The sounds were soft but defining: the steady crunching of fine black pumice crushed beneath bike tires, the patter of rain pelting helmet and jacket, labored breaths exhaled in plumes, and the drumming of a rapid pulse as blood rushed through my carotid artery.
Slowly pedaling up a highway in Yellowstone National Park during a cool spring rainstorm last weekend, I wondered: “What the heck was I thinking?” I could have been lying comfortably on a soft couch, snug under a fleece blanket and munching popcorn while watching a movie. What drove me to punish my body like this, because on a scale of 1 to 10 -- 10 being the fittest people I know -- I’m maybe a 5. At the time though, I felt like a sluggish minus 10.
“What,” I mulled, because I seemed to have a lot of time for mulling as I struggled uphill, “was I doing cycling 100 miles in two days when the most I ride in a week is about 20 miles to and from work?”
Once I was dry, rehydrated and fed – not to mention a nice long soak at Chico Hot Springs -- I remembered why I make such body-numbing trips. The aches and pains in my neck, shoulders, hands, crotch, thighs and feet were only temporary. They faded with time and a double dose of Ibuprofen. So when the next adventure rolls around weeks or months from now, the downsides of the trip are forgotten. I recall only the good parts of my body-punishing outings, a selective amnesia that keeps me going back for more.
Ride with a view
There are several good reasons for riding a bike into Yellowstone National Park in spring. First, and probably foremost, is the ability to take your time and really observe, smell and hear the landscape. My bicycling buddies and I stopped at most of the roadside pullouts, or at least rode through to see if there were any wild animals nearby or in the distance. (This had the added advantage of giving me time to catch my breath and get out of the saddle.)
When visiting Yellowstone in a car, the scenery flashes by, and a passenger’s view is restricted. And it seems like a hassle to stop at the pullouts and pile out again.
Not so on a bicycle. On a bike, the view is 360 degrees. My average traveling speed is about 7 mph.
Last weekend, we were able to ride close to the Gibbon and Madison rivers for miles. For me, there’s nothing quite like riding alongside a running river. It’s so mesmerizing that I’m surprised I haven’t ridden off the pavement and into the streams. I had to keep reminding myself, “Watch the road! Watch where you’re going!”
For bikers worried about their pedaling ability, the route from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction – a distance of about 14 miles – is the most level segment. The route also features a lot of elk, bison and waterfowl. If 14 miles – 28 miles round trip – sounds too exhausting, consider driving in a ways and only riding as far as you are comfortable, or partner up with someone and trade off the driving and riding duties.
There’s also a section of old gravel road from the end of Fountain Flat Drive to the Midway Geyser Basin that is open to bikers and hikers only. The 1.6-mile route (one way) goes past Goose Lake and Grand Prismatic Spring. Cyclists can also park their bikes at the trailhead to Fairy Falls – about halfway along the route -- and hike the 3 miles roundtrip to break up the outing. Other bicycle routes can be found on Yellowstone's biking web page.
My second reason for riding a bicycle into Yellowstone in the spring is that everyone seems so friendly. I’ve visited the park in every season, and springtime visitors always seem to be the most accessible.
My theory is that after a long winter, folks are just happy to be out, feel the sun on their face and see and smell the signs of spring greening the landscape. And since the crushing crowds of summer haven’t yet arrived, folks are more at ease, feel less rushed and jostled. Of course, trips into Yellowstone in the fall are also quieter and generally the weather is warmer. But I find that people are less approachable by fall – kind of like bears getting ready for hibernation.
As we rode through Yellowstone last weekend on a two-day, 100-mile outing from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., to West Yellowstone and back, we met fellow riders from nearby and far away, stopping to chat at pullouts. One man with a spotting scope sitting on the hood of his car offered a peek at a newborn bison calf. Barely minutes old, the shaky legged bison calf was already nursing.
This leads into my third top reason for visiting in spring: because people are more approachable, you get to talk to folks from all corners of the world. We chatted with a Polish couple, marveled at a German’s huge Mercedes all-terrain vehicle and met a polite Ukranian woman at a West Yellowstone shop. We saw busloads of Chinese tourists, energetic crowds of American Indian schoolchildren and heard at least five different languages being spoken. The encounters drove home what an international attraction Yellowstone is, something we locals may forget.
My final reason for visiting Yellowstone by bicycle in the spring is that the automobile traffic is relatively light. The big crowds don’t start pushing through the gates until around Memorial Day. If you can get away during the week, you’ll find even fewer vehicles because locals are less likely to be traveling into the park on weekdays. At times on Sunday, traffic was so light that I could pull over and soak in the quiet as if the honking geese and sandhill cranes and I had the whole place to ourselves.
There are also fewer wide-bodied RVs traveling into the park in spring, since few of the campgrounds are open. RVs and buses are the most frightening vehicles to have pass you while riding a bicycle, although most drivers are considerate enough to give cyclists a wide berth. Cyclists still have to hug the shoulder, ride single file and be respectful of auto traffic. In some areas, the road shoulder is fairly narrow, which may scare some folks away. The road shoulder is wider from Norris to West Yellowstone, but nonexistent from Norris to Mammoth.
Traffic is also lighter because not all of the park’s entrances and roads are open yet. Only the West and North entrances are open right now, although plows are clearing the other routes. The park opens the Mammoth to West Yellowstone highway exclusively to cyclists, hikers and rollerbladers only in the early spring. But this year's cold and snow scared me away from taking advantage of that two-weekend window of opportunity before the route opened to cars.
So think about bike riding during your next visit to Yellowstone. It’s a great way to see the park on a more intimate level. Don’t let my pronouncements of pain deter you. Remember, the aches are only temporary, but the good memories will live with you forever.