I was hankering for another bike tour and the Adventure Cycling Association Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route provided the motivation (and the map). Whereas, this route is relatively short by bicycle touring standards it provides over 500 miles of low traffic, off-road adventure and fun, in some very remote Idaho backwoods. I was very fortunate to share this trip with my partners in crime, Jo and Scott, all the way from New Zealand. I met Jo and Scott while riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route a few years ago. We had such a good time that we mutually agreed, “Let’s do this again some time!” Jo and Scott were able to break away from their busy work weeks for a jam-packed 3 week holiday in the States which included this fine bike ride.
Here is a brief synopsis of the Idaho Hot Springs Route as provided by ACA:
“The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route guides riders over and through the breathtaking landscape of central Idaho. From blue ribbon trout streams to sub-alpine terrain and cozy mountain towns, riders will pass through some of the most spectacular country the West has to offer, with the opportunity to indulge in the highest concentration of soakable hot springs in North America.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself but I can add – it was really fun! Oh sure, it got chilly in the morning, the route got rather steep some times, and the roads tended to be washboarded and dusty, but that’s all the spice of life. It was fun! And, at the end of the day, a nice relaxing dip in a natural hot springs was deluxe. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the hot spring experience every day and some hot springs were nicer than others but again, that’s all part of the adventure.
We chose to ride the route in the clockwise direction considering the Pioneer fire location and wind direction, however, it seemed like most people ride counterclockwise. I can’t tell you if one direction is better than the other but we were pleased with how things came down.
In short, bike-packing is back-packing with a bike. The goal of bike packing is to incorporate ultralight gear and thinking to get into more remote areas while taking advantage of the efficiencies of a bicycle. You usually can get in more miles without the burden of carrying a torturous, oversized pack on your shoulders. Call it mountain bike touring or call it bikepacking, the goal is to enjoy the adventure of being out in nature. On this trip, I didn’t fully embrace the ultralight bikepacking concept but I definitely borrowed a lot. My bike and gear weighed in at 70+ pounds or about 33 kilos. Considering my previous bike tours, this was light. Here is a summary of my Gear Choices for this trip.
The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route is mostly backcountry US Forest Service (USFS) roads which makes using a mountain bike with a certain amount of suspension a logical choice. As I said, the roads can be washboarded and dusty but the traffic volumes are minimal (although Labor Day weekend does bring out the car campers). Also, there are several single track options that I didn’t explore but I’m certainly curious about. FYI, one of the single track options in the White Cloud Mountains has been closed as the route now goes through recently designated Wilderness area – meaning no bikes. My ride was a 29er with front suspension and a Thudbuster seatpost suspension. This set up worked well for me although I saw a loaded “Gravel Grinder” – for the more adventurous.
One of the attractions of this bike tour was the promise of soaking in a natural hot spring at the end of a long dusty day . The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route highlights 41 soakable hot springs as detailed on the route map. By my experience, most of the hot springs that I visited were clean and well maintained (See my blog for the one exception). Seems that the good people of Idaho realize that they have a good thing here and they take care of it. As a visitor, it is very important to respect these hot springs by packing your trash and even cleaning up after the knuckleheads, if necessary. In general, good hot springs etiquette goes a long way.
Here is a list of the hot springs that I visited:
The Springs Resort – just outside of Idaho City and near the USFS Grayback Gulch Campground. Swimming pool and soaking pool with limited menu and drinks. $13
Rocky Canyon – Really cool terraced pools along the Middle Fork of the Payette River
Fire Crew – pools along the Middle Fork of the Payette River – conveniently located, short walk from the USFS Trail Camp Campground
Hot tub at the McCall Holiday Inn Hunt Lodge – this doesn’t really count but it was pretty nice at the time.
Mile 16 – Very nice pool along the Salmon River – 1.5 miles from the USFS 4 Mile Campground, the USFS Poverty Flats Campground appeared to be a little nicer than 4 Mile but it was a little longer (maybe 2.5 miles) bike ride to get there.
Mountain Village Resort – Located in Stanley right behind Mountain Village Resort. Concrete tub in shed with barn door that opens up to big Sawtooth Mountain view and Salmon River. Some people have been known to sneak into this tub but don’t tell anybody. The Snake Pit hot spring is just down stream and it affords the same spectacular views but I didn’t actually go there.
With 41 hot springs on this route, quite often you have to ride by some to get where you are going by the end of the day. Also, it’s just hard to get back on your bike after a mid-day soak. Your legs kind of turn to rubber.
