Solar Ecstasy - the birth of a trail!
In the spring of 2020 the Pend Oreille Pedalers (POP) were awarded a grant from the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation’s Mountain Bike license plate fund. The grant funds from the state were matched by an equal amount of funds from local sources, including the Equinox Foundation, and, importantly, over 200 hours of volunteer labor and donated machinery from our trail building partner, Collaborative Trails.
Once POP learned its grant application had been approved, we began immediately to develop a plan to complete the trail as quickly and to as high a standard as possible. In June, once enough snow had melted to access the trail’s starting point at 5,700 feet, POP’s executive Director, Jason Welker, began hiking the proposed route to place a preliminary flag line.
July to mid-August
By early July the grant funds were released and Collaborative Trails was able to move its excavator into place and begin machine work on the trail. We planned a 10 week build, based on an average of 250 feet of trail per day towards the completion of the proposed 2 miles of new trail. The hope, of course, was that the trail would be finished much sooner, but in order to do so both our trial building partners and our volunteers would have to put in enormous effort.
By mid-August the new trail had traversed 1.5 miles of mountainside, crossed a 120 foot wide scree slope, and connected with the existing Uleda Ridge trail at about 6,000 feet of elevation. The 1.5 mile trail climbed only 300 feet, with an average gradient of only 4.5%, providing a more climbable alternative to the only previous route to Uleda Ridge, High Point trail, which averaged a 9% grade.
But the work was not done. Our original proposed route had to be modified due to the discovery of a spring hidden in a thick stand of alders at about 5,800 feet. Surrounding the spring was an expansive boggy area, where the wet soil and substantial vegetation made it impossible to build trail. We had to move the trail some 80 feet further uphill from where we had planned to put it, requiring us to span a scree field and tie into Uleda Ridge higher up the trail than we had anticipated.
Given the original scope of the project, however, the trail reroute allowed us to use Collaborative Trails to make significant improvements to the existing Uleda Ridge trail, resurfacing it with the excavator and widening it significantly. Additionally, the original project proposal had described building a trail out to Uleda Point itself, a 6,100 promontory along Uleda Ridge. From the end of the existing Uleda Ridge trail, our crews then built two new switchbacks along a new section of trail climbing approximately 50 feet to the promontory, where a “cul de sac” was constructed. A former POP board president designed and built four solid wood benches (branded with the POP logo!) to be placed at this point, which were carried to the point and installed during our final volunteer outing for the project on August 29th.
On this final volunteer day we had 30 volunteers show up, who were brought to the top of the ski resort by chair lift, then walked or biked out to the trail site. During this outing volunteers did finishing hand work on around a mile of trail, cleared limbs from many trees, installed a new trail map at the intersection of Uleda Ridge trail and High Point trail, and carried the four heavy benches 1.5 miles along the ridge to install at what has been coined “POP Point.” Following the 3 hour volunteer effort, we all returned to Schweitzer Village for a barbecue and celebration hosted by our local ski shops to thank everyone for their efforts.
September - October
By early September POP was ready to open the new trail, which the board decided to name Solar Ecstasy, after the popular backcountry ski run that the trail traverses. Given the dry conditions over the entire duration of the trail’s construction, we made the decision to keep it closed until Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s summer operations ended on September 6th. Once the chair lifts stopped running, we officially opened the trail, and on September 7th the trail closed signs were taken down. Between September 7th and October 18th POP ran the “Basin to Crest Challenge,” an individual challenge that asked mountain bikers to experience the new trail as part of a 20 mile epic ride, starting at the lowest trailhead in our Little Sand Creek Watershed trail network, climbing 4,200 feet to POP Point, then turning around for the 10 mile descent.
Over the six weeks following the opening of Solar Ecstacy, dozens of riders from around the region came to tackle the Basin to Crest Challenge, many documenting their efforts on social media, tagging the Pend Oreille Pedalers. As a reward for their accomplishment, the club had custom mud guards made with the route highlighted, and presented them to 40 members who completed the ride and attended our end of season party on October 19th.
2021 and beyond
Solar Ecstacy and the Uleda Ridge trail are the first two phases in POP’s envisioned Watershed Crest Trail, which eventually will travel another 12 miles from POP Point around the rim of the Little Sand Creek Watershed, below the summit of Bald Mountain, along the ridge south of Bald Mountain, descending over 3,000 feet into the Lower Basin, where it will terminate at a future trailhead parking area above switchback three on Schweitzer Mountain Road.
POP’s success on Solar Ecstacy and the Uleda Ridge trail in July and August of 2020 would not have been possible without the support of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, the Equinox Foundation, and the efforts of the over 50 individuals who volunteered over seven days on the project. Building this trail meant more to our community than simply putting in an easier climbing route to a beautiful high country ridgeline; it meant bringing our community together towards the common goal of expanding opportunities for recreation and adventure right on the edge of town. Building trails builds community, and the community of people involved in this trail included kids as young as seven to grandparents in their 70’s.
Since its completion, hundreds of mountain bikers and hikers have enjoyed Solar Ecstasy, showing just how valued these kinds of front country trails are to a community. For 2021 POP hopes to continue expanding the Little Sand Creek Watershed trail network, focusing on the Lower Basin trails that lie on Sandpoint city-owned property below switchback 6 on Schweitzer Mountain Road.
The Lower Basin Trails saw record usage in 2020, with an average of 200 riders per day captured on POP’s trail cameras between July 19th and 27th. POP plans to build a climbing trail between the switchback 2 trailhead and switchback 4, which will reduce uphill/downhill user conflicts on the existing Lower Basin XC trail, and encourage more people to ride their bikes uphill in the Lower Basin instead of relying on vehicle shuttles (which account for more than 90% of users at present). We also plan to build a new downhill trail to replace the existing user-created DH trail, which is unsustainably built and therefore contributes to erosion in the city’s watershed. The successful completion of these two trails will once again require substantial financial and volunteer support from the community.
If you are interested in learning more about POP, please consider becoming a member. When you join you’ll be added to our email newsletter, through which you can learn about our ongoing trail building and maintenance efforts, our social events, youth programs, races, and other programs we offer.