17 Days, 7 Ski Towns, 3000 Miles: Part 1

My 40th birthday road trip

Written by Julie K.

HomeTravel BlogDestinations & Adventures17 Days, 7 Ski Towns, 3000 Miles: Part 1

17 Days, 7 Ski Towns, 3000 Miles: Part 1

With a lot of excitement and a little trepidation, the white dogs and I set out in Giulia along with our good friend N. This was the beginning of a two-week road trip to celebrate my 40th birthday.

Julie K and Giulia with yellow cottonwoods

As described in a previous blog post, my big goal had been the 40×40 in 2020—that is to have visited 40 countries by my 40th birthday in 2020—but thanks to a global pandemic, I was forced to learn lessons of altering goals, dreams, and travel.

After working through some stages of grief over my lost plans including anger, depression and acceptance, I was excited and grateful for a new kind of trip. The plan included driving new mountain passes, exploring ski towns in the off-season, finding beautiful fall colors, and visiting long-time good friends.

I felt some trepidation, in part because I would be alone for parts of this long road trip, something I’d never done before. The second part of trepidation was that Giulia can be finicky as most high-performance machines are. Just in the week leading up to the trip, she lit up her check engine light, causing me a great deal of panic and frustration that my trip was going to be ruined. Enter projected stages of grief again.

Thanks to a kind service manager, we were able to ascertain that it was a fuel pressure sensor, and the resolution was as simple as a new tank of gas. I am always grateful for helpful tips from experienced people.

Lucky Start

The weather was a golden sunny autumn and the first day of driving was an epic one—from Washington, through Idaho, and into Montana along the Snake, Clearwater, Selway, and Lochsa Rivers and Lolo Pass. Just the kind of road Giulia loves, bending over 100 miles of continuous curves.

The first real excitement of the day happened as I got pulled over for the first time in Giulia—by a forest service ranger, no less. Yes, I was speeding. He sized up the two ladies and two dogs in a Giulia, questioned us about where we were going, and warned us of the narrow curvy road ahead and decreased speed in small towns. No ticket. Lucky again.

Highlights of the day included rugged river scenery with fall colors, one dog chewing through and eating a significant portion of the trail mix bag, and a wide area along the river called Dead Mule Flats.

It’s funny how a name can stick in your mind and make you want to learn more about it. A bit of research revealed the story of Dead Mule Flats, as told in the Idaho County Free Press.

A woman named Sherry Nygaard and her father were early back-country outfitters in Idaho. Once, when she was packing a mule string on the river trail, long before any roads existed, she awoke one morning to find six mules and two horses died overnight from eating bad grain, yielding the name of this site.

After passing through the flats, we spent the night in The Lodge at LoLo Hot Springs. While we opted not to take a dip in the pools, we enjoyed walking the dogs on the mountain property, taking in the fresh pine and steamy sulfur scents.

At Lolo Lodge, there is a bit of slow internet in a few places but no mobile phone service. Not to worry—there is a handy old-fashioned telephone booth in the middle of the parking lot!

Among the Bitterroots

The second day included heading south on Highway 93 along the Bitterroot Mountains (part of the Rocky Mountains), leaning into the wonderful curves leading up to Lost Trail Ski Area, driving along the ever-changing geological rock formations of the East fork of the Salmon River, and encountering Giulia’s first snow as we climbed over the pass leading down into Stanley, ID.

We also encountered another couple of intriguing names, including Fort Fizzle—a wooden barricade on the Lolo Trail intended to stop Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. But the Nez Perce went around via a ravine and thus the failed barricade earned its name. And the Dusty Mule Bar and Grill, near Salmon, Idaho, springs up seemingly from nowhere. We didn’t stop, but it boasts five-star reviews for its burgers and beer on Tripadvisor, and is probably well visited during the summer when tourists camp and raft nearby.

The Lost Trail Ski Area was an unexpected and delightful discovery. It sits on the Continental Divide, straddling Idaho and Montana. The off-season view of cliffs, chutes and trees got me really excited about the potential of great winter ski terrain. I confirmed this a few months later when I returned for a ski day. Its relative distance from any towns means there is a lot of powder to go around.

Cottonwood Gold

The best discovery of the day was Cottonwood Recreation Site along the Salmon River outside Ellis, Idaho. This park is a gem, nestled along a quiet stretch of river in a large grove of cottonwoods. The leaves were at their prime golden hue and gusts of wind rushed streams of yellow past our feet and swirled individual leaves over our heads like a wild circus ride. With ambient sounds of wind, leaves, and water, we enjoyed a picnic lunch perched on a small beach log adjacent the river. This is the perfect park to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and feel your heart rate slow and your mind relax.

A fun surprise here was that the entire inside walls of the outdoor bathroom facilities were hand painted in murals depicting the wild life and ecology of the area by artist Helen Seay. I found the murals to be a vibrant sprucing up of the park bathrooms, and the art is engaging and colorful.

As we continued to wind our way along the Salmon River later in the day, we were driving through heavy rain and toward the top of the last pass we encountered wet heavy snowflakes. The first sighting of snowflakes for the season always gets my giddy. Of course, I had to pull over and dance around Giulia in the snow for a few minutes.

Julie K, Giulia and Snow

Sun Valley Memories

Dubbed “America’s first destination ski resort,” Sun Valley is the original quintessential ski town. It offers up two ski areas, Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain, and there are miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

Baldy Mountain, Sun Valley ID

Returning to Sun Valley always brings back memories. Sun Valley is where I took my first official ski lessons on Dollar Mountain. I was too shy to ask for a potty break, which resulted in me wetting my pants on the chair lift. I’m thankful to have learned a bit more about managing my introversion since I was a child.

