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

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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{ 17 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jordan Stall

    “getting far out into the wilderness and eating up distances in a weekend that would take weeks on foot.”

    I was not aware that bicycles were permitted in wilderness areas.

  • carl

    This route looks great. Boise is a bike friendly type of town with several breweries and bike shops. The perfect place to start and end an tour.

  • Alex

    Wow… this is a dream adventure come true combining two of my favorite things – singletrack & hot springs. Definitely adding this to my to do list.

  • Shawn

    Well shit.
    We went for it. A buddy and I hit the route last week. We had 8 days of riding carved out, and a plan to cover about 300 miles (basically the bottom half of the route, including the two single-track options along that part.
    We didn’t even come close to covering the distances with planned. We ended up riding 105 miles that were hard won, that we were very proud of and that were beautiful.
    To calibrate you to my story and experience, I can share that I’m pushing 40 and consider myself to be a good cyclist. I’ve ridden a few adventure cycling 10-day tours, both self-supported and supported (Selkirk Splendor and Great Divide MT- mtn biking). I’ve also ridden with my wife across the country, east to west, and done another 1200 mile tour with her from Jasper, Alberta to Jackson Hole, WY, and some other tours here and there. Before this trip though, I had not done any loaded touring on a mtn bike (and that’s where I had lots of learning.)
    Day 1: we rode out of Idaho City, headed south on the route and up over a pass. We rode for 8 hours and it was about a 20 miles, 3k ft climb. We got shellacked! Altitude, heavy gear, steep grades, not enough water, got off route a bit and decided to do some bush-wacking instead of backtracking. Ran out of water, etc. 10 miles down the other side for a dip in the creek and some nice campfire cookery. Total of 30 miles for that day. We had thought about 40 miles- but no, not at all.
    Additionally, I broke some spokes on the rear wheel of my Specialized RockHopper mtn bike, where I was carrying most of my weight in gear: two large rear panniers and tent on top of the back rack.
    After some regrouping, a new rear wheel from Boise and an awesome night at Bonneville hot springs, car camping, we drove our truck over to Smiley Creek, between Ketchum and Stanley. We loaded up the bikes and headed into the White Cloud single track loop with a new plan to ride 66 miles in 5 days, doing 10-15 miles /day and to take it slow. At about 6 miles in we were climbing the trail that was steep enough where we were walking our bikes more than riding them. (calibration note: previous to this tour, I have never walked my bike up any hill, whether my bike was loaded or not- Going-to-the-Sun, Ice Fields Parkway, Appalachians, whatever). We were climbing Grand Prize Trail towards Gladiator Pass and it was June 23. We hit significant snow on the trail at 8500 that reduced our progress to a literal crawl. Lifting our rigs up over the snow and plopping them down 12” up the “trail” over and over until complete exhaustion. We made the pass and collapsed.
    Another rider- the only other we saw on the route in our 7 days out- passed us on our way up the pass. His name was Josh and he was looking better equipped than us. He was riding a 29er, and had a “bike-packing” setup for his gear. We guessed that he’d complete the White Cloud loop, but noted that the next day he was turned back by the high country snows.
    We did complete our own smaller loop back in that area that kept us mostly out of the high elevations.
    It is beautiful country up there where the route is. The hot springs are an epic addition. For me, the cycling was humbling. I found that much of the singletrack was basically un-rideable with gear on my bike. I wish this wasn’t true! I am not a person who takes “no” for an answer in any part of my life.
    Cutting to the chase: my summary of this all is- go ride this route! It’s awesome. Plan for low mileage days (I suggest 10-30 miles). Avoid regular road panniers (mine were consistently coming off my rack and causing all kinds of problems). Try the newer style bike-packing configuration for your gear. Pack ultra-light. Think about staying on the “main route”, and skipping the single-track options for your first attempt at this area. The main route is very remote and quite burly all on its own!
    It’s beautiful out there and a great place to be and spend time and breathe and exercise and push your limits.
    Happy Trails,
    Shawn Sears

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