Over Memorial Day Weekend, my friend Korey Pelton and I had planned a 3-day, fully-loaded, 100-mile camping trip by bicycle from our hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, to the well-known tourist destination of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, using a little-known dirt and gravel route in the country: Smith Canyon Road. Much of our trip revolved around this section, even though it is a relatively short part of the distance traveled, due to its 1,800 foot elevation gain. We chose to do this trip in May to avoid the intense heat of the summer, which can easily make or break a trip of this difficulty.
We woke early Saturday morning--two days before Memorial Day--and loaded our bikes with water, snacks, camping gear, and repair tools. Having plenty of water, as well as knowing how to deal with mechanical failure and flat tires, is a must for long distance, self-supported bicycle touring; you may find yourself miles from nowhere with only sagebrush for company!
After running through our checklists, we hit the road at 10:00am. We made good time, leaving Pocatello using Old Highway 91, a low-traffic, 40-mile route to the entrance of Smith Canyon. I was riding my touring bicycle, which is suitable for both on and off-road use, and Korey had used his mountain bike. We stopped at a Subway restaurant 25 miles into the trip for lunch--one of the few places available to eat in the rural area of McCammon, Idaho. After eating, we followed the highway for another 15 miles until we reached Smith Canyon, just past the small town of Arimo.
Calling the next portion of this ride difficult is an understatement. Smith Canyon begins as a gravel road, winding up the mountain 1,800 feet over a distance of six miles, that slowly transitions into a smooth dirt road. When taking into account the type of road, distance we traveled just to get to there, the elevation and amount of weight we were carrying, this makes for a challenge to even experienced bicyclists. My lowest gear combination--26 teeth on the front and 34 on back--allowed me to spin my way up the mountain. Korey's mountain bike didn't have quite as low of a gear, making his climb a slow grind.
I stopped numerous times to catch my breath, making sure to take plenty of photos, while Korey continued his slow ascent with infrequent stops. The elevation makes for spectacular scenery: Rural houses in the distance silhouetted by hazy mountains in the evening sunlight. I appreciated this section even more on our return trip, when this part of the ride was downhill. The occasional Jeep and car could be seen coming and going on this road and on those in the surrounding area. We climbed Smith for about an hour before being rewarded with one of the steepest descents either of us recall experiencing. The remaining portion of our trip was done coasting at high speed, right up until we arrived at our camping location shortly after 5:00pm. After pitching our tent, we saddled up once again to make a trip to a nearby grocery store. Returning to our campsite, we ate dinner and soon fell asleep.
The following day was spent resting. We woke early and casually bicycled around to explore the small town of Lava. Our mission that morning was to find coffee with some of the greasiest, high-calorie breakfast food we could get our hands on. Envisioning crispy strips of bacon and giant stacks of syrup-covered pancakes, we locked our bikes outside the first diner we could find.
For the remainder of the day, we hung out at our developed campsite and chatted with our camping neighbors. Many people had brought their RVs, dirt bikes and ATVs with them for the weekend. We occasionally spent time barricaded in our tent to escape ferocious winds and rain--yes, it was certainly Memorial Day weekend, known locally to be as consistent as Old Faithful when it comes to precipitation.
Early next morning, on the final day of our trip, we concluded by traversing the same route on which we came--right back up Smith Canyon. The reverse climb was even steeper, covering the same elevation over a shorter distance. Surprisingly enough, we were well-rested and able to make it home on Memorial Day at 2:00pm.
It is certainly a trip to remember.