20160714: Montana bound on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Beginning in the town of Banff, the Canada Section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route takes you through some of the most spectacular terrain on Earth. It’s as though you’ve entered the forest primeval, a heavily wooded setting that can feel like rain forest – especially if it’s raining. The first 70 miles or so is like a string of pearls: Banff National Park, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and, across the Great Divide in B.C., Elk Lakes Provincial Park.

Jeremy and I did the Banff-to-Spray Lakes section a few weeks ago (posted here). This time, it was raining and hailing hard and would continue to for a good couple of days. Still gorgeous nonetheless. We were planning to take four days to cycle from Banff to Whitefish MT. It ended up taking us five for the 575km and 7300m of ascent, 46 hours moving time at an overall average of 8.6kph and max 54.7kph (Galton descent).

Great divide
From Spray Lakes we rounded Bryant Creek (muddy!) and out of Mt Shark ski trails across Engadine meadows and onto the Smith-Dorrien gravel road.
Bryant Creek
Bryant Creek. Sun came out for a bit!
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Just past Canyon Dam, heading towards Turbulent Creek.

Elk Lakes Provincial Park’s glaciers and namesake lakes form the headwaters of the Elk River, whose valley the route follows for the next 40 miles. It’s an alpine and subalpine scene so stunning that the landscape has been likened to that of the Lake O’Hara area.

The next day, we entered British Columbia via Elk Pass, and descended to the town of Elkford for a trip total of 180km. We entered town at around dusk and we could see the giant coal mine trucks lit up and making their way up and down the mountainsides. It hailed hard with lightning!

Tobermory cabin
Crossing into BC and posing at Tobermory cabin, where we took a little break. 61km to Elkford.
Sparwood
Mandatory photo stop at Sparwood mining town, in front of what was once the world’s largest truck (now second largest).
Cabin pass
Headed towards Cabin pass. Loooong ascent!

From the town of Elkford, regain the Elk Valley north of Sparwood. The route then follows about 100 miles of wild-country riding through B.C.’s Flathead and Wigwam river valleys, home to the largest population of inland grizzlies on the North American continent. After traversing some wetlands, and no doubt getting your feet wet and legs muddy, you’ll climb radically up a trail – carry your panniers up on one trip, then return to the bottom and haul your bike up. You will also encounter some precarious spots where you do not want to fall. Once you get to the top it’s still a ways through the woods… You’ll then begin the tough 5-mile climb to Galton Pass. The ensuing descent to the valley some 3,500 vertical feet below is steep, rocky, rutted, and littered with scree. In other words, use extreme caution.

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At Butts Cabin, with Carl from Melbourne and Kirk from Minnesota. We’d also met up with Joe from Southern California on the trail (he’d left earlier in the morning as he was aiming to do a longer push to the U.S. border, so, not shown in photo)

 

Wigwam
Wigwam, one of my favorite parts of the trip. Flowers, butterflies, sun, and open views on rolling terrain.

You’ll then ride south to the international border (Still have that passport? You’d better).

The Montana Section passes through five national forests. The northern half is characterized by steep mountains and seemingly endless stands of western larch. Vistas from high places up north in the Whitefish Range may lead you to believe you’ve been magically whisked away to Alaska…

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U.S. border crossing. We’d been leapfrogging with Carl from Melbourne the last couple of days and we ended up crossing to border together (hence three bikes).

From the Whitefish Divide the route drops steeply down the valleys of Yakinikak and Trail creeks, places so wild that grizzly bears too unruly to live elsewhere are occasionally relocated here by wildlife officials. You’ll then ride through the valley that forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park and follow dirt roads into Whitefish Mountain Resort.

West Glacier
A beautiful ride through the Y valley with views of West Glacier National Park.
Red Meadow
Red Meadow, the last pass before the final descent to Whitefish. Subalpine lakes sparkling in the sun.
Whitefish Lake
We camped at Tuchuck (lots of deer!) and the next day reached our final destination and final campsite at Whitefish Lake, 1 mile from the resort town of Whitefish.

Jeremy decided to ride home while I spent the day and next morning puttering around and pedaling around in flipflops, exploring the type of antique stores, crepe, pie, and ice cream shops, and touristy shops so ubiquitous to mountain resort towns. Lovely place; I’d love to do Going To The Sun route next time into Glacier NP and try out some of the infamous area singletrack. I always say I could easily live in Montana.

Caught a (motorized!) ride home, and got called back to work the next day!

Someday, too, we will have to do the entire route and continue to Mexico…

Italicized text from Michael McCoy, Cycling the Great Divide.

Some of theses photos are Jeremy’s.

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