A Bicycle Tour from Salt Lake To Yellowstone and Back

Bicycle touring Soda Springs Idaho
Dirt road outside Soda Springs, Idaho.

By Owen Geary

In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was christened the first National Park of America. Since the advent of the automobile countless Americans have yearly made a pilgrimage to this unique sanctuary of natural beauty. The journey to this national treasure is something of an American rite of passage, passed down from generation to generation; families loading into the station wagon and camping on site, or towing behind vintage RV Airstreams like a nostalgic 50’s postcard. Modern travel convenience allows us to make that sojourn with all the comforts and amenities of home, either in a roomy SUV or Winnebago, a second house on wheels. This was not the experience I sought, or desired.

The trip from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park offers an abundance of both beauty and simplicity. Autumn unfolds the splendor of the changing season; leaves turning their color, brisk riding temperatures, the migration of various species. Bearing witness to this was a major benefit of departing in early September. Fall may not have been the easiest season for this endeavor, but for this touring cyclist it was the only realistic option due to work. If I left much later I would have missed out on this gorgeous scenic window, not to mention run the risk of encountering severe inclement weather, the bane of an unprepared touring cyclist’s journey.

For this trip I chose to build up a Soma Saga Disc frame. I have several custom-built bicycles under my belt, made for both friends and myself, and have volunteered and worked for the Salt Lake Bicycle Collective these past three years. I mention my experience to illustrate the thought I put into a touring build such as this one, which I constructed from the ground up. I scavenged what I could from the Collective in order to get my bike operational–even for a seasoned bicycle mechanic assembly from second-hand sources can be extremely trying at times. I built my wheels using Disc hubs (Shimano XT, a great find!) found at the Bike Collective, and very wide rims (Velocity Blunt 35s) with anticipation of having to accommodate large tires (Resist 45c tires). Building wheels can be a challenge, but having built a few wheels previously I felt comfortable building mine for this tour (36 hole rims with 4 cross lacing). What I couldn’t appropriate at the Bike Collective I purchased from Mark over at Saturday Cycles. They offer a great selection for the commuting cyclist, cyclocross racer, touring cyclist as well as anything in between. With a great selection of Ortlieb, Lone Peak, Axiom as well as several others, I found myself walking away with two waterproof Ortlieb front panniers, a Lone Peak handle bar bag and a massive grin on my face in anticipations of my tour.

The ride from Salt Lake City to Gardiner, Montana, the township serving as Yellowstone’s entrance, is approximately 450 miles. That’s 900 miles for the complete round trip. Allocating 19 days seemed adequate to accomplish my goal and return in time for work. My initial research showed a route following parallel Highway 89 seemed straightforward, simple, and achievable. However, desiring a trip a tad more adventurous, my bicycle touring guide (Erick Morton) and I chose a route mirroring Highway 89. Erick was an invaluable tutor for me, as most of my touring knowledge came second-hand from reading and listening to others who’d made the trek in the past. This would be my first real self-sufficient riding tour.

Day 1: Salt Lake to Ogden via the TRAX Frontrunner, then a ride from Ogden to a Warm-Showers host family in Logan, an ideal way to finish the first day of real touring. They were a lovely family and most gracious hosts; we availed ourselves of a home-cooked dinner and a backyard camp out before preparing to embark into the woods for several days on our own. [89 miles total (45 miles ridden)]

Day 2: Our host Richard, himself a local cyclist, gave suggestions on what roads to take. Erick and I headed north and eventually found one of the roads that lead to a hot spring. The dusty dirt road afforded us a spectacular sunset dipping its way into the horizon. Much of the riding was very manageable; both our setups seemed to lend themselves to the hard, packed dirt and fared well on this one. [45 mi]

Day 3: Having camped next to the Oneida Narrows reservoir Erick and I left the dirt road and onto the paved road of Highway 34, taking us along bucolic farm and grazeland with nothing but rural solitude for miles. We stopped at a convenience store in the town of Niter, Idaho for a gas station brunch. We made it just inside the borders of Grace, Idaho when Erick had his rear tire blow through, thus forcing a stop (fortunately in shade) to repair the tire with a boot, patch the tube, and continue onto the town of Soda Springs. The closest campsite was China Hat, about 8 miles north of Soda Springs. We elected to take back roads to the campground–more dirt roads that followed much of the grain fields in the area, affording us amazing views golden, swaying wheat. We finally made it back onto pavement and were nearing the campground for the night when Erick had a second blowout, forcing another emergency patch session. Time was short with a rapidly setting sun and our ravenous hunger gnawing at us, but we improvised an aluminum can with taped edges and a full tire boot (usually they are cut to size). We continued on to the campground, and thankfully the boot seemed to hold. We came upon the China Hat campground already closed, so while we saved on the price of a campsite rental there was no water available. Luckily for us a generous fellow camper offered up some of their surplus. [46 mi]

