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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

"Mostly Flat": Crossing The Rockies - Bozeman, MT to St. Regis, MT

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

As I rode west from Bozeman I found myself in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. There were large mountains on every side, but the roads followed the rivers and somehow my route stayed "mostly flat". I finally met a few other cross-country cyclists and we were all looking forward to reaching the border of Idaho and completing the ride across the enormous state of Montana.



 

Jul 08, 2021

Mileage: 74.4 miles

Odometer Start: 5059.5

Odometer End: 5135.2

Avg Speed: 13.4 mph

Max Speed: 30.4 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 31 mins

Bozeman, MT to Townsend, MT


I rolled out of Bozeman after a day of rest and headed west on the frontage road that runs parallel to I-90. I knocked out about 20 miles and then entered the small town of Manhattan, MT. I decided this would be a good place to grab some breakfast. Fortunately, The Garden Cafe was right next to the road and looked like they knew their way around a stack of pancakes, so I headed in.


As I was locking up my bike, the owner came out of the cafe and started talking to me. His name was Nick and I suspect he was originally from The Netherlands. He didn't actually state where he came from, but he did say his brother lived in The Netherlands. He had come to Montana because of his wife who was originally from the area.


Nick was very interested in hearing about my ride. He rode his bike to work and had it locked up right next to mine. It turned out that he was selling his cafe the following week and retiring. He was hoping to do a similar ride at some point in the future. One of the waitresses eventually came out and called him back inside to put together an order. I finished locking up my bike and then went inside to get some breakfast.


As I had hoped, they served a nice big plate of pancakes. That was just what I needed. As I was finishing my meal, Nick came over to the table and we continued our conversation. Nick was nice enough to buy me breakfast. I really appreciated that gesture. I got his contact information and told him I would be happy to give him advice on gear or help him in any way if he chose to do a cross-country bike ride.


Nick was a good guy and I hope that he will get a chance to try a long ride. I texted him at the end of the trip to let him know that I made it to the Pacific Ocean and that all of my pictures were on line. I didn't hear back from him, but if he sees this, I wish him luck.


As I was pulling back out onto the road, I noticed in the distance the flashing tail light of another cyclist. There aren't a lot of cyclists in Montana, so I decided to try and catch them. I knew this road had no turn-offs for the next 10 miles, so I had some time to close the distance. I began riding hard and after a few minutes I could tell that I was closing the distance. It turned out to be a pair of touring cyclists and I managed to catch up to them after a couple of miles.


The sunset from my campsite next to The Missouri River just outside Townsend, MT.

Will and Kathy were from Minneapolis and were headed for Seattle. They had started in DC 1 day after I left Baltimore. We stopped in the town of Three Forks to get some Gatorade and they told me they had planned every stop of their trip prior to departure. They had reservations at hotels each day, therefore, they had to stay on schedule. We exchanged contact information and figured that we would probably run into each other around Missoula.


I had covered more than 3500 miles at this point, but Will and Kathy were only the 3rd and 4th cyclists I had met riding cross country. Previously, I had encountered one guy in the middle of Indiana. He was headed west but we were taking dramatically different routes. There was also a woman in Nebraska who was headed east. I know that my route across the country was not one of the "traditional" paths, but I had expected to encounter a few more touring cyclists out on the road. It was good to actually meet some other people that could appreciate what it took to reach this point.


From Three Forks, I headed north toward Helena. I was making good time and the legs felt strong. Unfortunately, as I was leaving the town of Townsend I ran into a staunch headwind. It slowed me down under 10 mph and struggling against the wind was wearing me out. I saw a sign for a campground that was right on the Missouri River and decided to stop fighting the wind. I pulled in, got a campsite, and called it a day.


The sunset was spectacular that evening. I would later learn that the reason it was so dramatic was due to a lot of smoke from a number of forest fires to the west of Helena.


 

Jul 09, 2021

Mileage: 53.4 miles

Odometer End: 5188.9

Avg Speed: 12.2 mph

Max Speed: 30.9 mph

Riding Time: 4 hrs, 22 mins

Townsend, MT to Canyon Creek, MT


I was back on Hwy 287 headed north first thing in the morning. I had about 30 miles to reach Helena, MT and then I was going to be climbing up to the continental divide. I managed to get 2 flats on the front tire just as I reached Helena. I had to pull off into a strip mall parking lot and fix the flat while enjoying the scenic view of a dumpster.


I'm not sure what I hit, but the self-sealing tube that was in the front tire was toast. In addition, the actual tire was now in bad shape and needed to be replaced. This wasn't a real problem because I always carried a spare tire with me. However, the original front tire had over 5100 miles on it and it just went into the dumpster that was conveniently located right next to me. This changed my plans slightly, now I would need to track down a bike shop in Helena and pick up a new spare tire.


I stopped in at Big Sky Cycling and bought a brand new tire plus some other necessary items. There was another touring bike parked out front when I arrived. It was loaded similar to my bike with panniers, handlebar bags, and other accessories that you need on a long bike ride. The bike's owner was a guy named Brian that I met inside the store.


After finishing at the bike shop, I walked next door to a bagel place and got myself a late breakfast. (Honestly, at this point in the trip I didn't care what time of day it was because I was always hungry from burning so many calories while riding. If I stopped someplace with food, I was going to eat).


