Below is a daily journal by Edward, a guest on a recent Yellowstone National Park Bike Tour.
Friday, August 21st
Tom, Joel and I left the house shortly after 7:30am on our trip to Bozeman. The trip to Atlanta was uneventful and the plane departed on time. This is Joel’s and my fourth trip with Lizard Head, Tom’s first. We have a day of fly fishing tomorrow and we join our group on Sunday morning. Our trip will take us from the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park across the Park, through Wapiti, Cody, over Beartooth Gap and back into Montana. 350 miles, lots of climbing and altitude!
On our first trip, Joel and I were very concerned that our best bicycling would not measure up, but that anxiety is not present today. The trip attracts very competitive cyclists, but also attracts people like Tom, Joel and myself who simply enjoy the camaraderie of cycling. We share a common attitude, if the grade or altitude is too much; we get in the van and have a beer.
Bozeman is at elevation 4,800’ and in a valley created by the Bridger, Madison and Gallatin ranges. It is just east of the Continental Divide and approximately thirty miles east of Three Forks, where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers meet to form the Missouri. The Indians referred to the Valley as the Valley of Flowers and it apparently was a neutral place where the Sioux, Crow, Nez Pearce, Flathead and Shoshone met to trade.
William Clark first saw the Valley of Flowers in August 1805 and it was in this valley that the Lewis and Clark expedition and Sacajawea traded for horses with the Shoshone to allow them to cross the Continental Divide. Today it is a prosperous upscale community with a hopping downtown.
Saturday, August 22nd
We met Rob at the Bozeman Angler at 7:00am and went for a day of fly fishing on the Gallatin River. A River Runs Through It was filmed on the river in the canyon and it was a spectacular day. The canyon walls rise almost vertically from the river’s edge, either sheer rock cliffs or rocky slopes covered with Spruce. Where we fished the current was strong, the water approximately 3-4 feet deep and the floor covered with slippery ankle busters. We were all concerned about falling, and no one ventured very far into the current.
We fished three different spots, saw only one other fisherman and caught several trout with the biggest being 15-16 inches.
That night we met the other bikers for dinner and turned in early.
Sunday, August 23rd
Met the Lizard Head Guides at 7:30am and we departed for Yellowstone at approximately 8:30am.
Since this was our third ride with the Texans, a group of seventy plus riders who are very good riders, I brought five Texas State Tradition hats which were well received. I will be curious if they generate Internet sales from San Antonio and Houston.
We arrived at the West entrance to the Park at approximately 10:30am and began riding at 11:00am. Our route would take us along the Madison River Valley before turning to follow the Gibbon River which is a tributary to the Madison. We followed the Gibbon to nearly its headwaters and then crossed an unnamed gap at elevation 8,100’. This was the only serious climb of the day with approximately 750 feet of climbing over two miles. The whole ride was between 6,700’ and 8,100’ and the elevation made the ride much more difficult than its length would indicate. After crossing the gap, we ate lunch near the lower waterfall on the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone is much larger than the Madison and the 300 feet free fall is spectacular. We followed the Yellowstone into the Lodge at Yellowstone Lake.
The ride started through Spruce forests and then followed the rivers through beautiful meadows. We saw Elk and Bison, but no bears. Not many wildflowers, but we also passed several hot springs.
Words do not do justice to the beauty of today’s ride.
The first American to see Yellowstone was John Coulter who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He returned up river with a group of traders who established an outpost at Three Forks in 1807 and was sent to see if there were trading opportunities to trade with the Crow Nation. He explored the Yellowstone area, as far south as Jackson, and as far east as present day Cody during the winter of 1807 and 1808. He is regarded as the first Mountain Man, but his reports of geothermal activities were widely dismissed as fiction at first.
The actual park was the first national park and established in 1872. The centerpiece of the park is Yellowstone Lake, which is the highest and largest freshwater lake in America with 126 square miles at elevation 7,455’. It is a beautiful deep blue, natural lake and 410 feet deep. There is geothermal activity along the lake shore and at least three active geysers below the lake’s surface.