Day 4: We continued on in the morning, back on dirt roads once more to Hwy 89. We were excited albeit somewhat apprehensive; undoubtedly all the rubble and stones on these paths were what ruined Erick’s first two tire boots. We filled our water at an R.V. park and pushed on with a delightfully significant tailwind coaxing us over the last of Idaho’s rolling hills. I settled into a solid riding pace, the more jagged features of Wyoming looming shortly ahead, and suddenly realized I hadn’t seen Erick in a while. I scanned the road behind me looking for that distinct sight of a fully loaded touring bike with rider pacing alongside. I eventually spotted Erick and his bike, I rode back down to see what the hold-up was, knowing full well already. There it was: his tire had ripped open even larger this time, unfortunately leaving the only option a full tire replacement. He decided to hitch a ride to Jackson WY, the closest place with a bike shop, leaving me solo for the first time in the trip. I continued through the rolling hills up Highway 34 on my way to Alpine, WY hoping to make camp there before sunset and the onset of a brewing storm. After a stern and unforgiving day’s ride I trekked into Alpine with a bit of time to spare, and stopped at a café for a bite to eat and to charge my phone. Imagine my surprise to find Erick in Alpine as well; apparently his ride had dropped him off at the RV park there. We camped in Alpine under torrential rain, and my modest tent was ill prepared for the onslaught that night. [57 mi]

Day 5: I awoke in Alpine sometime in the small hours of the night to a cold bath of several inches of water in my tent; not a pleasant wake-up call. I made it through the rest of the night with rain pants on the end of my sleeping bag, keeping mostly dry from the puddle forming at my feet. I arose from my tent damp instead of drenched, but was somewhat discouraged all the same. I consulted a Danish couple who were touring from Banff to Central America, and I was able to finally get my MSR Whisperlite stove working (without instructions those things are a nightmare). We spoke of the night’s rain and I relayed the conditions I had slept in–they immediately without hesitation offered me a tent. I was astonished at their hospitality–it seems they’d purchased an extra tent at the start their trip due to a shipping delay from Denmark, and they were happy to free up the space. That tardiness was my grateful gain. They were heading south and I was heading north to Jackson to meet up with Erick, so we parted ways in Alpine that morning. Riding perpendicular to the Snake River as the morning fog was rolled in was a wondrous sight. Jackson was a mere 45 miles away with no major elevation gains in sight, predicting an easy touring day with a fortuitous start. Making Jackson before dark was no problem–the hard part was going to bed early, it being a Friday night with friends in tow. We ended up in an alleycat (unsanctioned bike race) taking place at Pinky G’s (the local pizza joint). The night seemed to get away from everyone, and the race morphed into more of a leisurely social ride, a change welcomed by all. [37 mi]

Day 6: A late night begat a late start, and Erick and I hit the road around noon. We only needed to make it to Jenny Lake Campground in Teton National Park, a mere 30 miles from Jackson. The Tetons were stupendous, awe-inspiring. I don’t have the ability to describe their innate beauty, only that they took my breath away. [26 mi]

Day 7: The ride from Jenny Lake to Lewis Lake in Yellowstone National Park put us in the park right on time; allotting 7 days to get to Yellowstone ended up being just right. We broke camp late in Lewis Lake with anticipation of light rain throughout the night. The south entrance can be hazardous–we were run off the road by a large tour bus shortly after entering the park. Future touring cyclists should be wary: it’s easy to be stuck between a rock (the stone wall) and a hard place (an oncoming bus) with little to no wiggle room. [57 mi]

Day 8: Erick and I awoke to the pattering of raindrops on our tents, which can be both soothing and disheartening, as past events had already shown. We waited for the rain to let up enough to break camp and make as many miles as we could. We again had a late start at around noon, traveling through a continual misting of light showers throughout the day (though luckily no downpour). We scoped out campsites along the way, but found most every last one between Lewis Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs closed for the season. Arriving at the hotel we attempted to figure out a place to stay, eventually being put in contact with two Park Rangers. They placed us just behind the ranger barracks a mile from the hotel, a somewhat muddy spot that necessitated throwing our food into a tree with rope, but we were both satisfied to have a place to crash where we wouldn’t be rousted for breaking the law. [28 mi]

Day 9: We woke to another slight drizzle above our heads but broke camp regardless. Our digestive systems were somewhat in revolt from endless cliff bars and granola so we sojourned to the hotel in the hope for a hot breakfast. The Yellowstone Hotel’s all-you-can-eat $15 breakfast buffet was worth the splurge in this case. Bellies full, Erick and I continued on through canyons, stopping to see the falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, then tackling Dunraven pass after a late lunch. Trekking through the descent of Dunraven pass we made Tower-Roosevelt campground just at sunset, happy at our timing. [35 mi]

