Huckleberry Bike Tour

Oct 26th, 2018

The conversation that bubbled as we coasted back from beers and dessert hushed as the bike path veered out of the moonlight and into the darkness under the trees. Heidi and Tyler pierced the quiet ahead of me with a chorus of bike bell ching-chings, I assumed from the pure joy of a moonlit night ride with friends. Then I smelled it — the intense waft of musky cattle stink giving away the presence of a male moose somewhere near in the marshy shadows. Those cheery ching-chings? They were a warning.

I pictured a hooved, antlered beast twice as tall as my bike ready to charge across our path, or over us. Maybe I was wrong to think that the risky part of the day — braving highway commuter traffic on Teton Pass that morning — was long over. I wondered whether pedaling down this seemingly benign bike path to get dessert in Teton Village was really worth a potential moose trampling. But I flashed back to the heavenly gluttony of the evening and decided, yeah, it was totally worth it.

The bike tour we’d set out on wasn’t super ambitious in terms of miles. Or really in terms of elevation gain either. But it may have been ambitious in terms of the calories we’d be consuming. I’d roped my friend, photographer Becca Skinner, into a three-day ride along the Tetons in mid-August with the simple goal of gorging ourselves on as many huckleberries as possible. No “longest,” “farthest,” or “first” for us. Just an old-fashioned joyride, a way to slow down our experience of a summer that otherwise seemed to be zooming by like a train I couldn’t quite hitch a ride on.

The night before, we’d sucked down huckleberries through the extra-wide straws in milkshakes from the Victor Emporium, procrastinating loading up our bikes until the sun was already fading. John, the owner at Moose Creek Ranch just outside Victor, Idaho, had good news and bad news for us. The bad news: there were no berries out — it had been too dry, or maybe it was because of a late frost. The good news: we could leave one of our cars in his lot for the duration of the trip. We sorted our gear on the porch of our glamping tent, joking that we’d scored the most Instagram-worthy gear-sorting site ever. 

When we’d marked the days for this tour on our calendars, we knew it would be a gamble as to whether we’d actually find berries in the wild. I did a little online research and talked to a couple of friends who lived in the area. Ultimately, there was a solid chance we’d totally strike out on the berry picking. It all depended on the weather. But I’d spent enough time around Grand Teton National Park to know that even when the bushes are bare, there are plenty of huckleberry treats to be had around town. Some shops and cafés, like the Victor Emporium, freeze their berries and keep a deep stock. Others, we assumed, imported them, maybe from Oregon. Either way, I wasn’t about to be a purist.

Opting to ride unpaved backroads north of Moose, Wyoming, made for slower going - the better to watch the Tetons go by
Opting to ride unpaved backroads north of Moose, Wyoming, made for slower going — the better to watch the Tetons go by.
Becca Skinner

Rolling into Wilson, Wyoming, on the first day of the tour, we’d surely earned our daily huckleberry rations — gaining over 2,200 feet of elevation in about eight miles up Teton Pass from Victor. As hundreds of morning commuters rushed by, inches away from our panniers in the dawn light, I began to second-guess my reasoning for tacking on this torturous start to an otherwise relatively flat — and largely bike path–oriented — route. I reminded myself that if this was really a tour for gourmands, we should at least pretend to have suffered just a little bit to earn our sweets. Visions of huckleberry pie, huckleberry ice cream, and juicy huckleberry jam flashed in my imagination. Cresting the pass to see Jackson Hole glowing in the yellow morning haze, I knew we had made the right choice.

Our braking hands cramped as we coasted the Old Pass Road all the way from the top of the pass down into Wilson. Retired as a highway but still maintained as a wide paved trail, the Old Pass Road is now reserved for hikers and bikers. It was a welcome relief from the roaring traffic arcing its way from Victor to Jackson Hole. Leaning our bikes on the racks at Pearl Street Bagels in Wilson, Becca got a call from our local friends who were heading out on a huckleberry hunt. We’d just missed the chance to go along. But a cold beer and a nap later, we met Heidi, who arrived empty-handed and echoing John from Moose Creek Ranch: it had been such a dry year, they’d found nothing.

