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Our WWR ride begins in the golden sagebrush grassland of southeastern Idaho. A bit further north near Ketchum, an area I know better, Idaho feels mountainous. But just south of there in Hailey – our starting point for this ride – we are in the lowlands and I’m excited to experience a different part of the state.
We spend our first eight days crossing blatantly volcanic geology, extensive agricultural land, and the vast Snake River Plain. The terrain is relatively gentle but headwinds make up for it! There’s plenty of decent gravel and pavement, but the thunderstorms always seem to catch us on the mud-prone dirt roads.
There’s a lot of private land in this region, so we hop from town to town and indulge in RV parks and motels for many of our nights. Even where free camping is legal on BLM land, we’re not enticed by the exposed and windy spots. The towns are friendly though, and we enjoy the talkative folks we meet and the luxury of showers and restaurants.
This section turns out to be different from the rest of our ride. In hindsight it felt like a warmup, and I can’t say it’s my overall favorite (mostly due to those darn headwinds). But it has its own charm. The friendly small towns and extensive agriculture offer a glimpse into the region’s human side, while the endless gravel roads refuse to downplay its geological scale.
Read on for daily notes and pictures from the first part of our WWR section ride through southern Idaho!
This is part 1 of 3 in a series about my Western Wildlands section ride, a monthlong journey of 1200 miles ridden with a friend during fall 2022.
Route: Western Wildlands Route (segment 4)
Dates: September 15 – 22, 2022
Segment start: Hailey, ID
Segment end: Bear Lake at the Idaho – Utah border
Who: myself and friend Denise
Day 0, Boise to Hailey
Our adventure began when I picked up my riding partner at the Boise airport. Having spent a few days in Boise after the Smoke ‘n’ Fire bikepacking race, I was almost feeling recovered and ready to hit the road again.
We had decided to rent a one-way car (actually a minivan) and drive to Hailey. The flexibility of a rental car was worth it since we were splitting the cost, but the Sun Valley Express bus is another option. Apparently they do take unboxed bikes, but they want to know ahead of time.
After building Denise’s bike and driving the couple hours to Hailey, we spent the night at the Riverside RV park and prepared to ride the following morning!
Day 1, Hailey to Little Wood CG, 30 miles
After dropping off the rental minivan at the Hailey Airport, we finished loading up the bikes and set off on the first few miles of pavement. My bike felt heavy but I felt alive with the excitement of starting a long trip. Those early miles always feel so insignificant and yet momentous at the same time.
After Bellevue we turned onto dirt up Muldoon Canyon for the first climb of the trip. The area was grassy and open, the weather a bit windy and threatening rain. We met a few hunters as we followed the Little Wood River to the reservoir, where we turned slightly off route to the Little Wood Campground.
The camping season seemed to be over and we had the whole place to ourselves. With a long stretch of private land coming up, we decided to stop a little early and take it easy on our first day.
Day 2, Little Wood CG to Arco, 59 miles
Morning was clear and cool as we continued on gravel roads through farmland. After joining Highway 20 we pedaled a long stretch of pavement through Craters of the Moon National Monument. The vastness of the black lava field was impressive! We stopped at the visitor center to eat our lunch and see the nicely done exhibits showcasing the area’s geology, wildlife, and history.
Closer to Arco we fought a nasty headwind across a grid of monotonous farm roads. I was having saddle issues left over from Smoke ‘n Fire and this section was tedious to say the least! I was thrilled to finally reach the small town of Arco where we grabbed dinner, resupply food, and a beer before heading to the nice RV park. I had ridden through Arco before during Bike Nonstop US and wondered if it would seem familiar, but couldn’t find anything specific in my memories.
Day 3: Arco to Blackfoot, 73 miles
We dawdled at the RV park until the morning grew warmer, then pedaled out of Arco on gentle gravel farm roads leading to public BLM land.
We spent the afternoon crossing the vast Snake River Plain on gently undulating dirt roads. The sky had the feeling of an imminent storm, but somehow we stayed dry. We saw no vehicles on the most remote stretches and I found the riding enjoyable. We followed signs marking the historic Oregon trail and tried to imagine what those early travelers would have experienced.
We had carried enough water to camp on BLM land that night, but by 5pm we could see the town of Blackfoot in the distance. Preferring the comforts of town over the exposed and windy camping options, we decided to push for it and arrived just after sunset. The day ended up being 73 miles, not bad! We rewarded ourselves with Subway sandwiches and a room at the Super 8.
Day 4: Blackfoot to Trail Creek Bridge: 37 miles
Blackfoot is the biggest town on this section of the Western Wildlands, so we started the morning at Walmart to replace a failed power bank and pick up some extra bungee straps.
As we stair-stepped to the northeast on rural roads, a strong wind felt like a motor at every left turn and brakes at every right turn. Eventually we turned south along the Blackfoot River and worked our way along gravel roads. The scenery was pleasant and open, but the riding was sometimes tough thanks to a combination of deep gravel, short and steep climbs, and (as always in this area, it seemed) a headwind.