Monday, August 24th
We ate breakfast at the Lodge and departed at 7:30am for a thirty eight mile trip to Old Faithful. Temperature was 28 degrees, but with no humidity, I was very comfortable in my regular biking kit and arm warmers. The first 25 miles followed the Lake’s shore, before we turned to cross the Continental Divide twice. Highest elevation was just under 8,300 feet before descending into the Old Faithful basin.
Watched Old Faithful do its thing, and then rode an additional twenty miles to view the geothermal activity around Firehole Loop. It was a hard twenty miles with a strong headwind and traffic. Returned to the van and most of us rode back to the Lodge in the van drinking beer. Two of our group rode back, re-crossed the Divide and returned around 6:30am after 95 miles. We had a very good dinner at the Yellowstone Hotel.
The Park services over 3,000,000 visitors a year, and they do a good job of offering differing levels of amenities and dining options. The Hotel offers fine dining with good wine selections. The Lodge, near our cabins, offered good, simple food served in a cafeteria setting. Our Lodge cabins were simple, but nicely appointed. Cheaper and more spartan quarters were also available. The staff is from all over the world. At breakfast, I was served by two young ladies, one from Huntsville, Alabama, and the other from Poland. The check out attendant was from China.
Tuesday, August 25th
It was an off day for cycling, so most of us elected to take a day hike in the Lamar River Valley with guides. We left the Lodge at 6:00am and traveled about an hour and a half to the Valley which is in the Northeast part of the Park. Along the way we saw elk, mule deer and bison. The Valley was created by the glaciers and is in the shape of a “Y” with Lamar River running down the left of the Y. It is a small stream approximately 50 feet wide and it must fish well judging by the number of anglers we saw.
At the intersection of the arms of the Y, the Valley appeared to be approximately three miles across. The largest indigenous herd of Bison live here and we saw thousands on the plains before us. The guides told us that the total population within the park was 4,000. The grass in the Valley was a lovely yellow green and appeared to be well watered. The whole vista looked like the Indian village site from Dances with Wolves and we all agreed that it looked “Eden-esque.”
In addition to the buffalo, we saw prong horn antelope, sage and spruce grouse, marsh hawk, red tailed hawk, osprey and sand hill cranes. We heard but did not see wolves which were reintroduced to the Park in 1995. On our return we saw our second grizzly as Joel, Tom and I cycled by one on our trip to Old Faithful.
You cannot ride through the Park without seeing evidence of the fires that burned thought the Park in 1988. Prior to that time, the Service tried to prevent fires and to put them out as quickly as possible, but they now realize that management played havoc with the ecology of the forest and the animals dependent on that habitat.
Because the amount of combustible material was so great, the 1988 fires were particularly bad, but much good has come from that experience. For example, the Lodge Pine will not release its seed unless the cone is burned. Throughout the Park there are stands of dead burned trees, with growing pine and spruce saplings on the older fire sites and green grass for the more recent burned areas. Since the Park has changed its strategy to containing fires, wildlife habitat has increased and there are more grizzlies.
Wednesday, August 26th
We left the Lodge at 8:30am and cycled towards the East entrance to the Park towards Cody, WY. Our route followed the Lake for approximately 20 miles and we started climbing for the next 10 miles before crossing Sylvan Pass at elevation 8,524’, a climb of almost 1,000’. On the west side of the pass, we climbed through spruce forests, some mature, others recovering from the fire. The whole ride to the top smelled like Christmas trees! At the pass we had a 3,500’ descent to Cody fifty miles away. On the east side of the pass, the air seemed more humid, but the habitat much drier than the more lush forests on the Western slope. Our route followed the Shoshone River through spruce forests for almost 10 miles with an average descending grade of 7 percent, before leveling out to a 1 to 2 percent descending grade into Cody. About the time, the grade changed and we left the spruce forests for high plains desert with the plains covered in sweet smelling pale green sage and canyon walls of brownish red volcanic rock. It was a stunning vista.
