October 4, 2016 - Emma Wimmer is a tours specialist at Adventure Cycling.
The ride there is great — two quick miles across town, down the paved Bitterroot Trail to Lolo, then Highway 12, turn west, and 15 miles up to the campground. For some reason, I get headwinds every time I go up there, and on the way back!
A couple weeks ago, April and I took a couple of newbies, Caroline and Karla, on their first bike overnight.
Of course, our takeoff was not without issue. As soon as we hit the Bitterroot Trail, Karla wanted to pump up her tires. No problem! We stopped and she got out her new mini-pump. The mini-pump was extremely ineffective, so I offered her my slightly bigger portable pump. This was better, but not that much. Finally, April got out her portable pump (it even has a gauge!) and soon we were back in business.
Floating down the trail was a dream. April and Karla were up ahead, while Caroline and I were taking our time to enjoy the amazing views of the valley, stopping a couple of times for pictures. “I’m really doing it!” said Caroline, texting a photo to her parents. “They’ll never believe I’m doing this.”
We stopped at the Conoco to grab a few snacks before turning onto Highway 12. Just 15 more miles! At this point, headwinds picked up and I fell quite a bit behind the group. The sun was unrelenting and there are not many trees right along the road — lots of ranch lands and grass. When the group fell out of sight, I stopped and ate half of my PBJ. No worries.
Eventually, we pulled in to the campsite, right across from the bear-proof food bin.
We worked on setting up the tent and filling it with our sleeping bags and warm clothes. After the setup, we cleaned up our food and put it in the bear bin for storage. When everything was set with our food safely stored away, we changed into relaxing clothes and rode to the Jack Saloon!
Chowing down on amazing pub food, we talk about Caroline’s recently recorded album and the struggle to decide on album art. After dinner, a band started setting up. While sad to miss Russ Nasset and the Revelators, we were too tired to stay and dance. Back at the campground, we settled in for the night and I discover that my three-person tent is definitely cozy with three. It’s more comfortable with only two in it.
The next morning, we fueled up for our return route on Petty Creek Road. This road goes north from Highway 12 down to Alberton, just west of Missoula. As April and I were route planning, I made a frowny face about the dirt road. It would be difficult and take much longer than if we just took the same route home. But, I agreed to go along with it.
Retracing our steps to the Jack from the night before, we went back up to the beginning of Petty Creek Road. The dirt was hard packed, and not very washboarded or gravelly. The climb started out gradually, gently increasing. I started in the back of our little group, but eventually got into my climbing rhythm. Hey now, I thought, this dirt isn’t too bad at all! This is kinda fun! After what seemed like a very short time, I reached the top. There was a little fork in the road, and I stopped to wait for April and Caroline. Snacking on a half of my PBJ, it was not long until I heard their voices, then saw them come up the hill. We consulted our map, then continued straight ahead. Good! The way to the left was going further uphill. We were ready to descend!
And that’s when the washboarding started a bit, with more big chunks of gravel. While going down, a huge truck was coming up! He slowed down immediately upon seeing us and actually said “sorry about that!” in a sincere way as he passed by. We continued down, me pumping the brakes down the steep, windy parts. I once again took the rear of the group, going as cautiously as I could on the terrain.
After a decent time, it straightened out and I could let go of the brakes and embrace the descent. The kind of downhill that makes you wanna say, “wheeeee!” The dirt portion of our bike overnight was awesome. Little did I know, though, that our path would become paved.
This was the truly best part of our tour. Even though the dirt was fun, at the end we found a paved, swooping, deserted road with amazing views. I could pedal easy and not worry about the brakes. The curves and grade were gentle enough, and I just flew down. Toward the bottom, we even saw bighorn sheep! This was quite possibly the best ride I’d been on in more than a year.
I’ll have to do that loop again — just enough challenge, and just enough fun. Plus, it got another person hooked on bike touring!
Photos 1, 2 and 6–9 Emma Wimmer | Photos 3–5 Caroline Keys
Adventure Cycling offers several dirt tours for 2017.