At Trail Creek Bridge we found a nice primitive camping area and set up our tents on the banks of the Blackfoot River. It was a pleasant warm night and we stayed up chatting well after dark, in contrast to the many upcoming nights when chilly temps would force us into our tents by sunset.
Day 5: Trail Creek Bridge to Soda Springs, 30 miles
The morning’s ride was hilly with some hike-a-bike as we continued following the Blackfoot River toward its reservoir. In the afternoon a horrendous headwind fought us every mile of the way into Soda Springs on flat roads that never seemed to end. The scale of the agriculture in this area was impressive! Golden fields filled the valley on both sides of the road, and the occasional massive vehicle chugged slowly back and forth.
In Soda Springs the RV park kindly made space for us on the lawn. The town seemed even friendlier than usual, with many people asking “Where’d you come from?” and “Where you headed?” People seemed impressed to hear we’d come from Hailey, even though we felt we had barely gotten started.
Day 6: Soda Springs to wild camp, 39 miles
We got a late start leaving Soda Springs after a visit to the grocery store for resupply. By now we had both found a few unused items in our bags, so we also stopped by the post office to lighten our loads. We fought a screaming headwind for few hours into Georgetown, where we ate lunch in the town park and filled up on water.
In the late afternoon the route went right through the Smoky Mountain open-pit phosphate mine. It wasn’t exactly peaceful or scenic, but it was interesting to see the massive mining trucks full of ore as we scurried across the occasional intersection with the haul road.
Just past the mine we found a hidden campsite in the trees near a small creek. We’d read that the water in this area is contaminated by the mine, but thankfully we still had plenty from our fill-up in Georgetown. Though our campsite was technically on National Forest land, the mine road was just up the hill and we heard vehicles coming and going at each shift change.
Day 7: wild camp to barn in Pegram, 43 miles
Rain was in the forecast this afternoon, so we we attempted an early start. The air felt chilly yet humid as we followed a pleasant dirt road through a mix of sagebrush and aspen stands. The climbing was gradual and the sky was clear and sunny. I really enjoyed this section, especially in contrast to all the headwinds and farmland of earlier days.
The idyllic riding didn’t last. Headwinds returned as we descended back to the flats and popped over the border into Wyoming for a few miles. The afternoon storm arrived as predicted. We found ourselves without good options on an exposed gravel road through private land, barbed wire on one side and train tracks on the other, as thunder rumbled and lightning flashed over nearby hills.
Our GPX data showed a water source just up ahead, a spigot behind a church. We figured a church would be in some sort of settlement where we could find shelter, so we pushed hard to reach it as the storm built around us. Turning the final corner we were almost blown off our bikes by gusts of wind and rain! After what felt like ages of pedaling as hard as we could, we finally took shelter in the entryway of a shiny new-looking Mormon church.
The church’s doorway was a big help, but the storm seemed widespread and we weren’t about to ride into the hills where lightning was flashing. There wasn’t much nearby except a few farms, but a sheriff’s truck was parked in front of the farmhouse next door. As we approached a man opened the door, took one look at our soggy state and immediately opened his garage and invited us in.
We chatted for a bit and he checked the weather forecast, which showed storms through the rest of the afternoon and night. He kindly offered us the shelter of his empty barn for a campsite. It was a wonderfully cozy setup, especially during the night as wind howled and rain drummed on the metal roof.
Day 8: Pegram to wild camp, 54 miles
We never saw the kind farmer (and possibly sheriff?) again, but really appreciated the cozy night in his barn. The weather was better in the morning but the dirt roads were still wet. We hiked most of the steep climb to the pass, stopping to scrape mud from our shoes and tires after the worst sections. The air smelled of wet sage and the dark clouds added drama to the wide-open views.
Thankfully the descent to Bear Lake was better maintained and we rode the gravel all the way down. A pocket of cold air in the drainage chilled us to the core, but soon we were too warm again while riding the paved road along the lake. Rain fell here and there but didn’t slow us down thanks to the pavement. The lake extended for many miles past strangely empty campgrounds and vacant vacation homes, already closed up for the season.
Bear Lake is twenty miles long, and somewhere near the middle we crossed the state line from Idaho into Utah. Woohoo, a new state!
After crossing the border we made a quick food stop at the gas station in Laketown and then tackled a highway climb to the start of dirt roads. Up in these windy hills we cruised along with a screaming tailwind – finally a tailwind! – pushing us eastward.
A bit of flat cruising through farmland led to the start of a gravel climb up a canyon, but we didn’t make it far. We spotted a perfect secluded side-canyon in an otherwise tricky area for camping. We decided to call it a night – our first night in Utah! For the next part of our ride, see WWR Part 2: Utah.
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