Epic Great Divide
It won’t take long to realize that “The Divide” simply isn’t enough — this trip’s greatness is on display from the first pedal stroke. Grab your knobbies, throw your gear in the support van, and prepare for nine unloaded weeks of day after day epic riding and even better views. Our great adventure begins in the mountain town of Whitefish, Montana, among the towering pines and glacial valleys of the Crown of the Continent. Sixty-five days later, we’ll ride into Antelope Wells, New Mexico, in the wide-open high desert along one of the loneliest stretches of the U.S./Mexico border. In between, some of the wildest Rocky Mountains await.
So throw your gear in the van, pack a bigger memory card, and get ready for an unloaded ride that will show off some of the continent’s most astonishing scenery (and secluded cycling) along the way.
"I enjoyed riding, the food and getting new friends; everything was great!"
Week 1. Whitefish to Seeley Lake, Montana
We'll meet up in Whitefish, Montana, one of the most civilized places along the largely uncivilized Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. There we'll begin getting acquainted with our fellow group members and leaders, learn the ins and outs of the daily routine, and spend a day enjoying a shakedown ride to ensure that everyone's bike and gear is in good order. On Day 3, we'll be shuttled to the U.S./Canada border at Roosville, where we'll officially begin our long trip southward. This week's ride will take us through the valley of the North Fork of the Flathead River, which creates the western border of Glacier National Park, back through Whitefish, and finally to picturesque Bigfork, perched at the mouth of the Swan River on the shore of immense Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Having eased into things, we'll really hit the mountains. Outside Bigfork we'll enter the Flathead National Forest and commence a six-mile climb on a gravel road ascending the ridge that separates Flathead and Swan lakes. After that, we'll freefall for several miles before negotiating a series of primitive dirt roads nestled at the foot of the Mission Mountains. Through forests of western larch and Douglas fir, we'll continue up from shimmering Holland Lake to the flank of Richmond Peak and into Grizzly Basin, which looks like a piece of Glacier National Park that's been transported south a few miles.
Week 2. Seeley Lake to Butte, Montana
From Seeley Lake -- the name of a beautiful lake and the town adjacent to it -- we'll ride to Lincoln, then up and over the Continental Divide country between there and the city of Helena. Montana's capital city features plenty of historic attractions; at the top of the must-see list is Montana's Museum, located near the capitol building, and the splendiferous Cathedral of St. Helena, a century-plus–old Gothic-style cathedral inspired by the Votive Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna, Austria. From the citified environs of Helena, it's back to the backwoods, through Montana's "Gold West" country to what was once called "the richest hill on earth," hellroaring Butte. Butte will be the site of a layover day and you will be able to enjoy some of the amenities of a larger city.
Week 3. Butte to Lima, Montana
After leaving Butte, it will be up to and then down precipitous Fleecer Ridge and along the smooth pavement and aromatic pine forests of the Pioneer Mountains National Scenic Byway. Bannack, now a state park, was the original capital of the Montana Territory; today its deserted streets hold some five-dozen historic structures, including the first frame house built in the territory. Our overnight experience at the state park campground should be pleasant enough -- provided that somebody remembers the mosquito repellent. From Bannack we'll head into the big empty penetrated by the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, an official designation given the route by the Bureau of Land Management. Over the Medicine Lodge–Sheep Creek Divide, we will ride along a portion of the historic supply route that linked the gold fields of southwest Montana with the Union Pacific railhead at Corinne, Utah. This sweep of empty country is visited by very few travelers, and after passing through you'll understand why you're lucky to count yourself among them. This week will end in the town of Lima, Montana.
Week 4. Lima, to Pinedale, Wyoming
From the tiny town of Lima, we'll pedal through another stretch of wild, dry terrain before entering Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, one of Montana's hidden gems. Chances are you'll see trumpeter swans, an immense and beautifully white bird that nearly became extinct early in the 20th century. After cresting Red Rock Pass, a surprisingly easy crossing of the Continental Divide, we'll coast down to Idaho's Island Park. From pleasant Warm River Campground we'll follow the little-traveled Ashton-Flagg Road between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, which delivers us to the upper Snake River at the north end of Jackson Hole. Nearly 70 miles of pavement follow, offering jaw-dropping views of the Tetons and other mountain ranges. The TransAmerica Bicycle Trail also follows this route, so don't be surprised to meet fellow bicycle tourists equipped with Adventure Cycling maps. We'll take a well-earned layover day at Jackson Lake in magnificent Grand Teton National Park. Next up: Union Pass, an historic high place visited by explorer Wilson Price Hunt in 1811 and subsequently by a parade of beaver-seeking mountain men. Dropping from there into the drainage of the Green River, you'll enjoy a rarely seen perspective of the Wind Rivers, the highest range in all of mountain-filled Wyoming. Pinedale, one of the most authentic little cow towns in the West (but a cow town that's seen big change in recent years, with a nearby energy boom underway), will be the terminus of Week 4.
Week 5. Pinedale to Steamboat Springs, Colorado
From Pinedale we'll find our way to Boulder, Wyoming, and onto the high desert spilling off the flanks of the southern Wind Rivers. We'll ride directly atop the Continental Divide in places as we explore this spectacularly high and lonely place before the route takes us to South Pass City, a renovated gold-mining outpost that has earned state historic site status. Our isolated Sweetwater River crossing campsite is about 15 miles farther down the road. The next portion of our Great Divide journey takes in the Great Divide Basin, a 3,600-square-mile geographic conundrum where waters drain neither west to the Pacific nor east to the Atlantic -- instead they drain inward to evaporate or settle into temporary lakes. It is one of the emptiest, driest long stretches of the Great Divide route (the other being the segment between Cuba and Grants, New Mexico). Here we will encounter herds of pronghorns and wild horses, and ride amid an endless sweep of sagebrush and saltbrush. We will also continue tracing segments of some of our country's most important historic trails, identified by concrete markers. After a layover day in Rawlins -- which may appear a rather drab place to motorists speeding along Interstate 80 but will look like heaven to us after miles of solitude -- we'll climb south into the high Sierra Madre. The week will end in Colorado, where the first town we'll come to is the fun-hog haven of Steamboat Springs.