As we descended the valley, our route took past Elk Creek in the Shoshone National Forest where Taylor and I had a horseback camping experience there in 1986 into Wapiti (the Crow name for Elk) and into Cody. I had visited Wapiti in 1985 and it was a remote community of locals and Cody was a tired dried up Western town clinging to its glory days and its association with Buffalo Bill Cody. No more. Wapiti was filled with grand second homes on the grassy ridges overlooking the Shoshone River. Dude ranches were everywhere. Cody was even glitzier with high end retail next to every tourist and souvenir shop you could imagine.
Our hotel was the Irma Hotel, state of the art when built in the late 1890’s, but it is very tired now. As Tom Watters remarked, maintenance expense was not a line item on the operating budget. We had a drink with Al who has had a second home in Wapiti since the mid 1980’s and he explained that the Cody glitz had come in the last 10 years. He also said that the merchants really had a four month window to make it as the weather started shutting things down in September with early heavy snows. According to Al, the locals believed that the re-introduction of wolves had decimated the native elk and moose populations, but that seems simplistic, given that elk, moose and wolves were all very plentiful when Meriwether Lewis was keeping his journal in 1805 and 1806. The locals who are not merchants are farmers, but it requires a huge operation to make it work since it takes 46 acres on average to support a cow on the dry un-irrigated fields.
After a drink with Al, we had a nice dinner at a local organic restaurant which did not seem in keeping with the locals. However, the manager explained that if the operation could survive the winter and has a good 2016, people would drive 100 miles for something different during the off season.
Thursday, August 27th
Today was the hardest riding day of the trip. The full route would take the rider from Cody over Dead Indian Pass through the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River Valley to Cooke City, a distance of 76 miles with a climb of almost 3,000 feet over Dead Indian Pass at elevation 8,061’. The night before we had divided into groups. Most of the riders elected to ride from Cody over the Pass, which included one preliminary climb of three miles at 6-7 percent, before climbing up to the Pass, a beyond category climb of 15 miles at an average 7 percent. Tom, Joel, Becky and I elected to take a bump to approximately two miles and 700 feet below the Pass. Even with the bump, the climb was hard for all of us, and we seemed to have lost some of our acclimation to the altitude, although another factor could have been the 197 high altitude miles we had ridden in the four previous days.
In our group, the three dominant riders were Tony, Jose, and Jim, but our Dan was the next rider to the top, a very impressive showing.
The descent from Dead Indian Pass was a gravelly paved road and very difficult. No one let their speed go unchecked. Once at the bottom, we crossed two relatively easy rollers before running into a climb of a mile within average grade of 8 percent with some of the ramps of between 10-11 percent. I ended up hiking the last third of the climb.
On this part of the ride, all of the riders noted an optical illusion in that you appeared to be going downhill, but if you stopped pedaling, you came to a full stop.
The route is called the Chief Joseph Highway in honor of Chief Joseph who extricated his people from the encircling U.S. Calvary by escaping into Canada via Dead Indian Pass in the winter of 1877.
It is one of the most stunning roads I have ever ridden. It starts out as high plains desert riding up the canyon with the floor a pale green sage and the canyon walls a mixture of pinks and browns in the sun, and a dark, almost pale purple, in the shadows, interspersed with light or dark green depending upon how the sun played on the spruce forests on the mountainsides. The route transitioned from high plains desert into spruce forests as we climbed towards Cooke City. At the 28th mile, Tom, Joel and I independently had decided to get into the van at lunch. At lunch the EFI (every frigging inch) riders joined us after 50 miles and almost 4,500’ of climbing. Some quit and bagged it with a few riding another 14 miles before adverse weather and a steep climb pushed them into the van. Only two riders and our guide Emily rode the whole route with the last 13 miles in a rain with a hard headwind uphill. Very strong riders!
