Bike Touring Special: The 500-Mile Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route

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adventure_journal_idaho_hot_springs_mountain_bike_route_02For more than 35 years, the Adventure Cycling Association’s maps have beckoned riders to unfold them, dig in, and dream about the next big trip — mostly long-distance road tours. So what’s the next next big trip from ACA? It’s bikepacking, in the dirt, in the heart of the Idaho Rockies.

The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route is a 500-mile, figure-8ish loop of mostly dirt roads, but for the first time in the association’s history this mapped trip includes technical singletrack options. (Maps are set for release this fall.)

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The ACA is simply responding to the rapid changes in bike touring, says Adventure Cycling cartographer Casey Greene, who scouted and mapped the network over the past year and a half. For decades, touring meant hitting the pavement on a road bike. Not long after the first boom in mountain biking, some hitched up BOB trailers or slapped on bulky panniers and toured dirt roads. Way back in 1998, Adventure Cycling released maps for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, 2,500 miles of essentially dirt road along the Continental Divide, from Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, the longest off-pavement bike route in the world.

“But the big change started in the early 2000s,” says Greene, when improved fork and suspension technology and inventive new bike bag systems from companies like Revelate Designs converged with an increasing desire by mountain bikers to make multi-day trips more rad. “With bikepacking you get the best of traditional touring,” says Greene — the stops in small towns to meet people and chat with locals — “but also the best of backpacking,” getting far out into the wilderness and eating up distances in a weekend that would take weeks on foot.

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The dirt-road anchor loop of the Idaho Hot Springs route goes mostly through national forest and hits the towns of Featherville, Ketchum, Sun Valley, Stanley, Warm Lake, and McCall before turning south through Cascade, Crouch, and Idaho City. For convenience, there’s a spur route from the Boise airport and a 60-mile paved cutoff option that shortens the route by half. The four singletrack loop options are each between 40 and 70 miles long and not exactly easy: It took Greene 13 hours to cover one 51-mile section, with seemingly endless portaging over downed trees.

Greene is stoked that the route offers so much singletrack, but even more that it allows so many options for people to break into sections and create their own dream route. Wanna park in Ketchum for a few days and just ride singletrack from town? No problem. Fishing on the many rivers and tributaries along the way? Totally. Ride all the way to the backside of the Sawtooth Wilderness to the tiny historic mining town of Atlanta, Idaho, where you can sit on the porch of a bar drinking beer and trading lies with local gold miners? Done.

Or you can personally test each of the route’s 50-plus hot springs, from cascade showers along a river to informal rock pools to commercially developed hot pots. Some are on the route, others easily accessible from it, and a few are further afield, says Greene, who has included directions and waypoints for each. “It’s almost like a treasure hunt, piecing them together with the route.”

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Photos by Casey Greene


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