I camp two nights for a local club ride meant to climb the challenging trail to historic Boulder Basin near Sun Valley. There is camaraderie and beauty in the midst of defeat.
It was Dax who last April boldly proclaimed, “Hear ye, hear ye. Anyone crazy enough to try this should join in the fun! The goal … is to ride to the top of Boulder Basin Road (if it could be called a road).”¹ The “crazy” was not so much the trail condition but its attempt on “big bikes,” those five or six hundred pound road bodies fitted with extra suspension and bash bars to make them ready for “adventure” and, in my experience, exercise.
My wife Jessica and I had some experience last year of just what brand of crazy this was.² It was actually Dax who inspired that trip as well. I swore then I’d never do it again but I was glad to ride along on a smaller motorcycle to see others scramble breathlessly up three thousand feet of scree and creek cobbles.
The back road ride from Boise along the South Fork of the Boise River and over Dollarhide Mountain into Ketchum would be a good time on the KTM but a night time arrival and a triple-decker sandwich of busy weekends convinced me to use car and trailer to reach the trailhead.
Besides, how could I forego Mountain Home and Highway 20 along the 250 square-mile Camas Prairie on a sweltering summer day? Unbending asphalt disappearing into the heat-rippled horizon between desolate shades of brown would serve well to clear the palate, like freshly sliced ginger, before savoring big mountains.
“One of the biggest attractions of Fairfield is its low population density … In the last census conducted in 2010, the city had just 416 people and a total of 109 families dispersed over a total city area of 0.88 square miles.”¹
The Camas Prairie was used by the Bannock Indians as a summer campground¹ through the mid-1800s. It was one of their long used paths through the prairie that became part of an Oregon Trail northern alternate known as Goodale’s Cutoff² that avoided the arid Snake River Plain and Indian attacks between Pocatello and Mayfield.
But for a misspelling of Camas as “Kansas” in the Treaty of 1869, apparently, the Bannock would still possess the land. Instead it was homesteaded and tilled for hay and barley.³
Idaho Mountain Express, April 13, 2011, “Natives still return to Camas Prairie”: mtexpress.com/index2
Like the movie scenes where someone answers their door and sees no one until they think to glance down at the midget or talking mouse, I think it took the pickup driver heading north from Ketchum a moment to identify the sound of my passing. The dark haired man looked down from the cab with a stern expression meant, I guess, to mask his shame or express disdain for the reckless 55 MPH highway speed limit.
Either way: I passed your 4×4 with my Aveo and trailer!
With night falling fast, I was hoping for an alignment of illumination — my headlights or their campfire — to find the Idaho Adventure Motorcycle Club riders somewhere aside the gravel road off Highway 75. A long RV and short Jeep occupied the first campsite at the edge of the trees. I could see their fire flickering between branches.
I continued on, my little car’s small wheels clawing and spinning up the rocky track like our new kitten Minnie trying to get on a leather chair. The Harbor Freight discount trailer¹ creaked and twisted over the rocks. It was GS déjà vu as I tried not to slip the clutch while keeping the pace to a crawl.
I saw hopeful flashes of light in the next grove up the road, a hope extinguished by the appearance of signs proclaiming “You’ve arrived!” and “Get your drink!” — too gaudy to be our ADV² crowd.
“Have you seen some guys on motorcycles go by?” I asked the nearest of two large groups around fires. There were a dozen RVs and trucks squeezed among aspens.
“Yeah!” someone called out.
“One of them a big yellow bike?” I asked to confirm. I knew Dax rode a yellow GS 1200.
“Yep,” the same lady answered. Everyone laughed when she yelled, “Keep going!”
I would have planned on saucer separation¹ back at the highway if I’d known our group would be camped so far up the tedious trail. It wasn’t until the first creek crossing that my car lights caught the reflection of yellow bodywork and a head popping up in the darkness behind.
Dax was already laid out on his cot. No one else had arrived yet. We knew Sam was out on doctor’s orders and Mr. tvbh40a was stuck helping a needful client but might catch up in the morning. I hadn’t seen updates from the other Basin initiates.
Although Dax graciously provided ample morning time for other arrivals, it was just the two of us who crossed the creek and began the upward migration. The others will be surrendering their man cards. I was surprised at how quickly we ascended the lower half of the trail compared to my last visit. Nobody had to walk!
Beyond the scree field where trail and creek converge, however, the GS copped an attitude. If we did the math to find the tire surface per vehicle pound suitable for steeply inclined, layered creek cobbles, the GS would be well off the bad end of the chart. Once stopped on that stuff it wouldn’t go again without exhausting pushing, pulling and cursing.
