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Montana Road Trip

July, 2010

Endless view from Bozeman, MT

Big Sky Country

One of the West's last outposts, Montana remains untouched by sprawling cities, massive freeways, and traffic cameras. Nicknamed Big Sky Country, the monumentality of Montana is unmistakable. With the great plains, rocky mountains, and untamed rivers named like the Jefferson, the Bighorn, and the Yellowstone, plus Grizzly bears, Elk, Moose, and even Buffalo, Montana radiates wilderness.

Despite being the fourth largest state in the country, less than a million Montanans call it home. It is nearly identical in size to California, but has just 2% of the population. If there are mountain biking trails with endless terrain, pristine views, and no traffic, its gotta be here!

Looking towards Bozeman, MT

Montana has a rich western frontier history. The "Lewis and Clark Expedition" first passed through Montana in 1804 en route to the Pacific Ocean after the purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803. The overland expedition as reported in Maryweather Lewis' journal told of the land's expansiveness, rich grasslands, abundant furs and wild game.

Shortly after the expedition arrived the fur-trappers, hunting beaver for furs so desired by Europeans. President Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the expedition, didn't find the all-water route to the Pacific he had hoped for (as there is none), however, he did manage to accomplish one of his other goals: to dominate the British in the lucrative Pacific-Northwest fur trade.

Three dozen trading posts would be built in Montana before the beaver population was trapped out circa 1840, resulting in an exodus of mountain men, traders, and other immigrants. In a few short years it was estimated that only 100 settlers remained in what is now Montana.

That was until 1864 when gold was discovered and the era of mining began and tens of thousands of immigrants flooded into the territory. Gold, silver, copper and coal mines sprung up throughout the Contental Divide, extracting vast amounts of wealth. Underground fortunes let rise to the rivalrous Copper Kings, owners of large conglomerate corporations whom continually battled for controlling interests in Montana's mineral resources.

First Stop: Teton Valley, WT

Loaded up and ready to go

Since Montana is over 1200 miles away from Socal, we decided to camp in Wyoming en route. We stayed for 3 nights in the Teton Valley and subsequently discovered months worth of riding in the nearby area.

The pristine Teton Valley

Telephoto of the Tetons, looking from Idaho

Mill Creek

While in Wyoming we ran into a few Wyoming local mountain bikers on their trails and they were some of the friendliest people I've ever met. It seems the Teton Valley area has a lot of active riders who are building new trails everyday.

The first day in Wyoming we rode Mill Creek, a short ~10 miler from camp that winds its way up to a nearby ski resort. Our sea level lungs were quickly burning from the altitude.

Flowering meadows along Mill Creek


On the second day we decided to try something a little more challenging, enter Black Canyon Trail, aka "Blacks" by the locals. This trail turned out to be one of the fastest downhills I've ever done. Ryan wishes he could do it every day (after work of course).

Blacks starts with a 5 mile paved climb on an abandoned road.

Crater Lake about a mile into the ride

Teton Pass

Climbing up to Blacks

Wildflowers were everywhere

Ryan charging it

We felt a lot better at altitude than the day before

The top of blacks

Ryan jamming the down. At about half way down the trail straightened out, steeped up, and we entered warp speed.

Singletrack bliss

First of just two flats on the trip

There were probably a half dozen small stream crossings

Tobacco Roots

After our stay in Wyoming we headed through Idaho to south-west Montana. Our next campsite would be deep in the Tobacco Root mountains and far from civilization.

Heading into camp late in the afternoon

The Tobacco Roots are most famous for the Curly Highline Trail. Unfortunately the nearby fishing opportunities got the best of us and we didn't have time to do this epic. We did, however, get to ride from our campsite to Lost Cabin Trail.

Lost Cabin Lake, elev ~8,500ft

A beautiful creek crossing

The trail was rocky and wet near the top

Ryan taking in the views

Gold (or pyrite) in the clear water

Taking a brake to play on a free-ride section near the top

Fun in the July snow

Streams meander everywhere in MT. These were teeming with small brown trout.


After a day of fishing we left our basecamp in the Tobacco Roots for a 25 mile epic in Bozeman, known as Grass Mountain. This ride was supposed to be chill 16 miles, but we went an extra 8 or 9 miles out of the way thanks to an "extra credit" turn after mistaking right for left (just a mundane detail). The 90F+ heat probably didn't help the trail navigation efforts.

Montana singletrack

After running out of water more than half way through the ride, this river looked nice to jump in. And I wonder why my Chris King hubs need a rebuilt every 3 months.

We finished up the ride around 7:30PM and jumped into the truck en route to Butte, MT, for an endurance race the next morning.


