Bikepacking Idaho’s Backcountry Hot Springs and the Legend of ‘Peg Leg’ Annie

Photos by Sofia Jaramillo and Becca Bredehoft

We were zipping down a rocky forest road after one of the hardest climbs of our lives…

Sawtooth Mountain range glows in the sunset

There is a backdrop of dark rainy clouds on the horizon and the southern end of the Sawtooth Mountain Range glows in front of us, illuminated by the sunset. It’s the ultimate reward after biking up thousands of feet. Steep hills glow from vibrant fall colored bushes. Bright fall colors of new growth contrast beautifully with charred remains of the burned forest around us. Fall is in full swing and we can feel it in the chilly air as we bike up James Creek pass. My friend, Becca Bredehoft, and I are three days into our Idaho backcountry bike trip.

ultralight bikepacking in the fall foliage

We are on the Adventure Cycling Association’s Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route.

It is a 500-mile figure-eight loop through central Idaho that passes about 50 hot springs. You can find the exact route and maps on the ACA website. This is our first bike packing trip, so we decide to bike a 150-mile portion of the trail between Ketchum and Boise, over five days. This section passes about ten hot springs.

It was amazing to end every day with a soak in a beautiful, pristine hot spring — bu this trip gave us so much more.

We had been planning this trip for months and both Becca and I were looking forward to exploring the backcountry hot springs. From white ceramic bathtubs to perfectly built wooden boxes, we saw a variety of pools along the way. Two days into the trip, we camped next to Worswick, a beautiful bubbling mountainside spring with over five pools. With its stained white bare ground and colored algae, this hot spring reminded me of a mini Yellowstone. Further along, we came across Preis Hot Springs.

”This small 4-by 4-foot pool fit two people snug and the crystal clear water and clean grassy surroundings made it a peaceful pit stop along the route.”

Nearly every day we ended our rides at a new hot spring. I initially thought checking out the pools would be the best part of the trip, but I learned that bike packing is not really about the destinations you aim for. It’s about the unplanned memories and stories that unfold throughout the ride.

Nothing better than a hot cup of coffee to warm up on a frigid, dewy morning.

An adventure up James Creek Pass

On our third day, we woke up to a frigid dewy morning. Becca and I slowly crawled out of our warm Aya™ down mummy bags and packed up camp. We quickly took down our Dagger™ tent, rolled up our Astro™ sleeping pads, which all stuffed neatly into our bike bags. All of our NEMOequipment was small and light enough to fit onto our bikes easily, but durable and warm enough to keep us cozy at night.

Our overnight gear was super light and packed tight, making it easy to carry on our bikes.

That day we decided to take an alternative route from Rocky Bar (5270 ft. elevation) over James Creek Pass to Atlanta, Idaho. We were in pursuit of something extremely important. Becca’s partner, Cade, is a pilot and said he’d fly us in pizza and beer one night.

This truly was a pie from the sky…

 

You know you’ve got a keeper if he’s willing to fly pizza into the backcountry for you!

James Creek Road veers off of the Adventure Cycling Association’s suggested route and I only recommend it for experienced mountain bikers. The other options would have been to go over Steel Mountain pass (7150 feet) and bike about 30 miles to Atlanta. Although we knew there was more of an elevation gain over James Creek Pass (7727 feet), this route was nearly half the distance of the other to Atlanta and we hoped it would get us to pizza sooner.

An endless slough of ascents and descents made the bikepacking tough

It was a beautiful sunny day so we decided to go for it! After a couple of hours of riding, we realized we were in for more than what we bargained. The steep road wound up and down through mountainous terrain. Each bend looked like it would lead to a summit around a corner. We would climb, get into a rhythm, and then suddenly speed downhill, only to lose the elevation we had gained. We lost and gained a lot of elevation on the way over this pass.

James Creek Road was rugged. It had massive holes and at some points, the edges seemed to erode off into infinity. During the gold rush, the road claimed the lives of seven mail carriers and was considered one of the most dangerous roads in the U.S.

 

It also took the life of Emma Von Losch, who attempted to travel by foot over the road from Atlanta to Rocky Bar with her friend and legend Annie Morrow in 1896. The road between the two towns was a major mining transportation route, but uncommon for women to travel. They got caught in a raging blizzard that lasted two days and lost their way. When search parties finally found them, Emma Von Losch was frozen and dead in the snow, covered by some of Annie’s clothes. Annie was found nearby incoherent and crawling through the snow on her hands and knees.

Both of Annie’s feet were severely frostbitten and had to be amputated above the ankles, garnering her the name “Peg Leg Annie.”

Experiences like these build friendships

Peg Leg Annie and Emma Von Loschs’ journey over James Creek Pass was far more excruciating and intense compared to ours, but none the less, the ride over this pass was an unexpected challenge. With beads of sweat dripping down my face from the heat of the day and many false summits, I felt anguish. I had to calm my mind and remind myself that we would get there. Each pedal stroke was an accomplishment. We neared the summit around 2 pm. The last little bit was the most difficult as there were many times I wanted to get off my bike and walk. My calves and quads screamed at me to stop, but I promised myself I would bike the whole way up. I felt my breaking point but kept moving passed it. Although it was hard, this ended up being one of my favorite days on the trip.

”In those last moments up James Creek Pass, as I slowly pushed my pedals down and struggled to bike in a straight line up the road, I found a new level of inner strength and perseverance.”

and we are rewarded with a natural healing soak like this

Along the road, there is a 2-foot tall stone memorial with a metal plaque on the side of it. It reads, Dedicated to the gritty resolve and courage of Annie Morrow, AKA ‘Peg Leg Annie,’ and her friend ‘Dutch Em’. When I saw it, I couldn’t help but feel connected to these two trailblazing women. I thought of how difficult it must have been for them,  and of Annie’s bravery to keep going despite losing her friend. Although they have both long since passed, their spirit lives on at James Creek Road. Seeing the plaque and thinking of their story helped push me up the mountain that day and gave me the strength to keep pedaling. Biking over James Creek Pass was not something I expected to have such an impact on me, but in the end, it is one day I will always remember.

and a few nights under the stars


Sofia Jaramillo is an outdoor adventure photographer, a lover of Latin culture, and a Spanish speaker. Her background is in photojournalism. She got her start in photography working for newspapers. She believes in the power of storytelling and with this approach has photographed worldwide ad campaigns for various clients.