South Central Loop: An Idaho Motorcycle Ride

The state of Idaho is crisscrossed by some of the greatest roads in the world, many of them created for the sole purpose of resource extraction. In other words, many were built for the removal of lumber, mining, or trapping and hunting. While the public views about those industries have evolved over the years, and many of the mines have long since been closed, the roads remain.

While many remain dirt and gravel roads, accessible by off-road or dual-sport motorcycles, four-wheel drives or ATV’s, several have also been paved and become transportation corridors for several purposes.

This year for Father’s Day, my wife surprised me by buying me a motorcycle. She found a 1998 Triumph Trophy 900 from a friend of ours, and I love the British made bike and the sport touring aspect of it.

Before this trip, we had taken short mountain rides, and when I was living in Arizona and even the northern part of the state, I had explored many of the mountain roads there. The southern and south-central parts of the state I had explored in a car, but seldom on two wheels.

So we planned a route that includes some of the best motorcycle roads in the state. The first leg was from Boise to Idaho City via Highway 21. The second leg went from Idaho City to Stanley along the same route. The final leg of day one was from Stanley to Hailey. Each leg included a few stops along the way, but not as many as we would have liked. More on that in a moment.

After spending the night in Hailey, we continued to Fairfield and across to Mountain Home on Highway 20, and then I-84 back home. Of course, as this was our first long motorcycle ride on this bike and this route, we learned some things.

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Road Conditions

Every road we traveled was windy and offered curve after curve. That is good for a motorcyclist: it is certainly more fun that a straight route, unless that route is traversing the Nevada desert in the winter, in which case excessive speed makes it more enjoyable.

Not that we here at Unbound would ever advocate violating local speed limits or speed recommendations on corners.

That disclaimer being said, the corners in question offer chances to lean deep and corner hard, testing the limits of both rider and machine.

Of course, a bike handles differently with luggage and a passenger, so be aware that your balance is different. If possible, increase the spring load on your rear shock or make whatever adjustments you can to your rear suspension to beef it up.

Not that we here at Unbound would ever advocate violating local speed limits or speed recommendations on corners.

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Also, this year has been a wet one in Idaho, and so there have been several rock slides in the area, especially on the road from Idaho City to Stanley. Watch for gravel in the corners. There are several that are essentially blind and tight, and the rear end on the bike broke loose slightly in some, although it was nothing critical.

Still, this is a situation where excessive speed, especially if you are not familiar with the road, may not pay off.

Secondly, besides rock slides, one of our seasons here in the Gem State is construction season. You will find orange cones, flag people, grooved pavement, and sharp shoulder drop offs to deal with. You know those signs that say “Motorcycles Use Caution”? They mean it. Follow all instructions and signals, and watch for loose gravel and other hazards.

Also on these back roads, specifically the road from the Fairfield turnoff to Mountain Home have speed limits between 65 and 75 miles per hour. However, on Idaho freeways outside of rural areas, the speed limit is often 80.

Drivers are often driving faster than posted limits, and get impatient with speed limit followers, campers and farm vehicles, and other slow moving traffic. Be aware, even in no passing zones, of motorists going around slow traffic. They may not spot your motorcycle, and the result could be disastrous.

Stop Often

This is not the kind of ride where you need to do an iron butt marathon. There is a lot of scenery, and if you are the driver and not the passenger, you may miss much of it paying attention to navigating those fabulous curves.

This section of Idaho is rich in history and spectacular views and stopping to learn about it only enhances the journey.

We got a late start, so were not able to stop as much as we wanted to, but there are some great views along the way, and we took in a few destinations.

This section of Idaho is rich in history and spectacular views and stopping to learn about it only enhances the journey.

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Lucky Peak Reservoir: Not far into your journey, you will come across Lucky Peak Reservoir, a man-made lake with a large dam. It is a popular swimming and boating destination. You can either pull off and ride across the dam for a quick walk around or stop at one of the many overlooks along Highway 21, many of which have historical markers describing the history and geology of the area, a fascinating study.

Idaho City Pioneer Cemetery: A short distance off the highway is the Idaho City Pioneer Cemetery. Nearly every small Idaho town has one of these, but the one in Idaho City is remarkably well preserved and cared for by the local historical society. There are often tour brochures available that will tell you what to look for along with facts about the cemetery, although the bin was empty when we were there.

The last part of the road to the cemetery is dirt, but our bike easily handled it. If you are nervous, you can park at the bottom of the dirt road and walk the rest of the way up: it isn’t far and will be well worth the stroll.

Stanley: There are many historical markers and potential stops between Idaho City and Stanley, and if you have the time you should stop and read as many as you can. However, once you get to Stanley there will be many lunch options, and you will want to take advantage of them.

We often have an issue with grabbing food on the road, as my wife is gluten intolerant and we were on a strict diet at the time. There were two spots recommended by locals that offered such options, and we chose Sawtooth Luce’s, and that turned out to be a great choice. Not only did they check on and accommodate our dietary needs, the staff was extremely friendly and understanding.

Redfish Lake: Back on the road, we could not help but stop at Redfish Lake. It is one of our favorite spots in the Sawtooth range and a few simple miles off the highway. This time though we cut our visit short. The places where we normally stop were flooded due to the high water this window. One park ranger, admiring the Triumph, told us this was the highest he has seen the lake in nearly two decades working in that area.

