For some reason, racing spring runoff down a stream on a bicycle — as the rush of water alternates between roaring and gurgling, placid then volatile — gives me a distinct thrill.
In Yellowstone National Park, cyclists can experience such biking bliss alongside seven gorgeous rivers — the Yellowstone, Lamar, Lewis, Gardner, Gibbon, Firehole and Madison. Given their closeness, the Gibbon, Firehole and Madison can be experienced all in one day by even moderately fit cyclists.
The rivers are a reminder of how lucky we are to have these glistening gems available to all. So if you decide to take a bike ride, make the time to stop, sit on the bank and bathe in the beauty.
Such wild splendor does come with a few warnings. When I stopped along the Madison River last weekend a huge hatch of black caddis was underway. The tiny insects were crawling on my face, neck, back and legs. On the plus side, their presence prompted trout to porpoise to the surface and devour the tiny snacks.
The fishing season in the park doesn’t open until the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, otherwise it would have been tempting to pack a fly rod along.
Finding a place to sit and take in the natural wonders where there wasn’t bison, goose or elk poop proved a bit difficult, so I sat on my jacket. Gazing reflectively across the surrounding meadows pebbled with large poo piles made me wonder if anyone had ever calculated the amount of droppings per acre in Yellowstone. There’s a problem for my mathematical friend.
Their abundance reminded me of my backyard when I would fail to promptly clean up the dog’s droppings in winter. Spring would come, the snow would melt and reveal an abundance of no longer hidden dung, ripening in the sun. Luckily, no one has to clean up the park piles, although that would provide job security for a large crew.
The distraction of burbling rivers can make it difficult for me to concentrate on the road ahead, but that’s a necessity once the park opens to auto traffic. The other option is to visit during the short two-week window in the spring when cyclists have the 49 miles between Mammoth Hot Springs to West Yellowstone pretty much to themselves. Only park-authorized vehicles are allowed on the route during this time, and they are few.
Hitting that narrow window can be difficult, though, so for riders willing to brave the traffic and the narrow and sometimes nonexistent road shoulders, the cycling season can be extended. I recommend avoiding road biking in July and August, since those are the busiest times for the park.
Take note, too, that elevations while biking in the park can range from 5,300 to 8,800 feet. Even that challenge can now be lessened with electronic peddle assist bikes, which make hills much easier to ascend.
As you may have guessed, biking for long distances provides plenty of time for my mind to wander. In fact, it probably covers more ground than my bicycle. Consequently, my recent trip into Yellowstone provided fodder for a couple of odder themes.
Vehicles with Idaho plates seemed to crowd the shoulder more than others. Maybe that’s because there were more Idaho vehicles given the state’s nearness to Yellowstone. On the other hand, some vehicles with Idaho plates were also more likely to swing farthest into the opposite lane to provide cyclists a cushion, sometimes almost to the point of crashing into an oncoming car.
My buddy's closest brush with a car was one with Montana plates and a "Don't tread on me" bumper sticker.
You might guess the most common trash in the borrow pits would be plastic water bottles or face masks, it was actually orange rinds. Just because they are biodegradable doesn’t make it OK to toss trash out the window, folks.
The wind in Yellowstone seems capable of blowing from every direction over the course of a day. Riding into the wind in one direction doesn’t mean you will have a tailwind coming back.
Bison on a road look much bigger from a bicycle. However, it’s often easier to skirt a bison jam on a bike, much to the displeasure of impatient motorists trapped in their cars for an hour-and-a-half.
Dressing in layers is essential in the spring as temperatures can vary from 18 degrees in the morning to 50s by the afternoon.
The reflection of sunlight off the snowy fields and roadside berms during spring can add to the risk of sunburn, so pack sunscreen even on cooler days.
Rangers at the gate will remind you to be bear aware and have your bear spray handy, but to me it seemed the greater danger was inattentive drivers. Wear bright clothing and turn on flashing taillights, whatever it takes to be more visible.
Although I’ve always stayed in hotel rooms at the park’s gateway communities, Yellowstone’s website noted: “A limited number of campsites are held for hikers and bicyclists each day at all campgrounds except Fishing Bridge RV Park and Slough Creek.”
For some reason it was only older folks who commented on how fun bike riding in Yellowstone looked. My buddy and I could only guess as to why. Maybe it’s because we are older, or older people are more likely to strike up a conversation with strangers. Maybe if it’s been awhile since they rode a bike the two-wheel contraption conveys a sense of youthful freedom, fresh air in the face — and more importantly — no difficulty finding a parking place.