This post could also be entitled: How not to cyclotour in the States or which areas not to be biking in in the States in the fall!
It doesn’t describe the mistakes we did doing the Great Divide, because, well, as you’ll discover shortly we didn’t cycle much of the Great Divide Mountain Bike route at all… but narrates certain mistakes in the planning, what happen when you cycle against the weather in the West US, and also what we discovered along our unplanned route !
Well, ok, initially my plan if I was to cycle the Great Divide, was anyway not to do the whole thing continuously after I had done the Baja Divide. Sure, a long distance route is appealing, but to me the prospective of committing to cycling following a GPX route only for 2 to 3 months was quite difficult at that point. There is so much to see in the States and the Western States especially, I had never been there before, and next to some sections of the Great Divide are many appealing “detours” which could constitute small trips on their own…they include National Parks, climbing areas of course, and other endeavors I enjoy off the bike. It’s easy, there are so many interesting National Parks and notable areas in the States (it’s another thing if you are interested by American history as well !), I could also come out with a novel-long blog post named: How (not) to make a choice for a bicycle touring route in the US. You are literally spoiled for choice. Better keep in mind some things for future trips than try to cram everything in before the arrival of winter weather though…
It didn’t help that some of the sections of the Great Divide had been described by various cyclists who had completed it as slightly boring. Anyway, from the moment we met up with Ian again in Jasper we had planned to do a good bit of off trail. Our Divide was going to be mixed between the GDMBR and some sections on road to get to nearby attractions. But Ian and I did plan to get back on the GDMBR after cycling through Yellowstone and Grand Teton (I really wanted to see Yellowstone, rather than cycle around it following the Divide) and were looking forward to see what following it through Wyoming and possibly a good part of Colorado (well… I really wanted to detour to see Boulder !) would bring.
Fresh out of Grand Teton at the beginning of the fourth week of September, we stopped at a Warmshowers host, Holly, in Jackson. We got to meet her neighbour’s backyard visitors: a moose and her calf !
It was also time for us to pick up some warmer clothes we had ordered online… and also time to review our plans:
After seeing what looked like some fog or smoke cycling through Grand Teton (above pic), Holly told us that there was a forest fire ahead on our planned itinerary.
So, to resume:
1)We did do part of the extension… !
2)We took a flight to Boise after the whole Northern region got on fire and smoke and there was not interest for us to cycle south of Canmore in these conditions.
3) from Boise we cycled to Yellowstone, exploring the area as we went.
4) We did Yellowstone off trail as was planned from the beginning.
and well, by the time we got to Jackson, WY, from where we were supposed to get to the trail via a secondary highway through Pinedale and Bondurant…
5)…There was a forest fire in Bondurant. Road closed.
6) While big fires were still possible it was actually getting chilly (some forest fires actually only stops at the arrival of heavy snowfall). So while backtracking a little bit north of Jackson to then go east to grab the trail was an option, we decided for the safe solution of carrying on on the road south quickly, as there was not absolute certainty about whether the trail itself was going to be affected by forest fires/smoke by the time we actually would have gotten there, and we didn’t want to waste time.
So that’s how we ended up cycling south of Jackson on the highway, before shooting east to Boulder.
As we neared the south of the State the weather turned especially cold. Camping, and especially the last couple of hours between jumping in our sleeping bags and until mid-morning, was getting more challenging…Our water (or Powerade, as for the case below) bottles were freezing solid during the night if we didn’t take care to put them inside the tent with us.
As we got into more off-the-beaten path parts of Wyoming we also understood more about the state. Wyoming is only slightly smaller than Colorado but is inhabited by only 500000 people. It is one of the least dense US States. Apart from the more touristy city of Jackson, a ski resort, and Casper (east, which we didn’t visit) it is fairly rural and people there tend to have more conservative political and societal views.Actually once as we entered a colorful cafe we felt a little bit out of place as Europeans who generally have fairly liberal views on societal questions. People were welcoming, but on the walls were pinned down what could have been qualified as propaganda articles in Europe (ie this is what a Republican is like/versus what a Democrat or Liberal is like in a really stereotypical way for example… and some other things which would have been deemed offensive by European mainstream culture). I didn’t feel like risking a picture. Of course, I am sure there must be another cafe somewhere in the US which also presents a lot of staunch and not-so-objective Democrat articles.
