Mountain Biking: Fat Tires on the Divide

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Mountain Biking: Fat Tires on the Divide

A 3,000-mile border-to-border trail makes its Montana debut
By Bob Howells

You can't yet ride a mountain bike the length of the Continental Divide, but if you have such a hankering, stage one of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, tracing the Rockies through Montana, is just about ready for its first wave of fat-tired Lewises and Clarks. The route is a glorious 800-mile medley of fire and logging roads, jeep and single-track trails, and county dirt roads (plus a few paved interludes) from the Canada border to Yellowstone National Park. Most remarkably, nothing is too steep or technical for pannier-laden riders, which keeps the trip democratically doable.

The route was conceived and mapped by the Montana-based nonprofit organization Adventure Cycling (formerly known as Bikecentennial) in the spirit of its transcontinental routes for touring roadies. As with the tarmac trails, there'll be accompanying four-color maps with specific directions, scenic and historic highlights, and information on where to camp, find water, and resupply. By next summer the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route should extend as far south as Steamboat Springs, Colorado; the full 3,000-mile route to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, at the Mexico border, should be complete by 1997. The entire trail will be at least a two-and-a-half-month odyssey, but for now, figure on three weeks to cover the 800 miles through Montana, at about 40 miles per day. There's no need for a major pack-mule routine: Intersections with civilization occur every other day or so.

Nor do you have to cash in all your comp time to ride the Divide--it's simple enough to nip into the Montana segment for a week or even a long-weekend. The first 115 miles are a classic three-day ride. Start at the border in Port of Roosville, west of Glacier National Park, proceed south on forest roads to Eureka, and then climb up and over the Whitefish Range to the east. Beyond its 5,500-foot crest, the view of Glacier National Park's serrated peaks is heart-stopping, but don't get too distracted: The drop down to the North Fork of the Flathead River is fast, and scat on the trail hints at what local rangers call charismatic megafauna. Translation: Watch for moose, wolves, deer, and bears. Camp at Tuchuck Campground, 42 miles from Roosville, and then cruise 24 miles south along the river to the backwoods settlement of Polebridge and the woodsy comfort of the North Fork Hostel. Another day's riding up Whitefish Lake Road takes you 49 miles back across the Whitefish Range to the town of Whitefish.

If you have a week or so available, ride the final 250 miles of the route. Put in at Butte, right on the Divide, skirt the eerie granitic landscape of Humbug Spires, and head south on a paved section, the Wise River-Polaris Scenic Byway. Here you'll grunt to the highest point on the Montana segment (7,850 feet), above Elkhorn Hot Springs. Farther south, the route passes through the 1860s ghost town of Bannack, jogs east along the Idaho state line, and proceeds through Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and over Red Rock Pass to the stoop of Yellowstone National Park. That's as far as the trail has been charted.

The three-map series that details the route won't be printed until fall ($9.95 per map), but directions are available if you want to get started now. Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish (406-862-6446) can handle any bike needs or outfit you with rental gear. You'll need full camping gear, bike tools, and a water filter. The trail isn't signposted, so don't attempt it without contacting Adventure Cycling at 406-721-1776.

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