Yellowstone Bike Tour—2013: Part One, Driggs, ID to Madison Campground

Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

As we were contemplating where we would go on this summer’s bike tour, we limited our options to where we could either end or start near home. We only have one car and I can’t leave my wife without a car for a week. We really wanted to do something exotic, like Yellowstone or somewhere in Colorado but that didn’t seem to be an option. Then as I was talking to my older brother, I suggested he and his daughter should join us. Eventually he decided to join us. He also happens to have a large truck that seats six, so now our options were much better. In the end we decided on a loop through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. I have a friend who did a credit card tour through this area a few years ago and spoke highly of it.

We planned to start and finish in the small town of Driggs, ID on the western side of the Tetons. This year, my daughter would be joining us as she was recently returned from missionary service in Taiwan. So the line up consisted of: myself, daughter Natalie, son Finn (16 years old), my older brother Kyle, his daughter Kjirsten, and another niece, Shauna, a mother of two small boys. This would be the largest group we have ridden with so far. Our first year there were four of us, and last year it was just Finn and I. So this would be interesting. Our cycling experience was pretty varied as well.

Natalie, English major, senior at BYU.
Natalie, English major, senior at BYU.
Finn, high school junior
Finn, high school junior
Kyle, chiropractor and master herbologist
Kyle, chiropractor and master herbologist
Kjiersten, massage therpist
Kjirsten, massage therapist
Shauna, recent geography graduate from Weber State and mother of 2 small boys
Shauna, recent graduate from Weber State in geography, and mother of 2 small boys
Matt, mastermind behind this trip
Matt, mastermind behind this trip

On Sunday evening we drove to Driggs, ID and checked into the quaint Pines Motel, boys in one room, girls in the other, except that Finn decided he would rather be in with the girls than with his dad and uncle.

The loaded truck, 6 bikes in the back, 6 people in the truck
The loaded truck, 6 bikes in the back, 6 people in the truck

We had a nice dinner at the Royal Wolf Cafe, recommended by Nancy who owns the Pines Motel. We soaked in the hot tub before bed. The next morning we ate some bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, then packed up the bikes. We had arranged to leave Kyle’s truck at the motel for the week.

Getting ready to begin our journey
Getting ready to begin our journey

Finn was riding his trusty late 80’s Bianchi Sport SX (steel frame, of course). Natalie had recently found a nice 90’s era Bianchi San Remo, a randonneur/touring bike (steel frame), I was riding my new Bianchi Volpe (steel frame), Kjirsten has recently found a nice Specialized Allez, also a steel frame, probably from the 90’s, Shauna was riding an aluminum Raleigh, and Kyle had a Masi steel frame racing bike from the 90’s. His problem was that there were no rack mounts so he decided to use a B.O.B trailer. He also quickly learned that racing gearing makes touring a bit (a lot) more challenging. He and Kjiersten only had twin chainrings on the front, as did Finn.

Day 1: Driggs, ID to Lower Mesa Falls Campground, ID

We headed north out of town on Highway 33 and passed through the small farming and ranching town of Tetonia. The road rolled up and down through farms and ranches with great views of the Tetons.

The western, Idaho side of the Tetons
The western, Idaho side of the Tetons
This is where famous Idaho potatoes come from, at least some of them
This is where famous Idaho potatoes come from, at least some of them

We turned off on Highway 32 toward Ashton, all the while rolling through beautiful farmland of the Teton Valley. It was a very pleasant ride.

Idaho potato farm
Idaho potato farm

Just as we were nearing Ashton, ID, we came upon a pretty serious car accident. Finn actually witnessed it. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured. The Ashton sign seems to sum it all up.

Adventure surely started here for them
Adventure surely started here for them

We rode into Ashton and stopped at a gas station to refill our water bottles. It turns out that one of the clerks in the store used to work at the campground at Mesa Falls and was able to give us some information about it. I had had a difficult time finding out much about this campground. Most importantly I wanted to know if there was water at the campground. She assured us that there was.

From Ashton we headed back on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. After an initial descent the road began climbing up onto the forested plateau that leads to Island Park. It was a hot day, in the low 90’s and after 35 miles on the first day of a bike tour we were feeling it. We climbed about 1200′ in the next 6 miles and arrived at the Lower Mesa Falls Campground at about 3:00 pm. This first day shook out our riding order. Finn was always ahead, followed by me. Natalie was then 15-30 minutes back followed by Kyle pulling his trailer. Shauna and Kjirsten, who were new to long distance cycling brought up the rear.

Our camp at Mesa Falls
Our camp at Mesa Falls

There are two Mesa Falls, the Upper and Lower. This is the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. We were camped on a high bluff above the Lower Falls. It was a very small campground, only 9 sites. We were using two tents for the group, a four-man 9’x9′ Oware Pyramid and a two-man Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid. The Oware tent only weighs 26 oz. and the MLD weighs 18 oz. (w/o poles). Because they are made of sylnylon they pack down very small and are ideal for lightweight travel like backpacking and bike touring.

Before dinner we hiked over to check out the view of the falls far below. Finn even hopped down the steep boulder field to get a closer look.

Finn, the mountain goat
Finn, the mountain goat
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Lower Mesa Falls
Natalie, at Lower Mesa Falls
Natalie, at Lower Mesa Falls
Sunset over the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, Lower Mesa Falls
Sunset over the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, Lower Mesa Falls

The mileage and time totals for this trip are based on my own cyclometer. Actual distances, times, and averages varied for each rider.

