“Sun Valley’s brand is high-speed riding on endless, well-maintained trails,” commented Adrian Montgomery, the Executive Director of the Wood River Bicycle Coalition, as we rode up the chairlift at Bald Mountain. And over the course of my three days and 80+ miles of riding in Sun Valley, I found that statement to ring oh-so-true true. The singletrack spiders out into the mountains in every direction, and overall the trails are nontechnical, flowy, and fast.
“Enduro” is the big thing these days, with enduro bikes, enduro races, enduro trails… enduro everything. Every bike shop and destination in the nation, if not the world, seems to have come down with the enduro bug, which found my local guides and I all running 6″-travel full suspension enduro rigs. Personally, I was on an Ibis Mojo HD3, rented form the Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum. And while I appreciated the ample suspension for the 15-foot tabletops at the resort, as we rode those fast, flowy trails Adrian was talking about all around the Sun Valley area, I found myself thinking, “man, I wish I had my hardtail 29er right now!
Really, a 6-inch-travel enduro bike was massive overkill for 95% of the terrain that we rode, and on that other 5%, a hardtail might not have been ideal, but I would have made it. If you’re dead-set on an FS rig, a short travel trail bike would be absolutely perfect for this area!
Quite honestly, I think that these days, a destination offering hundreds upon hundreds of miles of true XC trail is pretty rare to find. It seems that most places where I show up to ride, there may be some mileage to hammer on your hardtail, but the main course of the meal is gnarly, technical riding. Not so in Sun Valley–this is a true XC mecca, but one that can be appreciated by most any mountain biker.
Exactly how much mileage is there? That can be difficult to discern, but Sun Valley claims some 700+ miles of singletrack within a roughly 50-mile radius. And honestly, they could probably claim much more than a 50-mile radius–there’s not much else of note beyond the Ketchum/Hailey/Belleview area. There’s tons of culture in the valley but once you head beyond the city limits, you realize how truly in the middle of nowhere you actually are.
So if you show up in town ready to hammer some miles, what trails should you ride? While Greenhorn Gulch to Imperial Gulch is a great warm up, Osberg’s Ridgeline Trail should be your main destination for a full-day singletrack buffet.
Riding the Ahhs-Berg Epic
“24 miles, 3,000ft elevation gain, roughly 4hrs ride time with 1hr shuttle time,” read my itinerary for the day.
“That sounds tough, but doable,” I thought, “even despite my mediocre fitness level and the full day of riding that we logged yesterday.”
Still, I had been warned to “bring all the water and food I could carry,” so I decided to fill my bottle and two liters of my three-liter pack, figuring that should be enough to suffice. Six or so Clif and granola bars should make for plenty of food too. Yet as I showed up at Sturtevants bike shop in downtown Sun Valley for our shuttle ride out to the trailhead, one of my guides, Ray Gadd, handed me an absolutely massive sandwich the size of my head.
“Alright,” I thought, “we’re going to be fully prepared for this one!”
As I rolled up to the parking lot, I had spotted the “Mountain Fairy.” A clapped-out 16-passenger Ford van painted in bright pink, equipped with a roof rack, and the words “Daily Bike Shuttle” printed prominently on the nose, I found the play on words quite apt, and thanked the Fairy for spiriting me up the mountain side and saving me many miles of riding and vert in my legs.
But I soon found out what an “Idaho shuttle ride” is like. While we did get an hour-long ride to the beginning of our point-to-point route, those 3,000 feet of vert we would have to pedal up were only going to net us 5,500 feet of descending–unfortunately, the Fairy was only earning us 2,500 feet of free descent. We still had a lot of work ahead of us!
Out of the gate we climbed stiffly, yet keeping with the XC nature of the trails in this area, it was all pedal-able–if only you have the legs and the lungs for it. I ended up doing a little hike-a-bike just for the fun of it, yet found myself wishing for the granny gear on my 2×10 drivetrain in exchange for the 32-42 low gear on the XT 1×11.
After our first uphill stint, we reached an excellent bench-cut trail traversing the side of the ridge, with gorgeous views of the Boulder mountains in the background. “They should really rename this trail the ‘Ahhs-Berg Ridgeline,’ because the views make your jaw drop!” my guide Ray Gadd, from Visit Sun Valley, quipped.
