Montana—Yellowstone Bike Tour: Part 1

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Every year we look forward to our annual bike tour. I spend time all year thinking, researching, planning, and mapping possible routes. This year was our sixth consecutive year for Summer bike tour. Four of my five kids have each done three bike tours. Some years we have had four kids along, and other years just one kid with me. But they have all been memorable and the kids love riding day after day together.

There is something about getting on your bike and riding off down the road not entirely sure what you will encounter along the way. Though I plan these trips in a fair amount of detail (knowing where we will camp each night, at least some options), I leave some of it unplanned. I am not very meticulous about mileage, elevation, and things like that. I like to leave some aspects of the trip a surprise. Sometimes this makes my kids a little crazy, but it always works out in the end.

For this trip I wanted to go back to Yellowstone because Lars missed our previous Yellowstone trip three years ago. I planned two loops, both beginning and ending in West Yellowstone, Montana. The long loop would be about 385 miles and include about 40 miles of dirt roads, and the shorter loop would be about 300 miles with no dirt roads. I think it’s good to have options in case you aren’t feeling up to the mileage or you get distracted along the way and need more time. I also wanted to see some of Montana, so I planned a loop up into Montana, then down into Yellowstone. In the end we didn’t do either of the loops I had planned.

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Day 1: West Yellowstone, MT to a Moose Creek Flat Campground along the Gallatin River

Sunday afternoon we drive to Rexburg, ID to stay with our good friends, Michael and Carly and their family. It nice catching up with them, and saves us trying to find a motel room in West Yellowstone at the height of tourist season. We leave the next morning and drive the 1.5 hours to West Yellowstone, have excellent breakfast sandwiches, buy a can of bear spray, pack up the bikes and change. It takes longer than I expect and we don’t start riding until 11:15 am. It’s always a wonderful feeling riding out on the first day of a bike tour. The bikes feel unusually heavy, we’re filled with anticipation and excitement, and it just feels good to finally be riding after all the planning.

My Bianchi Volpe with Lone Peak packs.
My Bianchi Volpe with Lone Peak packs.
Lars' Specialized Stumpjumper, a vintage model from 1989.
Lars’ Specialized Stumpjumper, a vintage model from 1989.

We begin pedaling north out of town along Highway 191, Gallatin Road, and within a couple miles pass a sign saying, “Gallatin Mtn Range.” It’s beautiful country.

On the outskirts of West Yellowstone.
On the outskirts of West Yellowstone.

For the first twenty miles we are gradually climbing, nothing steep, not difficult. After twenty miles we top a low saddle and beginning descending into the Gallatin River valley where the highway parallels the Gallatin River. Pine trees line the low valley walls, sometimes creeping out to the edge of the road. The sky is big and blue, the trees are a deep green, and the Gallatin River keeps pace with us, most of the time on our left. We pass by occasional ranches, a cabin here and there, a small herd of horses, people fly fishing in the river. And we’re thinking about fishing, our tenkara rods strapped to the top tubes of our bikes. We won’t be fishing in Montana, too many miles to cover, but I am having second thoughts, and Lars too suggests we come back to fish the Gallatin someday. My thoughts exactly. It’s pretty water, and I’m sure it’s full of hungry trout. The riding is wonderful as we descend this river valley, the miles ticking by with not a great amount of effort. It’s the perfect first day of a bike tour.

Riding through the Gallatin River valley.
Riding through the Gallatin River valley.

We meet a large group of young people, maybe 15-20 of them, with two support vans, riding across the country to raise money for cancer research. They started in Baltimore and are headed to Portland. We saw them earlier that morning in West Yellowstone, and meet up with them at a gas station near Big Sky. I come out of the store, and three guys and a girl are talking to Lars, checking out our bikes. We hear their story, 70-120 miles a day, staying at churches and schools along the way. I ask them what the highlight has been so far, since leaving Baltimore. Without hesitation, the girl replies, “today.” It makes me smile, today is our first day out, they have been riding for over month, and today is their best day. They encourage Lars to check out their organization and make the cross country ride once he is 18. They are impressed that he is riding a fully loaded bike at 15 years old. Never mind that this is his third bike tour with me.

