Start planning for next April. This trip should be near the top of every cyclist’s bucket list. Not only is the spring scenery tremendous, but for a couple of weeks in March/April, certain roads in Yellowstone Park are open to cyclists only. That’s right–just you and Yogi.
It’s unbelievable to ride there without any traffic except buffalo and elk herds. Filled with animal activity, this is when bear are coming out of hibernation, wolves can be spotted trotting along frozen lakes and hydrothermal geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents gurgle and sputter away. That said, riding in Yellowstone is not for the faint of heart and requires respect, self sufficiency and preparation: http://www.cycleyellowstone.com/road-biking/
Logistically, our favorite home base is Chico Hot Springs, a funky historic resort an hour’s drive south of Bozeman, MT. Chico is a quick 20 miles from the park entrance and has its own great hiking/mountain bike trails, horseback options and road bike routes right out the front door. Fly into Bozeman, rent a vehicle and drive through Livingston and Paradise Valley, following signs to Chico.
Here are three unforgettable rides that require self-sufficiency (no services in the park) and a camera. (See http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/springbike.htm for additional park information as things do change and areas are subject to closure when grizzlies wake up). Roads are very simple to follow and you really won’t need much in the way of maps to navigate these simple out/back itineraries.
Paradise Valley (48–58 miles)
Every good getaway should start with a ride right out of your hotel room. This one starts at Chico and is a flat, drop dead gorgeous, low traffic ride through one of the most beautiful valleys in the country. The toughest challenge may be the headwind you face in one direction. Leaving the hotel, take a right on East River Road (#540) toward Pray and follow the Yellowstone river 24 miles through open fields and grasslands surrounded by the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. At the junction of Highway 89 (mile 24) you have 3 options: double back and re-trace your route (quietest); turn left and take the highway back; turn right and ride 5 miles into historic, downtown Livingston for lunch, then retrace your route.
Gardiner – Norris (52 miles)
Eat a big breakfast and then drive 20 miles to Gardiner, MT, Yellowstone’s North Entrance. You’ll leave the car here today. Ride heroically through the historic stone arch and check in at the ranger station just ahead. They’ll let you know if there are any things you’ll need to watch for as you prepare for a nice climb to Mammoth Hot Springs, 5 miles and 1000 feet up a series of moderate switchbacks. Look for big horn sheep along the cliffs. If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, you’ll be stunned by the limestone terraces at Mammoth and the gigantic elk hanging out on the lawn of the lodge.
This is the last outpost of civilization for awhile (and as far as cars can drive) so continue on through in 2-wheeled, non-combustion bliss, following signs to Norris (21 miles one way). You’ll ride through meadow marshes, steam vented areas devoid of life due to heat, lava-created Obsidian Cliffs, streams, lakes and aptly-named Roaring Mountain. At Norris, you’ll double back and retrace your route to Mammoth, then down the mountain back to Gardiner.
Mammoth – Madison (70 miles)
Ride #3 starts at Mammoth and repeats the route to Norris, but extends another 14 miles south to Madison Junction, the place where Yellowstone was born around a campfire during the exploration of this area in 1870. It’s filled with geysers and surreal, multi-colored, mud paint pots. You’re very likely to encounter all that Yellowstone has to offer in geothermal activity and animal sightings. From your hotel, drive to Gardiner, then into the park. You can leave your car right at the Mammoth Hotel. Follow the signs from Mammoth to Madison, out and back, yielding to any animals (if you encounter buffalo on the road, stop/turn around and give them time to clear the area).
Stay: Chico Hot Springs
No phones or televisions, but the lobby has wifi, dogs, board games, stone fireplace and one of Montana’s finest restaurants. Room rates from $55 – $350 per night, depending on type of accommodation you prefer (including separate cabins for larger groups), but all are entitled to use of the hot mineral springs. chicohotsprings.com
Eat, Drink & Bathe
Breakfast & Dinner: Chico Dining Room or Poolside Grille
In general, it’s all there at the resort and once you’ve experienced one of their famous breakfasts and indulged on lake trout or a Montana Angus steak au poivre in the dining room, you’ll be planning your next evening’s order.
A variety of quaint western outposts await, with surprising local & celebrity encounters. We sat next to Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan at the Pickle Barrel sandwich shop a few years ago. Fine dining at Livingston Bar & Grill at 130 Main Street.
Post Ride: Take the plunge in Chico’s famous, huge, outdoor mineral springs pools (average temperatures of 96º – 103º) The perfect post-ride therapy.
Saddle up at the bar in the Saloon and watch people succumb to the healing power of the hot springs just outside.
Getaway Gear Recommendation
On-body, on-bike portability is key and layering this time of year is essential. We recommend a hydration pack with storage capability. For apparel, temperature variation makes anything Windstopper® a good choice. Base layer, jersey, arm warmers, jacket, knickers or tights, full finger gloves and an under-helmet beanie. Critical; dual bottle cages or hydration pack; tubes, pump & repair tools; bear spray.