We stayed in a charming condo called Penney’s at River Run, which has immediate proximity to the Bald Mountain base area and a paved walking/biking path. Upgraded with a gas fireplace but still quaint, with a tiny built in bunk beds off the kitchen, our unit featured a view of Bald Mountain.

Our stay coincided with sunny weather and peak fall colors. We enjoyed the walking trails around the town of Ketchum and hiked one of the trails up the ski area from the Warm Springs base area, affording us nice views of the already snow-kissed Sawtooth Mountains.

Ketchum has great shopping and many tasty choices in restaurants. I always visit boutique pet stores and the local Thunder Paws is a good one. Our favorite meal was take-away from the Asian fusion restaurant Rickshaws, which is advertised as seasonal Southeast Asian street fare. There were many vegetarian options and we particularly enjoyed the papadums and the Balinese cucumbers.

Nearby Hailey is also a charming town, more local than touristy. The weather didn’t cooperate for a stroll but we enjoyed delicious tomato quiche and salad on our way out of town. Café Della is a market, bakery and café. There is prepared dinners to-go in the market, baked goods from scratch including gluten free, breakfast all day, and a selection of coffee and teas.

Giulia in front of Warm Springs Lodge, Sun Valley ID

Utah Ablaze with Color

The next stop on the tour of ski areas was Snow Basin, Utah. The drive up I-84 through Ogden Canyon was on fire with colors. The cliffs and terrain take on a more ragged appearance here.

Snow Basin was home to the 2002 Olympic downhill ski race. I’ve skied once here and looked down that race course. It’s steep! We hiked around the base area, enjoying the yellow of the aspen trees and the warm afternoon sunlight on our faces.

The day concluded with a must-stop at In-n-Out Burger before dropping N at the Salt Lake City airport. Then Giulia, the two white dogs, and I wound our way up the hill backlit by the sunset to the ski town of Park City.

Giulia at In-n-Out

Surprise Adventure

The next day the dogs and I enjoyed a sunny walk on the paved trails in Park City and made a little driving tour of downtown Park City and up to Deer Valley ski area. The terrain here is a bit more mellow and very brown in fall, but the town is lively and colorful. I enjoyed a lunch of corn fritters and a cappuccino at a café called Five5eeds. Then we headed down through the narrow, rugged scenery and fall colors of Provo Canyon–a worthy drive if ever in the area.

The destination of the day was Grand Junction, Colorado where I have friends and planned to take a couple of days off the road to work on some projects including the building of this blog.

We were about 100 miles from Grand Junction traveling on Highway 6. The landscape is mostly desolate desert with a smattering of junipers and distant, mesa-like mountains. We had just relieved our bladders and finished doggie dinner at a rest area and were back on the road, when I heard a distinct Sssssssssssssssss from the left front of the car and my tire pressure indicator lit up. Alone in a sports car, out in nowhere and near sundown, this is a devastating feeling.

The tire pressure didn’t go to zero so I slowed significantly and hoped to limp Giulia to the next fuel stop a few miles away. Not to be. The tire pressure dropped again and I noticed the smell of hot rubber—never a good sign. I managed to pull off into a small ranch access which wasn’t more than a sloped and slightly graveled entrance to the desert. I didn’t need Giulia stuck in the sand on top of a blown tire.

Giulia stranded in the desert with flat tire

Thankfully, there was good mobile phone service. I called AAA, who informed me that the Covid policy was that tow trucks did not allow passengers and I would need to make my own arrangements for a ride.

I was dumbstruck. I could understand a requirement to wear a mask, but leaving a woman and her dogs on the side of a desolate highway was not acceptable.

Having little other choice, I called my friends in Grand Junction and asked them to kindly start driving to rescue me, knowing it was going to take them over an hour and a half to reach me.

The regional tow service called to ask me what type of vehicle an Alfa Romeo was, pronouncing it Alfa Rom-ee-oh. I informed the dispatcher that it was an Italian sports sedan. She replied, “Oh, it’s not an RV.” No!

AAA sent a flatbed truck, which turns out is necessary to not interfere with the brake electronics on the finicky Italian car, although I didn’t know to request this.

Sitting on the side of the highway alone watching the sun go down and the trucks go by is neither comfortable or pleasant. Thankfully, the tow truck and driver arrived just at sunset.

K turned out to be both an ambitious and thoughtful gentleman. Immediately, I told him about what AAA told me about riding in the tow truck. I informed him that I friends coming to rescue me from Grand Junction but it would take a while. He wasn’t going to leave me on the side of the road, was he?

He said, “No, no, no. Please call your friends right away and tell them to go back home. You and your dogs are welcome to ride in my truck and I will take you wherever you need to go.”

Giulia on the tow truck


He skillfully and carefully loaded my car, stopped at the next gas station so I could use the bathroom and purchase some water, and drove us to Grand Junction, dropping the car at the local tire center and making sure I connected with my friends. He was even kind enough to only mark it for 100 miles even though it was a little over so I wouldn’t get billed extra from AAA. When common courtesy and going the extra mile sometimes feels like it’s been lost, this gentleman was a ray of hope for society. I was so grateful to be rescued and treated so kindly by a stranger.

The next day I got to spend some large dollars on four new tires, which also purchased some renewed peace of mind for the rest of the trip. I was thankful and ready for a few days off of the road.

My 40th birthday trip continues in Part 2.

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