The Gallatin River kept us company for many miles.
The Gallatin River kept us company for many miles.
The sky really was that blue.
The sky really was that blue.
Rest stop to filter water from a roadside creek.
Rest stop to filter water from a roadside creek.
Gallatin River.
Gallatin River.

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After filling up on Gatorade, and buying a few things to supplement our freeze-dried dinner, we take off down the highway. There are two campsites that are on my map, and we plan to check out the first one, which will be about 57 miles in. It’s not a great campsite, Moose Creek Flat; there are two sites open, one along the river. We’re boxed in by huge RV’s, but it’s flat, grassy, and just a stone’s throw from the Gallatin River. No telling what the next campsite will be like or if there will be any open sites, so we stay.

Moose Creek Flat Campground.
Moose Creek Flat Campground.
Unpacking.
Unpacking.
Camp for the night.
Camp for the night.
The Gallatin River just a stone's throw from our tent.
The Gallatin River just a stone’s throw from our tent.

After unpacking and setting up our tent, we change into swim trunks and head to the river. The water is cold, but wonderfully refreshing after a day pedaling. We don’t swim as much as dunk ourselves a few times in the cold water, just off the current where it is about 3 feet deep. It always feels good to get wet after being all sweaty and sticky. We then have a relaxing evening, cooking and eating, going for a walk, chatting. By 9:30 it’s getting dark and we’re really tired, so we go to bed anticipating a long day tomorrow. It was a good day.

Day 1 totals: 57.3 miles, 14.9 mph average, 31.5 mph max, 3:50 in the saddle

Day 2: Moose Creek Flat Campground (Gallatin River)  to Mallard’s Rest Campground (Yellowstone River), MT

We’re up early, about 6:30, wanting to beat the heat. It’s been warm and we would rather not have to ride much in the heat of the afternoon. We eat breakfast, pack up, and continue riding down the Gallatin River valley, and it really is beautiful. The valley tightens up, getting more narrow, with high rocky cliffs on the east side of the canyon. The morning is cool and pleasant. We even ride for the first hour wearing arm warmers.

A nice cool morning. Perfect riding conditions.
A nice cool morning. Perfect riding conditions.
Most of the time, Lars was up ahead of me.
Most of the time, Lars was up ahead of me.

The riding is mostly downhill and unfortunately there is a fair amount of traffic. After about 30 miles we exit the canyon and we enter a wide valley with lots of fields and farms. There are high mountains across the valley. Bozeman is just a few miles to the Northeast.

Heading into Bozeman valley.
Heading into Bozeman valley.

We’re anxious to get off this highway, so I consult my map and we turn off on a Cottonwood Road. It is finally quiet as we roll through peaceful farmland. We wind our way toward Bozeman, part of the way on dirt roads past farmhouses and green fields.

Riding through farmland.
Riding through farmland.

Once we get to Bozeman I consult my phone for a place to eat a late breakfast. We settle on Feed Cafe which gets good reviews. And we are not disappointed. It is in what looks like an old barn with wide wood plank floors and rustic tables.

Feed Cafe, Bozeman, MT
Feed Cafe, Bozeman, MT

The food is excellent. Any restaurant that has a daily toast special is good with me. Thick cut homemade bread slathered with organic butter. Lars gets the biscuits and gravy with house made chorizo and I get a chorizo omelet with avocados and a nice avocado salsa on top. Fresh squeezed orange juice completes the meal. We take our time eating, talking, relaxing. Lars is in love with the place.

House made chorizo biscuits and gravy with roasted poblano chilis.
House made chorizo biscuits and gravy with roasted poblano chilis.
Chorizo and avocado omelet with toast.
Chorizo and avocado omelet with toast.
It's hard to beat cold, fresh-squeezed orange juice.
It’s hard to beat cold, fresh-squeezed orange juice.

We ride right down Bozeman’s main street through the historic downtown area and out the other side to a frontage road along Interstate 90. We ride this for about 3 miles then are forced to ride on I-90, but only for four miles where we exit at Trail Creek Road. The interstate isn’t too bad as there is a decent shoulder. We had two choices, ride I-90 for 23 miles to Livingston, or take Trail Creek Road, which I had spotted on my maps and read a bit about. It was supposed to be a scenic drive, so I was all for it. It also made a triangle hitting the highway about 10 or 12 miles south of Livingston.