Day 10: Having been trapped in rainy or damp conditions the past few days, we elected to take our time in the morning and dry out our gear before hitting the road. Thankfully the camp hosts were extremely welcoming and pleasant. Our itinerary included a few minor climbs into Mammoth with plenty of stops to take in the scenery. Erick and I ran into two other touring cyclists who happened to be taking the Adventure Cycling Association route across America, staring from the East coast. We joined them for a length of cycling before arriving in Mammoth, promptly purchasing ice cream to reward a hard day’s riding. We relaxed for a brief spell before heading to Boiling River and indulging in a hot springs soak. During our Yellowstone trek we also ended meeting up with Erick’s father, a happy reunion considering Erick hadn’t seen him two years. Erick’s father picked both of us up at the end of the day’s adventures and treated us to dinner in Gardiner, before Erick and I bid each other a fond farewell and parted ways. For the remainder of the trip, I would again ride solo. [23 mi]

Day 11: I awoke at dawn, packing my gear meticulously, making sure to fully restock on supplies prior to reentering the park. Prepared, I made my exit from Gardiner, and entered Yellowstone. Riding on I stopped to visit Mammoth Hot Springs, having not seen them previously. An early start and a modest amount of miles ahead convinced me to leave Mammoth and make for an early camp at Tower-Roosevelt. I decided on a dirt road (Black Tail Ridge) that I had seen on the map. When I reached the head of Black Tail Ridge road there was a closed gate to dissuade automobiles from entering–no problem for an intrepid cyclist. I rode along the trail past several hikers, and whilst riding a blind corner I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a buffalo not 10 yards from me. I froze, realizing he had noticed me. I backed away slowly, and thankfully he was a mellow beast, gradually returning to his grazing. I reached for my phone to take a photograph but it wasn’t in its usual place. I combed through my bags and had to conclude that I must have left it behind in Mammoth. I retraced my path, returned to the road, locked my bike behind some foliage, and proceeded to thumb a ride back to Mammoth (not wanting to ride the cramped Yellowstone road three times in one day). A lovely couple from Minnesota pulled off ahead and offered me a ride into Mammoth. I stopped in the general store and retrieved my phone; it was set aside for me with a note reading: “The nice touring bicyclist guy’s phone.” It pays to be friendly while traveling! My hitchhiking ride generously offered to return me to my bicycle and I happily took them up it, spared more monotonous Yellowstone traffic. This dirt road is something I would recommend riding with company as there was a bear scare in the area, though I managed quite well enough. The Black Tail Ridge road is a beautifully refreshing perspective on the park. While the road is a bit poorly maintained at points, it’s mostly manageable, as is one of the better riding detours I took in the park, bringing me nearly to camp. [23mi]

Day 12: I’d made camp at the second most Northern campground in Yellowstone (Tower-Roosevelt). The next campground on my itinerary was the Southernmost (Lewis Lake) in the park, so I had an arduous day of touring ahead. Starting with a climb of Dunraven Pass (elev. 8900) was challenging but a doable trek. Sometime throughout my day I ran into two female touring cyclists headed south–they’d resigned themselves to hitching a ride to take a break from the long morning which was now climbing onwards to afternoon. Traveling south I continued on after lunch, pushing myself farther and farther the rest of the day before finally making Lewis Lake Campground just as the sun was setting. I made the acquaintance of two more fellow touring cyclists, these ones from Sacramento, before setting up camp. [60mi]

Day 13: At some point over the night it began to rain (which I had been anticipating), a storm that continued unabated for the rest of the day. I broke camp late, hoping for a break in the rain, and made do with a light drizzle and the hope of making the Tetons before dark. I said goodbye to the Sacramento cyclists and embarked. I made nearly 20 miles to Rockefeller Parkway between Teton National and Yellowstone. I was forced to seek shelter due to the rain turning into a downpour. After waiting it out and eating a brief snack I grudgingly mounted my bicycle, bracing myself for more wind, rain, and cold. At some point my rain jacket failed to be a functional (which brought on a niggling fear of hypothermia), but I doggedly pressed on. Thoughts of a cozy lodge with a crackling fireplace to dry out my gear and warm my bones kept me going. I eventually found a lodge, though no welcoming fire, however I did find a warm meal and a kindly janitor who directed me to the employee village to dry out. I washed out my smelly bibs and socks, munching on complimentary granola bars. Free granola bars! These had been a rare sight and very welcome at this point in my journey. After laundry the rain had let up just enough to allow me to make a break for Jenny Lake campground and set up for the night. Disembarking from the lodge, I rode quickly and made camp just after the sundown, fortunately for my weary bones as the rain just started up fully again. [57mi]

