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Sun Valley by Knobby Tires, Not Skis

By Matt Furber
October 24, 2008
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MOUNTAIN biking in Sun Valley, Idaho, is best seen from the saddle. But a glimpse from a four-seater airplane of the valley’s mountains, alpine lakes, rivers, canyons, forests and lava flows helped set the stage.

The pilot, Tor Andersen, who had his mountain bike and fly-fishing rod neatly stowed in the fuselage of the 51-year-old Cessna 182, was joining me for some autumn mountain biking during the harvest moon.

After our arrival at Friedman Memorial Airport, and a quick visit to a bike shop for trail information and last-minute gear, we rode east to the Lamb’s Gulch Trail in Croy Canyon with Scott Douglas, an owner of Sun Valley Trekking, an outfitter that rents out backcountry huts and yurts.

“Sun Valley is prized for its grooming,” Mr. Douglas said, referring to the cornerstone ski resort that opened in 1936 under the guidance of W. Averell Harriman, then the chairman of Union Pacific Railroad. Today, the resort has state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming equipment on Dollar and Bald Mountains. “The bike trails are just as smooth.”

Daniel Henry, a mine owner based in Hailey, said that the secret to those smooth rides is in the dirt. "The six-sided fractured shale common in the area packs down like concrete," said Mr. Henry, a former Colorado School of Mines student.

Trail volunteers work regularly through the spring and summer sculpturing the ground on Croy Canyon trails. As Blaine County has grown in recent years, so has demand for mountain bike and motorcycle trails, said John Kurtz, a Bureau of Land Management recreation planner. But some mountain bikers have taken projects into their own hands.

When he learned that bikers were building trails without authorization, Mr. Kurtz contacted a local trail stewardship group called Big Wood Backcountry Trails. Together, they found volunteers to help restore the illegally constructed trail to its natural character and to build new authorized trails.

Croy Canyon has become a test case for public lands management because the bureau is working with riders and private property owners to form a new recreation area that will offer trails that allow motorized vehicles along with some areas that will be exclusive to nonmotorized trail users.

“I couldn’t ask for a better job,” said Mr. Kurtz, who works with a recreation planning committee based at the bureau in Washington “One day, I’m out here building trail. The next day, I am working on national policy.”

Although riding opportunities are expanding and have a longer season on the drier terrain overseen by the bureau, forest rides to the north offer more shade, creek crossings and surprising views as riders pop in and out of the trees.

Sun Valley and its mining-era neighbor Ketchum sit at the top of the Wood River Valley, a stretch of alpine forest, mixed with bald, sage and grass slopes. Following the Big Wood River as it flows south from Galena Pass, the resort area is peppered with aspen groves, willow and cottonwood trees. North of the pass, the road leads to Stanley and the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Wielding a jackhammer on a recent bureau trail project, Renee Catherine, trail coordinator for the Sawtooth National Forest, said she works closely with the bureau manager because she values cooperation between agencies in a place where trails cross boundaries.

During the peak of autumn colors, some trails I rode connected Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service land. Customized cattle guards made it possible to keep riding without having to open and close range-land gates, just as hand-built wooden ramps and bridges made it possible to keep riding without having to dismount in the forest and riparian zones.

Trail quality was at its height on the roughly 450 miles of singletrack around Sun Valley. Day trips here can also include excursions to the Sawtooth Valley, including loops in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains, a proposed wilderness area east of the Sawtooth range. One of the most popular ride-from-the-road experiences there is the 17.5-mile Fisher Creek Loop, which passes through the burn zone of the Valley Road Fire, a 2005 wildfire.

Like many trail networks in the area, the popular circuit barely scratches the surface of possibilities.

The Sun Valley area is challenging to reach. It is about a 12-hour drive from Seattle, San Francisco or Denver, and the closest big airport is two and a half hours away in Boise. As a result, even at the height of the season on sanctioned trails, it is rare to see many other riders. Riding the Bald Mountain Trail to the Warm Springs connector, an after-work constitutional on the ski mountain for many locals, I met only one person.

Encounters with signs of wildlife are common anywhere in the Sun Valley area. Seeing a mountain lion on the trail is rare, but a moose on Main Street, or a bear in the garbage, is not unknown. Deer, elk and fox are ubiquitous. And whether a rider is in Hailey, Ketchum or Stanley, trailheads are so close to home base that enjoying a pint at the end of a ride is always an option.

October is a busy month for biking in the Wood River Valley. Crosstoberfest, an off-road race that starts at the plaza at Sun Valley’s River Run Lodge at the end of October, is the final entry in an annual series of community-wide biking events. Other events include a new midsummer road race in Hailey and the Galena Grinder, a mountain bike event given by Galena Lodge on the tracks that form the Nordic ski area at the base of the pass to the Sawtooth Valley.

