At the age of 40, I made the decision to simplify and redefine myself, and the hectic pace of my life. Most notably, leaving a very successful (and very stressful) pharmaceutical career managing a North east sales force, to follow new roads. In doing so, the Wild West and more specifically Yellowstone National Park, was suddenly elevated from my Bucket list to my To-Do list.
Once the decision was made to go, I began the planning process with one common denominator- that I promised myself I would not compromise. I wanted to not only “see” the park, but to “experience” it. But how to do it effectively, comfortably and affordably without missing out on the real experience, was the jabbing question. So I started my research on Yellowstone and began brainstorming different ways to tackle the Park’s vast geography and intricate ecosystems, from my Mac.
Exploring and mapping Yellowstone as Lewis and Clark did (1804 – 1806) was initially appealing, but unlike these explorers, I didn’t have two years (or the desire) to study the massive geography, geology, anthropology or natural history of Yellowstone as they did. Next, I tried to imagine myself as “Cain” from the popular 1970’s TV Show “Kung Fu”, wandering the park (with a much less stringent agenda than Lewis and Clark) searching for adventures. Ultimately, however, I came to two sobering realizations. One, I couldn’t survive even a condensed Lewis and Clark expedition. And two, I don’t know Kung Fu.
In looking at a map of the park, there are 3,472 square miles within Yellowstone, or 2,219,790.71 (that’s million) acres to be explored here, with just under 1% of this area consisting of developed roads, campgrounds, hotels, etc. An overwhelming amount of space to cover- let alone “experience”. That was the bad news. The good news is, that this 1% is laid out in a very effective figure 8 pattern, which allows you to see all of the important features of the park, while only traveling 176 miles of it.
That, led me to believe that biking the park would be the best way to experience Yellowstone, still under one’s own power, still out with nature, and still pretty affordable. Simple, I thought. Right? Wrong. I quickly realized that planning a trip of this type, required more than just a good travel agent and a bathing suit I felt comfortable in.
Some of the Important Considerations
While I had already decided to limit my travel to working within the figure 8, the distance between developed areas can still be significant. Additionally, Elevations range from 5300 feet to 8860 feet and if you are not experienced with working out in higher altitudes, it can deplete your energy quickly (not to mention the headaches). Before beginning my trip, I took the opportunity to have dinner with Bob Hickox, one of Yellowstone’s Senior Tour Guide’s at The Lake Yellowstone Hotel. “Traveling on these roads can be very dangerous” Bob stated. “You have to remember, these roads weren’t designed for cars- let alone bicycles”. And Bob’s right. The roads are narrow and rough with no shoulders or sidewalks, coupled with the fact that cars (traveling a maximum allowable speed limit of 45) are looking more for wildlife and the next great backdrop for a family Christmas card, than they are for bikers. I would therefore highly recommend wearing a helmet and bright, reflective clothing while biking. And a white headlamp and red rear reflector are required.
As I established earlier, I’m not Lewis, Clark or Cain so I decided living off the land or even attempts to do so, would actually diminish my ability to “experience” the park in just 8 days. There are more than 25 places to eat in the park, ranging from fine dining (you will need a reservation) to snacks and cafeteria style.
You can also order a box lunch from any dining room or cafeteria (which comes in handy when you’re biking) for only $8.95, which comes with a 20 oz. bottle of spring water, a box of raisins, some of “Miss Vickie’s” potato chips and a package of Grandma’s Cookies. I highly recommend the Dagwood Sandwich! A popular favorite here, it’s fresh, hearty and delicious! Below is a link to the box lunch menu: http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/UserFiles/File/yellowstone-pdf/2010-menus/box-lunch-cards-2010.pdf
There are three main areas to cover. The northern route, the central route and the southern route. This link will take you to an interactive map that will tell you everything you need to know about a particular area, including camping, lodging, food, gas, elevation, etc., but further down I will still map out what I think is the most effective bicycling route.
