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Our private Idaho: off-road in the USA

In-depth
3 Nov 2020
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The Copper Basin loop is as wild, rugged and remote as you will find in the United States

WordsPeter Stuart Photography: Kevin Scott Batchelor

Idaho is vast. Its plains and wide mountain skyline go on and on. A massive, cloudless blue sky above us seems somehow far bigger and far brighter than normal. As a result, the miles ahead of us, stretching off into our furthest vision, seem incredibly long.

It’s no surprise that Idaho in northwest United States is commonly considered the near definition of the middle of nowhere – there’s not a soul, building or car to be seen. That’s good, though, as the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and today it seems to belong to us.

The few residents here remain eager to preserve Idaho’s emptiness; there isn’t even a direct road running from the south to the north. Of the roads there are, many are gravel, which is precisely why we’re here.

Ketchum if you can

Our day starts in Ketchum, a small town in the middle of the state that seems like something straight out of a classic Western movie. Low wooden façade houses and wide-open boulevards are set to the perfect backdrop of the Idaho Rockies, also called the Smoky Mountains.

Even in June the weather can be fierce in these parts, so we stock up on snacks and cold weather clothing for the day ahead. By ‘we’ I mean myself and my riding partner Ollie, who is also from Britain and is just as unsure as I am about what we are letting ourselves in for.

We’ve heard a lot about Idaho’s reputation for unrivalled gravel riding, but aside from planning the route on Google Maps, we are heading into the unknown. Our confidence isn’t improved any when we are given a passing warning by a local man to keep an eye out for cougars. I make sure to pack my biggest multitool for protection.

Our target for today is the Copper Basin, a large plain amid the Smoky Mountains. We have a fairly long ride along the Trail Creek Road to get there, followed by a 36km loop around the Copper Basin and then the return journey along the same road. As such, our route map resembles a cowboy’s lasso, which seems only appropriate.

Today’s route also closely follows the Queen stage of world-famous gravel event Rebecca’s Private Idaho. The weekend cycling festival is cut from the same cloth as the ultra-tough Dirty Kanza and sees some of the finest gravel riders take each other to pieces over 100 miles of Idaho wilderness. And as we’re close to the high point of the Continental Divide here, at no point does this ride dip below 1,800m of elevation, and most of it is above 2,000m.

With all that in mind I’m grateful for the mild start to the day. Ketchum and its neighbouring town of Sun Valley have an extensive and well-paved network of bike paths, remnants of the old Union Pacific railroad.

When it was abandoned locals had the foresight and goodwill to redevelop it as a way of accessing a huge variety of mountain bike trails. You could easily spend a week exploring these paths, but we only have a day so we pick the trail that heads northeast out of town and follow it along grassy hillsides and through thick pine forests.

The bike path traces the line of the Trail Creek Road, which starts out as a smooth, wide road as it leaves Sun Valley, but soon becomes rougher and narrower as we plunge further into the wilderness.

It’s not long before cars and buildings are a distant memory. As we move into a picture-postcard landscape of grassy prairies, the road cuts down to a single lane and then transitions into gravel.

From my first pedal revolutions onto the trail I’m already sold on every claim of Idaho’s gravel wonders. The dirt track snakes its way up an immense mountain valley, cutting into the hillside at just the right point to offer us a perfect vista of snowy peaks (curiously named the White Knob mountains) above pine trees and the roaring white water of the Big Lost River below.

Apparently this was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite roads. He would often drive his Lincoln Continental convertible out to Bitterroot County along this dirt track, and he was said to enjoy it specifically because of the steep drop down the canyon currently sitting to our left.

Hemingway’s friend and famous photographer Lloyd Arnold recalls an occasion when Hemingway piled a number of friends into the back of the car and scared them stiff with a speedy, bone-rattling drive up the canyon.

We enjoy a little of the same bone rumbling as we bump along the loose and heavily scarred road surface, but thankfully without the intimidating horseplay of one of the greatest American novelists.

The road has been heading upwards for 20km now, gaining 600m of altitude in the process, and I look forward to coming back down here at speed later on. For now, however, with over 100km still to go, I can’t deny feeling a little intimidated by what’s ahead.

