Yellowstone Cycle Tour – A Ride Review

Yellowstone Park.  You’ve probably heard of it.  Established on March 1, 1872, it was the first national park in the United States.  Some consider it the first national park in the world.  It truly is an international tourist destination.  This is evidenced by the droves of tourists arriving by the car and busload throughout the park.  For this reason, I’ve been hesitant to travel through the park by bicycle.  Sharing a road with a designated bike lane doesn’t get a second thought from me.  But sharing a narrow road with someone who may not know the park rules, local laws, nor speak the language or be able to read the signs AND being distracted by the geothermal features and wildlife is another.  Quite frankly, it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take, no matter how beautiful the scenery.

When I heard that there was an organized ride through the park in the fall, a little spark of hope was lit.  Riding a bike in my favorite season, through one of my favorite places, with support and lots of signage alerting drivers of the cyclists was just what I needed!

I did some online research and discovered the website www.cycleyellowstone.com.  Registration for the 2016 Yellowstone Cycle Tour would open on June 15, 2016 and close when sold out.  The ride was limited to 300 riders.  I marked my calendar and began to consider who I would ask to ride with me.  The drive to West Yellowstone would be a very long day in the car from Denver, and perhaps best suited for two days.  The ride from

img_5655

Kimberly is the only woman who could pair cycling clothes with cowboy boots and make it look good!

West Yellowstone to Old Faithful was 62 miles round trip.  In October, it could be snowing there.  Of all my family members and friends, Kimberly was the one person who just might be crazy enough to sign up for this adventure with me… and she did.

We arrived in beautiful West Yellowstone, Montana on the eve of October 7th.  Kimberly is a local in Bozeman and was able to score us a very nice room at the Bar N Ranch just outside of West Yellowstone.  We had an excellent dinner in the dining hall at the ranch and got up early Saturday morning for breakfast before our departure.  The ride was organized to depart in two waves.  The first wave was for what the ride organizers referred to as “more experienced riders” and the second wave was for the less experienced.  We departed somewhere in the middle between the two waves.  We settled into a slight prolonged climb for the next fifteen miles.  The buffalo and elk wasted no time and made their appearance very quickly into our ride.

img_5684

Lots of this type of signage was placed along the ride route.

The only aid station was located fifteen miles into the ride at Madison Junction.  We stopped for a bathroom break and visited the very well stocked aid station.  Ride organizers had provided an assortment of fresh fruits, candies, packaged bars, and liquids for riders.  The departure from Madison Junction was directly into a prolonged climb that leveled out on the top of a plateau about 500 vertical feet later at 7200 feet .  It was along this plateau about 7 miles from Old Faithful where the highlight of the trip occurred.  Kimberly and I were just riding along when we realized how quiet it had become because there was not another cyclist or car nearby.  The only thing nearby were the 20-30 buffalo bedded down maybe 30 feet from the road. This was the closest that I’d ever been to the giants and it was quite magnificent to see.  I very much wanted to stop for a picture, but did not want to stop for any wildlife near the road without having a car between us.

When we arrived at Old Faithful, the first order of business was to find the lunch tent.  The second order of business was to see whether Old Faithful was erupting or how long we might have to wait until the next predicted eruption.  We had about 45 minutes to wait and despite the fact that we’d both seen the eruption before, decided that it was worth the wait after pedaling for 30 miles.  We sat down to enjoy the lunch that was an option at registration.  Mine consisted of a very tasty PB&J, chips, an apple, and a cookie.  There were also other munchies available for riders at the tour tent.

After watching Old Faithful do its magic, we hopped back on the bikes.  Kimberly was vocal img_5681about her tushy not being very excited about being back in the saddle.  If she had wanted to catch the SAG wagon, she could have because they were plentiful.  But like all the Minkoff’s, she didn’t give up.   Eventually, we came back to the feed station at Madison Junction and stopped for sweets and coffee.  Much to our surprise, we found ourselves removing clothing because the weather was so warm.

On the drive back to Bozeman, we decided that despite our aches and pains, we had a fantastic time.  So much so that there is likely to be another cousins adventure next year.  Stay tuned!!

