Relearning the Lesson: Two Day Trip on the Great Divide
One of my very favorite stretches of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — which happens to lie close to where I live — is the 90 miles separating Lima, Montana, and Big Springs, Idaho. On the most recent occasion I pedaled this stretch, I went south to north, riding solo.
It was a Saturday morning in July when my wife dropped me and my gear off at the amazing Big Springs, where impossibly clear water bubbles forth from the ground, giving rise to the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. After getting everything ready to go, I was off—towing a B.O.B. trailer holding my sleeping bag and pad, cooking and eating gear, tools, and spare clothing.
I wasn’t in a huge hurry, as I had only 33 miles to ride on day one. Lollygagging along, I was half lost amid the maze of old logging paths crisscrossing Sawtelle Peak’s forested flank when I ran into an unloaded, amply tattooed, twenty-something mountain biker. “Nice trailer,” he remarked, eyeing my equipment rig (with, I thought, a hint of a smirk). “Thanks,” I said. “It tracks great. In fact, I’ve nicknamed this B.O.B. ‘Jim,’ for Jim Bridger.”
I climbed on gravel up a moderate grade to Red Rock Pass and the Continental Divide, elevation 7,210 feet. Descending into Montana, I passed over Hell Roaring Creek, the Missouri River’s most distant headwaters. To my left, remnants of the previous winter’s snows hid in north-facing crevices on 9,855-foot Taylor Mountain and other peaks in the Centennial Range. At about 4 p.m. I pulled into the Upper Lake Campground, situated on Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Sleep came early and easy after a supper of fire-roasted hot dogs, instant mashed potatoes, and a couple of Alaskan Amber Ales.
I awoke just before 5 a.m. to a Tarzan movie-like confusion of yipping coyotes, hooting owls, mindlessly honking Canada geese, and I-don’t-know-what-all-else. After downing my granola with milk and dried cranberries, I resumed riding west.
The Red Rock River overflowing its banks + a Fargo and a B.O.B.
An infinite morning sky hung over the wide open Red Rock River Valley. Prolific, willow-filled wetlands clashed with the surrounding hills, bald, brown, and crinkled. Grasses and cattails bent with the breeze. The only sounds were those of blackbirds and curlews calling, the wind’s soft whistling, and rubber tires snapping across gravel. Abandoned cabins and outbuildings reminded me that somewhere I’d read this valley was once more heavily populated than today, before the wildlife refuge was created in the mid-1930s to provide habitat for the endangered trumpeter swan.
The 57 miles went by almost too quickly. When I arrived in Lima, Nancy was there with the truck waiting for me. Reflecting on the two-day journey as we drove home, I realized it had taught me something I already knew: Things look, sound, and smell a lot clearer from the saddle of a bicycle than they do from the seat of a car. And it doesn’t matter if you’re riding for two months or two days—it’s good for the soul just to get out for a refresher course now and then.
#1 tip for this trip: Don’t miss the deliciously cold water gushing from a spring nestled in the brush between the campsites and Upper Red Rock Lake. It’s better than bottled water you have to pay good money for.
Favorite area bike shop: Freeheel & Wheel in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Photos courtesy of M. McCoy
Top photo: Not long after rising at Big Springs, the Henrys Fork flows gently through Harriman State Park.