We hatched an alternative plan to find our daily berries: huckleberry cocktails at The Deck @ Piste, up the gondola from Teton Village. Heidi and Tyler loaded August, their three-year-old, in the trailer and we set off, only to be foiled again. The restaurant was closed for a private event. Traipsing instead into the Mangy Moose at the base of the gondola, we laughed to find a huckleberry cosmopolitan there too. We ordered one and each tried a sip, agreeing that it tasted pretty much like a regular cosmo — which none of us fancied — and then ordered beers. Becca and I were beginning to feel like we were on a bit of a wild huckleberry goose chase when Heidi asked for the dessert menu. Bingo.

Let me explain the culinary highlight of a trip based around such delights, a morsel so enticing that I would later consider it worth risking a moose trampling — the Jackson Hole off-the-menu dessert at the Mangy Moose in Teton Village. A round, creamy scoop of vanilla ice cream sat on top of a hefty, warm cinnamon-sugar donut draped in huckleberry sauce and dappled in whole berries. It arrived in a tiny cast iron skillet and in that moment redeemed the entire concept of our trip. Among our outreached spoons, it didn’t stand a chance. We rode back to Wilson for the night satisfied and hopefully didn’t startle the local moose too much.

We fell hard for the shake at the Victor Emporium
We fell hard for the shakes at the Victor Emporium.
Becca Skinner

We crowded together the next morning on a Jackson street corner, hunched over a sepia-toned print and snorting our laughing approval. In the photo, hot off the printer, the three of us women glowered at the camera in cowgirl outfits with rifles and pistols raised, a fake Teton Range in the background. Posing for an old-timey photo with our fully loaded touring bikes, and Heidi’s son with his Strider bike, at Judge Roy Bean’s had seemed like a natural fit since we were going full tourist. When we lowered it to show little August the photo, expecting a peal of giggles at his cowboy photo, his little toddler voice lowered with a tinge of sadness as he quietly remarked, “I didn’t get a gun.”

Remembering the previous day’s heavy highway traffic, we merrily spread out on the paved pathway heading north out of Jackson, gunning for huckleberry ice cream at Dornan’s Trading Post in Moose, the headquarters for the Park Service in Grand Teton National Park. Two different paved multi-use paths shoot northward from Jackson toward the park, one closer along the mountains and the other a bit farther east, along Highway 191. We chose the eastern route because it led us more quickly to the free National Forest campsites in the Shadow Mountain area of Bridger-Teton National Forest, just past the eastern edge of the National Park boundary.

Becca and I chuckled over whether our bikes were heavier than Heidi’s — she was towing August along in the trailer for the day and schooling us on the hills. The eastern pathway paralleling the highway was nearly deserted of other cyclists or pedestrians, the bulk of them choosing the option closer to the mountains. And the 13 miles from Jackson to Moose was the perfect distance for working up an appetite for an ice cream cone.

Retired couples and families with elementary school kids ambled along the boardwalk outside the shops and restaurants that make up Dornan’s Trading Post. The smell of campfire wafted from the chuckwagon restaurant across the parking lot. The Grand Teton’s big-tooth shape loomed over it all in the background. The huckleberry ice cream scoops from the kiosk on the porch took even Heidi, the local, by surprise. Thick and dotted with plenty of plump berries, it struck the perfect balance of sweet and tart, and I regretted ordering only the single scoop in the waffle cone — there was plenty of room for another scoop in there. I waited in line again to inquire about the huckleberry ice cream’s origins. Blue Bunny makes it. In Le Mars, Iowa.

Visiting Grand Teton National Park in a car can feel like one long traffic jam. Any hint of a bear, moose, bison, or other furry beast on the horizon and cars start collecting — barely pulled off to the side — clogging the few arteries through the park. Coasting along on a bike in the presence of big game is a different experience than rolling along with windows up, and it’s certainly freeing. Storing food safely and keeping a wise distance are absolutely imperative. But the sensation of riding out in the open and avoiding the traffic jams felt pretty special, I thought, as we turned off the bike path onto Antelope Flats Road toward Shadow Mountain and our campsite for the night. 

The view of the Tetons spread uninterrupted from our tent door. As the sun sank below the range, it highlighted every spiny crag and sawtooth edge on the peaks, normally invisible to the naked eye at this distance. Mountaintops that had appeared smooth and blue during the day now looked jagged and sharp, every spire illuminated and accentuated by the yellow rays streaming from the sun dipping down on the other side. 