The KTM, on the other hand, was like riding wheels of fresh marshmallows on a graham cracker crusted trail — so sweet! Without the side-by-side comparison, I didn’t realize how different it could be.
Dax seemed cheerful in spite of his stubborn steed. It stopped. He pushed. It fell. He posed and picked it up. At least for a while.
“I don’t think I’m gonna make it!” Dax sighed incredulously before slumping in his seat. The GS wouldn’t budge instead digging deeper into waterlogged rubble as Dax strained himself dizzy from altitude and exhaustion.
After catching his breath, Dax threw down the gauntlet: “If you want to try, you’re welcome to it.” The tire dug in far enough that the GS was standing unsupported where he left it. I approached and swung a leg over — familiar feeling.
Rocking, swaying, throttling had no effect. It would need serious exertion. Good thing Dax was quick to enlist the fortuitous assistance of descending UTV drivers who winched the GS forward to more solid footing. Other people’s exertion is the best kind.
When I first saw the apparently stock, late model Range Rover begin the ascent I thought, “more dollars than sense.” I was forced to re-evaluate when they caught up to Dax and I still milling about the parked GS as if it might mend its ways given some time — tortoise and hare stuff.
“We came to scout for a possible group trip,” they explained, “but I don’t think so.” It’s not the road for your average around-town vehicle — or average around-town people, for that matter.
We might have attempted a last hurrah with the GS if we were close to unfettered riding but a quick run up the trail on the KTM verified plenty of rolling rubble to go. So Dax and I got the GS pointed in a direction it was willing to go, downward, and said our goodbyes. I felt a little bad leaving Dax behind reclined on the ground almost comatose from exhaustion but adventure must go on. Bye Dax.
I stood on the pegs and with a twist of the wrist (see the video for more on that) I was soon entering the ruins of Boulder City within the basin, “the second town established in the Wood River Valley [that in it’s heyday] boasted a store, hotel, post office, corral, saloon, cabins, and ore processing mill and a number of mines.”¹ “The town was abandoned in 1890.”²
All that meets the eye now are a few dilapidated log cabins and the collapsing mill.
The meadow and ruins are preserved for the public with thanks to the parents of Sarah P. Campbell,³ who, along with the Wes Wills family, donated the fifty acres around the mill to the Forest Service in Sarah’s memory.
My wife Jessica and I had stopped at the mill when we were here last year so this time I followed an ATV trail upwards to see what was there. It was a fun scramble to outcrops and old mine entrances above the mill. I might have ridden higher but it was easier just to walk the scree.
I never planned to hike. I just wanted to see what was up the hill a bit farther. But when I got there the next rise was intriguing too. And then another. Soon, like the Poky Little Puppy,¹I was far from my motorcycle, hot and thirsty, without water or GPS. But I’d seen a few things.
“The level terrain of the journey’s final mile, even after noting the lack of contour lines on a topographic map, still came as a surprise,” writes Mike Cothern of his hike into the basin. “Such broad, flat valleys are rarely found at 9,000-foot elevations. Rocky ridges surround but don’t crowd the basin, with several connecting to Boulder Mountain.”¹ “The area holds snow into early summer and was utilized in the 1940s by Sun Valley Ski School to extend their ski season.”²
The trickle of water splashing over angular rocks before disappearing into a patch of snow was so cold, so beautiful. I know some of the water up there is contaminated but I rinsed my face and took a few cautious sips. With that little refresher I figured I might as well go all the way — climb until I couldn’t!
Having seen red snow several times now, I finally decided to take the fifteen seconds needed these days to find Internet answers to anything (boy, when I was a kid …). The phenomenon is known as watermelon snow and is caused by the algae Chlamydomonas nivalis.¹ Now you know.
The ravine I followed from the motorcycle finally opened into an upper cirque. It was like another world up there — nothing but acres of undulating, crushed orange rock, fresh and lichen-free. I wondered how it looked before the mining.
I thought I would be nearly to the ridge but saw it still rising high all around. Rocks began tumbling down a distant face as I stood deciding whether to pursue it. Hollow crashing sounds seemed to echo for minutes.
I decided to go for it. A mountain goat stood above watching as I picked my way across the floor of rocks toward that final climb. I imagined his perspective to be like a scene from a moon or Mars movie of the distant astronaut bouncing across the floor of a huge crater.
I saw no path up the steep ridge face so I scrambled with hands and feet. I was pleased that my achilles and other parts seemed up to the task after the last ride.¹
I didn’t reach the highest point but got to a place at about 10,300 feet where I could sit and see over the other side. Ridge-enough. It seemed so perfectly still up there — just a steady sound of wind. I thought a moment of going higher, something that would require actual climbing, but then thought better of it.
