Bill Blackford bounced his bike over the boulder-packed brook before shuddering to a stop.
"It's not a good ride if you don't hike," he said, picking up his mountain bike to continue down the trail. "Hike a bike."
Blackford, owner of Cooke City Bike Shack, has traversed many similar trails in the Beartooth Mountains of Wyoming and Montana, everything from single-track game paths to forest roads and old jeep trails.
"Almost every one of the rides in the Beartooths you have to walk," Blackford said. "If you go at this with the attitude that you're going to ride everything then you're setting yourself up for injury."
The Beartooths don't top most riders' radar screens. Part of the reason is that the mountains are steep, climbing 5,000, abrupt vertical feet above the Bighorn Basin to the south. The rugged granite Beartooth Plateau, pocked with almost 1,000 lakes, ranges from over 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. The air can get pretty thin for flatlanders up there.
One other fact that turns riders away is that more than 904,000 acres of the mountain range are designated wilderness. That means no bike riding within the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Yellowstone National Park borders the mountain range to the south.
Despite this, there's a surprising variety of terrain on the fringe of the Beartooths that mountain bikers can negotiate. Trails range from moderate to bone-shattering on the difficulty scale. There are routes that can be run mostly downhill, provided you shuttle a vehicle. And there are overnighters that take in some beautiful sites.
Fall can be a good time to ride as aspen leaves turn golden and the daytime temperatures remain cool. There are also fewer folks in the forest. But beware of bad weather and bike breakdowns. Five miles may not seem like a long way to go, but walking out wet with a broken bike can quickly dampen an outing.
Blackford said almost all the Beartooth trails outside the wilderness boundary that are on the Forest Service map are rideable. And with the alder turning and the whortleberries thick, it's a great time to see some colorful scenery and spy some elk.
If you're worried you can't carry enough water to meet your needs, get one of the new water bottles with the filter built in. There's plenty of water across the most of the Beartooths. You'll never run dry.
With that in mind, here's some of Blackford's favorite trails in the southeastern section of the Beartooths:
Morrison Jeep Trail (Forest Road 120): This trail sees four-wheeler use, so be prepared to share. "This is a great social trail," Blackford said, mainly because it's plenty wide. There are lots of single-track trails cutting off from the main route, but make sure you have a map and know where you're going before wandering off too far.
Riders can make a loop by taking one of the side trails and cutting back to the jeep trail. Or take the entire route if you can handle the strain. The road drops into the Clarks Fork Canyon before emerging just southwest of the small Wyoming town of Clark - about a 26-mile ride overall. The trail begins across from Long Lake, just over the Beartooth Pass, on the south side of Highway 212 in Wyoming.
Beartooth Loop National Recreational Trail: This challenging trail starts at the Hauser Lake Trailhead, across from Long Lake. The 15-mile route passes Losekamp Lake, crosses Tibbs Butte, and then hang a right down Little Rock Creek until it joins up with the trail near Camp Sawtooth (above Deep Lake) then loop uphill to Top Lake, and back on the Morrison Jeep Trail. To make the route shorter - about 9 miles - cut back to Top Lake at Trail 613A where it joins with the trailhead out of Dollar and Top lakes.
Highline Trail: Just after crossing Tibbs, the trail forks. Left and you go to Gardner, right and you head toward Deep Lake, about four miles away. On the plateau above Deep Lake, the trail forks. Going east takes riders along the Highline Trail.
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"Once it descends it becomes extremely challenging," Blackford said. "But the upper part of the trail is spectacular. It suckers you in."
Once the trail begins to drop, riders lose about 4,500 feet in elevation. "Only the most advanced riders should descend the lower Highline Trail," Blackford said. And even top riders should be sure to carry extra cables, spare parts, tools, tubes and warm clothes and rain gear. "You figure the climate is going to change from Alpine to cactus."
The trip to the bottom of the Highline Trail requires a shuttle, as does taking the Morrison Jeep Trail all the way out. The Highline Trail is about 26 miles from top to bottom.
Above Deep Lake riders can also fork to the west and hook up with the Morrison Jeep Trail to make a different loop of about 15 miles.
Bannock Trail: This old road between Cooke City and Silver Gate can be negotiated by the youngest in your pack. The trail is 3 miles one way.
Crazy Lakes: This intermediate to moderate trail can be ridden as a loop. Take Forest Road 130 off Highway 212 to where the road Ts and park. Take Trail 617 to its intersection with Trail 631 and loop back on Forest Road 1A. It's about a 14-mile roundtrip. With plenty of aspen along the way, this would be a great fall ride.
Lewis and Clark Foot Trail: Take Highway 212 to its junction with Highway 296 and head south about five miles to Hunter Peak Campground on the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. The trail number is 628 and starts across the highway from the campground. Except for a few rough spots, the first part of this trail is a good intermediate ride, about 4 to 7 miles in. It's a good idea to turn around before the trail drops into the Clarks Fork River canyon.
"It's an excellent ride to do this time of the year," Blackford said. "You go through aspen stands; it's a rolling ride with some difficult, short, technical climbs."
The trail continues on down the canyon with a wicked descent and then a brutal climb of about 900 feet in less than a half mile. The trail drops into the canyon before hooking up with the Morrison Jeep Trail about 21 miles in, which can then be rode on out to Clark, Wyo.
Daisy Loop: Take the highway east out of Cooke City to the Daisy Pass Road and ride up to Crown Butte for views of the rocky crag and nearby Pilot and Index peaks. The road gains about 2,100 vertical feet over its 15 miles. Mine reclamation near Crown Butte is taking place, so the road is closed to use after the pass. There are lots of offshoot trails along the way.
Goose Lake: This jeep trail (Forest Road 3230) sees some ATV use. The road climbs about 2,100 feet, but it's spread out over a long distance. Riders can drive up Fisher Creek road to the bottom of the trail to save some mileage. It's about 4 miles to Goose. There are lots of side trails to explore on this route.
Line Creek Plateau: For a hellish descent from the plateau, drop a car off across the creek from Piney Dell along Rock Creek on the Sheridan Ratine Road No. 379 while on the way up the Beartooth Highway. After climbing the pass, pull off the highway at the gravel pit near the state line near Trail 10 (about 20 miles). The 18-mile ride starts off across the plateau before dropping into Maurice Creek.
"It's hard to find the trail on top because there isn't a trail on top," Blackford said. "You have to ride across the Line Creek Plateau to get to the descent. It's bumpity-bump across the alpine tundra.
"It's not a very easy ride because of the Alpine tundra," he added. "And there's no water up there. But I would consider it a day ride."Other routes If you don't want to poke your head over the Beartooth Pass, try riding some of the forest roads on this northeastern side of the Beartooth Mountains. Many of the drainages have rideable routes, like the Silver Run Trail outside of Red Lodge. Or ride along the base of the range on the Meteetsee Trail south of Red Lodge. The turnoff is just before the Forest Service office.
If you'd rather wait and get a guide, Bill Blackford at the Cooke City Bike Shack (838-2414) offers guided tours in the Gallatin National Forest.
There's also a south central Montana Mountain Biking Trail Guide available for routes in Yellowstone and Carbon counties. The Line Creek Plateau route is included, as is the Meteetsee Trail, Silver Run and others near Red Lodge, as well as routes closer to Billings.Brett French can be reached at email@example.com, or at 657-1387