Once on the ridge, I learned that we would be following it for an epic 15 miles of up-and-down, high up in a vast array of mountain ranges untouched by man. And while they were largely untrammeled by man, mother nature, on the other hand, had wrecked havoc on the forested mountains, and turned them black and charred with seemingly-endless waves of forest fires.
All of our major rides over the course of the week took place in a burn zone, yet each one was a different fire, from a different year. But as a result of multiple years of forest fires, seemingly the entire Sun Valley area has been burnt to the ground, and finding a patch of untarnished pines or aspens is a rarity in a now-harsh landscape, with no barrier between us and the punishing sun.
While we rode through a graveyard of dead pines, a particular species that had stood on the top of this mountain ridge for over 400 years before being wiped out by fire, I realized that no matter how bleak the death or destruction looks, new life perseveres. While the pines had died, an entire sea of wildflowers had taken root and grown in their stead, and aspen seedlings were beginning to find purchase on some slopes. While we may look at the death and destruction all around us and feel hopeless, new life and beauty always find a way!
As we finally crested the top of the ridge, I was snapped out of one contemplative reverie, and then quickly delved into another. We had broken out onto a point with an incredible view of mountains all around us–an endless array of range upon range upon range of ridges! We were riding in the Smokies, and while the Pioneers, the Sawtooths, the Boulders, and the White Clouds all stood higher than us, they were off in the distance, and it felt like we were sitting on top of the world. As we stopped to eat at that point, and I dug that head-sized-sandwhich out of my back pack, I couldn’t help thinking, “wow, we are winning at life right now! Eating a delicious sandwhich on top of the world–the only thing that’s missing is a beer!” I had considered packing one that morning, then rejected the idea. I was filled with a sense of regret, but then quickly forgot about it as I soaked in the majesty around us.
Our lunch location was the high point of our route, and while we prepared to descend, there would still be some serious climbing ahead of us. But notably, in the first descent from our lunch spot, we encountered the only real rock garden that I rode the entire trip. Finally, I was able to put the HD3 to use. I channeled some #EnduroMagic (courtesy of Idaho’s special fry sauce), and rallied that thing for all it was worth!
We carried on with a good mix of up and down, until we reached the Oregon Gulch trail. The classic Osberg’s route follows the Adam’s Rib trail into town, but reportedly there were a few steep hike-a-bikes in there, so we opted for a different route that promised less overall climbing. And I was glad we did, because Oregon Gulch was unlike any trail we’d ridden all week. Suddenly, gone were the perfect, mellow grades and the switchbacked corners; this was old school, fall line, high speed singletrack! Again, the HD3 was coming in handy, but despite the steep grade, this section of trail was still relatively smooth. But after cruising bench-cut, ridge-side singletrack, it felt great to lose a whole lot of elevation really dang quickly.
We emptied out into a rolling drainage, and then hit a trailhead beside the highway. At this point, we had already pedaled about 27 miles and climbed who knew how many feet–apparently our 24-mile estimate was going to be way off. One member of our party split and headed back on the highway, but Ray and I decided to try to finish off the singletrack into town. “It’s mostly up and down,” Ray assured me, “like that last stretch we just did.”
And then right out of the parking lot, we climbed again.
And climbed and climbed and climbed–or at least, that’s what it felt like. According to Strava it was only about 400 feet, but after having already pedaled the longest ride since my ACL surgery, it felt like a very long time. But thankfully, we gained that elevation on perfectly-graded XC trails, and we were–shockingly–under the cover of a tall stand of unburnt pines.
It just goes to show how many trails are spread throughout the mountains surrounding Sun Valley. Despite having lived here for over five years, Ray still had yet to ride this section of singletrack–there are just so many connectors and options, it’s a lifetime job to truly explore everything that can be ridden here.
Eventually, we reached the up-and-down trail Ray had spoken of, and followed the river back to town. We capped our successful ride off with 32oz schooners of delicious, ice-cold beer at Grumpy’s–no better way to end an epic, all-day ride!
At the end of the ride my GPS showed 33.3 miles ridden, 5 hours and 10 minutes of moving time, and 3,500 feet of elevation gained, despite our lift from the Mountain Fairy.
Idaho shuttle ride, indeed.
Thanks to Visit Sun Valley for making this trip a reality!