Passing the night under silvery moonlit aspen leaves in a flyless tent, Becca and I hit the road again, just the two of us. This time we moved a bit more slowly. Following the dirt road north instead of backtracking the paved route to the highway meant slow going through rocks and sandy ruts. But the slower pace opened my eyes to another benefit of cycling along the Tetons instead of driving. With every 15 minutes of riding, a new fold in the mountain range revealed itself to us in a way we’d never noticed before.

Neither Becca nor I were new to the Tetons. We’d both spent plenty of time driving by them, or even camping in view of them — or up in them. But the pace of cycling brought a whole different view of the range. Ridgelines and canyons we’d never really noted or observed unfurled before our curious eyes. As we joined up with Highway 191 again, the hulking, squarish bulk of Mount Moran slowly became the center of attention and the Grand Teton faded away behind us.

Grinding up the 2,200 feet of elevation from Victor, Idaho, to Teton Pass was the most strenuous part of the Huckleberry Bike Tour, ensure sweets would be earned
Grinding up the 2,200 feet of elevation from Victor, Idaho, to Teton Pass was the most strenuous part of the Huckleberry Bike Tour, ensuring sweets would be earned.
Becca Skinner

Wiping the gritty layer of dust settling onto my cheeks and nose, I felt grateful again to be experiencing these scenes firsthand instead of through the window of an idling car. Sleek and athletic, the horses’ brown, black, and white coats surged and flowed over their muscles. They kicked up a white wall of dust behind them, hiding the blue sky and building a backdrop between us. The energy of their trotting hooves and their occasional glances were spellbinding. Only a couple minutes before, Becca and I had been crouched quietly in the dirt on the side of the highway, the driveway labeled Triangle X seeming as good a spot as any to pull over for a peanut butter and energy bar break. But as we packed up our snack wrappers, a cowboy in dusty boots and hat walked down the driveway to warn us that soon they’d be running horses through it. By the time we’d picked up our bikes and rolled them out of the way, a handful of cowgirls and cowboys on horseback were guiding a steady stream of horses within feet of our lunch spot, down the dirt driveway, and across the highway to the other side. 

Feeling we’d stepped back in time, we laughed with wonder at having been in the right place at the right moment to see the river of manes, tails, and deep, shining eyes trot by. The cowboy had eyed our bikes, as if to say, “To each her own,” as we explained we’d started in Jackson and were headed to Moran, just up the highway. “Well, more power to you,” he said, gently nodding his head.

Navy blue–colored clouds billowed low overhead in the west as we pressed toward the goal: Jackson Lake Lodge, where Yelp rumors told of huckleberry pie. Again we planned on crashing at a national forest campground outside the national park to avoid crowds and fees, but first the lodge and our last huckleberry treat of the trip.

Coasting up to the national park kiosk with Mount Moran immense in the background, Becca reminded me that she’d forgotten her National Park pass. “No worries,” I said, “I can cover you. I’ve got my pass, and it can’t be expensive to ride a bike into the park just to visit the lodge for a slice of pie. Isn’t it strange, though, that when you pay for a car to go in, it includes all your passengers?” 

The sign said $15 per bike. 

“Hello,” I greeted the ranger leaning out the window. “I have a pass, and then I need to pay for one more bicycle day pass.”

She asked me what kind of pass I had while I fumbled through my wallet to proudly produce out my national parks annual pass, something I consider one of my best yearly investments.

“I only ask because, since it’s a yearly pass, it includes four bicycles at a time, so both of you are good to go,” the ranger responded, waving us into the park as a car pulled up behind us.

I felt a puff of surprised happiness as I crammed the card back into my wallet and pushed the bike on down the road’s shoulder to our final huckleberry dessert. As a cyclist, I’ve felt all sorts of unwelcome over the years. I’ve been honked at, buzzed, and nearly run off the road. I’ve tried to keep a confident, kind outlook. But somehow, being waved into the park with a smile — feeling a warm welcome into what is really our park, too — threw me off guard.

As the pines parted in front of us, cruising the last miles of curvy park road toward the lodge and sweets, I felt a giggly sort of pride at being an equally welcomed visitor to such a special place. No matter what dessert lay at the end of this road, huckleberry or not, it had surely been worth the ride.  

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

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