Thursday, August 18, 2022

Always a treat to ride Loon Lake, plus 10 more Idaho classics

Brian, Steve and Mark at Loon Lake 

Hi all, 

I was rocking out to a Grateful Dead Tribute band Friday night with a group of friends, and on the spur of the moment, three of us agreed to meet up Saturday morning in McCall to ride the Loon Lake Loop. 

Loon Lake is one of my favorite "Idaho classic" rides. Starting from Chinook Campground, about 45 minutes north of McCall via Warren Wagon Road, the ride covers 10 miles -- all singletrack -- and takes about 2-2.5 hours to complete for experienced strong riders. 1,500 feet of vertical gain. Rated: Advanced. A longer version starts at Ruby Meadows and requires a shuttle back to the trailhead or it's 22 miles if you ride the whole thing. 

Now that we're moving into late August, and September is close at hand, this is a perfect time to plan trips to bag some other "Idaho classic" mountain bike rides in Sun Valley, McCall, Central Idaho and Boise. More details about that below ... 

Trail was quite buffed last week! 

We awoke a perfect post-card day last Saturday to ride Loon Lake. High temperature of 85 forecast for the mountains. We'd had thunderstorms for two days in a row, so it was nice to see the cloudless, cobalt-blue sky on the drive going past Upper Payette Lake toward Chinook Campground. Our group consisted of Mark Anderson, Brian Ellsworth and me. 

I like to ride the Loon Lake loop counter-clockwise, so we rode across the Secesh River on the steel bridge to start the ride on Victor Creek Trail #081. You follow that singletrack trail over three different climbs and descents to a tall-grass meadow just to the south of Loon Lake. Pedal through the meadow, turn left at a junction, and ride to Loon Lake. Take a breather, have lunch, go swimming, take photos! What a spot!    

Return to the meadow, and then turn right on a singletrack that plunges into the Secesh River canyon. There's a cool little beach by the Secesh River there by the trail bridge, and then you pedal 3.5 miles back to Chinook Campground on a rocky, technical singletrack that rises and falls along the river. Watch for any spawning salmon while you're in that area. But keep your eyes on the trail, too, because there are many opportunities to crash along the way! Be careful! 

Huck at Loon Lake 

It took us 45 minutes to reach the lake, and 1.5 hours to return to the trailhead. We stopped in a few places for photo ops. Just a beautiful day! 

Wendy checking out the Secesh River on the steel bridge. 

Now, for other classic rides, I'd refer you to a story I wrote for Visit Idaho about Five Mountain Bike Rides that Shine in the Fall.  This article includes Loon Lake, Around the Mountain at Bogus Basin, Fisher-Williams Loop in the White Clouds, Gold Hill switchback special near Sandpoint, and the Lynx Trail at Farragut State Park in N. Idaho. 

Secesh River 

I wrote about five other mountain bike classics in this 2016 post from Stueby's Outdoor Journal. These rides included traversing Bear Pete Trail, the Hard Guy-Dry Creek Loop, and the Bear Basin - Brundage Lookout - Elk Trail - Growler - 488 Road - Bear Basin Ride. 
- SS  

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Another way to Beat the Heat: Go visit an Idaho fire lookout! Some are available for rent ...


Granite Mountain Lookout near McCall (elevation 8,479 feet) 

Hi all,

I must admit, I've always had a soft spot for Idaho's fire lookouts - especially after I started mountain biking in the mid-80's, mountain-top lookouts were a natural place to go. Typically, there is a 4WD road leading to a lookout, and so you've got dirt road access, and often the climb to the lookout goes for multiple miles with several thousand feet of vertical gain, meaning you'll have a guaranteed workout to reach the summit.

Some lookouts are even more remote and require hiking a trail to the top. I've done both.  

My recommendation is to explore Idaho's lookouts whenever you can, wherever you can, work in a hike or bike ride into the outing for some exercise, and consider making plans to rent a lookout for a weekend with your honey, friends or family.

Why go? Fire lookouts, by definition, are always located on top of a high mountain peak. That's so the Forest Service lookout personnel have a big view of the surrounding countryside and can spot lightning strikes and fire starts. That means the lookout locations have a huge, 360-degree view of the mountains for miles on end -- this is one of the big payoffs.

"There's no finer way to see our state," says Gary Weber of the Forest Fire Lookout Association in a Idaho Public TV program about lookouts. 

