Sun Valley Mountain Biking, Day 2: Cow Crick the hard way, and what happened to Tecate?

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[In which our intrepid duo corrects an errant past route, invents an errant new route, discovers the heretofore undocumented Faceplant Option for a traditional Sun Valley loop and laments the precipitous decline of a once proud Mexican libation.]

Because of our late spring and/or non-existent summer, however you want to characterize it, in Year 2010 of the Great Northwest, we were even more out of shape than usual for late July. Jim was playing it cautious, keeping our entry rides in the medium-range level of distance and altitude. The nice thing about Sun Valley is that you can do a loop and then, if you’re feeling like more, add another, different loop of greater or lesser challenge right in the same basin. It’s really remarkable for that. There really is that much riding around.

We had been scheduled to tackle the forbidding Bowery Creek Loop up the road past Galena Pass. But it rained heavily during the night and kept spigot-showering through the early morning hours. There was no telling when the rain would let up, and in any case we had no idea what conditions were like up on Galena, so we lowered our sights to closer to town.

As it turned out, we were glad we did.

Pondering an innovative new route.
Our first option was Imperial Gulch — Greenhorn Gulch, a lovely and classic Sun Valley ride that takes you up through lodge pole pine, runs you along a ridge with sweeping views, then drops you back down with a series of swoopy switchbacks and fast little runs through meadows and woods.

The departure point is a large parking lot at the Greenhorn Gulch trail head. You take Highway 75 south from Ketchum for 6 miles to Greenhorn Gulch Road and follow it to the end. You’ll find lots of hikers, mountain bikers and dog-walkers at the trail head, which has an outhouse as well.

Coming from Seattle, you expect after a downpour to find trails slippery and puddled. In Sun Valley we could hardly tell it rained. The trail surface was not only dry but nicely tacked up — no dust! We cruised around the loop in near-record time, pausing only at the upper junction for a very civilized photo at table and chairs. All we needed were a couple of cold ones, and we’d be right out of one of those outdoorsy beer commercials.

A couple of tall cold ones was all we needed.

We couldn’t take it too easy because our pals the bugs were still hot on our trail. Jim was starting to kvetch about the unfairness of it all, how I somehow got passed up for him when I was the fleshier, flabbier, presumably more succulent member of Team Mojo. He had even brought along a little cannister of spray in his pack. No matter how much he lathered on, though, the bugs still lapped him up.

Myself, I was beginning to think of the commercial value of my asset.

“We could bottle up my sweat and sell it,” I told Jim. “Team Mojo mosquito repellant. Paul’s Brow Juice. Or maybe Armpit by Paul.”

Jim thought for a moment, then said: “Eau de Butt Crack.”

Hey, if people will buy car insurance from little green lizards …

The last time we did the ridge section was at the end of a long, really hot day, when I’d run out of water and we made an unfortunate routing error — continuing on the up-and-down-and-up-again ridge instead of dropping down to the lower connector. This time we got it right, but you know what? I’ll remember the first time a lot more. Suffering imprints the gray cells far deeper.

The loopy joys of Greenhorn Gulch.

When we got back this time, we were actually just starting to get our Sun Valley rhythm. So Jim conjured up another loop — Cow Creek. It looked straightforward enough on the map, the only problem being we were following the map, not the recommended route.

We left from the Greenhorn Gulch trailhead but this time took a right at Cow Creek trail and headed up to a butte-like promontory. There was a lot more climbing than it looked at first, and when we came to a Y we were a bit puzzled. But a makeshift sign pointed us in what we thought was the right direction with crude Appalachian lettering: Cow C-R-I-C-K. There was no “Deliverance” theme, but things were about to get dicey.

Short on graphics, maybe, but getting the point across.

As we proceeded, the trail got sketchier and sketchier, till finally it disappeared altogether in a grass burn. We kept checking the map, and indeed we were on Cow Creek Trail. But it obviously wasn’t the mountain bike mecca that the route suggested.

We got off our bikes and beat the brushes for a bit, before Jim discovered the exit path. From there we dropped down a couple of steep switchbacks. Then the fun began.

Yee-haw! The rest of the trail, leading back to the parking lot, was a series of buckin’ bronco — or maybe it was bull-ridin’, given the name — bouldered downhills. You’d get through a patch and think, hey, that was intense! Now it’s time to ride!

Then you’d hit another. And another. Jim kept apologizing — “This isn’t what I figured on” — but I was having a great time. Until that one section. The one where I crashed.

It wasn’t a bad tumble. I was going pretty slow, which was part of the problem. The front wheel caught a doorstop that, with a bit more momentum, I would’ve rolled over easily. Instead the fork dived and I went over the bars.

If I’d been wearing full-finger gloves, I wouldn’t even have scratched my left index finger. As it was, I dug out a bit of skin and it was bleeding pretty bad. I also scraped my left shin and it was bleeding too. But I’ve been in lots worse crashes. I pulled my DIY first-aid kit out of my pack and put Neosporin on the cuts, bandaged my hand, took a shot of Arnica Montana and was ready to roll in no time.

[Please don’t tell my wife about the crash, as she never reads this blog.]

There were even more boulder sections, but nothing too insurmountable. We cruised back to the trailhead, and I checked the sign. There it was: Cow Creek Trail, spelled American Textbook.

Jim, still scratching his head, consulted the map again and figured out where we went wrong. The traditional loop is to do Lodgepole Gulch (Mahoney Creek Trail) up and then ride down the part of Cow Creek Trail we rode up. That makes for a screaming downhill — sans the boulder fields.

I liked it this way. We’ll call it the Cow Creek Faceplant Option. Or: The Real Cow Crick.

When we got back to the trailhead we struck up a conversation with a tanned, sinewy couple in a Eurovan who knew their way around the area.

“Would you like a cold one?” she asked. “We’ve got Tecates in the fridge.”

It’d been a long time since I’d cracked open a Tecate, but I recalled back in the day it was a pretty tasty beer. When I took my first sip, I just about sprayed it back out. What happened, did Tecate get bought out by Rolling Rock? As Jim later put it, that’s as close as you can get to rat piss without being rodential.

Dude where's my beer?

Not to diss the hospitality of our new friends, though, because they saved our hides. We were thinking about doing Bowery the next day, but they warned us off. Too much suffering for too little gain; they suggested an out-and-back that sounded pretty good to us.

It would have to wait till the next time we came to town, though. For our third day out, it was time to start pinning the fun meter. Boundary Creek was calling our names, and we were all ears.

Elevation gain: 3340 feet. Miles: 19.2.

[Tomorrow: Boundary Creek revisited, with the unexpected reappearance of old friends.]


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