Fall ‘n Ketchum: Late Season Singletrack with Sturtevants Sun Valley Mountain Guides

Daytime high temperatures in the Phoenix valley where I’m currently sitting are hovering around 108°. Like every summer around this time, I’m reminiscing about trips I’ve taken to escape the dreaded summer Sonoran Desert heat and planning opportunities in cooler climes again. One standout experience, which continually creeps into my planning and scheming, was a ride during a road trip last October with my buddy Cameron Lloyd and a couple of his fellow Sun Valley Mountain GuidesKeeley and Andrew – in Ketchum, ID. We had an epic time riding some of the area’s most ripping and scenic singletrack, so continue reading below for a recap with this great crew!

In early October 2021 my wife, Andrea, and I embarked on our first kid-less trip together since the pandemic heated up almost two years prior. We purchased a GFC Platform Camper in January 2021 and were road-tripping to GFC HQ in Belgrade, MT to have it installed after ten months of built-up excitement. Being our first outing together for a prolonged stretch, we wanted to cram as much riding as possible into our trip.

My old friend Cameron had been hyping the riding in his hometown of Ketchum for all the years I’ve known him and, with a slight detour from the uber-direct Phoenix to Bozeman route, a layover in Ketchum seemed like a solid option. Beyond looking forward to great riding, an added bonus was that our visit coincided with central Idaho’s legendary fall color changes.

After a night camped out in the back of our truck at Pahranagat NWR just north of Vegas (which I highly recommend if you’re traveling US 93 and need respite), we drove straight to Ketchum. Typically, while on the road, we camp or find an affordable cabin or house to rent. This time, though, we decided to treat ourselves a bit and landed at the Limelight Hotel, which ended up being more than we could have asked for: our room was large and well-appointed, and there was ample underground parking for its location in the middle of a resort town, the hot tub was luxurious, and the continental breakfast was expansive and scrum-diddly-umptious.

Situated in Central Idaho’s Wood River Valley, Ketchum falls into the taxonomy of other destination western mountain resort towns like Telluride, Jackson, Park City, Aspen, and so on. The arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1930s made the former mining and ranching town accessible to tourists and it quickly became popular with celebrities. It was in Ketchum where Hemingway found refuge amidst his worldly travels and wrote some of his most famous novels.

It’s beautiful and quaint, with infrastructure to support a bustling tourism economy based around world-class skiing; expansive mountain, gravel, and road cycling; fishing; hunting; an annual sheep festival; and a burgeoning art and foodie scene. You won’t find any national chain businesses in town — even the single Starbucks is one of very few privately owned locations in the country. Ketchum is a destination, to be sure, and a pricey one at that, but it’s a convenient gateway to a myriad of adventures.

I first met Cameron years ago when he was working in marketing at Club Ride, which is headquartered down the road from Ketchum in Hailey. If he looks familiar, it’s probably because you recognize him from the Club Ride booth he ran over the years at countless bike festivals and race events. Last spring he left Club Ride after eight years and transitioned to managing Sun Valley Mountain Guides, which is an extension of Sturtevants of Sun Valley, a retail store and service center.

Prior to Cameron taking the reins of SVMG, they had primarily been running kids camps and lacked internal organization to fully take advantage of guiding in the area’s backcountry. SVMG was already working closely with the local BLM and Sawtooth/Salmon-Challis NF to secure permits necessary to guide clients and provide cycling instruction on public lands and, with Cameron now on board, he’s been able to bolster those opportunities. Now SVMG offers a variety of services, including guides for cycling and hiking, along with a shuttle service.

Andrea and I arrived in Ketchum as tourist season was winding down and between storm cycles that would have otherwise made riding in the backcountry undesirable. Our timing was perfect, albeit a bit lucky. Cameron and SVMG guides Andrew and Keeley had a free day and were excited to show us some of their favorite terrain. They had just received some new clothing from Club Ride, packs and gloves from DaKine, and helmets and sunglasses from Smith Optics, so I gladly took advantage of primo trail conditions and morning/evening light to shoot a handful of team photos.

Smoke had settled into the valley from nearby wildfires, which created an eerie but ideal lighting situation and the trails were largely void of other riders. I was able to make some of my favorite riding images throughout the fairly casual day without much of an agenda driving us toward particular results.

