My father-in-law is a driven man. He starts the day crack-of-dawn early with a run or a NordicTrak workout, then a quick free-weight session before heading into his office for eight to 10 hours. Often he comes home with more work. My father-in-law doesn't know the meaning of "relax." He's also got this unique - some might say oddball - idea of rest and recuperation. "It's always been my belief, " he told me, "that you should return from your vacation more tired than when you left." In short, my father-in-law would love a mountain bike vacation to Sun Valley in central Idaho.
Never mind the slow, steady approach to acclimatization, or taking the third day off, or almost any other time-honored suggestion about adjusting to altitude. Once the Wood River Valley gets its hooks into your mountain biking id, you won't be able to resist. Of course, altitude is a marvelous thing - if you're playing golf. With a base elevation of almost 6,000 feet, the knickers and 9-iron set loves the fact that the ball travels a mile here. On the trail, and in the saddle, altitude's reality is not quite as benevolent. If you're from sea level (like me), be prepared to suffer a bit. Your rewards, like heaven, will be many.
With late spring temps ranging from morning frost to downright toasty by mid-day, not to mention sunlight well past 9 p.m., and literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of some of the sweetest singletrack found on this good Earth, the setting is damn near perfect for some epic pedaling. Which is exactly what three of my brothers and I did on a recent five-day outing to the land of Hemingway and Harriman. Older bro Sean snagged a condo (ever notice how surgeons know all the best spots to host a conference?), and the rest of us mooched. Most every day, we'd head out from Ketchum, pedal up, and pedal down. Then repeat as necessary. Ah, the simple pleasures.
We started with some reconnaissance work on the impressive bike path system between Hailey and Ketchum. After chatting up the crew at The Elephant's Perch, we left our digs at Elkhorn Village aiming for the Corral Creek trail. Soon, we were rolling through sage-filled meadows into aspen groves along a super smooth ribbons of trail. Beware the subtle shifts on some of the wooded, double fall-line sections - brother Mikey washed out and stacked it pretty hard in one spot. All in all, an amiable 10-mile out-and-back from downtown.
Adam's Gulch Loop/Trail
The grunt work begins despite a few refreshing water crossings. Halfway up the 7-mile Adam's Gulch Loop, my temples were thumping hard against the lining of my skid lid. Breathing takes on a birthing class rhythm - hard exhale followed immediately by a deep, involuntary inhale. My sister-in-law Laura - "Quadzilla" to her friends - went chugging by. The trail just goes up and up and up. Not super technical, but enough ledge, off-camber roots, and tight turns to keep you honest. The riding is reminiscent of rock climbing, where the single toughest maneuver on a route determines its grade.
Punching out into clearing, we caught our breathe before launching into a screaming downhill with a few nose-wheelie hairpins tossed in for good measure. Brake squeal and spontaneous bursts of laughter came tumbling out of hillsides amid the lodgepole pine. I hung on for dear life, chasing Laura and Mikey, praying my overheated rims wouldn't lay my inner tubes to waste. Adams Gulch Loop throws almost 1300 feet of technical climbing at you. Feeling strong? Take the long way - Adams Gulch Trail - a 14-mile loop with 2,500 feet going up.
Warm Springs Road
The long haul up Warm Springs Road, a rugged 12-mile stretch of washboard that winds upwards past remnants of abandoned silver mines, and even patches of snow in the shade, is a true test of a rider's will. The last six miles are absolutely mind-numbing. The pay-off is the mind-altering the views of sprawling valleys and Pioneer and Smokey mountains from the top of Dollarhide Summit at 8,719 feet. Likewise, the return is an unadulterated eye-popping descent, a Mammoth Mountain/Kamikaze-style rip that will work every centimeter of travel your shocks can provide.
The "warm springs" refers to nearby sulfur springs. Yep, they smell awful, but if you can ignore the odor, the natural hot tub effect will melt away any pains brought on by the climb - or subsequent spills on the downhill - short of broken bones.
