Thursday, February 17, 2011

Banner Ridge yurt near Idaho City is a great location for skiing, snowshoeing, xc skiing

L-R, Steve, Wendy, Marianne and Norm

IDPR has excellent signs and trail markers at every junction

Getting ready to go at the trailhead next to ID 21

Banner Ridge Yurt ... sleeps 6 comfortably
Hi all,

We had a fun, 3-day outing to the Banner Ridge Yurt last Sunday - Tuesday in the Idaho City Park n' Ski system.

Because we haven't received much new snow in SW Idaho in the last month, I suspected that the backcountry skiing conditions would be lousy. But it didn't matter because the Banner Ridge yurt is ideally located in a place where you can go on a snowshoe tour, a ski tour, snow sledding or cross-country skiing on the extensive Nordic trails in the Park n' Ski system.

Here's a video from our trip.

The day we skied into the yurt, I pulled a heavy sled full of all kinds of goodies, a 12-pack of beer, a 5-liter box of wine, tons of food, Wendy's sleeping bag, two pairs of skate ski gear and more ... it was REALLY heavy ... but I just took my time and made it OK.

After lunch, we checked out the snow on the north and northeast slopes, and it was pretty rotten -- wind-slab, crust, weird snow on top of crust ... basically, nothing to get us excited about backcountry skiing. Too bad because there is a TON of north-facing skiing terrain directly adjacent to the yurt. Something to remember when the conditions are great. North slopes usually have the lightest and best snow because they don't see much sun.

So the next day, Wendy and I decided to head out on the cross-country trails with our skate skis. The cross-country ski trails in the Idaho City Park n' Ski system have something to offer for everyone. You can access 22 miles or 35 kilometers of trails from the yurt. Ability levels range from easy to expert. Most of the trails are intermediate. Plus, the yurt lies conveniently adjacent to the groomed cross-country trail, so that makes for easy access.

In my experience, the xc ski trails don't seem to get that much use by hard-core skate skiers, and I'm not sure why. The ski trail system would be a welcome change from the Bogus Basin Nordic trails (diversity is the spice of life, right?), and if you go for big distance, you'll get an excellent workout on long climbs. IDPR grooms the trails once a week, so they do receive regular grooming.

I've done the Elkhorn and Alpine loops before, so I thought I'd try something longer. We decided to see if we could cruise by the Elkhorn and Skyline yurts, and decide what to do from there. The track was hard and fast in the morning. Our glide wax worked marvelously.

By the time we reached the Skyline Yurt junction, Wendy was ready to head back, knowing she had several hills to climb on the return trip. I still felt pretty full of energy, so I decided to do the big loop -- a combination of the Summit Trail to the Beaver Trail, a long climb up the Beaver Trail (over 4 miles) to the Elkhorn Trail, and then back to Banner Ridge. It kicked my butt.

I figured my loop was about 13.5 miles or 21.4K's long. Instead of doing the majority of the climbing when my legs were fresh, most of the climbing occurred in the second half of the trip, so slowly but surely, I ran out of energy (and wax), so it was a bit of a slog back to the yurt.

For an active skate-skier who thirsts for a hearty workout, I'd think we'd see more people skiing that long loop. I didn't see one track the whole way. Give it a whirl sometime!

In the meantime, try to snag the Banner Ridge Yurt for a few days of guaranteed fun. It's a great location!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oregon Trail - Surprise Valley Loop is an ideal early-season trail for hiking, running & biking

The Rim Trail runs under some giant IPC powerlines
Dad and his kids on a morning walk

The Kelton Ramp ... bikers should walk this section

Trip map from Boise Trail Guide (click to enlarge)
Hi all,

I think it's fair to assume that this relentlessly clear, blue sky weather we've been experiencing for weeks on end has dampened people's spirits somewhat for skiing (at least until we get more snow). And so, on these 45-degree afternoons, the trails in the Boise Foothills seem tempting for hikers, mountain bikers and runners.

However, at that time of day, most of the trails are soft and muddy. It's the wrong time to be out there. You can check on trail conditions on the Ridge to Rivers blog and web site. I recommend doing so before you take off on an outing.

Here's what it says today on the Ridge to Rivers site: "We have had a tremendous amount of damage done to the trail system this winter due to inappropriate use. This damage in many cases is irrepairable. Please help us preserve the integrity of our trail system by using only dry trails."

I say amen to that.

My outdoor tip of the week focuses on one place you can go right now where the trails are dry -- it's the Surprise Valley-Oregon Trail Loop in SE Boise. I went for a run on the loop this morning, and it was fabulous. I ran into a couple of people hiking, and one mountain biker. The loop trail is very convenient for people who live in Surprise Valley or Columbia Village, but other folks in Boise may not know about this little gem.

It's a 2.8-mile loop, starting from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Surprise Valley (don't park there on Sunday morning). The church is on the right side as you drive into the Surprise Valley area on Surprise Way, off of Boise Avenue or Amity.

