Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lots of things to do over Labor Day weekend; What sounds best for you? Avoiding the smoke Part III

Fire/smoke map from NASA dated Aug. 28, 2012
Hi all,

We've got a three-day weekend coming up for Labor Day weekend, and there are lots of fun things going on in SW Idaho. With three major wildfires burning well over 100,000 acres each, the big challenge still is trying to avoid the smoke. We might call this week's post "Avoiding the Smoke - Part III."

Two weeks ago, I recommended Priest Lake, N. Idaho bike trails and McCall. Last week, I recommended some spots in the West Central Mountains and provided a number of useful, if not critical resources for determining where it may not be as smoky in SW Idaho and Central Idaho.
Here's Irene on the summit of 12,140-foot Mount Breitenbach
Thanks to Facebook, I am noticing that a lot of people are boldly going where they want to go regardless of the smoke! Watch for an upcoming column soon on Irene Vogel, who is climbing all of the 12,000-foot peaks in Idaho in one field season! I think most, if not all of those peaks are in the Pioneer Mountains and the Lost River Range. Her pictures look kind of smoky, but the high peaks appear pretty clear. She's going for the summit of Leatherman Peak this weekend to finish off her journey. Go Irene!
Fires burning slowly on the bank of the Salmon River ... no big deal! (courtesy Ted Kielley) 
I also saw that Ted Kielley did a week-long trip on the Main Salmon in various amounts of smoke and haze, but he felt that it was a trip of a lifetime! I put out a news release for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association last week, pointing out that Middle Fork trips are still happening without incident, the road is still open to Boundary Creek, and outfitters like Mystic Saddle Ranch is still offering horseback trail rides in the upper Wood River Valley and the Sawtooths, and guests are happy! 

"We are fully open for our trail rides, and there are no fires burning in the Sawtooths," says Deb Bitton, co-owner of Mystic Saddle Ranch. "I was at our corrals in the upper Wood River Valley yesterday, and it was a glorious day with no smoke in the air. There's still a lot of good fishing to be had in the high mountain lakes."

I think the main thing to remember is that "Conditions are changing on a daily basis." 

Leo Hennessy, who is a trip leader for the Idaho Outdoors Yahoo Group, has been traveling to different places every weekend for the last month. "I'm trying to thread the needle of smoke and haze between Sun Valley, Stanley and McCall, and all I can say is, "It changes day to day. It seems to be the most clear around McCall and Lick Creek, and that's where I'm going this weekend." 

Leo is going with a group that's backpacking into the Prince Lakes. It's very steep and challenging, trip leaders forewarn. If you'd like to tag along, see the invite on Idaho Outdoors.

He Devil Peak (courtesy Summit Post)
Pete Zimowsky asked four guidebook authors for their recommendations on high alpine lakes to explore this fall in the Statesman, and those folks recommended a number of hikes in the Bighorn Crags, Sawtooths, Seven Devils and Pioneers. Smoke-wise, I think the Seven Devils might be the best bet this weekend.
Smoke considerations aside, all of the popular campgrounds at Redfish Lake are open. See the Sawtooth National Recreation Area web site for a full report. Another good spot might be the Bear Valley and Elk Creek areas north of Lowman. That's a great spot for camping,  canoeing and wildlife-watching.  
Blue Lake near Snowbank Mountain (courtesy Dave Williams, from Boise Trail Guide)
Another option this weekend might be to go camping in the Lake Cascade area and take in the bluegrass festival in Round Valley nearby. You also could go hiking to Blue Lake or on the high ridge by Snowbank Mountain (you can drive to the top), go biking on the Eagle's Nest Trail (get free sample  trail/map download from my book Mountain Biking in McCall), or go boating on the Cabarton stretch of the North Fork Payette River. 

Well, hopefully these ideas will provide inspiration this weekend. If  you're stuck in town, I bet a ton of people will go to the Barley Brothers beer fest in Meridian Friday and Saturday. And plus, there are a number of great Labor Day sales at Boise's outdoor retailers. Idaho Mountain Touring, Boise REI, Greenwood's, McU Sports, Alpenglow Mountain Sport and Idaho River Sports all have some fantastic clothing and gear on sale right now. Great deals! 

Have fun! 
-- SS 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some useful resources for navigating fires and smoke in SW Idaho and Central Idaho

Courtesy NASA (taken on Aug. 18)
Hi all,

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's run into road closures and maddening situations in the last several weeks as we try to travel to the mountains, musical events, campgrounds, etc.