We didn't plan to ride the 9,050-foot Old Baldy, opting to avoid any chairlift-serviced terrain. Yet when Steve, a local engineer, offered to play tour guide on some freshly built stuff, we jumped on board. The loop began out of the River Run Plaza with the winding Lower River Run trail - a narrow clean-cut singletrack that clings the hillside like Velcro. The turns are maddening for the uninitiated, hiding fast run-outs and back-breaking switchbacks alike. "You've just got to anticipate the switchbacks," says Steve. The first two-thirds or so of the trail is heavily shaded - a welcome respite on hot summer days. Unfortunately, the last 300-400 feet of vertical grinds along an old access road, fully exposed. Says Steve, "If the sun is out, it can be a skillet."
After snaking below the summit and crossing ski slopes along a traverse trail, we connected with Warm Springs Trail (not to be confused with Warm Springs Road) and dropped down along a grab-bag of wavy, scary-fast terrain to complete an invigorating 8-mile loop. The downhill is mostly pretty smooth, with just enough loose, scaly chips and tricky rollers to rattle your nerves and jar your synapses. "I started to get a little scared when I reached 52 mph because my forearms were fried," says Jim Steggall, visiting from Massachusetts. "My brother bit the dust going fast over a shaley section. He was an oozing mess for the rest of the trip." Word to the wise. Recover on Warm Springs Road, which brings you back through town to the River Run Plaza.
For a true 15-mile epic, take the Warm Springs Trail behind the summit of Bald Mountain, over Little America Point and along Monarch Ridge before hooking up with the Cold Springs Trail on the mountain's south face. Return to Ketchum on the Wood River Trail System.
Fisher Creek Loop.
We finish with a little road trip, heading over Galena Pass, past the Galena Lodge (and its own impressive trail network) to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and "the ultimate ride" - Fisher Creek. Of course, to label anything "ultimate" is a risky proposition, but if there's a better ride out there, I want to see it. This remarkable 18-mile counter-clockwise loop starts with a slow climb along a moderate grade, allowing your legs to warm up (or recover, depending how you spend the last few days). The pitch picks up considerably in the last mile - don't get discouraged. All that pounding in your head and burning in your lungs will be quickly forgotten on the backside.
From the trail's high point, a new stretch of singletrack has actually improved this masterpiece. It's a tight, ridge-hugging incision that offers just enough loose sand, nasty corners, sharp drops and protruding rock to keep your eye and mind off that spinning tire in front of you. The new cut bypasses Aztec Mine, but it's a small sacrifice. For the next eight miles, the trail offers a seemingly endless array of brisk, banks turns that rival any arcade ride in Disney country. Brother Matty had the route dialed, and the rest of our merry band followed suit, trying our best not to let the stunning Sawtooth Mountains distract us. Coasting into the parking lot at the Williams Creek Trailhead, I just enjoyed the heady mix of exhaustion, endorphins, adrenaline and brotherhood. Life doesn't offer enough moments quite like that.
Days later, my legs and lungs were happy to get back to Boston, and sea level. But my thoughts, oddly enough, kept drifting to Sun Valley. The hard truth was we'd only scratched the surface of the trail system here. I'll be back, with my father-in-law in tow.
Best time to visit
Mid-May through the end of June. For some odd reason, this is Sun Valley's down-time. The lifts at Mount Baldy generally don't start running until the second or third week of June, and the nightlife is about as thrilling as a blown sidewall two hours into a four-hour spin. These aren't necessarily bad things. First, fat tire purists aren't going to get upset, much less complain, about having to earn their downhill jollies.
Second, Sun Valley and Ketchum are odd little communities where the Almighty Dollar has robbed much of the authentic, dirt-under the-fingernails mining spirit. I kept expecting to see bumper stickers announcing "Welcome to Sun Valley - Real Fur, Fake Racks." According to one local, this area has always been a magnet for the wealthy, but the recent influx of dot-com millionaires has pushed housing into the stratosphere (where else will you find advertisements with a real estate queen posing in front of her bright red Hummer?). Sounds like Aspen, Vail and Telluride all over again.