Late April is considered the safest time for biking due to a lack of traffic. May and June are often cool and cloudy, as the park (and traffic) begin to pick up again. During July and August you can expect days to be warm and nights to be cool with a chance of afternoon thundershowers. Finally, September and October can be characterized as having clear and cool days. This is also considered excellent riding weather, but keep in mind that early snowstorms can occur in late September and October. For this reason, always be prepared for a change in weather when traveling in Yellowstone.
May and June can be a dangerous time to bike Yellowstone because of the narrow roads and snow banks- particularly in the south-central area of the park. Mid June to mid September is when the traffic is heaviest- late afternoons being peak travel times.
This is the number for updated road information in Yellowstone, 24/7 (307) 344-2117.
Planning & Reservations
There are 12 campgrounds at Yellowstone Park, 11 that accommodate bikers (the exception is Slough Creek Campground). Fishing Bridge R.V Park allows bikers- but not tents or soft pop up trailers. Cyclists (and hikers) without vehicles can camp in designated “biker/hiker” sites for $5. per night/per individual, which is pretty reasonable. Reservations are required for 4 of the larger campgrounds (Bridge Bay, Canyon, Grant, Madison) through AmFac (307-344-7311). The remaining sites work on a first come, first serve basis (and usually fill up by 11:00 am daily), so you will need to plan this according to how you map out your trip. Additionally, there are only a certain number of biker/hiker camp sites in each campground, so reserving early at the larger 4 or arriving early at the remaining 7 to secure your site is a good idea. And keep in mind that the opening and closing dates for every campground are different throughout the park. Your best bet is to check the Camping Page; (http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/camping.htm) to make sure that campgrounds are open if you are planning a camping trip during the spring or fall.
Finally, there are only three campsites that offer showers/laundry; Canyon, Grant and Fishing Bridge so plan accordingly. Again, Fisher Bridge R.V. Park offers showers/laundry for you to use, but you can’t camp in a tent or pop up trailer. Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Lake Lodge also offer showers/laundry for you to use- but no camping, although campgrounds are nearby.
Now packing for this kind of a trip can seem as challenging as the trip itself. There are a lot of things you’ll think you might need but you don’t, so consider 3 things;
1. NECESSITIES (I listed these further down)
2. What you bring you will need to be able to lift/carry on your back/bike
3. What you bring with you will need to travel a minimum of 176 miles. Remember, the figure 8 is 154 miles but you still need to get in and out of the park, and you will be doing some back tracking during your adventure based on where you camp. I’ve tried to minimize that in the outline for my trip below.
• Sub zero sleeping bag. Northface makes a good line ranging from $250-$500. The North Face Dark Star -40 Degree Sleeping bag is a great buy for $300 http://www.thenorthface.com/catalog/sc-gear/equipment-sleeping-bags/dark-star_2.html. And, while it’s not likely that you will be experiencing sub-zero weather in July or August it can still get quite nippy. This is an item that can make or break your nights and ultimately your vacation. No matter what it’s a great investment in camping.
• A weather-resistant, comfortable, easy to assemble, lightweight tent. Attached is a link to a good line of “packing” tents. The one highlighted is for two people, but I suggest getting it even for just one person. Tents are small by design, so unless you’re planning extreme trips, always go a size up. Additionally, this one weighs only six pounds- packed. Always consider the weight of things when hiking/biking. http://www.rei.com/product/794296/rei-half-dome-2-plus-tent
• An air pump and a tire patch kit. There are bike shops which can assist you in the gateway communities of West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City, but with limited cell coverage and time, I highly recommend bringing your own kit.
• Water, water and more water. Most bikes can accommodate up to three water bottles, and I recommend you attach and fill them all as often as possible. Altitude sickness and dehydration can be minimized by staying hydrated.
• Bear spray. Hopefully, you won’t need it, but it’s a small canister. Buy it. Pack it. Carry it. I like the one listed here because it has a hip holster making it easy to carry, a range of 30 feet and it’s non-flammable. https://store.udap.com/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=12HP&Category_Code=BS
• A travel fly-rod kit. I love to fish, and this area is world renown for its trout fishing. You will need a permit, which you can obtain at the Back Country offices or Yellowstone General stores. Brown, Rainbow, Brook & Lake Trout are okay to catch- but most of the other native fish are protected. Check with Rangers or at one of the local information offices for all regulations before fishing.
