. that morning we had a choice of whether we would risk climbing another pass and down onto the middle fork of the payette or just ride down highway 55 on the north fork. either way the plan was now to end at the dirty shame saloon in crouch where we would meet up with an old friend who would have cold beers ready and take us back up to stanley. we decided we'd rather play it safe on time and ride the highway. i'd driven this highway many a time but i'd never thought much of what kind of shoulder it has. well it has none. needless to say that was a fun white knuckler on down to banks before turning for crouch. a stop mid way at cougar mountain lodge for some comfort food in the "town" of smith's ferry was much needed.
once we turned at banks we had a measly 9 miles left. seemed like nothing compared to the 235 we had already completed but the worst part was that we had mile markers telling us just how far we'd gone.
we finished. late afternoon and we arrived in crouch. we waited on our ride with a few beers and very little conversation. all in all the trip was physically draining as well as emotionally. take two of your best friends out in the backcountry and physically exert yourselves all day for 4 days in a row, you'll understand how. the good news is we're all still friends. great friends. we plan to continue in bikepacking and all avenues of bicycle touring. if you've ever considered it I would highly encourage you to take the steps necessary to make it happen! a lot can be learned while sweating profusely riding uphill for a few hours alone in the sun.
type two fun is the best isn't it? thanks for reading, continue in following along for more cycling nonsense and other "adventurous" (whatever that means) content.