Jo - Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley
Back in September, I was lucky enough to get 3 weeks off work (even though I had just started with Cactus in mid-July) to head over to the USA and do a bikepacking tour called the Idaho Hot Springs.
This is a mapped off-road/gravel road cycle tour that has been mapped by the ACA (Adventure Cycling Association).
The route is approx 800km long, with optional single track sections that you can take which lead you off the main route into more wilderness and join back up with the main route further on.
We flew into Boise and from here you can ride 65km to the start of the route proper. From here you can ride the route in either direction (we went clockwise). You pass through 3 different National Forests - Boise, Payette and Sawtooth National forests with the stunning Sawtooth Mountains which we were really excited to see.
You may only think of Idaho as the potato state, but it is actually a beautiful part of the US with lots of mountains. Some areas we biked through were some of the most remote areas in the entire lower 48 of the US. The area is very volcanic which in turn has created a lot of natural hot springs in Idaho, hence the name Idaho Hot Springs. This route passes by 50 hot springs whether natural pools next to a river, in the middle of nowhere, or resort-style hot springs that have been completely commercialised. I can tell you, there is nothing more amazing than sitting in a rock pool next to a river in complete wilderness, soaking the legs after a day on the bike… Absolute bliss.
Relaxing in a riverside hot pool, stunning rivers and my favourite part of camping in the US - Firepits
The US is one of my favourite countries in the world. I just love the wilderness, the amazing forest roads and forest campground system they have in place. It's just such an amazing resource that is so well respected by everyone.
My husband Scott and I have spent a lot of time in the US in the past 10 years, with our biggest bike tour being a 3-month cycle tour of the GDMBR (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route). This is a 5000km trip which is also mapped by the ACA and zig zags you back and forth down the Rocky Mountains from Banff in Canada all the way to the Mexican border in New Mexico. Since completing the GDMBR we have been really looking forward to getting ourselves back to the US for another wilderness biking adventure for some time.
Sadly while we were there Idaho had the biggest wildfire in the country burning called the Pioneer Fire, which caused us a little bit of stress leading up to the trip as it is right in the middle of the route loop and was getting very close to the roads we needed to use so there was a lot of watching the US Fire Department website leading up to our departure as we did not have a plan B.
The Pioneer Fire, while we were there, was 188,000 acres big. The closest we came to the fire was about 10km at some points. This is where we meet some of the amazing fire crews dealing with the fire by clearing undergrowth, deadfall and doing back burning. Being this close to the fire meant some really smoky days. The smoke was very thick and just hung in the air, especially in the valleys. Even today, three months on, the fire is still only 70% contained.
Smoke sitting in the valleys from the Pioneer Fire
Because of the volcanic nature of the area, the roads we were riding were what they describe as ‘Idaho Talc’, a very soft volcanic sand – so some days the going was very slow and painful due to the lack of speed and ground we were covering. One day we had a 26km climb to do in what felt like a sandpit. It was a long and what I would call a character-building morning. But happily what goes up must come down and we were rewarded with a 26km descent down the other side on a lovely hard-packed gravel road right into an amazing wee town called Idaho City. It felt like stepping into a western movie when you rode in (except we were on bikes, not horses, not to mention the big muscle car show happening in town that day).
This town was built for the gold rush back in 1862, it was the largest city in the northwest with a population of 7000 people. Today it has a population of 485. Following on from Idaho City we followed the gold mining route passing through tiny towns with populations of 50 people or less. These places are great. Real small-town America (Trump country!). This is where you meet the most interesting people and funny enough, they all have a story about New Zealand. I met a man who owned a fishing shop in a town called Stanley who told us all about his fishing trip to Wanaka, where DOC huts only cost 20c a night to stay in. I am guessing that trip was quite some time ago now, but he remembered it and how amazing New Zealand was like it was yesterday for him.
Idaho City Main Street
Another town we passed through was Cascade. We had high hopes for this town – sitting on the edge of a lake by the looks of our map – however, when we arrived we were disappointed to ride past the beautiful lake and over a small hill to find a very run-down township, built for the railway which once ran through it rather than next to the lake. Someone decided to build the town just on the other side of the hill, crazy... we could not believe it. The town sadly did not have anything going for it and we were happy to leave but just up the road was McCall, another town, but this one built on the edge of another gorgeous lake and it was beautiful – like a mini Queenstown. I feel the people of Cascade should maybe take a drive up the road to see what they could be like.
From McCall, we headed towards Stanley over yet another mountain pass. Stanley, a small town with a population of 63, was something special. Every house and building was built of wood. This area is very famous for white water rafting and fly fishing. Although it had such a small population it was a bustling wee town with a lot of character. Next up was Ketchem an extremely well to do ski town where all the rich and famous seem to have holiday homes (Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger to name a few), not to mention the home of Ernest Hemingway (Nobel prize-winning author).
One of the highlights of my trip was our 2nd to last day when we left Stanley towards Ketchum. We had our final pass to cross and we knew there was a chance of bad weather in the afternoon. The closer we got to the start of the climb the darker the sky became overtop of the pass so we made a phone call to a lodge located just on the other side of the pass to get a weather report and it was snowing. Lucky for us we had made the call from Smiley Lodge where we had stopped for lunch. We were still deciding what to do when the weather really packed in. So a call was made to rent a log cabin at the lodge. We spent the rest of the day sitting in the diner, meeting the locals that came and went. The girls working the diner were amazing and we had a lot of laughs that afternoon. The next morning was clear and we were off up the pass.
With not long having started at Cactus, I was lucky enough to get my hand on a Henry pack to take on the adventure with me. This is the first actual Cactus product I had so was super keen to give it a try.
Usually, when we go bikepacking I would not wear a pack on my back but because this was a two-week bikepacking trip we decided it would be worthwhile to carry one and just keep it as light as possible for those days when we may need to buy extra supplies for the days we were in between towns.
The Henry was ideal for this... The shoulder straps were super comfortable for wearing for 5-6 hours a day. Even when I did have a slight load in the pack it was comfortable. They moulded really well to my shoulders.