We also stumbled upon some interesting route signs:
We also spotted herds of pronghorn and some dragonflies amongst typical landscapes as we cycled for a while along highways and a frontage road next to a busy interstate.
As we stopped into a city park we saw this strange procession on the train tracks above us: a long (perhaps one mile in total) freight train carrying only tanks and army vehicules.
As we entered into Green River and then crossed into Utah on the way to Manila and then Vernal the landscape became particularly interesting:
I was actually glad our new route was allowing us to see a small part of Utah- up to that point, I was really enthusiastic about the idea of cycling through Utah but given our initial plans and the winter weather closing in I thought this was going to be for a future trip-. At least I had a small taster ! The landscape didn’t disappoint… the Flaming Gorge was a spectacle of colours.
After a number of steep passes, rolling into Vernal, the cold rain didn’t feel too welcoming to us weary cyclists. We somewhat decided we deserved a rest in a cheap motel. In insight, it might have been better to keep that joker for a few days later… !
After Vernal, Utah we cycled to the town of…Dinosaur, Colorado. Funny street names!
Also Colorado is one of the States which in the last few years legalized marijuana…Quite a contrast to Utah and Wyoming to see these dispensaries (shops selling cannabis and derived products) popping up everywhere. As always the differences from one state to another can be quite stark.
As we left the town the weather didn’t look too promising.
We weathered some nasty weather over the next three to four days. Cold rain, cold temperatures, violent thunderstorms, we even almost got drenched from the bottom in our tent. After a near hypothermia episode for Ian who had forgo taking some waterproof pants, we barely made it to Steamboat Springs.
In what seemed at that point like some far away past we had had some plans of perhaps joining back the Divide after reaching Steamboat which is more or less on the route, but alas, it was not even road cycling weather.
Snow set in as we took a rest day- and a look at the cold weather forecast over the next few days wasn’t exactly reassuring. The high pass we had to go through to make it to Boulder area (anecdotally called “Rabbit Ears pass”) was of course snowed in. There was some likelihood of black ice. While Ian was tempted to keep going and race through, given our recent experience I thought that the idea of getting wet cycling under the cold sleet/rain all day, only to retire in the tent under the snow at night for three days in a row wasn’t exactly going to cut the cookie. After a few days, we found someone willing to give us and our bicycles a lift to Denver area on Craiglist- and off we were. We stayed with a very nice couple of Warmshowers hosts in Fort Collins, Tom and Rita, waiting out for the snow to melt a little bit, before cycling on to Boulder where we had planned to stop for a few days… By the time we got there, and especially mid-day on the sunny side of Boulder Canyon where I got to climb the following day, the weather was fairly warm. It was a big contrast to the previous days- there I was, climbing in T-shirt with my climbing partner during the day, outside of chilly mornings. The other side of the canyon still had some snow on of course…
… and well, the nice weather was not to last anyway.
On day 3 we woke up to 8 inches of snow (20cm) and it kept snowing during the day as we ran some errands around town.
The following days despite the snow which was melting progressively, and also because we were cycling on cycleways and staying with Warmshowers hosts we managed to slowly make our way to Louisville first and then to Denver.
By the time we made it to Denver, we had resolved to take a long distance bus to Santa Fe in New Mexico to jump ahead of the nasty weather.
We took a “Los Limousines” bus. This service was much easier for bringing along bicycles than a Greyhound (Greyhound can’t tell you the full price including your bike before you show up for departure at the station, or even not before the first major hub along your journey if you are starting from a small station, and you have to put the bike in a cardboard box like when you take the plane !), and cheaper.