Week 6. Steamboat Springs to Salida, Colorado
After an enjoyable layover in Steamboat, a.k.a. "Ski Town USA," we'll trace parts of the Yampa River Trail system before beginning the climb up Lynx Pass. From there we'll progress through the subalpine chill of lush high-country meadows and forests before commencing an unforgettable descent to the Colorado River at Radium. In Kremmling we'll see just how down-home a Colorado mountain town can be if there's no alpine ski resort in close proximity. After another stretch of broad basin country, it's up and over Ute Pass, into Summit County, and down to State Highway 9. This busy road, which we'll follow for roughly 12 miles, will remind us of what it is we've come to love about the gravel and dirt byways making up the majority of the Great Divide route. From Dillon, we'll spin onto the separated Blue River Bikeway, which takes us to another world-renowned ski town, Breckenridge. From there we'll inch our way up Boreas Pass, elevation 11,482 feet (but it's not as bad as it may sound, considering that Breck is already at the lung-searing elevation of 9,600 feet). We'll then descend and begin traversing a succession of high, mountain-ringed valleys, or parks. The downhill ride into Salida dishes up the spectacle of several of Colorado's famous 14,000-foot-plus peaks, including the Fourteeners of higher learning known as Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia -- the Collegiate Peaks.
Week 7. Salida to Carson National Forest, New Mexico
We'll enjoy another layover day in Salida, a lovely little town that has grown to be a favorite among Great Divide veterans. Marshall Pass, southwest of Salida, is the meeting place of three primary mountain ranges: the Sawatch Range, Sangre de Cristo Range, and Cochetopa Hills. Here the Great Divide route junctions with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Colorado Trail, a 470-mile footpath stretching from near Denver to just outside Durango. (The trail is open to mountain bikes, with detours identified around wilderness areas.) Spots on or near the route that we'll encounter beyond Marshall Pass include Sargents, Doyleville, and La Garita. After a layover day in the relative metropolis of Del Norte to rest our legs for what is to come, we'll climb more than 4,000 vertical feet in 23 miles to the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route's high point at Indiana Pass, elevation 11,910 feet. From the apex of the route it is not downhill all the way to the Mexico border. It's not even downhill all the way to the end of this week's riding, which terminates at or in the vicinity of Stunner Campground in the Rio Grande National Forest.
Week 8. Carson National Forest to Grants, New Mexico
Hopewell Campground to Grants, New Mexico. Although we'll begin the week in Colorado, it's not far to the border of New Mexico, which contains 701 miles of the Great Divide route -- just nine miles fewer than mileage leader Montana. Arguably, New Mexico is also the most diverse of the five states encountered, with landscapes ranging from the high-elevation, subalpine mountains of the north to the low-lying, cactus-filled Chihuahuan Desert at the southern end -- and with plenty of surprises in between. From the highlands of the San Juan and Tusas Mountains of the Rio Grande and Carson National Forests, we'll wend southward through a panorama of public lands administered by the BLM, the Santa Fe and Cibola national forests, and the National Park Service, as well as through short stretches of private and Acoma Indian tribal lands. Towns, few and far between, include places such as Vallecitos, El Rito, and Abiquiu, a favorite spot of the late artist Georgia O'Keeffe, whose works have become practically synonymous with the landscapes of New Mexico. From Abiquiu the Great Divide route climbs -- seemingly forever -- up Polvadera Mesa to the lofty forests of the Santa Fe National Forest. From there it's down to Cuba, then up and down through one of the most remote and fantastically eroded regions you'll ever encounter anywhere. After continuing through the Disneyland of erosional wonders, we'll come to Grants, where we'll take another layover day. Here we cross paths with Route 66, the legendary Mother Road of American story and song -- and the focus of Adventure Cycling's Bicycle Route 66.
Week 9. Grants to Antelope Wells, New Mexico
After Grants we'll traverse the volcanic terrain of El Malpais National Monument. Pie Town, not your common New Mexico town name by any means, is a very New Mexican place in that the community and its eclectic collection of residents defy stereotypes. The ensuing scenery is so ever-changing, and the innards of the earth so often bared and devoid of vegetation, that you can't help but wonder about its geographic history. From Pie Town we'll head south through a corner of national forest lands before crossing the western edge of the barren Plains of San Agustin. From there, we'll ascend back into the federal lands of the Gila National Forest where we'll encounter mountains that are conspicuously different from any range we've encountered thus far -- they're packed with moderately long, immoderately steep climbs that give way to moderately long and equally steep downhills. We'll lay over in Silver City, a town straight out of the 19th century Wild West, where we'll say goodbye to mountain riding. The last 124 miles of the Great Divide traverse that which you may have wondered whether you would ever reach -- real desert, authentic Chihuahuan Desert, embraced by true desert mountains. The final crossing of the Continental Divide, located between Separ and Hachita, is an anticlimactic blip in the topography that you may not even notice. But if you do, take some time to reflect on a few of the 30 (at least) times you've surmounted the Continental Divide on your Canada–Mexico adventure. Our last riding day, over deserted macadam, is only around 45 miles, giving us plenty of time to load and take the shuttle to El Paso. That's right, the trip is over, but your Great Divide memories are forever.