We’re currently at an altitude of 2,500m and my lungs are feeling it. With 2.4in tyres trudging through gravel and into a bleak wind, the kilometres go by slowly. I’m thankful that my wheelset has an inbuilt dynamo hub because we could be riding until dark.

We’re now 70km in, which is around the halfway point, and my pockets have turned from a plump store of snacks to a sad, depleted sag. My legs feel like empty shotgun shells rattling feebly on the floor. And more than anything else I feel tiny in the massive, open space of the wilderness.

Mountain men

A little way north of here is the Salmon River, and beyond that the largest US wilderness area outside of Alaska, named – ominously – the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness Area.

Its history is varied and dramatic, including recently being the home to the last of the ‘mountain men’, Sylvan Ambrose Hart. He built a house in the wilderness and lived off fishing, hunting and foraging in the wild. He also made his own weapons and built stone gun turrets around his house to defend from the threat of the federal government.

Just as I’m entertaining thoughts of gun-toting locals, I spy the first vehicle we have seen today. It appears up ahead on the horizon, a tiny white blob at first but growing steadily into the form of an enormous white pick-up truck as it nears, followed by a plume of dust.

The truck grinds to a halt, and a man jumps down next to us. ‘Helluva day, boys!’ he shouts, a wide grin on his face. His two sons jump out to inspect our bikes excitedly, as their father eagerly asks about all the elements of our ride so far. Assuming they’re staying in one of the few lodges out here, they’re probably as happy to encounter other humans as we are.

In truth there aren’t many people anywhere in Idaho. Despite being nearly as large as the UK, its population is only 1.7 million. It is truly unspoilt. Even the Copper Basin Airport when we pass is nothing more than a patch of short grass in the middle of nowhere. There are no buildings, no planes, no throngs of waiting taxis – nothing.

The terrain changes dramatically as we emerge from a valley road beside a river and onto a flat plain. Over the crest of a hill, the scale of the territory reveals itself once again, and it is humbling. The space is so open, so huge and yet at the same time so wild and untamed.

We enjoy a fast downhill section, with clouds of brown dirt spraying off our rear wheels. The descent leads into a series of undulations on loose rubble that bring some life back into my tired limbs. With the wind now on our backs I begin to feel cheerful once again as our speed hovers consistently above 30kmh.

There’s always a particular joy in riding quickly over gravel, as the slight rumble seems to bestow a sense of almost uncontrollable speed. I have no idea how winners of Rebecca’s Private Idaho manage to average 32kmh on a route even longer than today’s ride.

Just as we’re settling into a comfortable rhythm I spot some movement in a patch of shrubbery to our left. There’s a flash of white, and as we get closer I can make out a creature that looks a bit like a gazelle.

It’s a pronghorn, a fast-moving deer that makes for challenging prey for the wolves and cougars that roam this region. We’re pushing 35kmh yet it bolts away from us as though we’re standing still, before stopping to watch us and wait for us to catch up. This happens a few times until eventually it gets bored and darts away over the crest of a grassy hill.

As we approach the end of the Copper Basin loop the terrain changes again to become a desert-like plateau of brown hills, and the clouds moving above create a lava-lamp projection of shadows over them.

Hemingway was so moved by the landscape here that he wrote a eulogy for his close friend Gene van Guilder on his first trip to Sun Valley: ‘He loved the warm sun of summer and the high mountain meadows, the trails through the timber and the sudden clear blue of the lakes. He loved the hills in the winter when the snow comes. Best of all he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies.’ A few miles north of Ketchum, the excerpt is engraved on Hemingway’s memorial.

We reach the end of the loop and tackle the final climb of the day, which brings us back to the highpoint of Trail Creek Road.

A storm coming

The road is just as attractive in the opposite direction. We head towards a set of tall rock pillars that act as a grand arched gateway to the dirt road climb beyond, and as we ride through it we look back on a scene that could be straight from an Ansel Adams photograph.

We stop to drink in the vista, and as we do the mountain behind us disappears from view. At first we assume that a haze has descended over the mighty peak, but it soon becomes apparent that a raging snowstorm is heading our way. We quickly remount our bikes and rush up the incline to try to make it to the descent before the snow hits. We don’t.

I have never seen a storm sweep in with such ferocity. By the time we reach the top of Trail Creek I’ve donned every item of clothing I have but I am still freezing. It starts to snow, thicker and thicker.