"Idaho's Lookouts are doorways to the heavens," narrator and executive producer Bruce Reichert says. "They inspire people to visit these sanctuaries at the edge of the sky."

Lookouts can be a good place to take young kids. If there's a 4WD road to the top, you can drive to the summit and tour the top of the mountain. Mom or Dad can drive, and the other can ride or hike to the top. You know the drill.

One of the biggest benefits, I'd say from personal experience, is to experience a sunrise or sunset from a fire lookout tower. It's absolutely, utterly spectacular! Bring your camera, and pack your binoculars to look for wildlife.

Sunset from Arid Peak Lookout (courtesy Rick Gerrard) 

At one time, there were 8,000 fire lookouts nationwide, and Idaho had about 1,000 of them. Here's a website with all of the original sites. Many of the lookouts have been decommissioned over the years, but there are about 150 lookouts still standing in Idaho. I've noticed a number of sites where the lookouts no longer exist, such as on Packer John Mountain, Red Mountain, Council Mountain, etc. I bet you've seen some, too.  

Here are a few lookout towers to visit near Boise, and some possibilities for rental. Rental rates, by the way, range from $35/night to $50/night:
Scott Mountain Lookout near Garden Valley. 
  • Scott Mountain Lookout - Scott Mountain lords over Garden Valley at an elevation of 8,215 feet. You can get there via the Banks to Lowman Road, heading toward Lowman, and then head north to Scott Mountain on Forest Road 555. You can hike or mountain bike from the Scott Mountain Road junction to the top of the mountain. Be sure to bring a lunch and enjoy the views from the top. 
  • Pilot Peak Lookout - A lot of backcountry skiers know about Pilot Peak because it's an awesome backcountry skiing area. In the summer, there's a great mountain bike ride going up to the lookout, and then descending all the way to Idaho City via Bear Run Road! Plus, it's a nice hike or trail run to the lookout and back (3.5 miles each way) from Mores Creek Summit. You can access the gravel road to Pilot Peak via Mores Creek Summit on Idaho 21, about 10 miles northeast of Idaho City. 
    Sunset Mountain Lookout, 5 miles above Mores Creek Summit. 

  • Sunset Mountain Lookout - It's five miles to the top of Sunset Mountain from Mores Creek Summit. This is a good hike or bike ride. The hiking and trail-running trip to the top of Sunset L.O. are featured in my book Boise Trail Guide. I remember pedaling the baby trailer to the top of Sunset when my son Quinn was about 6 months old; it was definitely doable. Sunset has fabulous views of the North Fork of the Boise River country, and Steel Mountain and the Sawtooths are visible from the distance. 
  • Basin Butte Lookout - This one is available for rent. It's located north of Stanley in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. (need details on the approach). Forest Service Road #432 climbs to the top of Basin Butte. The turnoff is across Idaho 21 from the turnoff to Stanley Lake. Go left on the Stanley Creek road (653), and then after several miles you'll come to a fork. Go left on #432 to reach the top of Basin Butte. It's 6.3 miles and 2,750 feet of gain to the top from the turnoff. Check into rental availability at

    From the inside looking out at Deadwood Lookout ... this could be yours for a weekend! 

  • Deadwood Lookout - This one also is available for rent. According to recreation.govDeadwood Lookout is one of the most popular Forest Service rental cabins in Idaho. It's located on Deadwood Mountain, high above Deadwood Campground and the Deadwood River confluence with the South Fork of the Payette River. Take Forest Road #555 north from the South Fork to a junction by a campground at the top of the grade, and take a hard right on Road Road #555EC. It's less than 3 miles from the junction to the lookout.   
  • Whitehawk Mountain Lookout - This is where my son Quinn and I and our dog Huck watched the eclipse several years ago. Whitehawk is located in Bear Valley, north of Lowman. It is not available for rent as it's still manned by the Forest Service to watch for fires. 
  • Bald Mountain - This is a 50-foot-high structure that sleeps four in the Clearwater National Forest in the Hoodoo Mountains. It looks so cool, that it's certainly worth the long drive to get there. You'd want to set aside a day on either side of your lookout trip for travel time. I bet this particular lookout is in high demand because there aren't that many left that sit that high off the ground. Bald Mountain Lookout is accessed from Highway 6, near Moscow, along the White Pine Scenic Byway. There are a number of hiking and biking trails that you can tie into near the lookout. 
    Lookout Butte Lookout, 60 feet high 

