Paul Andrews

Ride Classics: Sun Valley’s Oregon Gulch

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Multi-Day Trips on December 13, 2009 at 3:00 am

Over the holidays the incredible news machine that is Bike Intelligencer inevitably slackens as cyclists of all bent don funny little pointed sticks or funny flat rounded sticks and head for trails covered by snow.

We of course ride in snow. But we of course are nuts.

In any case, the holidays seem like a good time to revivify our ride “classics” — that is, stories from our archives enabling readers to dream the big dreams about next spring, summer and fall. At the end of the day, all we have are our stories. If they involve bikes, it’s all for the better.

We’ll start with one of the most memorable mountain bike adventures we’ve ever had, our 5-day stint in the Sun Valley-Stanley region of Idaho the summer of 2003. Because there isn’t much for the big-hit crowd in Sun Valley, it typically gets overlooked in a compendium of great MTB venues. Yet for everything BUT big hit, it’s the best place to ride phat. I took along the camcorder and helmet cam, and YouTube links are provided, but please forgive the lousy resolution. This is ancient equipment by today’s standards — the helmet cam alone took 8 AA batteries and didn’t even give TV resolution. Still, our humble package gives you an idea of the gut-sucking sweep of Idaho’s XC joys.

    Idah “O” I: Back in the Saddle

In which an intrepid cycling duo is born, as our irrepressible mountain mobilists escape the petrol-stingy confines of Oregon and begin a new adventure in the Sun Valley high country.

I got back from Eastern Washington a day early and was itching to hit the road with Jim Lyon and his Ellsworth Truth (with its priceless ultra violet — no longer available — King headset). I called: Would he like to leave on Monday instead of Tuesday? Would a lion like to leave a zoo? showed up at his Ballard place, we threw in his gear and were good to go.

Despite trying to hook up with him annually at Winthrop and elsewhere, I’d only ridden once before with Jim — on Green Mountain north of Tahuya. That was years ago, and Jim had gotten faster while I’d gotten slower. But by providing transportation I knew that no matter how far down the trail Jim finished ahead, he was gonna have to wait for me to show if he expected a ride home. I’m teasing, really. Jim is as gentlemanly an mtber as they come and kept his pace deliberately moderate on my behalf.

We do match up well philosophically, which is simply to say that for us, It’s all about the ride. Eating is kept to a minimum, non-daylight is for sleeping. No drinking, no checking out the local action, no getting up late and dallying over morning meals and coffee. The agenda is intentionally reductionist. As Jim put it: Eat, sleep, ride. If it sounds boring, you haven’t caught the disease.

I decided that driving straight through wasn’t too appealing for the simple reason that we’d be too fried to ride late in the day, no matter how early we got started. So I proposed a mid-afternoon departure, overnight stay somewhere in Oregon, and arrival early afternoon the following day in Sun Valley so we could get in some miles before the sun set. Jim said Baker City was a good overnight spot and, while we renewed acquaintance and talked bikes, the drive went quickly.

Baker City does have a lot of charm left, including a restored downtown district anchored by a huge old hotel with a chandeliered circular balcony and stained-glass skylight. We got in a bit late to take in any sights but found an RV park (not the one by the freeway but in town — Mtn. View RV) where Moby Dick would feel comfortable and Jim could pitch his tent. The next morning, after breakfast at Sumpter Junction, a truck stop with a tireless electric train that circled endlessly to the point of annoyance, we gassed up and headed for Idaho.

Or I should say we tried to gas up. In Oregon, only professionals can put gas in your tank. The serviceman had managed to inject about 5 gallons when he stopped and pulled out the nozzle. Hey, I said, it’ll take at least double that. No sir, he said, I’m getting runover here. I turned on the fuel gauge and showed him it read only a little above half full. Well sir, I’m getting runover, he said.

I was getting confused. Wasn’t he there to sell gas for Chevron?

“I guess I can’t force you to put gas in my tank,” I said proddingly. He didn’t get it, repeating once again that he was getting spillage. There are air-pressure sensors in gas hose lines that have to be bled periodically or they give false positives. I tried to explain that to my obdurant fuel aide, but nothing was working. Half a tank was all I could get and thank God it was enough to put us in Idaho, where humble amateurs like myself are allowed to take pump in hand.

We shot down 84 past Boise, where we filled up the tank, and then took 20 east and 75 north past Hailey into Ketchum. Jim suggested finding a campsite so he could reserve it with his tent, and we went out Trail Creek where the gang had stayed the previous year. Right off the dirt road was a campsite with shade, a babbling brook and all the zeitgeist you’d want in an outdoors venue. By 2 p.m. we were ready for our inaugural ride.

Jim had maps and more recent experience in Sun Valley than I, so I was letting him be guidemeister. We drove northwest of town to the Oregon Gulch trailhead and did a nice little warmup loop. It was classic singletrack through golden meadows and hilly woods, with a little more climbing than I would’ve guessed from the lay of the land. We ran into trail runners and a couple of other cyclists, but in general the place was pretty deserted.

At one point on the return back via Chocolate Gulch (a name whose origin I meant to check but forgot) we turned up a saddle trail. I really really hate saddle trails because they raise such false expectations. The term implies shooting a gap between two peaks, cheating a bit if you will. But if you’ve ridden up to Maverick Saddle or Driveway Butte, you know how deceptive the whole concept really is. Chocolate Saddle or whatever it was called was no exception. We traversed the ridge, back and forth endlessly, and eventually scooted over at a point that to my untrained eye seemed as high as anything else around. After listening to me vent for a few minutes (well, the whole ride up actually), Jim helpfully began referring to it as the “S” word.

Oregon Gulch was a pleasant enough romp, but to tell the truth I was a little disappointed. After the abusive day-long masochism of Preston’s hike-a-rides and southern Oregon river trail epics, this was pretty tame stuff. If Oregon Gulch was typical of what Sun Valley had to offer, it was going to be a slow week.

As it turned out, the “Oregon” part may be Sun Valley’s private joke on its gas-thrifty, butt-stubborn neighbors to the west. We’d barely skimmed the surface. Oregon Gulch was just the tentative toe in the water before the high dive.

Oregon Gulch elevation gain: 2,550 feet. Elapsed time, including caviling over the term “saddle”: 2:37.

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