The big whopper I endured recently was when a new fire cropped up near Banner Summit and the Forest Service closed Idaho 21 late in the afternoon on Thursday, Aug. 9. There was virtually no forewarning that there might be any road closures in that area, and suddenly, boom. So much for making it to the Braun Brothers Reunion concert that night. I drove over 10 hours that day and never made it to Challis before collapsing near midnight at the Mt. Borah Earthquake interpretive area.

I felt humbled when I read a story about some very unhappy boy scouts who had driven to the Cape Horn area to camp at the boy scout camp near Beaver Creek, only to discover that the Halstead Forest Fire had shut down that road and camping area, and the boys had to drive home. Wow! That made my trip seem like a jaunt to the corner quick stop.

Planning a recreation outing in Central Idaho these days can be quite challenging because we have a trio of  large fires in Central Idaho that are are burning out of control with no containment in sight. The prevailing winds generally blow west-to-east, and so they are pushing smoke from the 98,000-acre Trinity Ridge fire into the Sawtooths and Stanley areas, and of course all of the recreation areas near Pine and Featherville and the Trinities are off-limits. And then you have the Halstead Fire burning north of Idaho 21 and Idaho 75, making much of that area inaccessible, and the smoke from the Halstead fire is pushing into Challis and Salmon.

It's hard to figure out where to go, but here are a few trip-planning tools that will be helpful:

As I mentioned in last week's blog, McCall and Cascade are good bets close to home, although it was quite smoky and hazy in McCall when I was there earlier this week. Eastern Oregon also could be a good place to go -- the Wallowas and Eagle Cap Wilderness are beautiful locations. Natalie Bartley wrote a piece about scenic drives in the Wallowas in today's Statesman.

The west side of the Payette National Forest north of Weiser has some good camping areas and mountain bike trails. My book Mountain Biking Idaho has a cool advanced ride called the "Parlor of Pain," (named by locals), which is 19.5 miles. You go up the Mann Creek Road, north of Weiser, and start the ride at the junction with Hitt Creek Road #573. Climb that road for a ways and then veer right on a singletrack, climb the Parlor of Pain section, and then cruise by Hitt Peak and Sturgill Peak, before flying down the Mann Creek Road #009 back to the start.
New singletrack on the Payette Rim Trail
If you do go to McCall, I recommend riding the Payette Rim Trail, which is featured in my book, Mountain Biking in McCall. The Rim trail is a longtime favorite ride in the McCall area, but logging two years ago really tore up the trail. Locals have since re-routed a singletrack trail around the logging impacts, and it takes you all the way down to the corrals by Bear Basin, creating the possibility of riding the rim trail and then making a loop around the Bear Basin Trails to add another 5+ miles to the ride. Thanks to McCall mountain bikers for the awesome re-route!

Another option this weekend is to float rivers. Tons of people have been floating Cabarton on the North Fork of the Payette River, not to mention the South Fork Payette, and the South Fork Boise is still running at summer flows. The Riggins day trip on the Salmon River is another option. The Upper Salmon near Stanley is closed to private boaters but 4 outfitters are running trips there daily.

Canoeists might want to try Elk Creek or Bear Valley Creek and camp nearby. The Landmark area and Deadwood Reservoir should be fine as well.

At least it's going to be cooler this weekend! I'm looking forward to that.

Have fun and good luck escaping the smoke! Tell me what you find!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Go north to Idaho's lakes country to get out of the smoke & go boating, hiking or biking

Priest Lake under a full moon
Hi all,

I think it's safe to say that people are getting really tired of the smoke-filled Boise Valley, and this weekend, they'll be looking for ways to find some clean air. In my mind, this is a perfect excuse to head north to the Idaho Panhandle, where there are a bounty of recreation opportunities to enjoy, and the air is clear, so I've heard from locals in Coeur d'Alene.

You might groan and think, gawd, that's just too far to go! And I'd come back and say, hey, it's not that far, and you've got only a week or so before the kids have to head back to school. Why not take a few days and go somewhere like Priest Lake, where you can hang out on the beach, even camp by the beach,  and go boating on the lake, canoeing in Upper Priest Lake, mountain biking through giant cedar groves or hiking in the Selkirk Mountains. Or, pick up a Panhandle National Forests map and go on a waterfall tour.

