Friday, September 4, 2015

A bike tour of Yellowstone

I did my first bike tour when I was 14 (in the San Juan Islands) and even though it poured rain I was a geeky enough kid that I loved it and wanted more. It took me getting too cool for bike touring in high school and then coming back around to it in college to get going again, but since then I've found it to be the best way to travel, both here in the West and in other countries and cultures, and I was fortunate that Ash has always had a comparable passion for it and we've had loads of good two-wheeled adventures.

Brother Paul did his first bike tour in about nineteen hundred and eighty with a buddy in the Napa and Sonoma Valley area, and if my math is correct  -and it may not be  -he was too young to partake in the winery bit that makes bike touring there appealing to folks who like that kind of stuff, and they weren't very thoughtful in their route choices and ended up on big, busy roads doing long hot days with few camping options.  For lo these many years hence I have partooken in many a great tour and henceforth waxed poetic of their joys, but he hath resisted the call.  It finally took Paul tearing his ACL this spring and a recovery that essentially limited him to riding his bike this summer - with no on-foot adventures - that led him to say "I'd like to do a bike tour."  And Yellowstone seemed like an obvious choice.

Our national parks are such anachronisms:  the visionaries who created the parks truly got some of the most remarkable natural features and scenery on the planet, and made them very accessible to literally anyone with a pulse, but with that grandeur and accessibility comes....people. Loads, hordes, teeming masses of people.  And apparently 2015 was a record year for our national parks; Utah's "Big 5" campaign resulted in generally un-manageable crowds.  And we found out that Yellowstone also had its biggest visitor year ever, which is saying a lot for the oldest and one of the most famous national parks in the world.  But despite being generally assured that there would be crowds and therefore traffic, a tour that Ash and I did a few years ago made us realize that it's never that bad, because speed limits are low (max of 45mph) and since people are on vacation they are in a mellower state of mind than blasting around town in order to get back home to relax with their g & t (a question we pondered:  is it the same people who are mellower on vacation, or do mellower people go on vacation?).  The biggest worry with drivers is that they tend to lose all sense of rationality when wildlife sightings are part of the game.

Yellowstone is a great place to tour on a bike for a few reasons:
  • it's a bit too big to do big day loop rides, but tight enough that no distances are ever too far, even though the scenery isn't jaw-dropping beautiful like Yosemite or Zion
  • there are lots of smaller, more-intimate, and really interesting things to see so it's easy to pedal from one site/sight to another
  • in a car you'd probably just blow right by most of those interesting things
  • the campgrounds are not only situated good riding-distance apart, but they all have specific campsites that are always reserved for cyclists, and they are $7.98 a night.  
There are also lots of places to "poach" camping, but there's really no need to do that; we didn't bring ropes to hang our food, and it's easy to beg for late-day cold beers from our fellow campers!  
All ya gotta do is ask.....
Our plan was pretty simple:  They have a route they simply call The Grand Loop that takes in all the highlights of the various geyser areas, the famous hot springs of Mammoth, the falls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone river, the various geyser areas, of course Old Faithful and it's remarkable lodge, all in a very approachable couple-hundred miles.  

We also wanted to head up the Lamar Valley since the NE corner of the park is where some of the ruggedest terrain is easily accessible. 

West Yellowstone is the most efficient place to start  tour (and it has a great taco bus):

with a nice spin up the Madison river valley to access the Grand Loop.  We chose to go clockwise, hitting the Norris area first.  Sure enough, the Norris campground was full, but the prime spot reserved for cyclists was waiting for us.  Next up was Mammoth; a mandatory stop on the Tourist Trail, and it's worthy.  

Of course, for my upcoming coffee table book: "Tourists of the World" there was plenty of fodder there:

dork tourist in training
And this poor tree suffered the brunt a while ago of a shift in the flow of hot water:

We headed east on a nice rolling road towards the Lamar Valley.  On our trip a few years ago Ash wanted to camp in the Lamar Valley "to see the wolves", but I scoffed at that remote possibility that we'd actually see wolves advocated camping at Tower, which is just above the valley.  The next morning at the entrance to Ash's desired campground we saw Fred from Georgia who was telling one of his buddies:  "I looked out and saw me some antelope, so I hollered to Myrna to come look at the antelope, and just as she came out a coupla wolves came in and took it down!"  Huh?  You saw a coupla wolves "take down" an antelope?!?!  I was aghast at having missed that, and Ash has never forgiven me, so of course when Paul and I returned the first thing she asked was "did you see wolves in the Lamar?"  This time, again, we did not, but it was still great riding  

But if you are into bison (and wolves probably are) the Lamar is the place to be; there were herds of hundreds.  And despite warnings like this:

People still bumbled around the bison:
Though to be fair, it was actually a little scary to ride near them because they got spooked not by cars but by bikes!  They'd freak when we went by.

