This article originally appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Travel Savvy magazine.

Soak Cycle: Mountain biking through Idaho's hot springs

Photos by Michael Mundt

Early-morning steam rises from one of the many hot springs we camped at each night. 

Early-morning steam rises from one of the many hot springs we camped at each night. 

     Any time a mountain-biking guide describes your upcoming riding day as “stout,” you know you’re in for a climb. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. For the last three hours, I and my trusty steed—a white, Specialized Rockhopper Comp named Scooby Doo—have been making our way up this impossibly endless mountain road.

     With each punishing rotation, the dirt crunches beneath my wheels, providing only a vague awareness that Scooby and I are actually moving. The early-August sun bears down on my neck without clouds to obscure its intensity, and I look up to wipe sweat from my forehead. The spruce trees drift by in slow motion, and I watch as a yellow and black Swallowtail butterfly flits around my spokes, periodically hovering just ahead of my front wheel as if to say, “Come on, slow poke. You’re almost there.”

     “There” is the 8,700-foot Dollarhide Pass summit, named after the 19th-century Dollarhide mining family that built the road to access its secluded mine. It perches along Warm Springs Road, a backcountry thoroughfare our group of 12 riders has traveled westbound from Ketchum into the Sawtooth National Forest.

     We’re following two guides from Western Spirit Cycling, a Moab, Utah-based tour company that began in 1989. Typically one guide rides the day’s route while the other drives the support vehicle that carries our food, water and gear. Western Spirit offers hundreds of trips throughout the country, from the Pacific Northwest to Eastern destinations such as North Carolina and New Hampshire, which accommodate most fitness levels and biking expertise.  

     We’ve come to central Idaho for five days and four nights in this arid high country, a land of sun-baked, sage-dotted hills, infinite blue skies and plentiful waterways, with two primary goals in mind: to challenge ourselves daily with demanding, non-technical rides away from bustling city life, and spend each night camping near one of Idaho’s numerous, world-renowned hot springs. 

     According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state boasts the greatest density of hot springs in the continental U.S. For me, those abundant geothermal treasures are precisely the motivation I need to complete this grueling ride. Each time I want to quit pedaling, I recall what one of my fellow travelers said to me this morning upon our departure.

     “I’m thinking about the hot springs,” said David Shapiro, a South African expatriate who lives near New York City. “Those 20 (plus) miles are just an impediment.”

     “Just an impediment,” I think often throughout this last stretch of switchbacks that marks the conclusion of the 1,700-foot climb. Before long, I notice two fellow bikers waving to me from a nearby ridge above to my right. I realize the toughest impediment lay behind me, a winding trail plunging into a pine-carpeted valley that ends in the jagged, blue skyline of the Pioneer Mountains. Ahead of me awaits nothing but reward: lunch, a 9-mile downhill coast toward camp and a soak in some highly anticipated hot springs. 

     Our journey began yesterday at Sun Summit Ski & Cycle, a bike shop on the outskirts of downtown Ketchum, a charming resort town where the well heeled come to play and build vacation homes. It’s been nearly a decade since my husband and I have mountain biked seriously, although we regularly exercise at altitude back home in Colorado, so I was understandably anxious as we packed up our gear and readied our equipment.

     When I’d scheduled this trip, I feared we’d end up in a troop of twenty-something bike purists who’d shun our lack of riding experience. I was relieved to meet this group of slightly older adults, ranging in age from early 30s to mid-50s, and discover not an ego in sight.

     But make no mistake; my fitness and youth—at age 29, the youngest of the bunch—were little match for this hard-core set composed primarily of road-biking enthusiasts. I was accustomed to bringing up the rear as we conquered a 16-mile singletrack loop along Trail Creek/Corral Creek, a rolling, non-technical trail not typically part of this backcountry trip but added last minute to replace a customary route affected by area forest fires. Guide George Keyes lingered behind with me, cheering me on during the first climb and reminding me to keep low, elbows in, and use my “granny” gear.   

      We ended yesterday with a 12-mile trek up Warm Springs Road, camping 1.9 miles away from Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs in Warm Springs Creek. Though clean and soothing, the springs’ easy access makes them popular with locals and tourists alike, so they’re far less private than tonight’s soak at Worswick Hot Springs.

     David and I agree these springs are worth the ride. They originate from the other side of the road, high up on a grassy hillside where steam rises from the source, then trickle downhill and under the road through a culvert to our camp here on Little Smoky Creek.

     There are several pools from which to choose, one uphill that’s hot enough to soak our sweaty clothes, another downriver that’s considerably cooler. But most of us have picked this bathwater-like pool, content to sit and watch my husband, Michael, while he swats biting horse flies from his legs and then feeds them to the tiny fish that swirl around our feet.

     As noted by fellow traveler Tom Gorman, a Chicago-based investor, the benefit of these trips is not only a chance to escape from our hectic lives, but also to experience the camaraderie that develops among strangers who undergo a common experience, like biking.

     We’re an unexpected set of bedfellows—engineers, business owners, business and sales women, a stay-at-home dad and a writer among four women and eight men—from both coasts and in between. But lounging in these hot springs, taking mindless pleasure watching fly carcasses being snatched from the water’s surface, that camaraderie is palpable.

     When George told us we’d be stopping at a “swimming hole” this afternoon, day three, I had some unclear notion it would be a shallow pool jutting off from Boise River’s South Fork, along which we’ve traveled throughout today’s leisurely ride.