The landscape that just a few moments ago had boasted a palette of rich colour drains to monochrome and all I can see are the shadows of tree branches being beaten from side to side a few metres in front of me.

Ollie rides ahead down the trail, but I take it more cautiously, fearful of the powerful gusts of wind and the cliff edge that I know is just to my right, even if I can’t see it. The 20km descent would normally be an absolute blast on a set of wide tyres, and I have no doubt a skilled rider could touch 80kmh on a good day.

Right now, though, I spend much of the time with my rear wheel fully locked out, which I’m aware of only from the sound of skidding rather than the feeling of the brake lever – my hands went numb some time ago.

After 45 minutes of frightening, albeit exhilarating, descending in near-blindness, I make it back to the safety of the tarmac and, as if to mark the transition from rough to smooth, the storm clears around me and I ride back into bright sunshine. A couple of kilometres down the road I catch up with Ollie, who is busy removing several layers of damp clothing.

Rolling back into Ketchum after eight hours on the trail it feels as though we’ve been gone for weeks. The road here is dry and the sun is shining. In the distance behind us we can make out a small dot of a dark cloud, tearing the sky to pieces, a world away.

When we settle down to dinner later on, we recount our memories of the ride as if it were something that happened in the distant past, like veterans retelling half-forgotten war stories. It seems you can find a fair bit of adventure in the middle of nowhere.

This article was first published in Cyclist Off-Road magazine issue 3, available at the Cyclist Shop

Ride to nowhere

Get away from it all in Idaho

To download this route, click here. From Ketchum follow the Sun Valley Road, which turns into the Trail Creek Road. Keep riding until you reach a right turning for Wild Horse Creek Road, beside the Wild Horse Creek.

From there follow the East Fork road to the Copper Basin loop, which you can ride in either direction. Once completed, the loop returns you to the East Fork road. Ride back along the same route as the outward leg, avoiding snowstorms where possible.

The rider’s ride

Mason InSearchOf, £3,490, masoncycles.cc

The Mason InSearchOf (also called the ISO) is simply a beast. With clearance to take 2.8in tyres on a 650b rim, this treads the territory between road bike, mountain bike and tourer. For this ride, the upright position and ultra-wide tyres were insurance against the unknown.

The ISO is really made for transcontinental epics, and is the weapon of choice for British endurance racer Josh Ibbett at the likes of the Tour Divide. The bike has lots of pannier and cage mounts as well as a unique load-bearing mudguard that can carry up to 2kg.

Rolling along on tarmac did seem heavy going at times, most likely because of the 2.4in 29er tyres, but the bike had a light and responsive ride quality that convinced me it would ping along quickly enough on narrower tyres. A clever detail is the dynamo front hub, which can be used to power a front light or deliver a quick charge to your phone or bike computer.

The high front end was a little unusual at first, but after eight hours in the saddle my lower back thanked me for it. If I was racing, a more roady profile might be better, but the ISO is a dream bike for an adventure.

How we did it

Travel

We flew to Salt Lake City in Utah with Virgin Atlantic and then drove to Ketchum. It’s a five-hour drive, though, so a flight from Salt Lake City to Boise Idaho (a 10-minute drive from Ketchum) is an easier option. Flights from London to Salt Lake City start from around £650, with the onward journey to Boise adding another £150.

Accommodation

Ketchum and Sun Valley have a wealth of great accommodation options. Hotel Ketchum on Main Street offers quick access to trails and is bike friendly. Expect to pay around £150 to £200 a night.

Another good option, also on Main Street, is Limelight Hotel Ketchum, which is geared toward outdoor enthusiasts and often allows guests to keep skis, fishing rods and even bikes in their rooms. Prices start from around £200 per room per night

Thanks

Many thanks to Hunt Wheels Hunt Wheels, whom we accompanied to the Impact Sun Valley bike industry media summit, and who took time out to join us on our ride in the Copper Basin loop. Thanks especially to Ollie Gray for nursing us around the route.

Thanks also to Adrian Montgomery from CrankTank for helping us with our route and our logistics for our time in Idaho, and to journalist Carlton Reid, who charitably drove us back to Salt Lake City when our travel plans fell through.