Here's one of my previous blogs that details all of the great camping, mountain biking and canoeing opportunities in the Priest Lake area. Wendy and I went mountain biking on the Lakeshore Trail along main Priest Lake, and rode the Navigation Trail to Upper Priest Lake and cruised along the shoreline. We also canoed from our beach campsite at Beaver Creek Campground, paddled up the channel between main Priest and Upper Priest, and toured the upper lake for the day. Pete Zimowsky from the Statesman wrote a very thorough report about that paddling trip in today's paper.

Another more challenging mountain biking ride near Priest Lake is the Upper Priest River Trail. It's 20.4 miles out and back, all singletrack, and you'll end up at a waterfall and swimming hole at the Idaho-British Columbia border, a perfect place to cool off. This one is featured in my book Mountain Biking Idaho. It's one of my all-time favorite rides. The cedar trees are gigantic.  

Several other possibilities in the Idaho Panhandle:
The Taft Tunnel (courtesy Spokesman Review)

  • Ride the Route of the Hiawatha, a cool, gravel rail-trail that can be accessed from Wallace if you're taking the I-90 or from St. Maries, if you're driving up through Idaho. There are a whole series of dark tunnels and railroad trestles on the trail. Distance is 14 miles up, 14 miles back. There's a shuttle available if you don't want to ride uphill. Be sure to bring a bright light! (Camping headlamps are worthless). This ride is written up in Mountain Biking Idaho. Here's an informative video about the whole experience. 
  • Ride the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes anywhere between Wallace and Heyburn State Park. If you're driving up through Idaho, access the trail from the west side at Heyburn, and cruise on the paved trail to Harrison for ice cream and continue along Lake Coeur d'Alene and then the Coeur d'Alene River, enjoy the scenery and all of the bird life along the way. 
  • The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes 
  • Pick up a copy of  Mountain Biking Idaho and check out some outstanding rides in the Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint areas. Canfield Butte next to Coeur d'Alene has a ton of singletrack trails to explore, and Farragut State Park also has some great trails, one of them right next to Lake Pend Oreille. In the Sandpoint area, you can ride a twisty singletrack (more than 40 switchbacks!) to the top of Gold Hill, cruise around Schweitzer Mountain Ski Area, or try a long expert ride like the Bernard Peak Loop (18.5 miles, 2,650 feet of vertical gain/loss.) 
If you go up north, I recommend taking I-84 to Tri-Cities, Wash., Highway 395 to I-90, and then you're home free, in Ritzville, Wash., just an hour from Spokane, and 1.5 hours from Coeur d'Alene. This route is at least an hour faster than driving through Idaho (I've done it in 6+ hours). Save time by driving part of the way in the evening, and the rest in the morning, and then you'll have for an outing the first afternoon. 

If you'd rather stay closer to home, head up to McCall and go beaching, camping, hiking, biking and boating. Here's a blog I wrote recently with 10 reasons to go to McCall. The morel picking season is long over, but you can probably still find some huckleberries.  

If you're stuck in town, don't forget the Tour de Fat event on Saturday in Ann Morrison Park ... The parade starts at 10 a.m. (be sure to dress up in some kind of wacky costume), and then the beer begins to flow ... buy beer and your proceeds go toward the Southwest Idaho Mountain Biking Association (SWIMBA), the Boise Bicycle Project and other great charities.

Have fun!
- SS

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Get up early for a quick workout before work to beat the heat ... you'll feel SO much better

Hi all,

With this blasted hot weather settled over the lowlands of SW Idaho for weeks on end, we're left with really no choice but to get up early for a quick morning workout before the "work" day begins during the work week.

I've been trying to do that several times a week, and I've noticed that the parking lots at foothills trailheads are surprisingly busy at 6:30 a.m.! Fine minds think alike!

This week, for my tip of the week, I'm recommending several biking/running loops that take an hour or less. If you're hiking, allow more time. All of these routes are featured in my Boise Trail Guide and Mountain Biking in Boise. To make a quick escape, take a few moments in the evening to gather up your gear and replenish the water in your pack, so you're ready to roll in the morning ...

Table Rock trails
1.  Table Rock - The out-and-back South Face "grunt route" to the top of Table Rock is short and abrupt, guaranteed to make you sweat, with almost 1,000 feet of climbing. Distance is about 3 miles. Take Trail #15 from the Old Pen Trailhead by the Bishop's House and climb to Table Rock. If you have time, you can loop back on Trails #16 and #17. Or just go out and back.

