It's all downhill from here

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am


Perched in your saddle and looking south across the whaleback mountains above Sun Valley, Idaho, towards the distant, arid Snake River Plain, you can easily imagine yourself as a cowboy riding the range - except the saddle is attached to a mountain bike, and you're about to hit some of the driest, smoothest and finest single track in North America.

Sun Valley has been a worthy destination ever since Union Pacific Railroad chairman W. Averell Harriman got together with Austrian ski champion Count Felix Schaffgotsch in the 1930s to develop an upmarket ski resort in what was, at the time, prime Idaho sheep ranching territory.

The sheep and the shepherds moved out, and Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe and, later, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks moved in. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his novels in the Sun Valley Lodge, where film stars and the rich and famous kicked back on their days away from the slopes. Things remained this way, with visitors skiing in winter and enjoying a bit of hiking, hunting and fishing in summer, until the mountain bike muscled in on the scene at the end of the 20th century.

The trails around Sun Valley are ideal for single track riding. Sinuous, talc-dry lines weave their way through aspen groves, up and down hills and dales and, best of all, down 2,789-metre Bald Mountain. The latter is the focal point for the winter ski action, but fortunately, for the vertically inclined among bike riders (which appears to be the majority), is still open for action in the summer. This allows you to sling yourself and your bike onto a ski lift and glide serenely upwards as Sun Valley and its associated town of Ketchum disappear into the distance and the incredible landscape of southern Idaho opens up.

However desperate you are to hit the trails, it's impossible not to stand and stare as you hop off the lift at what is a signature Rocky Mountain panorama.

To the north and west, the rugged peaks of Sawtooth Mountain live up to their name, jagged spines and ridges still dotted with snow patches into summer, the lower slopes plummeting to deep green forests.

Swing your gaze south and you'll see the Snake River Plain, an immense, flat valley where little more than 100 years ago the dust of wagon trains would have been seen hanging in the summer air as pioneers forged their way west in search of a new life in California or Oregon.

And less than 80 kilometres to the southeast is the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a bizarre 21,500-hectare matt black lava field of cinder cones, spatter cones, lava bombs and lava tubes which is a must-see if you have a free day from the biking action.

But enough of the views. In early and late summer in particular, this area has what is surely the perfect climate for mountain biking; it's not called Sun Valley for nothing.

When you combine the almost guaranteed daily fair weather with the clear atmosphere of the high mountains and the evocative aroma of mountain pines, every ride becomes a sensory as well as a physical experience.

The sun warms your skin as you ride along while the dry air whistling through your wheels takes the edge off the heat; the trails throw up clouds of dust that coat you and your bike in a microscopic layer of the Rocky Mountains; and trails designed to swoop, flow and thrill mean you won't want to slow down for anything once you get going.

Warm up on the equally appropriately named Warm Springs Trail, 13 kilometres of mountain bike heaven wending its way along, around, up and down Bald Mountain's wildflower-strewn meadows and gladed forests, then cool down on the Cold Springs Trail as you drop down nearly 800 metres of silk-smooth single track upon which it's hard to imagine any mountain biker worthy of the name could ever grow tired.

However, you don't need to take a lift to all your riding destinations. If you feel the urge to tackle some tougher trails, there are more than 650 kilometres of additional single track around the Sun Valley area to add to the 45 kilometres just on Bald Mountain. It's rarely busy, and the landscapes are glorious.

If you're after a more mellow ride, try the easy 48-kilometre paved Wood River Trail, which meanders alongside the eponymous river from Sun Valley past the town of Hailey, the birthplace of poet Ezra Pound, and on to Bellevue. (You needn't do the entire length of it.)

You'll find interpretive boards along the way detailing the history of the region, so that by the time you've finished, you'll be both fitter and better informed.

You should also consider exploring further afield. The Sawtooth Mountains are a short drive north of Sun Valley, and here you really are in cowboy country. Part of Eastwood's classic 1985 western, Pale Rider, was shot in the area.

The only settlement of any size is Stanley, well worth a visit for its Wild West atmosphere (the main drag is called Ace of Diamonds Avenue) and, of course, the spectacular landscapes.

The town is surrounded by miles of empty single track and almost equally quiet dirt roads that wend their way through huge mountain meadows in the shadow of the Sawtooths, and it's possible to do fully supported overnight mountain bike trips through this epic backdrop, camping out beneath the invariably star-speckled skies and getting as near to 'riding the range' as anyone not on horseback ever will.

If you're here just for a day, the classic local ride from Stanley is the 21-kilometre Elk Mountain Loop, an invigorating circuit with stunning mountain views. But take plenty of water because the last time I was in Stanley, in the summer, I found the heat and lack of humidity soon had me spitting feathers. Even though the day had started with frost on my car windscreen, by mid-afternoon the temperature was above 30 degrees Celsius.

When the action in the saddle is over for the day, Ketchum is the place to head for. The town's excellent range of bars and restaurants is just what any hungry and thirsty mountain biker needs, with everything from the rider's favourite - pizza - at Smoky Mountain Pizza & Pasta on Sun Valley Road to steak and beer at the atmospheric old Pioneer Saloon on Main Street.

Get stuck in, because you'll need all the energy you can get for more of that scintillating single track the following day.

On your bike

When to go

The best time is from May to September, preferably either side of July and August, as temperatures can get too hot for biking in midsummer.

Where to stay

The classic choice is Sun Valley Lodge - a favourite of film stars and the rich and famous for almost 80 years. Amenities include a golf course, outdoor pool, health club, sauna, gym and spa and you can ride from the door. Rooms from US$225 per night.

Bike rental

If you don't want the hassle of taking your own bike, it's possible to rent high-end models from Sturtevant's on Main Street, Ketchum.

For more information on mountain biking in Sun Valley, go to

For information on mountain biking in and around Stanley, go to