A short ride on I-90 outside Bozeman.
A short ride on I-90 outside Bozeman.

It’s a really beautiful ride. We climb on a narrow two lane road through forest before it opens up a bit with ranches and cabins alongside the road. After about 5 miles it turns to a graded dirt road. The first mile is badly washboarded and my sleeping bag falls off twice, but then it smooths out. The scenery is spectacular, rural Montana, big skies, forests, big distant peaks, a creek alongside the road part of the time, and pretty little cabins and farmhouses tucked back in the trees off the road. We really enjoy this part of the ride.

Trail Creek Road.
Trail Creek Road.
The dirt section of Trail Creek Road.
The dirt section of Trail Creek Road.
Lars collected wildflowers along the way.
Lars collected wildflowers along the way.
Along Trail Creek Road, with the Absaroka Mountain range in the distance.
Along Trail Creek Road, with the Absaroka Mountain range in the distance.

The road continues climbing for several miles before dropping down to a junction. We head East on Divide Road. It climbs for a mile before topping out with the beautiful Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River below and the majestic Absaroka Mountains framing them in from behind.

Junction of Trail Creek and Divide Roads.
Junction of Trail Creek and Divide Roads.
Dropping down into Paradise Valley.
Dropping down into Paradise Valley.

Four more miles down this steep dirt road before it spits us out on pavement. Just before the dirt ends we ride up on a van with several cyclists. It’s a van emblazoned Specialized on the side. There are three riders and what appears to be a cameraman (the van has all kinds of tripod mounts on the side). We stop to chat. They are all riding identical Specialized Sequoia bikes, the new adventure touring bikes with 29″ X 2″ tires, drop bars, and so on. They are loaded up for bikepacking with Specialized’s new frame, seat, and handlebar packs. When Lars rides up, they perk up and one says, “Whoa an old Stumpy.” Lars is riding my old 1989 Stumpjumper with moustache handlebar and 1.5″ road tires. They’re pretty impressed. I figured they were doing a movie about these new bikes and packs. They say they’ve been out riding throughout the West for the past month.

We make our way to Highway 89 and head south looking for a campground. There are a couple options. After a few miles we head down to the Yellowstone River and a place called Mallard’s Rest. There is a campground and boat ramp. We set up camp alongside the river. We’re glad that there are few RV’s in this campground. Might have something to do with the rough, steep dirt road getting here. Lots of rubber rafts and fishing boats are coming and going. It’s also really hot and the campground does not have any water, just picnic tables and a vault toilet. So, we spend a few minutes filtering water from the river, drinking, and filtering more. Then, we’re in the river swimming. We hike up the bank about a quarter mile, jump in, and leisurely float with the current back to camp. And repeat. Several times.

Mallard's Rest Campground along the Yellowstone River.
Mallard’s Rest Campground (on the right) along the Yellowstone River.
Approaching storm.
Approaching storm.

Storm clouds move in. We can see the rain in the distance to the Southwest, and it’s moving right toward us. I check my phone, which surprisingly has service, and there is a severe weather alert, a big thunderstorm moving our way at 30 mph with 50 mph winds. We watch it approach, then begin scrambling to get our gear in the tent. We’re sitting at the picnic table when it hits, like a freight train. The wind is terrific, blowing sideways, dirt is everywhere. Then something blows into Lars’ eye and he’s in real pain. We retreat to the tent and sit out the storm. High winds, rain, thunder, lightning. But in less than an hour it’s over and the sun is shining again. Lars’ eye really hurts. We flush it with water, he rubs it, nothing seems to work. We get back in the river and float down a few more times before making dinner. I suspect whatever is in his eye will work itself out and he’ll be fine. Once again, by the time it’s dark, we’re exhausted and retreat back to the tent around 9:30 and are sleeping by 10:00 pm. It’s another good day riding through some spectacular scenery.