  • Lookout Butte - This one also is set on top of a steel tower, 60 feet above the ground, and it's available for rent. Sleeps up to 4 people. Lookout Butte is located in the Nez Perce National Forest, and it offers fetching views of the Selway Crags, Seven Devils, Coolwater Ridge and more. It's 15 miles southwest of Lowell on Forest Roads 223, 470, 286 and 1124. 4WD recommended. There are zillions of Forest Service roads in the vicinity. Looks like a cool place to explore.        
  • Tripod Mountain Lookout - And last, but not least, we come back closer to home to visit Tripod Mountain Lookout, above Smith's Ferry. This one also is featured in my Boise Trail GuideTripod is best reached by trail on foot. You take Forest Road #626, across from the Cougar Mountain Lodge, and take that to the West Mountain Trailhead at a saddle on the road. It's 11.8 miles round-trip to the peak and back. Vertical gain is 3,160 feet. I rate it strenuous. But once you're on top of the ridge, you're glad you did it! 
Want to read/see more? 
A few years ago, I camped at the Arid Peak Lookout in the St. Joe National Forest, and wrote a feature for VisitIdaho about the experience. Highly recommend that location, too! 

Idaho Public Television featured an excellent program called "Eyes of the Forest" about a number of super-cool fire lookout towers in the state. You might watch for the re-run or see if you can watch it via the Idaho PTV web site

Have fun! 
- SS 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Stay cool in August heat by GETTING WET early and often! Preferably in the Mountains!

Steve cooling off at North Beach in McCall

Hi all, 

I'm sure it's been a challenge for many to beat the heat lately. But if you've planned some mountain getaways at higher elevations, cooler temperatures, etc., it sure can make a difference! 

I've been impressed to read about some folks doing trips across the length of the Sawtooth Mountains, and I saw that a woman climbed all of Idaho's 12,000-foot peaks in a matter of several days. It's the middle of summer season, and it's prime time to visit the mountains and high country in Idaho! 

Wendy and I spent all of last week at our cabin in McCall. My motto every day was to exercise in the morning - often on my road bike (mountain bike is in the shop) - swim at the beginning of the ride and swim at the end of the ride before heading home. Then I'd work for a few hours in the afternoon to round out the day, and then swim again! 

Warren Wagon Road heading to Upper Payette Lake  

Our cabin is less than a mile away from the Payette Lake, 1 mile from Little Payette Lake and less than a mile from Ponderosa State Park, so it's easy to get in the water. We are fortunate to have our place in paradise! 

A few notes from our week: 

  • The greater McCall area is very busy right now. Lots of campgrounds are full. Payette Lake is busy. Even Upper Payette Lake was busy. Be sure to make a camping or lodging reservation before you go. That said, once you get outside of the center of McCall, it's less busy.
    Upper Payette Lake boat ramp was quiet on a Friday morning. 

  • The Meanders, a primo place for stand up paddle-boarding was busy. The North Beach parking area seemed crushed all week long. But people were still staking out their spots next to the water and having a great time! 

    The Meanders by North Beach in McCall .. primo SUP destination. 

Jim Young takes us on a Friday evening post-dinner boat ride on Payette Lake for a swim. 
Having impromptu gatherings with friends is one the great things about being in McCall. 

On Saturday, we topped off the week with a fund-raiser event with live music for Valley County Pathways and Torin Oberlindacher's 50th birthday, a trail friend. The Dusty Huckleberries were a great warm-up band, and then we had GRATEFUL - A Tribute Band in the evening. We had a big crowd, made some bucks for VC Pathways, and danced to our favorite Grateful Dead tunes. Great times! 

The Boise-based Grateful Dead tribute band will play at Brundage Mountain on Aug. 12. I highly recommend it! 

There are so many other things to do in the McCall area, including golf, backpacking, peak-bagging, fishing, mountain biking/hiking at Brundage Mountain, mountain biking/hiking/ziplining at Tamarack Resort, mountain biking/hiking at Jug Mountain Ranch, hiking/biking/swimming/camping at Ponderosa State Park, camping at Lake Cascade State Park, and exploring the Payette and Boise National Forests. Plus, floating the upper North Fork of the Payette River below McCall, below Cascade, or Cabarton. The list goes on!   

Here's Steve guiding a group through Howard's Plunge on the Cabarton reach of the Payette River. 

Don't let the summer run away without visiting McCall and the West Central Mountains
- SS