Anonymous Hill Junkie reader suggested I check out the Fisher Creek loop north of Ketchum, since most of the Ketchum area trails are closed due to the Beaver Creek Fire. When I researched this a bit, I found there are many epic loops in the White Clouds mountains area. A good portion of this Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been tagged as a wilderness study area several years ago. Attempts to gain wilderness designation have failed thus far. Some trails are open to motorized use, and this group has a powerful lobby. I suspect hunting is another popular use. I figured I might as well ride it while I can and bite off a big enough chunk to almost kill me.
The route I selected begins with four miles of pavement to pick up Fourth of July Rd, a 10+ mile climb on a loose gravel jeep road. At the terminus, singletrack is taken up to Fourth of July Lake. At the lake, another trail is taken that goes over a 10,000ft pass to Ants Basin. Reports suggested there'd be some hike-a-bike on this section. Then Warm Springs Trail begins a long descent to Williams Creek Trail, which climbs a bit before dropping down to car.
Reports were Williams was a hoot, all-out speedfest on buff trail. I had no intel on Warm Springs, but expected the same. Both trails lose a lot of vertical. I learned I need to be more careful making these assumptions, as assumptions are the basis of all good boondoggles.
I knew it got cold overnight. There was frost on the cars in town. I expected conditions to be dry but cold at higher elevations. Another big mistake. Heading over 8700ft Galena Pass on Hwy 75, I encountered snow. The temp was only 34F at 9:30am. It was still snowing! This caused me great turmoil. Do I turn around and do the ski area loop from town? There was no snow on that peak best I could tell. I had to ride over a 10,000ft pass in the White Clouds. How much snow would be on it? This would probably be my toughest ride of the trip. I didn't want it to kill me though. The loop would be hard enough without snow.
I kept driving, thinking if I ran into snow, I could at least do the shorter and lower Fisher Creek loop. I kitted up with full winter riding attire. I had no protection for my feet, however. And for hands, I had to borrow some light duty knit gloves from my mom.
Heading up 4th of July Rd, all seemed good. I assumed all those white-capped ridges ahead of me were much higher than 10,000ft. I kept doing it... assuming. One truck passed me on the 10+ mile gravel grind, a couple hikers I would see shortly again on the trail. About the time I reached the end of the road, I started seeing snow on the trees. SOB! This was just over 8000ft.
I headed off into the singletrack only to find it snow covered and slushy. It was extremely steep and rocky in places, making it almost impossible to keep forward momentum. I bet the hikers just ahead of me heard my frustration. I reduced tire pressure to ridiculously low. I thought this was insanity, pushing on, when I had so much higher to climb on no-doubt more challenging terrain. I caught the hikers with their friendly dogs and talked a bit. They thought going over the pass was highly suspect. So did I turn around? Nooooo.
After bearing left at 4th of July Lake, the trail kicked up at an angle that made my neck hurt to look at it. Beach ball sized rocks too, covered in snow. This totally sucked. This must be that hike-a-bike section I read about. Except now it was twice as hard trying to maintain traction. The sticky snow would pack up under my shoes until I had about five pounds under each foot.
Further up, the trail became mostly rideable, probably all rideable had there not been snow and I had fresher legs. But the altitude and fatigue from recent days was kicking my ass. I thought the snow would have gotten much deeper as I climbed, but it stayed a fairly consistent two inches. I was quite relieved to reach the pass, with the questionable skies still holding.
The view from there was worth it. That is why I wanted to do this loop. It is also why groups want to protect this area with wilderness designation. How I was getting down from there into Ants Basin freaked me out. Nothing but snow covered scree.
I walked the first few switchbacks to get a feel for stability of the loose rock and traction I could get with snow on it. What would happen is the sticky snow would clump up under my rear tire and I'd started skidding. Freaked me out on such a steep side slope.
Reaching the bottom of Ants Basin, the trail was sometimes hard to follow with the snow. Cairns were placed to help in some spots. Heading into the Born Lakes area, route following became very difficult and treacherous. There was more climbing and hike-a-bike than I would have liked. Very chunky terrain.
I finally found the Warm Springs Trail. I got ready to bomb down for the next 9-10 miles. You know those trails you like, where everything is buffed out, smooth, bermed, where you just flow without pedaling? Well, Warm Springs is not like that. It is the antithesis of that. The trail crossed many rock slides, streams and erosion channels. It was constant work and required total focus, lest you go over the bars. This ride was clearly going deep into death march territory.
It took me an eternity to reach the Williams Creek connector. There were some deep stream crossings there. No way to keep feet dry. Snow melt streams are cold, and the air was cold. I was so glad I was able to keep my feet mostly dry to this point.
Heading up Williams, I bonked. Super hard. Guess I brought four hours of food along for a five hour ride. I could barely turn my lowest gear on 3% grade. How long does an easy 3mi climb take going 3mph? Yeah, it totally sucked. I wanted a mountain lion to put me out of my misery. At least the trail here was super buff, except I was going the wrong way, UP!
All climbs come to an end. The narrow buff trail continued down the other side. This trail is used by trail bikes too. The soil holds up well to the abuse. There was minimal rutting. After 4.5hrs of miserable hard work, I finally got some flowy descending that Sun Valley is famous for. Of course, it ended all too soon. There was a pesky climb right at the bottom that made me want to chuck my bike over the edge and walk back. Legs just refused to turn over the pedals any longer.
I got back to the car with 39mi, 5000ft in almost 5hrs moving time on the Garmin. That's a pretty slow average, but I'm was surprised it wasn't even slower with all the hike-a-bike in there. Would I do this exact ride again? Donno. On warmer, dry day, with one or more others? Maybe. Very glad to do it though. I had a nearly four hour block in there where I neither saw nor heard another human being. How cool is that? Definitely a wilderness feel to this one. In hind sight, I probably should've waited a day to do this one, as the snow would have been gone.
Part way up 4th of July Rd, looking down (west).
Further up 4th of July Rd, looking up (east). Much of this area burned in 2005 I believe.
Just off the jeep road. Not what I wanted to ride on my visit to Sun Valley.
10,000ft pass between 4th of July basin and Ants Basin. Took over 2hrs to get up here.
Ants Basin from the pass. Warm Springs Trail drops in the tree line on far side.
Singletrack in Ants Basin. Hard to follow at times. Great scenery in 360 degrees.
The trail crosses this scree field. Can you find it? It sucked.
The bigger of the Born Lakes. Pretty, eh?
Warm Springs Trail, half way down. A rare, buff section.
Bottom of Warm Springs Trail in the meadow. This wasn't bad riding.
Heading up Williams Creek Trail. It was all buff like this. Too bad my legs went AWOL.
Almost back to car along Hwy 75. Snow was melting quickly on the peaks.