PS – Off road biking in Yellowstone is limited to very few (read: short) opportunities.  Check their website for details. Spots in the Yellowstone Cycle tour are limited and go fast.  We were essentially begged to ride single file to ensure that the event would be a go the following year.  If you are the kind of cyclist who is incapable of riding single file, don’t register for this event.  Don’t be the person who spoils this wonderful opportunity for others.  Just don’t.

 

img_5665

This is the Midway Basin Geyser area.  Yep, that’s a snow pole and it’s taller than me!

img_5683

Yep, those are buffalos laying in the meadow.  They were far enough away that I was willing to stop for a picture. (Madison Junction area)

 

Riding the Beartooth Pass

Riding the Beartooth Pass

The Beartooth Pass is on US Highway 212 between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana.  The highway meanders along the borders of Montana and Wyoming high on the plateau of the Beartooth Mountains and eventually leads right into Yellowstone Park.  It’s closed in the winter and occasionally on other days throughout the year, given the right weather conditions.  The day before I pedaled up the pass on July 30, it was closed due to snow.  At its summit, this road is the highest elevation highway in both Montana and Wyoming.

I’ve driven over Beartooth Pass several times on my way to or from Yellowstone Park over the years.  The views never disappoint despite the wind and cool temperatures on top of the plateau.  When I started this cycling journey four years ago, riding up Beartooth Pass on my bike was  always a thought in the back of my mind.  I guess you could say it was on my “ride bucket list”.  Yes, cyclists have such a thing as I suppose motorcyclists do as well.  However, each summer when I returned to Montana, there was always some reason why I couldn’t do the ride: last year, I brought a mountain bike, the year before I was too busy… the list goes on.  This year I was feeling overwhelmed with all that is involved with moving from one home to another and felt a sense of urgency about returning to Colorado.  However, after seeing the weather forecast for the remaining week of my visit, I decided to stay just long enough to fit in the ascent.

I got up early on the morning of July 30, loaded my bike into the car, and departed Billings for Red Lodge.  As I

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

approached the mountains I realized there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  I unloaded my bike, suited up, and pedaled away.  I had done better research for this ride than my previous ride on Alkali Creek Road and knew that I could expect to pedal for about 25 miles to the summit on a paved road.  I could expect the ride to take me approximately 2.5 hours based on the results of other cyclists I had seen on Strava.  I also knew that the climb to the summit would be gradual, at about 4% on average.

As I pedaled along, traffic was minimal on this beautiful late July day.  I saw many more motorcycles than cars.  The switchbacks started at nearly 7 miles into the ride.  As I approached the scenic overlook turnout, I passed 5 other cyclists, all of whom pulled off into the overlook parking area.  I kept going because I knew it was about halfway to the summit and I don’t like starting and stopping on prolonged climbs; it’s hard to get the legs going again.  Besides, there was no need.  I had plenty of fluids and food tucked in my pockets.

At about 19.5 miles into the ascent, I came to a place where I had to descend and then climb again to reach the summit.  I’m not going to lie, I was cold and considered calling it good and turning around.  But then that little voice in my head chimed in with “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now, especially when I can see the summit in the distance.”  I got as aero as I dared and

Elevation 10,947 feet

Elevation 10,947 feet

descended as quickly as possible, so as to minimize how much colder I would become before the final climb.  My garmin showed about 23 miles at the summit.  I took turns with all the motorcyclists taking pictures in front of the summit sign.  Then I slipped on my wind jacket for the descent.

What I didn’t realize when I had done my ride research was exactly how much climbing the ride would entail.  The total elevation gained was 5,262 feet… just 18 feet shy of a mile, give or take.  Hmmm.  That’s interesting considering the fact that I now reside in the “mile high city”.  A city known for more than just it’s elevation,  if ya know what I’m sayin‘.

On the descent, I stopped and took some pictures along the way…Enjoy!

So many motorcycles up there!

So many motorcycles up there!

IMG_4407

The Beartooth Mountain range. Look closely for the triangle shaped precipice on the horizon over the upper right corner of the sign. That’s the bear’s tooth. The next picture zooms in on it.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

The Importance of Researching a Ride Route

While Colorado is my home, I remain a Montana girl at heart.  Every year I make it a priority to visit my family in Montana, where I spent most of my adolescence.  This year I brought my Cannondale Evo along to ride during my visit.  Billings is just large enough that there are parts of the town that I’m not familiar with.  I grew up on the west side and rarely ventured to the other parts of town.  Therefore, I wasn’t exactly sure where each of my rides would take me.  This “from the saddle” discovery is one of the funnest parts of riding and has the potential to turn each ride into a fun adventure ~ or not.