Downtown Butte--notice the scarred hills in the background.

Butte is an old mining town of rich history, located in south-west Montana, surrounded by the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.

In the 1860s, Butte was known as the "Richest hill on earth", hosting more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world. Undercut by 10,000 miles of mineshafts, mine workers were on the job around the clock. Bars and restaurants stayed open 24/7 to serve patrons. People from around the globe poured into Butte, giving rise to ethnic neighborhoods and a cosmopolitan flavor.

Being the richest hill on earth ended up paying a high price in the long run. Ultimately all of the mining activity came to Butte's downfall, as an environmental and ecological disaster ensued from all of the pollution due to mining the ores, smeltering silver, and logging. Rivers and streams became polluted with arsenic, lead, copper, zinc, cadmium, and other heavy metals.

Air polution from smeltering killed all the vegetation within a 20 mile radius [Book source] and some mine tailings were radioactive.

A few of Butte's long standing communities would later be devastated or entirely destroyed by large open-pit mining operations in the 1950s. [Book Source]. In the 1980s the EPA designated the Clark Fork River as a Superfund site due to its high level of pollution.

Butte 50 Endurance Race

Of the handful of 50 milers I've done this one had it all: altitude, active route finding, thunder and lightning, challenging climbs and rocky-rooty descents, and endless singletrack. What really stands out about this ride in my mind is that nearly 95% of it was singletrack. Most of the time rides are only 50% singletrack, with the rest comprising of fire road, gravel, or less often paved road.

The race started out at a liesurely 9AM at Homestake, an exit just a 5 minutes south of Butte along the I-90. Almost 200 riders showed up for the event--quite a turnout for Montana. I talked to one of the volunteers (Gwen) and apparently the Butte 50/100 has been growing in popularity each year, and for good reason. A little more than half of the riders were attempting the 50 miler with the remainder attempting the 100 (apparently they let the patients at the state insane asylum out for a day of exercise). I hung out at the very back of the mass-start and was the last rider to exit the parking lot and get going. Since I was the only single speeder in sight I wanted to give myself a little bit of room to let the others spread out.

The ride started out from the Homestake parking lot via Blacktail trail, a downhill ATV trail that parallels the I-90 into some nice newly built suburbs in Butte. Typical of ATV trails, it was very sandy and rutted. Being in the back of the pack turned out to be advantageous as riders were taking the sandy downhill too fast and getting into trouble early (probabaly because they were so amped). Not surprisingly a few overzealous riders crashed down Blacktail. One particular rider hit the dirt hard right infront of me: to my surprise his feet suddenly flipped into in the air and his bike began tumbling downhill. He went down on his shoulder hard. I picked up one of his water bottles that was tossed 50 feet down the trail as another rider stopped to help him up. I felt for this guy who probably broke or tore his shoulder as I've been there before. However, he could walk, and as he was only a mile into the race he could get back to the start to get a ride to the hospital, so off I went with extra caution in hand.

After a quick jot through the Butte 'burbs we started our first long climb up a singletrack called Blacktail ridge. The next 25 miles were a complete blur consisting of sweat, sucking air, getting lost, wondering if I was still lost, hoping to get a glimps of other riders to make sure I was on the right path, trying to identify trail markers, dodging rocks and roots, vying for traction on sandy singletrack, and lots of pushing my bike when all else failed.

Although I didn't have a camera with me on the race, some of the buff sections looked like this section of the CDT.

Just Follow the Signs and Enjoy

The ride description said "Just follow the flags and signs and enjoy!" If only it were that easy! The entire ride is wooded, so unlike most socal riding, you can't see where you are or where the trail is going. Needless to say, having no points of reference really throws your mental compass off. Which way is North? Wasn't I on this trail before? Several times I could have swore I rode the same section of trail just an hour earlier. Or was it two hours earlier?

The course was marked every few miles (sometimes every 5-10 miles along the CDT) by orange tape hanging from tree limbs or fence posts, or small arrows stapled onto stakes of wood stuck into the ground. Having never ridden any of the trails before, I was completely reliant upon the course markings for route finding. I didn't have any maps and there was no route sheet with specific mile markers (not that that really mattered as I did not have a speedometer or GPS with me).

Several riders ended up getting lost only an hour into the ride. I ran into one such rider on the trail who said he followed a group of 10 or so mashing along that missed a turn along Blacktail Ridge after the first uphill and went out of the way by 12 miles! He thought about throwing in the towel but ended up continuing the race. Props to him, especially as he blasted past me!

