Relearning the Lesson: Two Day Trip on the Great Divide

Harriman State Park

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.

Get more information about bike overnights.

#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.

10 responses so far ↓

DiAnne - Apr 24, 2011 at 10:56 AM

I will put this short ride on my list of rides yet to do...
Thanks for the inspiration.

Chad Mullins - Sep 22, 2011 at 6:01 AM

Is this mountain biking only or could you do it touring with a tandem? What is the degree of difficulty.

mike - Aug 24, 2012 at 5:06 AM

Mountain High Subs, AWESOME!!!

Paul Manuel - Feb 8, 2013 at 11:07 PM

Really enjoyed reading this. This is what life is all about. life's too short, ride more! Brilliant

Bruce Martin - Mar 3, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Hi Mac,
I last corresponded with you back in 1996 when we were preparing to ride a portion of the GDT on our tandem.
We started in Wilson, Wy where my brother in law lives and cycled up to Big Spring, ID.We had a bit of an adventure as we were going along the Rockefeller Road and had a tire blowout. We began pushing our bike & trailer up the road towards Ashton when we were picked up by a scout leader and his 2 sons from Provo. They drove us to Ashton and we found a hardware store with one 26" MTB tire for our bike.
After a lay over day at the Big Spring campground we headed back the way we had come, through Teton NP and on to Union Pass (what a grunt that climb was) and on over to Pinedale and some well deserved R&R at a motel. From there we took the hwy through Hoback Junction back to Wilson.
We did not meet one other bicyclist the entire time we were on the GDT. Now I doubt you could go one day without seeing another cyclist.
Thanks for putting together this great route.

Bruce & Tricia Martin
Corvallis, OR

Michael McCoy - Mar 8, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Hi Paul: Glad you enjoyed it; nice to hear from you.

Hi Bruce & Tricia,
Good to hear from you, too. I think I remember that correspondence (although I've talked to a lot of people about the Great Divide route over the past 17 years!) We're just finishing up a 2nd edition of the guidebook Cycling the Great Divide. In addition to adding the Canada section, we've made a few other route changes as well -- including a change in the routing to Union Pass. There's still a lot of climbing involved to get to the pass, but it starts about 500 feet higher than the old route, which (as you know) began at the valley bottom.

Jane - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:37 PM

Hi Michael,
My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
I was looking for blogs about Wilson to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
Hope to hear from you soon!

Travis - Jun 25, 2013 at 4:49 PM

I have a at red rock road and US 20.

Michael McCoy - Jul 2, 2013 at 2:17 PM

Travis, that's great to know. Do you get many guests who are riding the Great Divide route?

Travis - Feb 5, 2014 at 8:25 PM

There is a lot of north, south as we'll as east west Trafi
I would like to do this trek if anyone is looking for a companion

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