There are over 400 miles of singletrack surrounding the town of Ketchum. The trail systems are so expansive that, at one point, I recall Cameron commenting on how it’s possible to string together a 100-mile ride without crossing the same trail. And despite the area’s steep mountains with visible rocky outcroppings, all of the trails seemed approachable and buffed out, rather than rocky and technical. I later learned that this was, in fact, a coveted aspect to locals and visitors alike who refer to these trail characteristics as Sun Valley Smooth.

Departing at dawn, we ascended above town from the Adams Gulch/Fox Creek area via Harper’s Trail, which climbs into the foothills on a north-facing slope and yields stunning views of the Ketchum valley below. Along the climb, Cameron and Keeley explained that Harper’s was named after Butch Harper, a former USFS employee living in the area during the 1970s who advocated for trail construction on the hills above his property; essentially for the creation of his own trail.

Our early morning departure was an exercise in layering techniques and temperature regulation. Coming from the heat of the desert, Andrea and my reptile blood lacked the resilience to adapt to a cold start. I remember overheating about a mile up the trail once the sun started to rise above the horizon, while she froze until I gave her some of my layers. Cameron, Keeley, and Andrew – on the other hand – were dialed in their long-sleeve jerseys and only layered up with flannels when we stopped to regroup and enjoy the vistas. Later, with the late morning sun, Andrea and I then stripped to t-shirts, jamming and strapping extra layers into our inadequately sized hip packs.

We continued climbing from Harper’s to Adam’s Rib Trail and eventually decided to turn back where the trail crested to maximize a ripping descent back down to the trailhead. We were all hungry, looking forward to lunch at one of the crew’s favorite restaurants, and my fork was feeling funky, so backtracking down Adam’s Rib to Harper’s was the way to go.

Andrew showing us the proper technique for crossing Big Wood River

On the way down Harper’s Trail, my fork completely gave out. It had lost all of its travel and air pressure. Luckily the bottom portion of the trail wasn’t super technical and I was able to limp back to town and drop it at Sturtevants for an emergency lower leg service. Thanks again for the assist, y’all! While waiting for my bike, we stopped at Lefty’s for lunch and walked around town observing the abundant vernacular scenes and vintage vehicles before Andrea and I split and headed back to the Limelight for an afternoon siesta to sleep off the early ride, burgers, and beer.

But we weren’t done riding. We reconvened back at Sturtevants late in the afternoon and piled into the shuttle van headed northwest out of town to the end of Baker Creek drainage along FSR 162. Andrea hung back at the hotel to catch up on emails during our evening ride, but Keeley’s cattle dog Zula joined and was sure to keep us all in line. Our objective was to climb Osberg Ridge trail in time for golden hour light and enjoy the views of the valley below while the sun set before dropping back down to the van. Osberg Ridge is one of Cameron’s favorite rides in the Ketchum area. He considers it a “local epic” and typically shuttles out to the trailhead as we did, but then rides twenty-seven miles (with 4,000 ft. vert) back to town.

Osberg Ridge is the kind of trail that you hope never ends. It’s well-designed and takes full advantage of majestic views, weaving in, out, over, and back along its namesake ridgeline. Beginning with a climb through a burn scar from the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, the trail ascends at a healthy grade along a drainage before cresting out in the open alpine. The climb lasts for a few miles and, while it’s steep in areas, it relents with flat sections allowing your lungs and legs to recover.

After the big climb up to a high point on the trail, we stopped to session a few lines, let Zula stretch her legs chasing us around, and imbibe a few tasty beverages before the setting sun necessitated our return to the trailhead. After living in the desert for so long now, I had nearly forgotten the clairvoyance and serenity associated with pedaling up to remote alpine zones and enjoying the experience with friends. But that feeling quickly subsided as we chatted about the impending snowstorm that was about to blast the high country we were riding in.

Hoots and hollers permeate the forest as we drop down from the ridgeline along the draw

While we were only in Ketchum for a couple days, it felt like much longer. Thanks to Cameron, Keeley, and Andrew, we got to experience so much more of the area than we would have on our own. I’m not one to typically call upon a guiding service to lead me around a new place, but when time is limited there’s nothing like having a group of experienced locals show you the goods. My takeaway from this Ketchum sampling was that it should be on anyone’s shortlist who likes long rides with plenty of challenging climbs, ripping descents, and idyllic alpine landscapes.