As I was saying, the first 30 miles were a complete blur. The course being 95% singletrack is much more challenging than miles of fire road, gravel, or paved road, as you have to think about rear-wheel traction while paying attention to what's in front of you as you pick a line. Day dreaming while spinning the pedals isn't an option in the Butte 50.

The first aid station was near mile 12, with the second coming in at mile 24, and the third and final around mile 32. The route in between aid station #2 and #3 was dubbed by the locals as "the eight miles of hell" (it is also listed like this on the official course description).

Eight Miles of Hell

The first thing that came to mind when I heard about the eight miles of hell is "That doesn't sound good" and then "but I wonder why they call it that?" Lets just say its a section of the continental divide trail (CDT) I never, ever want to see again.

It begins with endless sets of rocky switchbacks shaded in dark forest canopy. Mossy pine and rock gardens come and go while gaining elevation until your lungs burn and you resort to getting off the bike and pushing it. At the top of the switchbacks a rocky downhill ensues through mud and logs, and more logs and more mud. About half way through the CDT it mellows out just enough for you to recover and think the worst is over. After another rocky decent the second brutal climb begins and you truly learn why the section is called "the eight miles of hell".

The wind picks up, huge gusts enough to flail a grown man off his bike. Monsterous thunder claps in the distance as clouds move in overhead and it starts raining. The rain quickly gives away to another rocky singletrack climb approaching 8,000ft in elevation. The "60-60" rule kicks in--ride 60 feet, walk 60 feet, take a break, repeat. Some sections of the trail had more rock than dirt. There is nobody to be seen on the CDT and as everyone is spread out in an ant line and I think I'm lost. I haven't seen anyone for miles and I wonder if I'm still on the right trail. I keep thinking about the guy who told me he went 12 miles off course. I wonder right now if I'm that guy? I pull off the trail to take a seat in the grass. I wonder if there are any bears around here? Does it matter? I'm too tired to move. A few minutes later a rider comes by. "Are you alright?", he says. "I'm fine, this trail is just kicking my ass," I reply.

Knowing I'm not completely off base I get back on the bike and ride a short while to an open meadow at the top of the ridgeline. For the first time in approximately 31 miles I can take a visual bearing and figure out that I'm about 15 miles directly west of Butte. One short scenic but bumpy mile later, with ominous rain clouds in the distance, I arrive at the third aid station and done with the eight miles of hell. It starts raining again and I refill my pack with water in preparation of the fourth and final leg of the race.

The volunteer at the third aid station notifies me that the course markers over the next several miles have all been vandalized. He instructs me to memorize the directions: "after the third creek crossing make a left, not straight, and head up the switchbacks. Make sure you get to the switchbacks, I'd hate to have you go straight..." Got it. I'll follow someone who looks like they know where they are going.

The descent is called Fish Creek and then up what are called the Toll Mountain Switchbacks. Fish Creek is a fun and fast downhill with a few muddy creek crossings. The Tolls are very similar to the San Juan Trail switchbacks in SoCal--lots and lots of gradual decomposed granite switchbacks.

For more info see the official website of the Butte 50 Endurance Race.

If I was to do a day ride out in Butte again, I would do these last 15 or so miles along the CDT from Homestake as a point-to-point shuttle. After the Toll switchbacks comes what has to be one of the best downhills I've ever done in my life. I say downhills because there were actually two fast, sweeping descents, each about 2 or 3 miles long, interrupted by a short ~10 minute flat section which gave you just enough time to catch your breath. Sometimes downhills can be so long that you tire out. These downhills are perfectly spaced apart so that just as you finish the first you begin to tire, then gather your energy on the flat in preparation for another ripping, light-speed, smooth roller descent, dodging the occasional protruding rock or tree from the side of the trail.

The Tolls drops you out onto a highway crossing and then its back up the Beaver Ponds CDT for the last set of switchbacks of the day. After a gradual climb of perhaps 45 minutes the CDT hands out another incredibly fast and long downhill through forest, now darkened from the approaching rain clouds. An emmense thunder strike clasps overhead and a warm rain ensues. Before I know it the forest disappears and I'm back on the short stretch of pavement leading to the parking area and the finish at just over eight hours.

Just as I pull in the wind picks up and it begins pouring rain. Friends and family of other riders cheer me on as I come in. Ryan is standing in his rain jacket his hands in his pockets looking like Kenny from Southpark. "Hey you made it. They have pizza", says Ryan. Awesome, just what I wanted to hear! Freezing, we head back to the truck and so ends another unforgettable day of riding in Montana. What an epic place and thanks to all of the volunteers who made it possible.


After Bozeman and Butte we were pretty tired, so we decided fish some more and take a side trip through Yellowstone on the way home.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone

Jackson Lake in Wyoming

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