Ski areas transform into super summer bike destinations
It’s a downhill thrill, only without the bulky winter gear, strapped-on sleds, or packed powder.
To a growing crowd of downhill thrill seekers, Silver Mountain is gaining a reputation far removed from the snow-prone winter months. From late June until Labor Day, the resort opens up as a giant mountain biker’s playground, with riders accessing the runs via the world’s longest gondola and bombing down a roller coaster-style descent back to the village, tallying roughly 3,400 feet of vertical drop on each lap.
“There’s nothing in the area like it, really,” says John Williams, marketing director at the resort. “I think one of the neat things about our trails is it’s gondola-served. It’s a long haul and it’s a great ride from top to bottom.”
In the last five years, Silver has quietly added a mishmash of downward trails to the map, with everything from technical root- and rock-dotted sections for advanced bikers to free-flowing pathways for beginners. To date, the downhill selection consists of more than 30 miles of trails, 20 percent of which is novice, 40 percent intermediate, and the rest dedicated to the more difficult-seeking adventurer.
“Our mountain is fairly steep…Intermediate and experienced bikers love it because they can fly,” Williams offers about the difficulty of the terrain. But, he added, there is something for every skill level, including for families and others looking for smooth rides and gentle grades. There are several nearby paved pathways that stretch miles in almost all directions.
Silver Mountain’s budding bike system is a reflection of the sport’s increasing popularity.
Throughout the last decade, an onslaught of biking technologies, such as lighter weight bikes, new frame designs, front and rear suspension and better disc brakes, has made the sport more accessible than ever. That fact isn’t lost to the staff at the Kellogg-based resort, which recognized the trend and built a summer business around it. With tracks fit for any weekend warrior, a crew of bike-enthusiast employees set out each spring to create the twisting trail system.
“It’s not a large market, but it’s similar to the downhill market. It’s very comparable to our skiing clientele,” Williams says, adding that the numbers of fat-tire bicyclists are growing each year. “We think there’s a lot of potential for our trail systems, especially for beginner runs.”
Known as a sport subject to each tracks varying twists and turns, jumps, bumps, drops and smooth banks, Silver’s four-man crew changes the terrain each year to keep things fresh. Some local favorites include the tight, single-track Spooky Woods course, and the high-speed Jackass bombing run.
“It’s been kind of a slow and steady growth,” says Willie Bartlett, a manager at the Silver Mountain Sports store in the Gondola Village, referring to the resort’s approach to the trail system.
Bartlett, who also helps create the mountain trails, adds they have been working on making more intermediate terrain in recent years. The goal, he says, is to make the mountain approachable for all skill levels. “The massive amount of vertical and the variety of the terrain are really what set Silver apart,” he offers. “Everything is built with some amount of speed in mind. With a 15 to 20 minute downhill run, there are trails for all abilities. There’s something for a pro to a new single-track rider.”
However, the downhill isn’t the only two-wheel traversable terrain in the area. There’s more – a lot more.
Within walking distance of the resort, which offers special bicycle packages during the warmer months, visitors will find the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 73-mile paved trail beginning in the valley and spanning the Idaho panhandle between Mullan and Plummer. There’s also the Route of the Hiawatha, aka the “crown jewel” of rail-to-trail mountain bicycle routes. Known at one point in time as one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country, the former-railway trail is accessible by Interstate 90 at the Idaho/Montana state line – 22 miles east of Silver Mountain’s Gondola Village in Kellogg.
The resort also hosts the triathlon-inspired Leadman competition every year, an event that marks the end of ski season and the beginning of summertime. Now in its sixth incarnation, the contest, set to take place Saturday, April 24, will feature about 200 competitors in individual and team categories.
“This is Silver Valley’s answer to the Ironman,” Williams says with a laugh. In describing the series of events included in the race, he adds: “It’s a mad festival. You’re going from snow to slush to mud to pavement.”
Participants ski one mile, then jump on mountain bikes for a seven to 11 mile trek, and finish with a four mile run that wraps up at the village. No matter what, they end up crossing the finish line caked in dirt.
Whether looking for a white-knuckle ride that spans a mountainside, or for a trouble-free trek through picturesque backcountry, the Silver Valley offers an ideal starting spot – or finishing point – for any bicycle buff.
“When you look at the summertime in Silver Valley,” Williams offers, “the biking opportunities all over the area make it one of the premier places in the world.”