Somehow, messing up our route plan ended up being quite interesting as we saw the Flaming Gorge, met a WS host in southern Wyoming who gave us a lot of pointers about interesting cycling routes through Wyoming both on and off road for future trips, ended up hanging out in Denver area just in time to catch a talk by some interesting bicycle racers/bikepackers including Lael Wilcox, visiting an famous herbal tea factory, and spending a lot of time exploring New Mexico afterwards.
Many thanks to the several Warmshowers hosts who offered us warm hospitality from the cold and the rain along our fragmented route to more clement weather.
- If you plan to cycle from southern Alberta, Canada, to New Mexico, especially if you are not a fast cycling, like to take off-days to enjoy what’s around or likes detours, on or off the GDMBR, better start earlier in the year than August. See previous posts. August generally brings in forest fires in Canada/ West US, and if you are slow you won’t be able to outrun cold to outright shitty weather going south. Southern Idaho alone is great at the end of August/beginning of September though.
- There is a difference between the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the Great Divide trail/hiking route. The Mountain Bike Route is the one that the Adventure Cycling Website advertises. You can buy maps or Gpx files for it on the website. It is also generally the route used by the cyclists racing the Great Divide, although some modifications are often brought for the race itinerary itself. The trail/hiking route is different. Some people do bikepack it or sections of it but it is significantly harder riding.
- We ended up having contradictory opinions on whether cycling the whole Divide was worth it. It seems to me, having not done it, that most sections would have their own interest, apart from the extension from Jasper to Banff and the last section which according to a few previous riders brings you at the Mexican border but is far from anything and has nothing too interesting around. As well it might be complicated to get back to a major hub to catch a plane back if you are just doing the GDMBR, so an alternative to the last 100 miles or so has been recommended to us a few times. On the other hand, from Banff to the US border and beyond through Montana has been described consistently as the best part of the GDMBR.
- I found Boulder was definitely a nice place to see and climb in and did really appreciate stopping there but mainly because we got to meet one of Ian’s previous WS hosts, and my experience in Boulder as a whole was interesting. That said, I did find that the city itself was nothing too special compared with the hype about it. Sure, there are great people there, decent outdoor stores/gear facilities and stuff to do but it also more and more seems to be transforming in a popular place while in my opinion it has nothing to envy to, say, St George in Utah (to come in another post!) which you’ve probably never heard of if you are European. I do want to visit another famous outdoor mecca sometime in the future though, Moab.
- If you mainly do sport climbing and are biking around, Golden and around, not far from Boulder, would probably be a better destination for a few days than Boulder. More choice of areas and routes especially for moderates. Boulder Canyon (granite) is a great area, but not necessarily easily accessible on a bicycle. Each crag along BoCan is a good distance from one another, and the road to get there out of Boulder is not fun cycling as it’s uphill and narrow with good traffic. I found my climbing partner on Mountain Project and she drove us around from Boulder city centre. Also the north side of BoCan gets good sun exposure but the south side is generally not climbable in the fall.
- I already came up with another plan for a maybe future up to 6 months bicycle tour through the West Us, breakable in shorter trips of course… My dreamed route would include something like that : starting in Northern California/San Francisco area, from there cycling through Nevada to Utah and following the 89/12/95 with some bikepacking trails thrown in between through the most scenic part of the State, going through Moab and then Grand Junction before exploring some of the seemingly infinite bikepacking possibilities in Colorado, going back up through southern and East Wyoming which is apparently also quite scenic, to Landers and then Devil’s Towers… a climber dream before the Black Hills of Dakota and then finish in the Badlands of Dakota or Mount Rushmore… or the other way around. Of course I’d stop to climb along the way.
but well, that’s only my opinion and dreams, though it can give you some inspiration.
Already drooling at the prospective of a somewhat distant in the future other bicycle trip(s) in the West US.
*Please note that this article expose my own pieces of advice and opinions formed through the combination of my own travelling experience and what I’ve heard from other riders. Bear in mind I am not from and don’t live in the US, so with that in mind might find some places are more worth a visit than others if you have limited time in the US , but you are totally right to decide you prefer some of the areas I’d look over, and vice-versa.