Paul Andrews

Ride Classics: Stanley Idaho’s Boundary Creek

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Mountain Biking, Multi-Day Trips on December 16, 2009 at 2:45 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 fat flat 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 run Bike Intelligencer “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, they have to be good.

We’ll start with hands down the most memorable mountain bike adventure 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 rides. 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.

Sex, MTB and Rock ‘n Roll

Continuing our Idaho adventure, we head toward Stanley and ride the best XC downhill this side of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Oh! Oh! Oh! Idaho!

I’m not one of those people who subscribes to XYZ being better than sex. You know, chocolate is better than sex. Paragliding is better than sex. Yoga is better than sex. Say all you like, analogize from here till Tuesday. Nothing, really, is better than sex.

But when it comes to the Boundary Creek loop above Stanley, Idaho, the line gets very very thin.

On their Idaho tour a couple of weeks earlier, Anthony and Mire had ridden a route up Boundary Creek and down Martin and Williams Creek trails just south of Stanley. Mire’s mention of a 12k top-out perked up my ears. I’ve only been at 12k once on a mountain bike, above Telluride. The prospect of getting that far up had me asking what, where and how?

Anthony tipped us to talk to the folks at Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum about the ride, and we got the low-down. It didn’t look too complicated, but it’s not a ride talked about or written up much. There’s a blurb in the appendix to “Good Dirt,” a book of mtb rides around Sun Valley (John Zilly apparently doesn’t sell his guides there any more), but otherwise nothing to indicate the magnificence and splendor of this glorious quest.

We got up early, broke camp and headed out for Stanley, a tiny backwater 60 miles up Hwy 75 from Sun Valley. We got close to the Fish Hatchery, where the EP guy had told us to turn off, but saw no signs indicating the Williams Creek trailhead. Jim wisely flagged down a pickup who gave us the word. There was a sign, yes, but only one, and it was on the north side of the entrance. The Idaho one-sign rule was still in force, but to even things out I guess they’d put this one to the north rather than the south.

I had voted, as I always do, for the van to be at the terminus rather than exodus of the ride. Since we had no shuttle, and I wouldn’t have shuttled anyway, and since I’m a former roadie and Jim rides road all the time commuting to Lynnwood High, well, you guessed right. We big-ringed it 5 miles up the highway to the Boundary Creek trailhead. On the way Jim’s chain was skipping annoyingly, but on the telltale every third turn of the crank. That said sticky link, and with my Park tool I soon had it unstuck. I carry a full chain tool because the multis and cheapo tools tend to break the first time you use them, and you don’t want that to happen at 12k in the middle of nowhere.

Boundary Creek has a nice map-board at the trailhead, and from what we could tell the instructions du jour were, “Bear right.” We started climbing some pleasant singletrack that kept getting steeper and looser as we ascended. At one point we passed a couple of hikers and chatted. The guy told us he was a Colorado forest ranger who’d just retired after working his final year 1 day on, four days off. The reason: He’d wanted to retire but had 28 days of vacation and 57 days of sick leave, which they said he had to use before retirement could become official. So he stuck around working 8 hours a week for a year, but getting paid full-time. Now there’s a shift we all could use.

Up higher we ran into a couple young guys on a group hike, looking for their sidekick Pat. We told them we’d seen no sign of anyone and wondered how they’d gotten fragmented. At one point the trail breaks out on a scenic overview and you’re staring, drop-jawed, at the Sawtooth Mountains, looking so close you could almost cut your finger on them. The Sawtooth’s jagged relief makes it one of the most dramatic mountain ranges you’ll ever see. I’ve seen other Sawtooths around, including the North Cascades version, but this is the real deal. Jim kept saying, “Them there’s purty mountains.” With the constantly changing play of shadow on stone, they look different every time you view them.

Boundary Creek is one of those trails that gets tougher as it gets higher. At one point it intersected with the Casino Creek Trail and we ran into another contingent of the Lost Boys expedition. Not sure how experienced these folks were, and it seemed to be a Boy Scout kinda hike. They’d been up there for five days, camping out and doing the grand tour. But for them to get scattered all over the mountain seemed like sure folly. We told them we’d already run into the group down trail and wished them luck. “You’ve still got another 1,000 feet or so up,” one of them warned.

It was a lot of pushing. Even if it weren’t loose and stair-step rocky, the trail was too steep to ride in many places. Along the way we ran into a third group, the tail-draggers, and went through the Hike Update once again. “I don’t envy you guys riding that trail up ahead,” one of them warned us. “It’s a killer.”

Finally we topped out at 9,540 feet with a spectacular view of Casino Lakes, White Cloud Mountain and environs. We were nowhere near 12k, but one can understand Mire’s euphoria. You definitely feel up there. And let’s face it, the highest you can get (legally) in Washington State is 8k at Angel’s Staircase. At that elevation, 1,500 feet can make a big difference.

What I’m about to say about the rest of the ride is considered opinion. I don’t like to declare “the best this” and “the greatest that” because there are usually far too many variables in the equation to issue superlatives, and a lot of it comes down to personal taste anyway. The Boundary/Williams ride down ranks with my favorites anywhere. It’s very reminiscent of the Tahoe Rim Trail, with a lot of bouldery drops and rock gardens, twisty, fast singletrack, sandy subalpine trail conditions in great shape, all sloped downward enough so you don’t have to pedal much but not so steep that you lose your elevation too quickly. I was really riding in an altered state. The downhill goes on and on and on and just gets better and better and better.

At one point we stopped at an unnamed alpine lake and I quickly jumped in for a swim. The water was right at 72 degrees, almost swimming pool temperature (I like swim water on the cool side), the sun was shining, the lake was window-clear to its bottom. All was right with the world. Jim tried to snap my picture but timing on a digital camera is always dicey. He caught the splash at least.

At one point there’s a false spur veering off on a radical right into the bush (hey, sounds like I’m making a political statement here). Jim kept checking the topo map to make sure we were on track, but for once I wasn’t worried. I could stay lost on this ride for days and be happy as a toad in slime. We hopped onto Martin Creek Trail, which emptied out eventually in a big green meadow. Crossing that we came to Pigtail Creek and took some doubletrack to a ramshackle cabin ruins, the intersection with Williams Creek, which comprises the downhill bomb run of the hugely popular Fisher Creek ride.

More buff singletrack, more speed, more adrenalin. The Billy Idol song, “Rebel Yell,” started winding through my head (“She cried, More! More! More!”) You can’t rock ‘n roll any better than this. At the end you exit onto a dry marsh, then climb a little bluff, and you’re back to flying down the trail once again. I wish I could describe more exactly the experience but consider this: As I type these words, I’m smiling and laughing and feeling amped and warm all over. If you ever go anywhere in the vicinity of Sun Valley, this is the one ride you must do.

Back at the trailhead we whooped in delight and began chattering away in loud voices, recounting turn after berm after riser after slam. A group of girls in halter tops in the van next door kept looking over. Finally one asked, “Hey, didja have a good time or something?”

If she only knew.

Boundary Creek Loop elevation: 4,150. Time, including rhapsodizing uncontrollably: 6:38.

  1. There be no YouTube linkies.

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