2. Military Reserve - There are many short options in Military Reserve Park, but my current favorite is what I call Jumpin' Jeepers Figure 8 Loop. Distance is 6.75 miles; climbing is about 1,000 feet. Take  Central Ridge Trail #22 to the top of the first hill, and continue to Shane's Junction. Ride to the top of Shane's and do the loop back to Central Ridge and Bucktail junction. Take Bucktail downhill and slalom back to the top of Trail #20 and descend the switchbacks to Toll Road Trail and cruise back to the trailhead.

2a. Two Coyote Loop - My friend Maggie Lawrence loves this route. It's 6.5 miles (705 feet of climbing). Running time is about 1:15; Riding time is about an hour. Hike or ride along Freestone Creek to the police firing range area. Climb up to Bucktail and follow that to Shane's Junction. Go left on Shane's and take that to Trail #26, go left and cruise downhill over to a dirt road. Take the dirt road downhill back to the police firing range area and return on the trailhead via Freestone. Maggie and the Boise B's named that Two Coyote because they saw two of those pups on their run.

3. Corrals-Bobs Loop - Highlands neighborhood special. This one is a little longer at 8.4 miles and 1,230 feet of vertical gain. Riding/running time is more like 1.5 hours. Go up Bogus Basin Road to the Corrals Trailhead. Ride Corrals to the summit, descend to Bob's, and rip down Bob's, watching for the rare person coming uphill. A quicker alternative here is to drive to the Corrals Trailhead, and do an out and back to the top of Corrals or add the climb on Scott's Trail for spice.
Boise B's on Corrals morning run in the winter ... 
4. Crestline-Hulls Loop - North Ender special. Starting from Camelsback, this one is 10 miles (1,600 feet of gain), but if you start from the trailhead by the Foothills Learning Center, it's less than 8 miles. Quickest way is to ride up Kestrel to Crestline, and return to the trailhead on Hulls. My friend Molly said that takes her a little over an hour to run that one.

5. Polecat Gulch Loop -  The full loop is just over 6 miles (800+ feet of climbing), and I typically ride it in 45 minutes to an hour. Running time would be an hour or less, depending on your pace. The trailhead is off of Cartwright Road, near the junction with Pierce Park. Excellent choice for people who live in NW Boise or Hidden Springs.

6. Hillside to the Hollow Loop - There's a quick loop in Hillside to the Hollow (the island of open space between 36th Street and Bogus Basin Road). Start at the 32nd Street trailhead, climb to the top of the mountain, keep going east and then take the trail that wraps around the frontside of the mountain and returns to the trailhead. If you leave nearby, just ride or run from home, and you can notch that loop is less than an hour.

7. Squaw Creek Loop - The long loop is 6.25 miles and over 1,600 feet of climbing. This route is most convenient for folks in the Harris Ranch and SE Boise areas. It can be shortened by climbing the Homestead Trail out and back. The trailhead is off of Council Springs Road, near Lucky 13.

Eagle Cycle Park (courtesy Mari Briggs)
8. Eagle Cycle Park - For west Boise residents and Eagle folks, these trails are very close to home. Take old Horseshoe Bend Road north from ID 55 to the Eagle Cycle Park Trailhead. Here's one suggested loop that's 6.5 miles (800 feet of climbing). Ride uphill on Rabbit Run and follow that to the end; go back on Twisted Sister, do another loop on D's Chaos, and finish by looping the Junk Yard Trail. All of these twisty singletracks are fun, and you won't experience any climbing that lasts very long. Fun place to run and ride.

9. For the road cyclists out there, the best recommendation I have is the Cartwright-Pierce Park Loop (fastest option) for a quick morning workout. That one usually takes less than an hour, while the full
Three Summits Loop (aka the "Dump Loop") is more like an 1:15 for me.

There you have it! Hopefully you've got some comp time or flexible schedule that allows coming into work a little later than 8 a.m.!  Even if you work at home, it's best to get started early to enjoy a cooler environment. It is getting kind of smoky out there, however, because of all the fires burning in Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

If you've got a favorite early-morning route that I've overlooked here, please pipe up in the comments below and let us know what we're missing!

