The day started off great. We broke camp before the sun popped over the Boulder Mountains and made our way to the Russian John Hot Springs for a sunrise soak. The hot springs weren’t terribly hot, but it still felt good to soak in warm water, and it was our official first hot springs soaking on the Idaho Hot Springs Route!
After the soak, we hopped onto the Harriman Trail again as we made our way toward our big climb of the day, Galena Summit. The Harriman Trail ended at the base of the climb and at the doorstep of the Galena Lodge, where we stopped for a third breakfast with some berry turnovers and a chai latte. The lady who served us said that she’d seen at least 100 cyclists come through already following the Hot Springs route. As we left she gave us a locally made energy bar called Don’s Bar. If you stop by the Galena Lodge, make sure to pick up one or four of these chocolate, peanut butter, Rice Krispie treats. They’re a tasty little brick of energy.
Caffeinated and full of sugar, we were ready to tackle Galena. Although one can ride up the highway to the top of the pass, the route took us on an abandoned forest road that has been reclaimed as singletrack. The singletrack was a bit rocky in places, but the grade was mostly mild, so climbing it wasn’t difficult. When we neared the top of the pass, the views of the Boulder Mountains were spectacular. At the summit, we finally got a good view of the Sawtooth Mountains too.
The descent from Galena pass was on a smooth forest road, so I was able to let off the brakes and enjoy some speed. As is always the case, the best descents end too soon, and so we found ourselves in the nearly treeless valley between two mountain ranges. Making our way north, we came across a small group of pronghorn antelope, one of the fastest land animals alive.
After crossing the highway, we started on a forest road that would carry us nearly all the way to Stanley, the road we now refer to as the Hell Road. When we stopped for lunch under one of the few stands of trees along Hell Road, Carrie realized that she forgot her toiletries bag on the other side of Galena Pass. For most, losing toiletries means no shampoo, no toothbrush, no big deal. For Carrie it meant that she didn’t have her contacts case and contacts solution, which is a big deal. Without functioning contacts, Carrie is essentially blind. Is Stanley a big enough town to have a pharmacy? We didn’t know and we were concerned that without these essential supplies we might not be able to finish the entire route.
With this dark cloud looming over us, we continued along Hell Road, which hadn’t yet earned its namesake. As we advanced further down the road, a northwest wind started to pick up, which combined with the rocky surface of Hell Road, made the going very slow. We then got lost. Before we knew it we were riding on a dusty and bumpy ATV trail, our map’s directions completely useless. To top it off, I was out of water and Carrie was getting low. We knew however that we were headed in the right direction, so we just kept following the ATV trail and fresh mountain bike tracks (someone else probably got lost) until we could reconnect with our route.
After possibly an hour’s worth of bonus riding and navigating, we found the road we should have been on, good old Hell Road. When we crested a short climb, we had a clear view of what we were up against: miles and miles of treeless, rocky, windy, rolling dirt road. The name Hell Road was born.
Eventually, Hell Road crossed the main highway to Stanley. We had a decision to make: take the narrow-shouldered highway with its smooth pavement but deadly traffic or continue on another dirt road of unknown quality but without traffic. We chose the dirt road. We chose wrong.
While Hell Road didn’t have any substantial climbs, it made up for it with soul-crushing headwinds. This new dirt road, Hell Road 2, lacked serious wind but was flush with more sustained climbs. Both were bumpy and rocky. If I were to ride this section again, I would still ride over the Galena pass on the prescribed singletrack and forest roads, but after the descent I’d hop on the highway to get through the valley as quickly as possible.
Our plan was to camp about four miles south of Stanley at a campsite called Sunny Gulch. The Adventure Cycling map warned us to make camping reservations in Stanley if arriving on a weekend. We were arriving on a Saturday afternoon, but we ignored the advice. Big mistake.
Sunny Gulch and another campsite were booked solid. The camp host at Sunny Gulch suggested we try to free camp a short ways north, but when we got there signs that read no camping were posted all over. What now? We were tired from summiting Galena Pass; We were tired from riding Hell Road; We were tired from riding Hell Road 2; We just wanted a place to pitch a tent and to cook up a banquet’s worth of mac n’ cheese.
We rode a little ways past the no camping signs until I spotted a dense grove of young pines. I got off my bike and picked my way among the trees. Behind the layer of trees was a little meadow, close enough to the road to hear cars drive by but deep enough in the woods to remain unseen. It was perfect. Or rather, it was the only option we had. We made camp in that meadow and made a our mac n’ cheese feast and then crashed hard. Sleep was our reward for a trying day.