Due to time restraints, we were not able to ride the section of the route along the Middle Fork of the Boise River where there is a high concentration of hot springs choices. In hindsight, I wish that I sampled more of the hot springs but that will have to be another trip.
Fire and Weather
This year, the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route effectively circumnavigated the “yuge” 188,000 acre Pioneer Fire. As our scheduled bike trip approached, we could only watch and worry as the fire continued to grow. At one point, this fire exploded by burning 30,000 acres in one windswept night. How do you plan for that?? With the daily concerns for smoke, poor air quality and safety, we almost scuttled this trip. Fortunately, we got lucky as the benevolent gods of biking eventually smiled upon us. We only had to deal with Pioneer Fire smoke on 2 days – and only in the afternoon on those days as we rode through the smoky areas. Turns out that the closest that we got to the fire was 6 miles – which was close enough. Two very important websites that we used to gauge the fire was the US Forest Service (USFS) website that gave important information on road closures, air quality and daily fire updates and a good weather service like NOAA. It was especially important to know which way the wind was blowing and how hard.
As we rode through at least six huge fire scars from previous fires on this route, it became obvious that in the western United States, wildfires happen commonly especially in August and September. So to minimize the fire risk, you might consider traveling earlier in the year like May, June or July. Of course that brings in other variables like high water and even snow in May, mosquitos, heat in the summer, etc. If you wait until after fire season, then you are looking at cold morning temperatures, shorter days and maybe snow and rain. We rode in early September and it seemed like a pretty good time to be in Idaho , of course with exception of the big fire. So pick your poison, plan well and have a Plan B.
More about weather: As I stated, we traveled in early September and I expected hot, sunny, fall Idaho weather but in reality, we got a little of everything with mornings below freezing as we approached Stanley. And, it rained pretty good when we were in Ketchum. Locals said that it hadn’t rained all summer – in over 3 months. Check the weather and be prepared for hot and cold, wet and dry. We had cell phone coverage around most towns but not very far out of town, you drop off the radar. Also, consider how the higher elevations will affect you, especially if you are coming from sea level. It definitely took me several days to acclimate.
Not sure if the fire had anything to do with this, but we really didn’t see much wildlife on this route. One day, I saw what looked like fresh moose tracks and we saw pronghorns outside of Stanley, otherwise it was a couple badgers, an otter, and lots of squirrels. We saw lots of elk hunters but no elk. Also, I was disappointed with the fly fishing since carrying fishing gear is extra weight and space. Of course, this might just be a testament to my fishing skills but I didn’t have any big days. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fish the Salmon River near Stanley, and it was raining cats and dogs in Ketchum so the Big Wood River wasn’t fishable. I’m sure that they are there, I just didn’t catch them. As they say, “It’s called fishing not catching.” In my opinion, if you enjoy fishing smaller creeks and rivers bring your rod.
We did not experience any issues with bears on this trip, although I’m sure that they were present. There are not supposed to be grizzly bears in this part of Idaho but it is black bear country. Basic bear prevention practices are always a good idea, like keeping a clean campsite area and hang food, as necessary. It’s no fun meeting Mr. Bear in the middle of the night.
The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route did provide two weeks of adventure and outdoor experiences as advertised! Being that I was not familiar with the environs of central Idaho, this route provides direction to this unique and scenic area. With McCall, Stanley, and Ketchum conveniently on the route, there are plenty of opportunities to park you bike and enjoy the area. This bike route is largely in National Forest which means that you can free camp wherever you want but there are numerous US Forest service campgrounds conveniently located throughout. Also, there are motels in McCall, Ketchum, Cascade, Stanley and Cascade with scattered lodges and cabins, as well, but don’t be looking for a friendly Holiday Inn every night because they ain’t there. You are in backcountry quite often. Check out my Bike Blog for a real feel for this cool bike tour!
Hats off to the Adventure Cycling Association for putting together another winner. Great maps, great route!
Are you interested in more information about bike riding in Idaho or any other state?
Check out this list of State Bicycle Programs that include maps, information and bicycle coordinators for just about everywhere in the USA.
While you are at it, here are some of my other bicycle adventures that I’ve taken along the way:
Transcendental Transcontinental – An ocean to ocean Xcountry from Oregon to New Jersey
Transcendental Great Divide – The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Transcendental Sierra Cascades – A North to South Xcountry tour that parallels the Pacific Crest Trail down the Cascades and Sierra Nevada