Day One Distance: 54.6 miles

Time in the saddle: 4:10

Average speed: 13.2 mph; Max. speed: 38.5 mph

Day 2: Lower Mesa Falls, ID to Madison Campground, Yellowstone Nat’l Park

Day two would be our longest day of the tour. Tuesday morning we headed north on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. After one mile, Kyle, Finn, Natalie, and I rode down to see the Upper Mesa Falls. It was a one mile steep downhill road to the falls overlook. Kjirsten and Shauna decided to keep on riding and we would catch up with them later. We had visited the Falls the prior Autumn when we were passing through this area. They are pretty impressive.

Upper Mesa Falls
Upper Mesa Falls
Me, Natalie, and Finn at Upper Mesa Falls
Natalie,  Finn, and me at Upper Mesa Falls

We only stayed for a few minutes then climbed the steep road back up to the highway. In a couple miles we caught up with Shauna and Kjirsten.

Riding along the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway
Riding along the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway

The riding along here was very pleasant. It was a nice cool morning, the road rolled gently and we were surrounded by pine forests. It doesn’t get much better than this. We took a break at the junction of the Scenic Byway and Highway 20.

Taking a roadside break
Taking a roadside break

From here Highway 20 heads north into Island Park. This small town in Idaho claims to have the longest Main Street in America at 33 miles long. I guess they consider Highway 20 as their Main Street. The riding through Island Park was nice, but with a lot more traffic. One of the hazards of riding in a popular tourist destination is all the RV’s and trailers. We took another rest stop at the Island Park Village Resort. We refilled our bottles, bought some snacks at a gas station, and prepared for our climb up Targhee Pass. On our map it was only 7000′ so it should only be maybe 1000′ of climbing. We had been mentally preparing for this climb all day. In the end, it turned out to be no big deal. The ascent was gradual and didn’t seem that long.

What was more challenging was the flat, open grassland around Henry’s Lake State Park. It was very windy through this section. All one could do was get in the drops, put your head down, and churn through it. It was actually nice to get out of that valley and the wind and start climbing.

The top of Targhee Pass, the Continental Divide, and approaching the Montana border
The top of Targhee Pass, the Continental Divide, and approaching the Montana border
The top of Targhee Pass, looking back toward Idaho
The top of Targhee Pass, looking back toward Idaho
Natalie at the Montana border
Natalie at the Montana border
Kyle at the Montana border
Kyle at the Montana border

From here it was 10 miles to the town of West Yellowstone at the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The descent was much shorter than I expected. It was a bit steep in places, the shoulder had rumble strips, and was covered with gravel and debris, and on top of that it was very gusty. Kyle had a difficult time controlling his trailer as it was bouncing around from the bumps and the wind. Once down there was about 8 miles of dead flat riding into town. We were all feeling a bit tired, but we were all looking forward to a late lunch in West Yellowstone. We stopped at Wild West Pizza, where we had eaten before on a few other occasions. Their pizza is excellent and we enjoyed a nice long break.

Wild West Pizza in West Yellowstone
Wild West Pizza in West Yellowstone

The last leg of this day’s ride was a pleasant and scenic 14 mile ride into the Park. We paid our entrance fees then took it leisurely as we rode along the Madison River. The scenery was really beautiful and the late afternoon light only enhanced that. At one point there was a long back up of cars coming in the opposite direction, probably a mile long. All that for three elk feeding along the river. On this stretch of road Finn and I spied two touring cyclists ahead of us. It was the first other cyclists we had seen on this trip. We caught up with them and rode along chatting. It was Bill and Lorna from Sacramento, CA. They had started in Bend, Oregon and were headed to Cody, Wyoming to visit friends. They were seasoned cyclists and had done many tours in the past. I enjoyed visiting with them along the way.

Sights along the Madison River
Sights along the Madison River

I had talked with a Yellowstone Park official the week before and learned that all the campgrounds in the park have a hiker/biker section and that by law they cannot turn away a cyclist. When we arrived at the Madison Campground, we registered to camp, which cost $6.80 per person. That sounds like a pretty good deal, and it is if you are traveling solo or with one other person, but when you have six people in your group, that comes up to over $40 for a campsite. The hiker/biker section was not really an established campsite per say; it was just a section under the trees behind the ranger station. There was a few picnic tables and some tarps strung up for shade and weather protection. The bathrooms were a short walk away in the the regular campsite area. The biker section was full of touring cyclists. This campground is on the Trans American northern tier bike route. There were about 12-15 cyclist in camp. We met two guys and a girl from Kentucky that had started in Maine and were headed to Oregon. We also met the very friendly Tim Towers from Seattle. He was riding from Seattle to San Diego, the long way, via the Rockies. I had actually read part of his blog before our trip and thus was surprised to actually meet him. We had a very enjoyable time chatting with him and trading stories. We would end up camping in the same campgrounds with Tim for the next three days.

Madison Campground; the hiker/biker area
Madison Campground; the hiker/biker area
Our camp at Madison Campground
Our camp at Madison Campground
Our new friend, Tim Towers of Seattle
Our new friend, Tim Towers of Seattle

Before we cooked dinner we changed into our swimsuits and headed down to the Madison River to cool off and clean up. The water was pleasant and it was nice to wash up a bit after two days of riding.

Finn, testing the waters of the Madison River
Finn, testing the waters of the Madison River

We spent the evening chatting with Tim and Bill and Lorna before settling down for the night.

Day 2 mileage: 67 miles

Time in the saddle: 5:20

Average speed: 12.5 mph; Max. speed: 37.8 mph

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