When President Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition, they carried silver medals with the President’s image engraved on it to be given to the Chiefs of the tribes encountered along the way. Jefferson’s conception, for which there was no national consensus, was that the tribes encountered we’re to be respected with their traditional boundaries respected until they had assimilated enough of Western culture to be assimilated into the national fabric as American citizens. But this policy was not adopted with memories of the Indians fighting on the side of the British in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 fresh on decision maker’s minds. With the forced evacuation of the Cherokees in the 1830’s, our national unspoken policy was ethnic cleansing on the desirable lands with Native Americans reduced to marginal reservations as long as they remained docile.
Cooke City is a tiny tourist town dependent on its location to the North Entrance to Yellowstone Park via the Lamar River Valley, approximately 30 miles southeast. No Internet or cell service. We ate pizza with our group and shared our remaining wine at supper. Everyone was apprehensive about tomorrow’s ride which included over 5,000’ of climbing over Beartooth Gap at slightly under 11,000’ of elevation and a long descent into Red Lodge, MT for a total of 56 miles.
Friday, August 28th
Tony, Jose, Jim and Becky left the Soda Butte Lodge at 8:00am, but the rest of us elected to take a bump up to the top of Lulu Pass and avoid a two mile climb right out of the hotel. We had a 13 mile descent through a spruce forest canyon until we met the road from Cooke City. The next 20 miles would climb over 4,000’ to the top of Beartooth Gap at an average grade of 4 percent, but the average is very deceiving with long ramps of 6 percent interspersed with more gradual climbs of between 3-4 percent.
I am a slow rider and I elected to take a bump to the first sag station which eliminated 9 miles, and 2,000’ of climbing. It also meant I would not hold the group up. Chris from Texas joined me. At 9,000’, I started out alone, because the bump had allowed me to leapfrog the stronger riders. The first miles were a long grade through a spruce forest for 1.7 miles, with the grade never more than 5.8 percent, never less than 4.5 percent with the weighted average towards the higher grade. Traffic was very light, no breeze, good paved road and I rode in rhythm breathing easily enjoying the scenery and in almost a Zen like trance. The route transitioned into a slightly rising plateau through an alpine meadow with very pretty small lakes. Into the third mile I was averaging over 5.5 miles per hour, much faster proportionately that I had ridden similar grades earlier in the week. At the sixth mile, I crossed a saddle besides a small beautiful alpine pond. I could see the switchbacks climbing to the top of the pass, and another 1,000’ of climbing. At 10,000’ of elevation, the tree line was behind me and year around snow below me. I took pictures of the climb and valley below me.
Charles Kuralt once did a program on the old CBS Sunday morning news and called this road the most beautiful road in America. He might be right. On the shoulders, even with a slight haze, you could see 60-70 miles.
At the 8th mile, Joel joined me and we rode the final 1,000’ in ever tightening switchbacks. Along the way, we were passed by Jose and Jim who had ridden the entire route, very impressive. At the top of the Pass at 10,941’, I was pleased. I had ridden 10.5 miles between 9,000’ and 11,000’ in less than two hours with an average speed of 5.75 mph, a very good time for me.
As usual our guides Emily and DeAnne had prepared an excellent trail lunch with fresh meats, fruits, guacamole made on the spot with quinoa salad to boot. Both are strong, tough, enthusiastic women, who seemed very pleased with every rider’s success. And did I mention that they are strong excellent riders who were always kind and eager to please.
With the elevation and wind, it was very cold at the top. Joel and I broke down our bicycles and prepared for the van. Other riders who did not like very steep long descents joined us. It was a good decision for me as the views down the 15 mile very steep (7 percent or better) induced vertigo. We arrived at Red Lodge, the guides broke down the bicycles and we drank beer on the 2.5 hour ride to Bozeman. After supper at Montana Ale Works, Tom, Joel and I turned in around 10:00pm.
It was a great trip, and with the exception of the Old Faithful ride, each route could be my best ride forever. Hope to ride with the Texans and the Pratts again next year.