     As we climb off our bikes and walk toward the ledge that obscures our view, we hear the sounds of laughter and splashing echoing up from the riverbank below. Our lofty view gives way to an aquatic amphitheater of towering granite rock and ponderosa pines surrounding a verdant swath of river known simply as Big Hole, a swimming hole about 5 miles west of the popular Baumgartner Campground and Hot Springs.

     We’re quick to throw on swimsuits and join the numerous swimmers seeking relief from the heat in this sanctuary, more oasis than swimming hole. I step into the limpid waters, my feet and legs tingling with pinpricks of icy water, and submerge quickly before I talk myself out of it. Others are more daring, wading out to a granite boulder that soars from the river’s center and jumping off into the water’s invigorating depths. Too soon, it seems, we’ve changed back into our riding gear and continue our 28-mile ride toward tonight’s camp at Willow Creek in Boise National Forest.

     I don’t stay long at Willow Creek Hot Springs, situated about a 1 1/2 -mile ride up a predominantly singletrack path I found too difficult to negotiate by bike. The creek runs through a grassy meadow enveloped by imposing ponderosas, and numerous large rocks demarcate several murky springs. These are the most secluded so far, but their disuse gives rise to algae-filled pools that David, Michael and friend Tony Gallo try valiantly to clear. I take a quick dip before David and I decide to return to camp. 

     We’re greeted with hors d’oeuvres of crab dip and crackers, and the scents of Thai food that George and fellow guide, Deirdre “Dee” O’Connell, are preparing. Each meal on this trip has been a gastronomic event: warm breakfasts like eggs and potatoes, french toast and pancakes; sandwiches for lunch; and elaborate dinners that include appetizers and dishes such as fajitas, salmon with pasta, and tonight’s concoction, a spicy curry-like blend of ginger, spices, coconut milk, cilantro, vegetables and chicken, which is served over rice. And of course there are the desserts: chocolate fondue, pound cake and s’mores. 

     Both guides say they love their jobs, even the cooking, citing Idaho among their favorite destinations. 

     “Western Spirit brought me up here, but now I love it,” says Dee, who’s guided 13 years for the company and lives in Ketchum. “There’s so much to explore; there’s so much to see. If you like to ride your bike, it’s endless.”

     “If you don’t like to ride your bike, it’s endless,” George adds.

     In addition to its wealth of hot springs, Idaho possesses the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states: Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness, which occupies 2.4 million acres of central Idaho. The state claims over 3,100 miles of whitewater rivers, more than any other in the contiguous U.S., and it’s home to the nation’s first destination ski resort, Sun Valley (about 1 mile west of Ketchum), which opened December 1936. 

     Although both guides have biked hundreds of miles throughout Idaho’s vast wilderness, even they would get a chance on day four to embark on new territory, what the group labeled the Magical Mystery Day.

     The trip’s original itinerary would have taken us to mining ghost town Atlanta, a demanding ride up James Creek summit toward the Middle Fork of the Boise River. But with the Hot Creek fire still burning, having started July 19 from a lightning strike, the road we need to travel is closed. (The fire was 100 percent contained the following day, Aug.8.) Dee acknowledges she wouldn’t ordinarily guide guests in unfamiliar terrain, but the fire leaves her no choice.

      We’ve returned to paved roads, following the South Fork downstream through Featherville, an Old West throwback that was once the center of a thriving gold-dredging operation. But our reprieve from sloped, dirt roads is short-lived as we begin the Trinity Creek loop, whose distance is estimated at 12 miles but is anyone’s guess without aid of a detailed topographical map.

     I soon have flashbacks of day two’s “stout” ride that, in hindsight, seems tame compared with today’s. My tires crunch rhythmically, the only sound to distract me from my fatigue. I roll up my shirt to expose my midriff and combat the searing heat, and many of us stop regularly to rest in the sparse patches of shade. George trails behind us in the support truck and watches as I fall just trying to mount after one of our stops. My left knee and elbow are scraped from slipping beneath the bike, but I’m fine.

     “You can always get in the cab,” he says, a standing offer for any Western Spirit guest who can’t complete a ride. And have to write about it later?  Not a chance.  

     We continue along the meandering road, climbing one moment and descending the next. By day’s end, the loop stands officially at 24 miles, twice what we’d anticipated. We travel another 7 miles southbound along the paved Pine/Featherville Road, arriving at Elks Flat Campground and ending our epic 40-mile ride.

     Just north from the campsite is Johnson’s Bridge, a quick jaunt that leads us to these hot springs nestled along the Boise River. It’s no contest, we all decide: Johnson’s Bridge hot springs are the best so far, offering a variety of clear pools on both the north and south riverbanks that provide varying temperatures and ample room. The springs’ only downfall is the crowds, evidence we’re near civilization.

     It’s a bittersweet reminder that tomorrow we’ll ride back to reality: 7 miles to the Pine airstrip and an airplane flight to Hailey airport, where we’ll meet the support truck and our bikes. In no time we’ll have completed the 13 miles back to our starting point in Ketchum.

     Until then I can wax poetic on our sense of accomplishment and these gracious people with whom Michael and I have shared it. Once we return home, I’ll have little to remind myself of this trip except tender saddle sores, goofy tan lines from my riding shorts and the satisfaction of conquering 143 miles with only modest training. The closest I’ll get back home to these hot springs is in a bathtub, but I do own a mountain bike. Guess it’s time I find new impediments and ride. 

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