Go behind the church and pick up the public trail that runs along the base of the basalt cliff, follow that for a mile or so, and then go up the Kelton Ramp, a rocky old two-track where Oregon Trail wagons descended into the Boise Valley. Once on top of the rim, you can follow a trail that stays close to the rim, or several others on the flat portion of the Oregon Trail Reserve Park, and complete the loop.

On top of the rim, Boise Parks & Recreation has put up a number of interpretive signs that explain the history of the Oregon Trail, early gold-mining activity in Idaho City, and more.

"Standing here, you are only a short hike away from original Oregon Trail ruts," one sign says. "Pioneers by the thousands walked and rode through this very country. Turning wagon wheels represented more than simply a people moving West; as the wheels turned so did the pages of our history, uniting our nation from coast to coast."

Ponder the pioneers when you're out there. And then you flash-forward to 2011, looking out at the development in the eastern Boise Valley, where houses popped up by the hundreds in the big-growth years of the late '80s and 90s. But you can still see the Boise River winding through the valley, the Boise Foothills across the way, and a white cloak on the shoulders of the Boise Ridge and Bogus Basin.

Because the loop trail is relatively short, it's a great place to take young kids or seniors. I saw a dad with his two young children hiking on the trail today, and a gentleman power-hiking on the rim.

For runners who typically go farther than 3 miles, it'd be a cinch to do a couple of laps, do some short laps on the trails in the Oregon Trail Reserve on the upper flat, or start at Barber Park and run an extra mile or two on the streets approaching the trailhead in Surprise Valley.

The Surprise Valley-Oregon Trail Loop is featured in my hiking and biking books, the Boise Trail Guide: 75 Hiking & Running Routes Close to Home, and Mountain Biking in Boise. I rated the ride a beginner route in the biking book, and the hike as an easy mountain trail.

One more note about avoiding muddy trails in the Boise Foothills. The best bet is to get out on the trails when they're frozen early in the morning. Plan to be finished by 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., when things start turning to mush and mud.

Until the next rain storm, the Surprise Valley-Oregon Trail loop is a rare trail that's dry morning or afternoon. That makes it worth visiting, especially at this time of year.

Have fun!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Backcountry skiing by the new Stargaze Yurt plus hot springs and elk = all-Idaho day

Elk grazing on winter range (courtesy NPS);
Kirkham Hot Springs, below (courtesy Sunset mag)

Hi all,

Last Sunday, Wendy and I and our friend Amy Haak wanted to find some fresh powder in the mountains, even though it hasn't snowed significantly for weeks. So we went up to the Stargaze Yurt area in the Idaho Park n' Ski system to check out the skiing terrain. We've got the yurt rented in the first weekend of March, so we wanted to pre-scout the area.

It was well worth the trip! Here's a video from our outing. Note how Wendy practically skis over the videographer (me)!

From the looks of the topo map, there appeared to be some nice, long north slopes that take off from the top of Stargaze Point, just a few hundred yards from the yurt. As things turned out, the northeast slopes were filled with sugary nice *pow*, so that's where we skied. The north slopes were too crusty.

We also saw quite a few folks who were up there to go snowshoeing for the day. The Stargaze area has lots of potential for snowshoeing. The terrain is moderate - not very steep - so you can pretty much go wherever you want, especially on a clear day. A 3-mile loop trail has been created by users, so you can try to find that or just go out and back to the yurt.

The trail to Stargaze Yurt climbs at a very moderate pace for 1.3 miles to the yurt. It features about 500 vertical feet of gain. It took us less than an hour to get there. We had lunch on the deck of the yurt and enjoyed the 360-degree view of the Boise National Forest and the western edge of the Sawtooth Mountains. Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation officials found a perfect spot for the yurt. Thanks Leo!

Everyone was all smiles on Sunday. We were thrilled to be out of the guk (foggy gray inversion) in Boise, and it was a pleasant surprise to be blessed with a full day of warm sunshine. We were really skeptical that we'd find virgin snow to ski, but we were pleasantly surprised.

We took two runs on the northeast slope of Stargaze Point in the afternoon and shot some video. There is a groomed snowmobile trail at the bottom of the ski slopes, so we followed that around to the ridge, and climbed back to the Stargaze Trail for a second run.

Since the trailhead to Stargaze Yurt is just short of Beaver Creek Summit, we decided to head down ID 21 to Lowman, and go to Kirkham Hot Springs, which is about 8 miles east of Lowman next to the highway. Kirkham has dependable hot water pools even in the cold of winter. You just never know how many people will be there. Because the springs are so close to the highway, swimsuits are recommended.

Once in the hot springs pools, we kicked back and relaxed while watching elk graze on the opposite mountainside, their brown butts and thick winter coats reflecting in the full sun.

To me, a day of skiing sweet powder in the sunshine, topped off with a hot springs soak and elk-watching adds up to an all-Idaho day.
- SS