Day 14: Waking to the cacophony of rain outside no longer soothed my spirit as it once did. I prepared a breakfast of oatmeal under a pine tree and considered the ride to Jackson, WY ahead, and with it the prospect of welcoming Warm-Showers host. A hot shower, hot meal, and a dry corner for my gear would be just the ticket for my morale. Hitting the road somewhat early put me in Jackson just before 2:00 pm, giving me another opportunity to explore the town and grab a bite. The day closed indoors under a roof in a warm bed, very needed respite from the relentless weather during my return trip. [21mi]

Day 15: Today involved only a short ride to Alpine, so I did a little shopping beforehand. I chowed down a breakfast burrito at Down On Glenn, then stopped at a second hand sporting goods shop to get a raincoat to protect me for at least the last leg of trip. Restocked and refreshed, I embarked for Alpine, making it halfway before the rain let up just enough to let the sun peek the clouds; the first time I’d seen it in days. Making Alpine around sunset I set up camp at the same R.V. Park where my Danish travelers and their helpful tent were ten days previous, and promptly went to sleep. [38mi]

Day 16: Another day, another chilly storm. Using the camp facilities I dried out what gear I could and hit the road around noon. I was once again pedaling in the rain, and riding along Highway 89 was a very harrowing experience. Large trucks and oversized pickups (which seem to make up the majority of personal vehicles in Wyoming) whizzed by me almost constantly, making me very aware of my vulnerability on this busy road. At the first opportunity I took a diversionary side road that provided me much needed relief before it eventually rejoined Hwy 89, and it was onward to Afton WY. The rain almost had subsided by the day’s end, and I decided to camp just outside the city limits. [33 mi]

Day 17: I broke camp early to get a head start on my riding for the day. I stopped briefly in Afton for breakfast before continuing on with my day’s riding, which would conclude at a small town just before Bear Lake for the night. As I was climbing that first mountain pass ominous dark clouds bore menacingly down on me, and with it, snow. I armed myself with winter gloves, a wool hat, wool flannel, and bushy socks and pressed onward. I was actually relieved not to be caught in the cursed rain again, that inclement weather which invariably penetrates all a cyclist’s defenses. Eventually the snow lifted, leaving only the angry clouds in its wake. I changed back into my lighter gear and continued on finishing the second mountain pass to Montpelier. I made contact with my Warm-Shower host for the night, and from there it was a mere 13 miles to the doorstep of their humble abode. I made myself at home with a hot meal and a hot shower seemingly stolen from an Isaak Asimov novel. [59 mi]

Day 18: Daybreak in my warm, rain-free bed brought a discovery of front that had collected on the grass outside, making me grateful for my host’s hospitality. I made my goodbyes and then was on the road again, quickly pedaling on to the Utah border. I met some locals in Garden City I took up their offer of a ride up a hill to a dirt road of questionable condition, though supposedly it was a straight shot all the way to Logan, or even Ogden if I followed it that far. I unpacked my bike from their pickup and entered onto this dirt road, which apparently is used extensively by hunters this time of year, though one of my maps indicated it doubled as an extensive network of snow-cat sledding trails in winter. I continued my ride through, admiring the lovely fall scenery and keeping apart from the mild ATV traffic. My destination would be a location known as Hardware Ranch, which was my exit point from the dirt road. Despite the many arduous climbs (some perhaps a bit much for a loaded touring bike) I found myself enjoying nearly every minute of the ride, transfixed by the awesome beauty and tranquil solitude of these roads. My dwindling water supply did give me cause for concern, so I elected to part from the trail that would have taken me deeper into the woods, and focused on making for Hardware Ranch. I had hoped to find water along the way; there were no spigots as such, however there were plenty of people whom I could have asked for water. I rode on to Hyrum, UT, but with the sun setting and no solid camp options within reach I pressed on a further ten miles to Logan to stay with a hastily arranged Warm-Shower host, who graciously obliged to house me at the last minute. [74.8 mi (approx.)]

Day 19: The previous day’s dirt road trek had loosened some bolts on my bike rack, so I took up on my Host’s offer to utilize his bike shop and replace them, giving me much needed piece of mind for the second day’s dirt riding ahead. I headed south back through Hyrum, taking a dirt path that led me nearly to the mouth of Ogden canyon. This road was in far better condition than the previous day’s, giving me a much quicker pace. Just before Powder Mountain I stopped for lunch at a grocery store, then it was onward into the notoriously treacherous Ogden Canyon, with its clear posted signs, warning cyclists of the tight roads and switchback turns. I made it through the canyon in one piece, albeit a bit stressed, and I pedaled the last leg of the trip to Ogden, boarding the TRAX Frontrunner station around 3:00 pm. Taking a train back to Salt Lake was a pleasant bookend to my trip, and gave me time to soak in all the remembrances of my touring trip. [45.4 mi + 41.6 (Train ride)]

 

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