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After a sweltering 17-mile bike ride along Warm River near the Idaho-Wyoming border, we settled at our reward: a shady camping spot at the river’s edge, where we sipped beer and watched an osprey survey the night’s catch from a treetop before dive-bombing into the water to retrieve it.
Behind us, the kids played amid the tents, grabbing bites of chips and guacamole before returning to their collective frolicking. Then our guide, Wes Shirey, got antsy.
“How about an obstacle course?” he shouted toward the kids, who clamored to mount their respective mountain bikes and follow the resident Pied Piper of Biking Children. “Slow is the new fast,” he said, leading his charges over the firewood logs he had set in a path traversing the group’s campground. “I don’t want you to cheat technique with speed; you need technique to further your biking adventures.”
This was a typical pre-dinner routine during our five-day family mountain-biking trip with Western Spirit Cycling, a Moab, Utah-based company specializing in backcountry road and mountain-bike trips throughout the Western U.S. With an emphasis on biking around and through public lands and national parks, this itinerary began just west of Grand Teton National Park in Idaho’s Island Park, leading us east through cow-dotted meadows, along scenic river valleys and over the border until we reached the park’s famed Jenny Lake.
My husband and I first took a Western Spirit trip in 2003: the Backcountry Hot Springs tour through Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest. On the five-day itinerary — a challenging, nontechnical mountain-biking trip along dirt mountain roads — we pedaled nearly 150 miles and camped each night at one of the state’s plentiful hot springs.
Twelve years later, we were excited to experience Western Spirit with our two sons, ages 7 and 9, on the Grand Teton and Island Park family trip. An ideal introduction to mountain biking, the routes varied from flat pavement and rolling, country backroads to single-track trails and “rails to trails,” which are abandoned railroad tracks transformed into hiking, biking and walking trails.
“Not only is biking a healthy lifestyle, but it spreads kids’ boundaries,” said Kara Sephel, a Western Spirit guide. “I think that’s a good thing. Hopefully these kids will continue to bike.”
If anyone in our group — five adults and six kids, ages 7 to 12 — didn’t feel up to biking all or part of a ride, they could hop in the support truck with one of the three guides. It was a lifeline for both tired kids and parents.
That support truck also allowed a taste of backcountry camping without the burden of hauling gear or preparing food. In the words of one of the kids: “It was nice to be able to camp without having to do all the work.” While it was our responsibility to manage our own tents, the guides handled the rest: loading and unloading gear, setting up campsites and cooking campfire creations that rivaled any stovetop masterpiece.
Breakfast included spreads of pancakes or French toast, sausage, oatmeal, yogurt and fruit; lunch stops meant “fixins” for sandwiches and fresh salads; and dinner offered treats such as enchiladas, fish tacos and tomato and pesto pasta with salmon. And the piece de resistance: desserts such as s’mores, chocolate fondue and peach cobbler. For campfire cocktails, adults can bring their own, and the guides will keep it on ice.
The trip was everything we had hoped it would be for our kids — a week of off-the-grid, muddy, messy fun and a chance to build biking skills, all amid some of the most stunning wilderness in the West. But above all, Sephel says, it’s a chance for families to bond.
“What I’ve noticed is that families test themselves in ways they’re not used to, which can cause frustration,” she said. “But usually, in the end, it brings them together. Families that ride together stay together, right?”
Last year, Western Spirit celebrated its 25-year anniversary. The company offers a variety of cycling excursions, including single-track and road-biking trips, in addition to family and custom trips. Adult itineraries are available from mid-February through early November; family trips run from spring through August.