The flip side is that locals love genuine folks. Don't put on airs, and you'll be welcomed with open arms and a bunch of great tips on where to ride. We had more suggestions than hours in the day - a happy dilemma.
Sturtevant's Ski & Sports. You'll find Sturto's on 314 North Main Street in Ketchum (they've also got a shop in Hailey). These guys work the trails as well as the shop. Free clinics Wednesday nights. Rentals: Full-suspension and hardtail, Raleigh and Rocky Mountain, $20-$40 for full day ($15-$29, half day). Hours: Sunday to Saturday, 9-7 (208/726-4501)
Backwoods Mountain Sports, corner of North Main and Warm Springs Road. Enough gear and rentals to keep everyone happy. Rentals: Everything from sidewalk cruiser to downhill bomber, Cannondale and Kona, $26-$30 for 24 hours ($16-$20, half day). Hours: Sunday-Saturday, 9-6 (208/726-8826)
The Elephant's Perch, Sun Valley Road, Ketchum. Great selection, great advice. Rentals: Full-suspension and hardtail, Specialized and Schwinn, $25-$30 for 24 hours ($15-$20, half day). Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9-7, Sunday, 10-6 (208/726-3497)
Good Dirt - The Mountain Bike Guide/Sun Valley, Idaho, by Greg McRoberts and Darla Deppe ($14.95). More than 60 rides, well-research, clearly written, excellent maps, and some fun anecdotes. Someone should send a copy to Coors pitchman Gary Fisher just for the photo of three couples aboard balloon-tire rigs chugging up Trail Creek in 1945, to finally put an end to all the "who invented the mountain bike" silliness.
The Mountain Bike Adventure Guide/Sun Valley Area, by John Zilly and Eloise Christensen ($7.50). This blue-collar guide with the bright green cover offers the basic necessities for more than 50 rides. Not fancy, but more than adequate.
Mojo Maps, Cheap Trail Maps of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Area ($1 each). These single-page maps will appeal to the minimalist in your group. Simple and direct, just like the riding. Routes are ranked Easy to Psychotic.
Fun spots to hang
Treat yourself to a post-ride cocktail at Averill Harriman's ode to the mountain, the Sun Valley Lodge. Yeah, it's a little pretentious, and you might get stares if you show in your Lycra, but where else can you sip your margeurita (rocks, no salt) while watching figure skaters rehearsing on an outdoor rink, and generally act like a dot-com millionaire yourself? Pretty sweet. (207/622-2150)
Want to hang with the shop guys? Locals love Lefty's Bar & Grill on the corner of Sixth and Washington, a rustic hamburger and beer joint that hasn't let Ketchum's chic atmosphere go to its head. Bring your sweaty self in - if you're a little too ripe, folks will just give you space. (208/726-2744)
Roosevelt's Tavern, at the corner of Main Street and Sun Valley Road in Ketchum, offers a great roof-top deck and views of Ol' Baldy. Big burgers, stacked sandwiches, juicy steaks. Live music on the weekends. Shower beforehand. (208/726-0051)
If your tastes run upscale, check out The Ketchum Grill, at East Avenue and Fifth Street in Ketchum. A great wine and micro-brew selection complements an eclectic menu - everything from gourmet pizza to fruit-wood grilled meats. (208/726-4660)
Our vote for the morning eye-opener goes to Java on Fourth Cafe and Espresso Bar. High-octane caffeine and foo-foo Euro coffees, plus protein-packed breakfast burritos.
Places to stay
As you probably gathered, things ain't cheap in Ketchum, which is exactly why we rode the coat tails of Sean's surgical gown. Reasonable rates and the welcome mat for mountain bikers can be found at the Bald Mountain Lodge on South Main Street ($45-$125, 208/726-9963), the High Country Hotel on South Main Street in Bellevue ($45-$60, 1-800-692-2050), or the bargain Hailey Hotel on South Main Street in Hailey ($29.50, 208/788-3140).
Check out www.visitsunvalley.com or call 1-800-634-3347.