PS - If you'd like more detailed descriptions and maps, all of these routes are available a la carte for 99 cents each on my web site,

- SS

Thursday, August 2, 2012

South Fork Payette River "Canyon" section is a must-do trip to cool off from the heat in August

Blackadar Rapids (courtesy Cascade Raft & Kayak)

Lone Pine Rapids! (courtesy Cascade Raft & Kayak)
Kayaker doing otter start below Big Falls (courtesy Payette River Co.)
Hi all,

Well, it's been stinkin' hot in the Boise Valley with temps in the high 90s or around 100, so we have to find ways to cool off. Last week, I recommended heading into high mountains of the Sawtooth Range to explore high mountain lakes and climb peaks.

This week, I'm recommending a raft trip on the "Canyon" section of the South Fork of the Payette River.  As I noted in my guidebook, Paddling the Payette, the South Fork Canyon "is the most challenging Class 4 section in the Payette River Basin. Get ready for an action-packed adventure." It's a total hoot!

Thanks for the cool vid Mica!
Idaho Whitewater Unlimited puts it this way: "This is the biggest, baddest river section we have to offer. Not intended for scared-ee cats, this segment of the South Fork will immerse you in the wild action of Gateway, Blackadar, Lone Pine, Little Falls and Surprise Rapids, to name a few. View the power of Big Falls (a 35-foot drop and mandatory portage) and soak up the warmth of Pine Flats Hot Springs ...."

Cascade Raft and Kayak: "Get wet and wild as you plummet 13 miles down one of the West's most magnificent river corridors. The steep drops, towering canyon walls and clear water make this the legendary crown jewel of continuous Class 4 rapids."
The low-water run in Little Falls (courtesy Payette River Co.)

I've always felt that the South Fork Canyon section is the highest quality day trip in the state of Idaho because of the solitude, hot springs, non-stop whitewater action, wildlife (seen mink, black bear and deer in the canyon), and the whole experience of doing the portage around Big Falls. After the day is over, you feel like you've had so much fun, the only way to top it off is to plan a big BBQ with your floating buddies, sip favorite beverages and swap stories about the day.

Now is a great time to float the South Fork canyon because:
1. There's still plenty of water to do so, but river flows will decrease as the month progresses, so the sooner the better. The canyon was running more than 1,200 cfs as of today, combining South Fork flows (690 cfs) with releases from Deadwood Dam (600 cfs).
2. It's hot, and the guaranteed cold waters of the South Fork, coming directly out of the Sawtooth Wilderness and the Deadwood River, will keep you plenty cool during the float trip.
3. It's a ton of fun with a great group of friends, family or work-mates. Paddle boat crews must work as a team to negotiate the rapids successfully.

People with their own raft may know about the South Fork Canyon, but a surprising number of private boaters haven't gone there before. The best thing is to go with someone who knows the lines in the many rapids in the 12-mile canyon and has the extra-long rope for portaging boats around the falls. Private boaters with catarafts should have enough helpers to carry the heavy crafts around the falls. Light-weight 14-foot paddle rafts are ideal. It's also a great trip for advanced kayakers.

If you don't have your own boat, you can book a trip with one of four outfitters who run the South Fork Canyon. All of these companies know their stuff and have excellent guides. Generally it costs about $100 for a canyon trip, including a hearty lunch. Check with the outfitters on any group rates or special deals.

The outfitters are Cascade Raft and Kayak, Bear Valley River Company, Idaho Whitewater Unlimited and the Payette River Company. Because of the challenging whitewater, kids need to be 12 or over to participate.

If you try the "Canyon" reach on your own, remember that the rapids are "pushy" - flips, pins and swims are always possible, and you should be ready to deal with any kind of mishap. I remember losing my entire paddle crew from the sheer jolt of crashing through Blackadar Rapids, and I barely caught the chicken line (rope around the outside edge of a raft) with one hand on the way out, held onto my paddle with the other hand, climbed quickly back into the boat, and pulled everyone in as fast as I could before we came to the next drop immediately around the next bend. Safety kayakers are really helpful to rescue any swimmers along the way.

The South Fork Canyon chapter in Paddling the Payette has a mile-by-mile description of the trip and a detailed map. You can buy the paddling trip for 99 cents on my web site. Laminated maps cost $2.95 each.

If you can't make time for a full-day canyon run, and you are thirsting for some high adventure, think about doing the Lower South Fork and Main Payette as an alternative. All of the outfitters mentioned above do this trip as well.

Have fun and stay cool!

Also ... in case you haven't heard about Idaho's new mountain bike license plate, check out this segment on the Green Room about the cool plate. Geoff Baker and I talk about the plate's benefits for our multi-use trails in Idaho. The segment aired last Monday on The River, 94.9 FM.
- SS