We rolled into the Pebble Creek campground near the NE entrance to the park and of course it was....
the next morning it was filled for the night by 9am.
but of course the bike site was open! And not only did we again score some nice cold beers from fellow campers, the camp hosts also had a scrabble game! 
it was the most unusual request they've had in 10 years of camp-hosting
The valley in that area is dominated by the imposing 3000 foot wall of The Thunderer, and with a trail going up to a pass accessing what seemed to be a viable east ridge, and a bearing a moniker like "The Thunderer" I had to give it a go.  

First thing in the morning I pedaled a mile up from the campsite to the trailhead, stashed the bike, and trotted down to the creek crossing.  I was surprised to see not only a cloth "dam" across the river but also the water was running blood red!  There was a woman with chest waders on in the creek clearly doing some work, and she only spoke Spanish, so I only half-understood that there was some toxins in the water for an invasive fish kill deal.  I was about to wade across, but the word "toxin" and the chilly air temp and the presence of a big lodgepole that had fallen across the creek just upstream sent me up there to keep my feeties dry.  I got halfway across the log and realized how springy lodgepoles are; it started oscillating with my steps and with my attempts to get stable it started oscillating more and more, and.....of course it bucked me off in an inglorious belly flop into the chemical creek.  So I was now fully soaked and it was 39 degrees, but at least I had some sort of toxin on my skin that would undoubtedly make my skin flay off!  Whatever; I charged on up the trail knowing that I'd soon warm up with a 3500 foot climb. 

Running alone in Yellowstone with a population of nearly 1000 grizzly bears is generally against typical tourist protocol, but I kept hooting at them and of course had my trusty bear spray ("when the bear charges, aim accurately, adjust for wind, and spray the bear directly in the face"  - oh, it's that easy?). The trail passed over the ridgeline, where I left it and marched up the ridge that had some scrabbly third and fourth class sections, but ultimately got turned back at 5th class section a couple hundred feet below the summit.  I checked The Google on the Interwebs later and saw that someone had posted that "the Absorka (mountain range) rhyolite is so terrible that it's likely NO ONE has ever attempted to summit The Thunderer!"  Hmm.  Something tells me that someone has done it.....

The climb out of the Lamar Valley to Dunraven Pass is pretty long, and Paul and I trudged up it:

We started up the gravel road that leads to 10,000 foot Mount Washburn, but bailed soon thereafter due to gathering dark clouds, thunder, lightning, and rain moving our way.  At the pass we hunkered out of the rain in the doorway of the shitter:
I should do a post  - or maybe just a photo album  - of how many times shitter doorways we have utilized over time.
We rolled into the very commercial Canyon campground (run by "Xanterra", the company that has the license to many national park concessions; that name sorta gives me the creeps, and I liked their old one:  "Fred Harvey" much better...) and immediately met the Avid Austrians Rainer and Veronika: 

who had ridden to Yellowstone from.....Fairbanks!  They had some tales to tell (and will be in Salt Lake this weekend, provided they don't get blown back up to Yellowstone by the ferocious south winds).  

While the Canyon area is sort of overly-developed, it's popular for a reason: the views of the upper and lower falls and the Grand Canyon are sublime:

I would love to paddle this section.  Inexplicably, although pretty much anything goes in almost all national parks....except whitewater kayaking in Yellowstone!  don't get me started....
Rambling south, then west, then back north towards Old Faithful is a good combo of flat
 and hilly riding, with a long descent into the vast excitement of the Old Faithful/Geyser Basin area.  The Crowd eagerly awaiting Old Faithful's eruption:

And the dorks who missed it because they were looking the wrong way:

the hot pots and such are pretty cool:

some provided a nice steam bath:

and there are even some nice bike-specific routes in the area:

We did a 2 mile hike to a trickly little waterfall, and met a woman who would make Steve Madden proud with her choice of footwear:
yes, she got blisters.....
And of course there were some classics to go into the coffee table book:
Expensive camera to shoot pictures of very mundane creek in midday sun?  Check.  Michigan shoulder strap bag?  Check.  Bear spray to protect self when walking on a couple of hundred yards of railed wooden walkways?  Check!
Manpris?  Check!  
guided trekkers ready to go on a flat 1mi hike with their guides, 10 essentials, and trekking poles
Though I suppose it's easier to be getting accustomed to, it's remarkable how many seriously overweight folks there are out there, and disturbingly, so many kids.  Maybe national parks attract sedentary folks  -and to this guy's credit he was out hiking - but it's easy to see the obesity problem in the US whence in the national parks.  
And a coupla dorks who think they are far cooler than they actually are. 
With another thunderstorm wind blast shoving us along we flew back down into the Madison Valley
Though I had to be a little careful by not pedaling too erratically; I've broken a lot of things, but the first time I've broken a clipless pedal.  
for one more night at a full campground in the bike zone before spinning back to West Jellystone the next morning.

Miles:  a fair number, but not too many.
Vertical:  as much as we could, given the roads we were on.
Time: passed
Calories: lots
Fun:  pegged the meter!

I think brother Paul is now the latest bike touring enthusiast.....

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