Day 2 totals: 64.1 miles, 12.4 mph average, 33.3 mph max, 5:10 saddle time.

Day 3: Mallard’s Rest Campground to Mammoth, Yellowstone Nat’l Park

Breakfast at Mallard's Rest Campground.
Breakfast at Mallard’s Rest Campground.

We’re up early again, and Lars is in a lot of pain. His eye still hurts and he didn’t sleep well. Now we’re both worried. As a father, the stakes are always higher when you have your own kids along. I give him some ibuprofen after breakfast and hope for the best. After a few miles his eye seems a bit better, doesn’t hurt as much. After 10 miles we stop at the Emigrant Country Store in the tiny town of Emigrant, for some Gatorade. His eye seems to be okay, some pain, but not unbearable. We have about 40 miles until Gardiner on the border of Montana and Wyoming, also at the border of Yellowstone National Park. The plan is to ride to Tower Falls today.

Within a few miles Lars is nowhere to be seen; I’m out front, and that means trouble. I wait up for him, and wait, wait. I can see him in the distance and he keeps stopping. When he finally arrives he is in excruciating pain. He can’t keep his eyes open. It doesn’t help that we are riding upriver, so slightly uphill, and into a headwind. Now I’m really concerned. We are at the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon.

Yankee Jim Canyon.
Yankee Jim Canyon.

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We rig up his bandana, tied around his head, with a triangle of fabric hanging down over his bad eye. Now he doesn’t have any depth perception. I keep him close behind me so he can draft off me. He has to stop frequently; he says it is the worst pain he has ever experienced. At one point in the canyon, we pull off the side of the road, walk down into the woods and pray together. We have to get to Gardiner where we can see a doctor. Can’t mess around with eyes. After a few more miles, his eye feels better and he takes off. Later he tells me, he just wanted to get off this road and into town. I catch up with him on the outskirts of Gardiner and we ride in looking for a place to each lunch.

Gardiner, MT
Rolling into Gardiner, MT

We settle on the Tumbleweed Cafe and Bookstore. Charming place. I ask the girl working there if there is a doctor in town. Nope, but Livingston has an urgent care clinic. It’s less than an hour up the road—in a car, and we’re on bikes. Not good news. But I do know that there is a medical clinic at Mammoth, in the park.

Lunch in Gardiner, MT
Lunch in Gardiner, MT

We have a nice lunch, grilled sandwiches. Lars tells me his eye feels pretty good, but I think we still need to see a doctor and get it checked out. As soon as we begin riding again, the pain returns and he’s pretty miserable. From Gardiner to Mammoth is only about 5 miles, but you also climb 1500′. We slowly grind up the road and finally make it to Mammoth and head straight to the medical clinic.

NW Park entrance.
NW Park entrance.
Riding into the Park.
Riding into the Park.
Riding along the Gardner River.
Riding along the Gardner River.

He has a corneal abrasion. No wonder he’s in so much pain. We just rode 52 miles, with a headwind, mostly uphill. I feel bad for him, and he seems pretty tired. The good news is that these things heal fast, usually within about 24 hours. We get a prescription ointment to put in his eye. We then head up to the store to get some snacks and buy fishing licenses. We still have 22 miles to Tower Falls where we plan to camp, and just as we get on the road, I stop and ask Lars how he feels. He hems and haws. I ask if he can ride another 22 miles, and he says it’s up to me. I call it off and we head to Mammoth Campground where we find the hiker/biker site and set up camp. He’s pretty beat and his eye is hurting again. He doesn’t like the ointment much either. After setting up the tent, we grab a few things and head up to Mammoth Lodge and pay for showers. Feels good to wash off all the sweat and grime from the day. We eat ice cream at the general store, sitting on the grass, and we buy a pack of cards. That night we play poker in the tent, but we don’t last long. After we turn off our headlamps Lars is fast asleep within minutes. It was the right decision to stop and stay the night, even though we are now behind schedule. It was tough day. I’m really hoping his eye feels better in the morning.

Mammoth Campground.
Mammoth Campground.

Day 3 totals: 52 miles, 9.9 mph average, 29.4 mph max, 5:13 saddle time

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