Photos and words by Andy Cochrane
The line between an adventurous idea and a stupid one is fine—and often fluid. That’s what I thought as we started up our second sun-baked four-thousand-foot climb biking in the southern Sawtooths, hoping we would both stay in the shade and not flirt with 15-degree grades like the previous one. With some luck we’d be at the top in an hour, sweaty and hungry, and ready for a fun descent. That was far from guaranteed, despite my wishful thinking.
The southern Sawtooth range, despite being relatively close to Idaho’s largest metro area, Boise, isn’t on most outdoor people’s radar. Part of that comes down to access—the roads in this area are limited, rough and steep. Few developed hiking trails exist and the ones that do are overgrown and sparsely used. The only towns are ghost towns and the majority of visitors are dirt bikers and ATV riders. It’s a far cry from the Sawtooths near Sun Valley, just 50 miles away as the crow flies.
All those reasons—empty spaces, solitude, the complete lack of an established playbook—are what first drew me to this corner of the range. Knowing little about the topography, geology or ecology, I started researching online but came up mostly empty. Outside of a few trip reports and a handful of photos, I couldn’t find a great holistic resource for the area. That only added to the intrigue.
Finally, I rounded up a crew of experienced bikers and willing adventurers and we headed into the unknown.
Our goal for the three-day bikepacking trip was pretty basic. We hoped to see something new, turn our phones off and live in the present. We wanted a break from the chaos of daily life, emails and rapid Slack chats, which we got in spades. Looking back, I’d say we got more than we bargained for.
While the glossy photos of epic mountain dirt roads and cliché taglines you see on social media make bikepacking look aesthetic and simple, most of the time it’s a dusty, dirty, uphill grind. It’s a lot of granny gear and silent curse words, sore legs and sunburnt necks, and wondering when the next snack break will be. Of all my outdoor pursuits, it’s probably the most grueling.
Yet this type of trip also appeals to many mountain town people. The type of person who enjoys hard work and chasing big goals, doesn’t mind some pain in the process, and is OK getting lost a few times. My compatriots—Robin, Ren, Makenna and Nate—all fit that bill. As we traveled, we all savored the river showers and sleeping in the dirt. Early mornings and strong coffee. And mostly, poking fun at how these mountains wouldn’t stop kicking our asses.
In the spirit of leaving you the pleasure of finding a place to explore on your own, I’m not going to dwell on the exact roads we traveled or mileage we covered. What I’ll say is that the southern Sawtooths are decidedly under appreciated and still very much wild. If you’re hungry to get off the beaten path, put this area on your list. We pedaled for hours without seeing other people, never struggled to find a dispersed camping site and were routinely shocked by the beauty of the place.
Ultimately the route bested us. On our last big climb, with a thousand feet of vert still in front of us, we hit a wall of snow and decided that walking our bikes uphill through multiple miles of snow wasn’t worth it. So we re-routed the back half of our loop and found a new way back to the cars.
These types of moments when things go sideways are hard, but important. They remind you that you’re not really in control of anything but your emotions and attitude. When plans go awry, I often feel a closer connection to nature. Like a lot of life, the biggest lesson is learning how to play the hand you’re dealt.