The best road trips often involve the least planning. Start with a loose idea—in this case bikes—and go from there. Know basically where you’re headed and what you’ll do once you get there, but be flexible and take what comes. That’s the kind of thinking that has us sleeping on the roof of a Jeep at the top of a ski area along the Montana-Idaho border in October.
It all started, as these things often do, around a shared six-pack. Ryan and I wanted to send off the trail season with one last hoorah—an ending worthy of a riding-filled summer. We had the time; we needed the reason—we chose the Continental Divide.
One side drains to the Pacific, the other to the Atlantic—and we decided to ride along its length, as closely as we could, where the divide straddles the border between Montana and Idaho.
Much has been made of the Great Divide race, during which entrants pedal their way from Canada to Mexico near and around the Continental Divide. But what about the cherry singletrack that weaves its way much closer to the literal divide between west and east? Rumors rattle around the web about epic backcountry trail nestled between small towns like West Yellowstone and Salmon, but how does it ride? What are the views like? How are the climbs? And what about the descents? Only one way to find out…
Pointed south, our first stop is the well-loved Targhee Pass trail, aka the Lionhead. Just a few miles west of the gateway town of West Yellowstone, the Lionhead area has long been a favorite backcountry outpost among regional riders. Its unspoiled landscapes are unrivaled anywhere, and it represents the last holdout (for now) in a wilderness-favoring region of the Forest Service. We know we must ride it while we still can.
A crack-of-noon start has us climbing as a stiff breeze blows down from the alpine. Although barely fall, a winter storm threatens and distant peaks are snow-capped. An ominous forecast pushes us higher, but the pull of the scenery repeatedly forces us off of our bikes.
After a sustained climb out of the timber, we rest on a sparsely treed bench overlooking Hebgen Lake, a Madison River impoundment just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Wind rips across the water’s surface, up the lakeside slopes, and through our sweat-soaked frames. We’d love to stick around and enjoy the view, but we’re miles from our turn-around point and the clouds are getting darker.
Back in the saddle, the rhythm of the trail takes over, Ryan is more in tune with it than I as the gap between us grows. I’m in no rush, noticing bear paw prints in the dirt and a family of mountain goats across the basin. We’re in the alpine now, trees smaller and farther apart. The trail is fantastic, somehow grueling and effortless simultaneously. It ushers us higher until we reach the pass at over 10,000 feet.
From Targhee Pass, we can see the Tetons to the south, the Taylor-Hilgards to the north, the Gallatin Range to the east, and Targhee Peak to the west. It’s hard not to dawdle, but we still have to descend and find camp for the night. In the spirit of celebration, we polish off the beers we’ve been sipping and get ready for the downhill.
This trail has it all: natural flow, enough tech to keep you honest, and a big, backcountry setting. Wind-induced tears make their way from my cheeks to my ears, settling in the collar of my jacket before evaporating in the breeze. Ride one in the books, we camp for the night on the shore of Henrys Lake just before a squall rips through the valley.
The next morning, halfway through a dirt-road drive to the next trailhead, we find ourselves completely surrounded by sheep. In the fall, as cold weather returns to the mountains of Idaho and Montana, shepherds move their herds from the high country to the valleys, using the same county roads we’re driving on now. Enveloped in wool, we’re forced to stop and wait as the sea of sheep parts around us continues undisturbed. We press on.
Today’s goal is a ribbon of singletrack in the Centennials, an east-west-running range separating Idaho and Montana. After bumping down some washboard Forest Service road, we reach the trailhead parking lot. Ours is the only vehicle, and without much fanfare, we’re clipped into our pedals and are rolling.
While machine-built flow might be all the rage, the more I explore less-intentional singletrack, the more I realize that nuance and intimacy make for the best riding. A small gap between two granite boulders; a punchy climb through toothy rocks; a mellow descent among lodgepole pine. Instead of ripping it up and tearing it out, leave it and figure out the best way around. On this section of the CDT, it’s clear repeated use has beaten in the trail, kindred spirits looking for an excuse.
The trail mostly contours along, thin in places and crumbling away from the side-hill. After some laborious hike-a-bike, we emerge in a sage-speckled meadow below a recent burn. Conifers haven’t yet returned to the hillside, and charred trunks stand guard over a largely barren landscape. It’d be easy to keep riding, up and down for the dozens of miles we know are ahead along our westward trajectory. There’d likely be scenic vistas, wildlife, and more stellar singletrack, but that’s what will bring us back one day. Now that we know what’s here, we won’t be able to resist.
After a one-night of rest in Salmon, we’re back on the road and into the mountains. We’ve heard tails of endless options dropping down from Chief Joseph Pass, but we’re headed for lesser-known locales. Tucked high above Highway 93, hundreds of miles of dirt spread out in all directions, weaving through burned-out ridgelines, lush gulches, and shady creeks. We’ll camp first, eating bacon-and-cheddar quesadillas and drinking wine from the bottle, before striking out for rides unknown in the morning.
Mountain bikers explore new trails to be surprised—hopefully, pleasantly surprised. Trails close to home will forever be our favorites because they’re where we learned to ride, where we go to blow off steam, and where we return time and again, season after season. But new trails offer something different. New trails remind us that the passion will never die. They remind us that the purpose of riding bikes in the mountains is not to go fast or go far, but just to go.
Pedaling through a tangle of Whitebark Pine, looking west into the depths of an Idaho wilderness as fall descends upon our corner of the Rockies, we’re glad we went. Neither of us has been here before and we’ve never heard of the trail we’re riding, but it just might be the best trail we’ve ever ridden. It jogs along at the perfect pitch, climbing steadily for a few hundred feet before descending along a grade that’s quick but not fast. For long stretches we’re deep in a dark forest, only to be high along a burned-out ridgeline a short time later.
Without knowing it, we dip into Idaho and then back into Montana, splashing through creeks destined for the Caribbean before refilling our bottles with water on its way to the Pacific.
The third and final ride of the trip will most likely mark the last biking we can do until spring, at least anywhere nearby. Winter comes early and stays late in this neck of the woods, so it could be six months before we’re biking again. Once spring does roll around, when the trails clear and the options open up, we’ll most likely break out another six-pack and a map or two. We’ll get on Trailforks and Google Earth and we’ll start to plan. We’ll have a good idea of where we’re going and what we’ll do once we get there, but until we go, we won’t know for sure.
That’s why we have bikes—to find out for sure.
Words: David Tucker
Photos: Ryan Krueger