The view from Molt Road.  The wild turkeys didn't make it into this pic.

The view from Molt Road. The wild turkeys didn’t make it into this pic.

On my first ride, I decided to take the Molt Road out of Billings.  I was planning to ride out and back and expected at some point I would see a sign indicating how many miles it was to Molt.  Since there was no sign- or because I missed it – I just rode until it was time to head back to Billings for other commitments.  I could see Molt in the distance, but would have to save the complete ride for another day.

On the next ride, I went to the Billings Heights part of town.  I happened upon a bike lane and followed it until it ended.  I ended up riding in a big loop.  I then came upon a pretty nice bike path along Alkali Creek Road and decided to see where it went.  After a few miles, I caught up to three women out for their morning training ride.  I rode with them for a few miles and it turns out one of the gals was on the committee that plans the Billings bike path.  She was a wealth of information on the bike path system and gave me some helpful directions and ideas about where to ride in Billings.

The route for my next ride was inspired as I drove down Highway 3 northwest of Billings. IMG_4388 It had been a long day in the car because we had decided to drive from Banff, Canada back to Billings all in one day.  As we neared Billings, we passed a street sign out in the country that read “Alkali Creek Road”.  I had just ridden on the bike path along Alkali Creek road the other day when I rode through the Heights.  At that time, I had wondered if it connected with another road, and here I had just driven by the intersection of Highway 3 and Alkali Creek Road.  My ride route for the next day was planned!

As I set out on Alkali Creek Road the following morning, I started my ride on the bike path.  Eventually the bike path ended and the houses became fewer and further between along the road.  I wondered how far of a ride it would be until I hooked up with Highway 3 – a detail I had neglected to look up online before departing.  I came upon a man walking toward me and figured he was a local who might be able to tell me how far I had to go to Highway 3.  I slowed, said hi, and then asked him if he knew how many miles it was until Highway 3.  Instead of answering yes or no to my question, he looked at my bike and said “you’ll never make it on that bike with those skinny tires.”

“Really.” I replied.  He went on to say that the road turned to gravel around the bend.  The gravel was so treacherous that he had a difficult time with it on his mountain bike.  I told him thank you and said that I would go see this gravel for myself and pedaled away.  I was annoyed that I hadn’t done proper research before embarking on this ride and was left to ask a stranger a simple question that he refused to answer.  When I saw the gravel, I agreed that it was in fact deep.  Deeper than I would have liked to have ridden under normal riding conditions.  But I’ve ridden on gravel roads before, and if it was only a short distance, it was certainly doable.  But now I wasn’t riding under normal riding conditions; I had been challenged.  And  nothing makes this girl more determined to do something than a boy telling her what she can’t do.

Shortly after embarking on the gravel, I remembered to check the mileage on my Garmin.  After about two miles, I bagan to wonder if I might be better off turning back.  And then I remembered the challenge.  The gravel was unlike any of the gravel roads I had ridden in Colorado.  It was more like I was riding through someone’s deep landscaping rock, rather than down a dirt road with the occasional washboard and rocky sections.    I kept creeping along the road and thought I may have seen cars moving along Highway 3 in the distance.  As I pedaled along, I became more and more annoyed with my failure to research the ride more thoroughly; with the fact that I didn’t notice the road being gravel as I sped by the other night; and with my stubbornness that wouldn’t allow me to turn around.  I considered letting some air out of my tires so that I might have some traction, but I didn’t want to have low pressure for the remainder of the ride after reaching the highway.  Onward I went.

After about 4.5 miles had slowly passed, I finally reached Highway 3.  There wasn’t anyone around to witness my superior dance, so i kept right on pedaling onto Highway 3 and back to Billings.  Will I do better research for my next ride in unfamiliar territory?  Maybe.  Finding your way is a big part of the adventure.  And if it takes a little longer to get there… that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re on a bike.

The Beartooth Mountains are just barely visible on the horizon.  More on that adventure coming soon!

The Beartooth Mountains are just barely visible on the horizon. More on that adventure coming soon!