Matt and I have just returned from riding the Weiser River Trail in southwest Idaho. The trail ends in the small town of Weiser (wee-zur), Idaho on the Snake River near Ontario, Oregon. This trail is the longest unpaved multiuse rail to trail in Idaho- 85.7mi. We completed nearly the entire trail in 3 days. You can learn more about the Weiser River Trail in Falcon Guides Best Rail Trails Pacific Northwest
True to our ethic of downhill-downwind bicycling, we began our journey at the northernmost trailhead, West Pine, just south of New Meadows, Idaho.
I wouldn’t recommend starting there unless you simply must travel every mile of the entire trail as a point of honor. This part of the trail is not completed yet and has very rough and uneven terrain.
A section has been detoured onto a dirt road with the resultant hill climbing over loose gravel and ruts. Not pleasant!
The switch from the road to the trail again is not well marked. I was riding ahead and saw the turn off, but Matt didn’t; so he went one way and I went another. We lost each other, wasting valuable time and energy before hooking up again. You can imagine the discussion that ensued. We now have a pact to maintain visual contact at all times.
A better place to start if you want to ride the really good stuff is Strawberry Road intersection on the east side of Hwy 95. The Pineridge restaurant and motel is on the west side directly across. Just down from Strawberry Road, the trail enters the Payette National Forest.
Matt liked the trailhead at Evergreen National Forest campground even better, which is just another 2 miles south on Hwy 95. Either way, you’ll skip the rougher undeveloped trail that simply parallels the highway from New Meadows anyway. Starting where the forest begins is much nicer, with the pine smells dominating the senses and the welcoming shade of the towering trees. Have I mentioned how HOT it was? No? Well, this will be a recurring theme on the Weiser River trail in July.
The entire trail runs alongside the Weiser River as it winds its way down through the forest, through valley farm and ranchlands, and finally through a high desert canyon to finish in downtown Weiser. The first 2 nights we camped at Evergreen NF Campground between Council and New Meadows. Evergreen is a tiny rustic campground right next to Hwy 95. It has very good visual screening from the highway, which is not particularly busy; but, unless you have a Ruby Slipper with cooling fans to provide “white noise,” you will hear traffic sounds. The camp host says the campground is a magnet for foraging bears, but we didn’t see or hear any. The big advantage to camping at Evergreen is that it is high enough in altitude to cool nicely at night. So much so that I was reluctant to start riding early in the morning before the sun could warm the air. Matt says I’m too sensitive to environmental stimuli.
Once past the trailhead at Evergreen, the trail loops away from the highway quickly and follows the river through an alpine valley.
A significant part of this section of the trail runs along and through meadows and ranchlands. You definitely feel like you are the only ones out there. We never saw another soul on the entire 25 mile section. The guidebook claims a 1200 ft descent from West Pine to Council, so the ride is mostly downhill. The nice thing about railroad construction is that everything is built to maintain a constant grade.
Trails can include high trestle bridges, tunnels, steep cuts and embankments- whatever it takes to maintain that constant grade. That makes for some nice bike riding.
Our goal the first day was Council, Idaho, 26 miles south from West Pine. We left West Pine at 9:45am and rode into Council at 1:15pm. The temperature by then was 92. We knew right away we’d need to have an earlier start the next day as the heat builds rapidly in this part of Idaho in July, and we were dropping elevation every day. We also discovered that trains don’t like trees, so shade was significantly lacking once we left the alpine forest south of New Meadows.
After completing the first day’s ride and getting some lunch, we drove to McCall, Idaho just 12 miles from New Meadows, but a world apart. McCall is an outdoor playland, with a big mountain lake complete with sand beach, hiking biking, off-roading, skiing-the list goes on. All the amenities one expects in a happy outdoor-oriented town are there. McCall, with a population of 2554 is also, with the exception of Weiser (pop 5222), larger than the other towns along the trail. Council, for example, has only about 678 people . [population data from city data.com] Nonetheless, It does have a great little restaurant, The 7 Devils Café, where we ate breakfast before beginning our ride the first day out.
On day 2 we changed our plans to start earlier. No more luxury restaurant breakfasts before hitting the trail. Instead we were up at dawn to eat toasted English muffins, orange juice, tea or decaf coffee in the Slipper- not too shabby a breakfast at all. Then it was on to place the shuttle car in Cambridge and return to Council to begin the ride. We managed to start the second section of the trail at 8:30am.
The second segment of the trail from Council to Cambridge is just 19.7mi. The trail starts straight and flat across farm and ranch land running right next to the highway.
We met a rider coming toward us within 1 mile of starting out from Council, and that’s the only person we saw on the trail in the whole 3 days.
About 3.5 miles south of Council the trail loops away from the highway and drops into a canyon as remote as any we’ve ridden. We scared a few cows along the trail as we passed by but none threatened us.
One bull did start talking ugly, but he was behind a fence so I felt in control and talked ugly back. We stopped a few times to drink water and eat M&M peanuts and raisins. We find we do better if we snack while on the trail and eat more heartily once we’re done. We carry two 20 oz. bottles of water each and have not run out of water on any of our rides yet.
Near the end of the canyon, we chased/followed 2 young coyotes that were travelling up the trail toward us until they became aware of our presence and turned and ran. Although they were clearly panicked, they were reluctant to leave the trail for quite some time. We were delighted and entertained by their escape antics, but I expect they’re still talking about their near-death experience encountering two humans who could “run” the trail almost as fast they could.