The easy breeze back on the motorcycle felt good after the return hike under a hard sun. I rode back down through the mill then turned left, riding higher into the basin.
Jess and I were running out of daylight when we arrived last year so hadn’t stopped over at the lake. I was surprised by clear blue-green water that looked almost tropical, quite different from the ponds we saw up higher. Before stopping at the shore I decided to keep the momentum going up another ascending ATV track.
I was surprised again, and a bit disoriented, when the trail above the lake ended at the same upper cirque I’d hiked. Apparently the mill and lake are near each other but the road makes them seem distant. From this direction I could have ridden much of what I hiked!
I parked on the trail and walked a short ways to a high point above the lake.
I thought I would continue riding after cooling off in the lake but once I stepped off the motorcycle near the shore I realized I was beat. The regular cadre of microbes inhabiting this temple of mine¹ decided a few days ago to make mayhem. An army of leukocytes² rose to quell the uprising, their command and coordination demanding the mental resources I normally use for trip planning and enthusiasm. And I didn’t sleep much the night before. I suddenly felt exhausted.
I set up camp in grand style at an established site near the lake’s edge. Watching the succession of lake visitors from my privileged place was like witnessing a parable — not the sort Jesus shared, meant to prevent understanding,¹ but maybe enlightening.
I saw three groups. One would leave and shortly after, another would arrive, as if somewhere below a dispenser was printing numbered tickets. “Boulder Lake now serving number 53.”
The first consisted of eight or ten rugged individuals, guys and gals, short and tall, thin and wide, looking as if they could be the original inhabitants of the basin. They gathered around, watching and commenting when I arrived. “Look at this one, Bill!” one laughed while pointing at a sticker on my motorcycle — an unassuming, rollicking and abiding bunch.
It was quiet after they left until I heard the groan of an engine climbing the steep road. The family of five in the modish SUV were polite when I approached but not so genial. They stayed long enough for two boys to jump a couple times from the far rocks then left — transitory.
The third group seemed to be several trendy couples in two Jeep Wranglers. “Feel free to come through,” I said, walking toward them and pointing back at my campsite. “There’s another cabin, pond and little cliff that way.” Their apparent indifference made me feel awkward, made me wish I’d stayed back in my camp chair. They let one of their dogs jump in the water then left — fleeting.
“The disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ Jesus answered them, ‘To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted’ … ‘Otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them’” (Matthew 13:10–11,15).
The group with the least (by appearances) gave the most — the most friendship and time — and the group with the most gave the least. It often seems to be that way. Some of the simplest living I’ve seen in Idaho, in the mountains along the Silver Valley, is also where I’ve met the friendliest people. I wonder why that is.
I kept waiting for a second wind to blow away my weariness but it wasn’t coming. It’s hard to read or write feeling that way so I gathered up the camera and began shuffling and wading around the little lake beginning at the nearby pool.
A tunnel just above the lake’s edge doesn’t seem to go far.
An ATV trail through the main campsite I occupied leads to a pond and second crumbling cabin. I enjoyed wandering around. There was more to these home sites than mining utility.
I wasn’t feeling very hungry but thought dinner might perk me up. A chipmunk I cleverly called “Chippy” was sure the cooling noodles were for him. I shooed him away twice then made amends with toffee peanuts. I am usually pretty happy to be alone with my thoughts but since my brain wasn’t doing it’s job I was glad for Chippy’s company.
I knew that “Laboratory result of soils samples collected at the Boulder Basin recreational area indicate there is a risk to human health … with the lead levels greatly exceeding the Initial Default Target Levels and the EPA Human Health Screening Levels … There is a potential for contamination to occur in acute doses to people who may recreate in this area.”¹
But I was really thirsty. I figured the water tumbling down the mountain might be cleaner than the lake contents so I made a final evening trek around the lake with my water filter.
It was still light when I retired to my tent. I thought the experience and image of stars reflected in the clear lake could be remarkable but I was so tired. It was already sunny and starting to warm up when I awoke feeling much better.
I caught up on the additional riding I expected to do the day before. There is a higher level of basin above the lake where Jess and I camped last year. I rode up to see it again and take a closer look at the meadow there.
The ride back down was quick and refreshing, rolling over rocks, splashing through water, in and out of shade.
The drive back to the highway seemed much slower. I didn’t want to end up like the person who left a muffler behind.
Boulder Basin is a wild place equally challenging and rewarding. It’s one of the few high mountain areas you can drive to, given the right set of wheels. Next time I hope to bring our kids. I want them to know places like this.