• An LED flashlight with extra batteries.
• Toiletries and clothes are personal. I would, however, recommend packing a warm and cool outfit, windbreaker and plenty of socks and underwear. Clean underwear and socks are easier to pack than more pants and shirts.
• A comfortable, light, weather resistant backpack to pack your clothes, personals, etc.
Day 1 North Entrance – Tower Roosevelt (23 miles – No shower/laundry in Roosevelt Canyon)
With planning complete, I began my trip through the North Entrance. Heading North-west past Mammouth. Mount Everts and the Phantom Lake on our way to Tower-Roosevelt. Keep in mind that the northern loop, while beautiful, is also the most dangerous part of the park for a biker, so leaving early will also help alleviate heavy traffic.
Day 2 Tower Falls – Canyon (19 miles – shower/laundry at Canyon)
As I left in the morning, heading South towards Canyon, we were in awe of the majestic views of Mount Washburn and the incredible rock features that lined Dunraven Pass.
Day 3 Canyon – Madison (26 miles – No shower/laundry at Madison)
Our ride from Canyon to Madison was a beautiful ride filled with a multitude of geysers and great views of Gibbon Falls & The Gibbon River.
Day 4 Madison – (16 miles) Old Faithful – Grant Village (17 miles – shower/laundry at Grant Village
As we departed Madison we began our discovery of the lower, midway and upper geyser basins. We arrived at Old Faithful at lunchtime with plenty of time to pick up a Smoked Alaskan Salmon BLT, with Salt and Vinegar Chips and free homemade dill pickles! From there we were told we could walk up to the second level of the lodge and go out on the deck. There were lots of comfy benches to sit on while we waited for the show (every 35-125 minutes). After watching the eruption over lunch we embarked again, meandering our way around Scaup Lake and scenic Craig’s Pass.
Day 5 Grant Village – Fishing Bridge (21 miles – showers only no pop up tents/pop up campers)
This is a great ride and one we took plenty of time on to truly enjoy Yellow Lake. At different times during the year they allow swimming and the fishing can be first class.
Day 6 Fishing Bridge – Canyon (16 miles – Shower at Canyon)
The ride from Fishing Bridge to Canyon, I believe to be the most scenic ride of all. Some of the highlights include Mud Volcano, The Hayden Valley and The Yellowstone River, before reaching the dramatic Upper and Lower Falls near Artist Point. We saw several bison along the Hayden Valley (they are also abundant in the Northern Range), and despite their slow and docile behavior, many visitors are harmed every year by bison. They can run up to 30 mph so stay at least 25 yards away at all times.
Day 7 Canyon – Norris (12 miles – No Shower at Norris)
This was our second chance to look for different things as we crossed this route. Ice Lake and The Virginia Cascade were certainly worth stopping to view and photograph.
Day 8 Norris – North Entrance (26 miles) Exit Park
On the final leg of our journey, we enjoyed the views of Twin Lakes, Roaring Mountain, Willow Park and took some time to stop and walk around the Mammouth Hot Springs Terraces. This is one of the most interesting and beautiful geo-thermal features in the world, and one of the most photographed places in the park.
As we completed our journey through Yellowstone, it occurred to me why Yellowstone National Park has often been referred to as “God’s Country” and sometimes even as “The face of God.” And while I can’t pinpoint the exact moment or place I saw HIS face, I can tell you it’s worn with character over Mount Washburn and brilliantly colored deep within the Mammouth Hot Springs. His features are as worn and chiseled as The Yellowstone Grand Canyon, and his eyes are filled with the peace of The Lake and the life of the Bison near Dunraven pass, And I swear, as the sun began to set in the mountains, on our final evening in Yellowstone, I heard a whisper… “Perhaps”, my wife jibed, “it’s Cain returning to camp after a long adventure.” I laughed at the thought of the old and wise Kung Fu master coming the trees, weary from his adventures. Utterly absurd, I thought. Because after seeing more than 176 miles of Yellowstone and hearing the whisper…. I knew better.
Enjoy your adventures fellow travelers! Onward!