We’ve added front and rear packs to our mountain bikes to carry all the gear, water, repair supplies, jackets, and food we need.
There is also room for any “treasures” I might find along the way. I tend to fill both Matt’s packs, as well as my own, with these “treasures” so we end up traveling heavier and heavier as the ride progresses rather than lighter and lighter as we otherwise would. I get comments, but he always finds room and takes the heavier load. What a man!
We finished the shorter second section of the trail early pulling into Cambridge about 11:30am. We were glad to finish the segment before noon as the temperature was already 92 degrees. The flat straight unshaded sections of trail that cross the valleys between the canyons are boring and hot. We knew we’d need to start the last section of the trial even earlier- much as I hated to admit it.
After we completed the second day’s ride, we ate way too much food at a great restaurant in Cambridge: Bucky’s Cafe. They have great burgers and fries but be sure to distinguish between the chili cheeseburger and the Ortega chili cheeseburger, or you might end up with both. We did and felt obligated to eat both, in addition to the ham and cheese sandwich Matt ordered. This was a huge mistake to eat so much food, but it was irresistibly tasty. Some lessons one never learns.
That afternoon we drove to Brownlee Dam and reservoir in Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River. The Snake River forms the border between Oregon and Idaho here, and we were interested in what the level of activity and chaos might be on the river in this area. Turns out not to be a problem because there is no appeal for kayakers. True, there is a grandeur of landscape with the rounded brown mountains surrounding and leading into the canyon, but the reservoir is without vegetation on the shoreline; and the water is filled with slimy thick green goo, especially along the edges. No way would I find kayaking this waterway unattractive! It was too ugly to take pictures.
We spent the night before our last day on the trail at the Presley Trailhead, 11 miles outside of Weiser. This would be our final destination. We scouted the trail between Presley and Weiser and decided not to include it. It runs close to the road through flat farmland and consists of miles of straight, flat, unshaded (think hot and boring) stretches that we felt we could do without. I’m a “start to finish” kind of person, so it was a bit of a struggle to forego some of the trail; but, for us, it really was the wiser decision. These flat unshaded sections are just not FUN in July!
The last day’s ride started at 815am from Midvale. With that early a start, we knew we could do this section before it got too hot. We’d already ridden the last seven miles of this 23 mile section (see previous blog) when we first scouted the trail last spring.
This section enters a long canyon desert running alongside a beautiful rock-strewn river, high hillside walls and jutting rock spines. No roads and no people! I suspect no one else travels this trail in the mid-summer heat!
Half way through the canyon, Matt got a flat rear tire (our first since we began this trip and due to the deadly goat horn seed). Fortunately, we packed our emergency pressurized tire repair goo. Matt attached the can it to the tube nozzle, squirted in the pressurized goo and rode a short distance to distribute it. It held! We were saved (at least from the loss of time and effort necessary to take the wheel off, remove the tube and either patch it or replace it)!
Three miles later, I had a flat front tire-also from the dreaded goat horn seed. We had one pressurized can of repair goo left. Under Matt’s guidance, I squirted it in and rode on. We were about 5 miles from the Presley trail head where the Slipper was waiting. The tire seemed to be holding, but as I rode along, I began to feel droplets of rain on my thighs. But the sky was clear, and my water bottles weren’t leaking. I stopped to check my front tire and discovered my thighs were speckled with drops of the fluorescent green goo I’d shot into my front tire. My tire was leaking green goo from the spokes. My tire pressure, however, was still good. We were still ~3 miles from the end. I tried to speed up, but let’s be real: I’m not going to go any faster than I have been. I’m tired and I’m hot. I became fatalistic. Que sera, sera.
This part of the trail was familiar so I knew I could walk out if I had to, or we could take the time to repair the tire and finish the ride in the blistering afternoon heat if it came to that. But the green goo held, and I finished the trail with honor, if not dignity.
I cannot remember the last time I have been so dirty. I was covered with sweat, dust, mud, and fluorescent green goo. It felt great! I just couldn’t be seen in public. Once we returned to our starting point in Midvale, Matt felt compelled to hose me down using a water spigot in the local park. Someone must have reported us, because one of the locals did a slow drive-by to see what the crazy tourists were up to, but he didn’t stop; as we were done with their hose and about to leave anyway.
My final thoughts about the Weiser River Trail experience and the lessons learned: don’t let your partner out of sight. It’s amazingly easy to lose track of each other, and voices don’t carry far in mountains. I’m going to get a whistle.
Don’t even think about doing this trail on anything but trail bikes. Street bikes or even hybrids won’t cut it.
Pressurized tube repair works. We’re switching to thicker tubes and liners, etc; but on the trail, cans are fast and effective. They’re a mess to clean up later, though. Ask Matt.
Heat is the number one factor in the summer. On the one hand, the trails belong to you. On the other hand, you better be done or somewhere with shade and water by noon or so, because it will be too hot to do anything until the sun sets. You can‘t carry too much water: we carry two 20 oz bottles/person and usually are into our fourth bottle when we finish.
I love this trail. I hope to do it again, although I will skip the first couple miles. The Texas Caprock Trail is still my most favorite, but this is a great wild and scenic experience. I highly recommend it.