Still, if you need a snack, a water break, or have time for a picnic, Redfish is a great option. The views, even though limited by parking closures, is still spectacular. The mountains rise out of some of the clearest water around, and it is normally peaceful, especially during the week. If nothing else, you can get off the bike and stretch your legs a bit.

Galena Summit: Before you get to Hailey, you are going to go over a large summit. The road up is fun, and each turn offers a new view of the valley below. When you near the top, you will see a pullout to the right with some interpretive signs and a parking area. Stop here if you don’t stop anywhere else.

The view overlooks the Sawtooth Wilderness area and you can see several peaks along with the entire valley below. Signs will tell you about Idaho Senator Frank Church and his wife Bethine who spearheaded the creation of this and other wilderness areas, including the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area in central Idaho.

You can spend as little or much time as you like at this viewpoint, but it is worth at least a brief stop, one you may need after the road that led to the top.

Sawtooth Botanical Gardens: We make it a point to stop at these botanical gardens whenever we can. The Buddhist meditation garden includes a prayer wheel donated by the Dali Lama, who also visited the Sun Valley area around the time it was placed.

The prayer wheel has an incredible history, but there is definitely a spiritual peace in this space no matter what your beliefs. Next to the gazebo where the prayer wheel is located, there is also a pond with a pretty amazing crystal with a fascinating story as well. This is not to say the rest of the botanical gardens is not also worthwhile: there are many types of flower gardens and climate areas represented, and the staff does an excellent job.

There is a donation box at the entrance, so be sure to contribute if you are able and appreciate the gardens. There are also restrooms available, making it a worthwhile stop.

Lodging Options

We went on to Hailey from the gardens, where we had a great Air BnB. There are of course many hotels in the area, and some of them in Hailey and Bellevue are more reasonable than staying in Sun Valley or Ketchum proper.

We found good, reasonable food at Sun Valley Brewing despite our need for gluten free options. The bed at our Air BnB was great, and we woke refreshed after a great night’s sleep. Our hostess was wonderful, nd had a great canine companion (we are dog people and love dogs, Hi Charlie!).

Day Two: The Way Home

In the morning, we were tired and slightly sunburned from the previous day’s ride, but we wanted to explore the area a little more, so we drove back to Ketchum.

Downtown Ketchum: From an Iconic Starbucks where it is not uncommon to spot the stars that live in Sun Valley, and also a local favorite meeting spot to the Gold Mine thrift store (which is often truly a Gold Mine) stopping and walking around here is a great idea.

The Starbucks was excessively busy, so we stepped out and went on to find the Leadville Espresso House, a fantastic small shop that had some of the best fruit smoothies I have had in a while along with a gluten free banana muffin that was to die for.

Of course, we visited the Gold Mine, and while the crowd was a little overwhelming and we found no treasures we could carry back on the bike, it was worth the stop just to see. If you are a cyclist, there are a few cycle shops that are must visit places for sure, including Durance Cycleworks and Pete Lane’s.

Fairfield: This is the point of decision. You can continue on to Twin Falls, stop at the famous Perrine Bridge or Shoshone Falls, or both, or you can take a faster ride back to Boise through Fairfield and Mountain Home.

The difference is between a little interstate and a lot. The trip to Twin Falls means that for most of the route back to Boise, you will be on the freeway, not a bad thing, but not the most amazing motorcycle road.

The Fairfield route takes you through some high desert, and is not the most gorgeous route, although it has a beauty all its own. The road though is fast, with long curves that add to the adventure. These are a break from the tight mountain curves and do offer some opportunities for speed (see the previous disclaimer).

We stopped in the town of Fairfield at a gas station for some water and a quick break. It was getting hot (another argument for an early start) and met a group of relatively cool cyclists from the Sons of Thunder out of Buhl. The Triumph got a great deal of admiration and questions wherever we stopped, and it performed beautifully.

Mountain Home: This road dumps you out in Mountain Home, a quick 45 minutes or less back to the Boise area by the freeway, most of which is at the 80 miles per hour speed limit.

We usually stop here for one last water and restroom stop along with a gas top off. There are a couple of truck stops to choose from, and they are equally truck-stopish, meaning it makes no difference which one you choose. We stopped at the Cenex on the right just before the entrance to I-84, in part to ease the transition to the freeway.

Always Wear Sunscreen

Now for the advice part of the article. We made several mistakes, albeit small ones that were easily overcome.

  • Carry More Water/Ice: If you have a camelback, or cup holders use them. However, even if you don’t, stop frequently but carry more water. This will keep you from having to stop and purchase water.
  • Start Early: We got a late, casual start which meant we could not stop as many places as we wanted to. Get an early start, giving you more time to explore.
  • Always wear sunscreen. It sounds basic, but it may not feel that hot at first. By the time you feel hot, it will be too late. Also, pay special attention to your hands and holes in your gloves and where your sleeves may blow upward, revealing white skin that is normally not exposed to the sun.

That’s it. This is a great ride that you can do in a single day if you are ambitious, but it is better if broken up into two days. You can add stops to your loop if you have time, or even extend it (something we plan to do and write about), including the road to Salmon, another great bike route.

However you choose to ride, whatever route you take, keep the rubber side down and the shiny side up. Until next time.


Originally published at Unbound Northwest.