“The soil moisture is perfect right now,” said Chris Leman, a trail designer. Having spent some of the year helping map trail reroutes in the Sawtooth National Forest, where the 2007 Castle Rock Fire burned about 48,500 acres in the Smoky Mountains and threatened Ketchum and Sun Valley, Mr. Leman also worked with the volunteer trail crews in Croy Canyon.

“I just designed a trail that is about 10 or 12 miles long,” Mr. Leman said. After he had spent the summer mapping future trails, Mr. Leman’s new boots were nearly worn out.

Despite the hard work that goes into maintaining the trails, mountain biking in the Wood River Valley is not entirely about suffering. Once there, the county is comfortably accessible to visitors with plenty of modern convenience and cosmopolitan interaction.

“It’s Paris on the Wood,” said Greg Randolph, who was raised in McCall, Idaho, and who writes a monthly column, “Ask Chopper,” for Bike Magazine.

Near Ketchum’s Elephant’s Perch outdoor store, where I met Mr. Randolph in the bike shop, Iconoclast Books offers a diversion for bikers resting between rides. There are also a number of art galleries, coffee shops and theaters in the Wood River Valley.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts played host to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor and cultural critic, who spoke at the Church of the Big Wood at the end of the week.

“The riding is terrible here,” Mr. Randolph said, amicably trying to steer me clear of riding choices we discussed. “I wouldn’t recommend any of it. It’s a bad experience.”

What can you believe from a former professional mountain bike racer who has chosen to live with his family smack in the middle of the Wood River Valley?

“It’s a whole other world in here,” said Sean McLaughlin, a bike mechanic, adding a caveat to any trail information gleaned from the cadre of local riders who popped in to the bike shop. As we chatted about Sun Valley trails, Rebecca Rusch, a reigning mountain bike world champion, just home from 24 Hours of Moab Bike Race in Utah, arrived looking for a bike cleaning. She was preparing to leave the next day for a race in Brazil. Then, Muffy Ritz, the three-time-second-place finisher of the Race Across America, came in stating that the thing that kept her in the valley was the Nordic skiing.

Another mechanic, Roger Mankus, a veteran of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado, had more practical advice for an average biker.

“The Burger Grill is half price between 4 and 6. Get the double double,” he said.

Before I could react, however, the proprietor of Johnny G’s Subshack stopped by with his fourth consecutive flat tire and made a better offer.

Beer at Grumpy’s, Lefty’s or the Wicked Spud in Hailey are all memorable stops, as is a trip to the Cavallino Lounge or Sun Valley Resort. If it’s breakfast or lunchtime in the Sawtooth Valley, many riders pop into the Stanley Baking Company.

One of the appealing aspects of riding in the Wood River Valley is the relatively low elevation, compared with places like Utah or Colorado. Few trails rise above 8,000 feet.

As the harvest moon peaked, I managed to pull a group of mountain bikers away from their families for the ride to a Sun Valley Trekking hut called Coyote Yurt, for an overnight stay. We chatted on the ascent past Lupine Point with stunning views of the Boulder Mountains to the east. The ride was smooth, except for a section of crusty leftover snow on a shady, north-facing slope.

Knowing that we wouldn’t be racing back to the village at the end of the day’s ride, our party began to unwind when we reached the yurt in the Smoky Mountains about 12 miles from Highway 75. Joe St. Onge, also a Sun Valley Trekking owner, started supper, and his wood stove began to warm the yurt in the evening chill. Suddenly, the yellow moon popped up from behind the Devil’s Bedstead, an imposing peak in the Pioneer Mountains, one of five surrounding ranges.

Dinner conversation flowed between the validity of vegetarianism and various political views, to questions about mountain ecology and Ultimate Fighting. There were also plenty of postulations about the global economy. Will Hovey, a volunteer fireman and private equity investor, said the view from his office of a snow-dusted Bald Mountain has been his favorite picture lately, since on his computer screen, he’s only been seeing red.

Craig Maxwell, a Wood River Valley native and structural engineer who also joined us for the overnight, pointed out predatory birds and signs of wildlife.

The next morning, riding the Warm Springs Ridge Trail back to civilization again, we hit patches of snow. One section was covered with pancake-sized paw prints.

“That was either one wolf doing laps or a pack of them,” Mr. Maxwell said, as we gained a ridge.

Where the wolf tracks faded out, we swooped downhill toward town on plush singletrack in the sun.

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