Brian had the same idea and was already sitting at a table, so I joined him. It turned out he was riding the Continental Divide Trail that runs from the Canadian border down to New Mexico. I got the impression this ride is mostly on a dirt trail and is pretty tough on the bike. As we finished our food, I wished him luck and then got back on my bike to continue with my own ride.


I learned a couple of interesting pieces of information during my short time in Helena. First, the spectacular sunset of the previous evening was due to the smoke generated by a couple of major wild fires a bit west of here. Second, a woman had been killed by a grizzly bear in the small town Ovando just on the other side of the continental divide. I would be riding through Ovando tomorrow. (Information about the attack is here). I am always careful to properly hang my food and toiletries away from my tent while camping, but this made me really sit up and pay attention.


There are 2 options to head west out of Helena, the first is to follow US Rt 12 due west up to MacDonald Pass. The other option is northwest on some small roads up to Flesher Pass. US Rt 12 seemed to be a busy road with multiple lanes, so I headed northwest on the smaller, quieter roads.


As I reached the outskirts of Helena, I finally encountered one of my biggest concerns. As I passed in front of a house, a dog took notice of me and began a charge. I had encountered a couple of other dogs on the trip, but they were either friendly or their hearts weren't into the chase. This dog was different. He came at me with a purpose. Fortunately, he was barking and on the other side of the road, so I had plenty of warning of his approach. I vaulted off the bike and positioned it between me and the dog. Apparently, stopping took most of the fun out of the chase because he stopped and then the owner popped out of the house and called him back to the yard. We waved at each other and I was back on my way. It would turn out that this was the only really worrisome dog encounter on the entire trip. I consider myself lucky in that regard.


It was early afternoon by the time I reached the northern edge of Helena. I decided that I was not going to make it up to the top of Flesher Pass today, so I began looking for a campsite. This area was still sufficiently inhabited that I could not just set up a tent on the side of the road. I looked around, but the campgrounds in the area were all full due to some event that was happening nearby. I had no real choice but to continue pedaling.


After about 15 miles, I ran across the Canyon Creek Country Store. This store was up in a valley that led to Flesher Pass, but the terrain was still flat and "the big climb" was still a few miles up the road. I stopped in for some Gatorade and snacks. I began talking to the really nice owner and it turned out she had a couple of campsites and an associated toilet behind the store. It was cheap and I was tired, so I made this my home for the night.


As I began setting up my tent, I realized that the short tent pole that is used as a cross brace for the rain fly on my tent was missing. I knew almost immediately what had happened. The campsite for the previous night had a picnic table. When I began tearing down my tent this morning, I placed that small pole on the bench of the picnic table. I have a system for packing up my gear each morning and the picnic table caused me to slightly change my pattern. I just completely forgot about that small pole as I rolled up my tent. Fortunately, the tent can still be used without that pole, but it is really annoying to make a mistake like that. I couldn't even call that campground because there was no cell service in my current location.


 

Jul 10, 2021

Mileage: 77.8 miles

Odometer End: 5266.7

Avg Speed: 12.8 mph

Max Speed: 38.4 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 03 mins

Canyon Creek, MT to Clearwater Crossing Fishing Access Site, MT


I was on the road by 6:30 am this morning. I made the 16 mile climb up to Flesher Pass and was sitting on the continental divide by 8:30. The total elevation change from my campsite to the pass was approximately 2600'. The last 3 miles were up a pretty steep uphill grade.


Flesher Pass on the continental divide. Elevation 6131'.

Reaching the top was quite a boost to morale. I had made it all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the continental divide. From this point onward, all of the water runs to the Pacific. It was pretty cool to contemplate that. In fact, it was so intellectually interesting that I suddenly felt the need to pee.


I took a nice little break at the top of the pass and spent some time getting a few pictures, having a snack, and re-hydrating. Just as I was preparing to leave, a car pulled off the road and stopped in the parking area. The driver rolled down her window and got my attention. She told me that she had just seen a bear right next to the road about a mile down the mountain in the direction I was heading.


The other side of the continental divide where I picked up Rt 200 toward Missoula.

This caught my attention after the recent bear attack nearby. I asked her about the color and size of the bear, but she wasn't absolutely sure. Black bears usually aren't much of a concern, regardless, I was happy to hang out for another few minutes and let the bear move along on his "beary" way (pun very much intended).


After another 15-ish minutes I hopped on the bike and proceeded down the mountain. It was an absolute blast riding a long downhill. There was an occasional bit of pedaling, but mostly it was just wind in my face and rolling along at 30+ mph. It was just unfortunate that the downhill stretch was not longer. I covered the 8 miles down to the main road (Rt 200) in a very short time. I did not see even a hint of a bear on the descent from Flesher Pass. I was now over the hump and deep into The Rocky Mountains.


I stopped in Lincoln for a late morning snack/early lunch. There was a motorcycle rally occurring and the town was overrun with bikers. The city park was packed full of tents and accompanying motorcycles. It was loud and crowded, so I was looking forward to getting on my way. There was a roadside fruit stand along the main street in town and I stopped to get a couple of nectarines. They were very refreshing. It is difficult to carry fresh fruit on the bike, so this was quite a treat for me.


Kaitlyn & Brianna with their companions in Lincoln, MT.

As I was finishing up my nectarine, I noticed 2 women and 2 horses walking down the road toward me. As they approached, I said "hi" and we began talking. They were from Minnesota & Wisconsin and were following the Continental Divide Trail. They had just resupplied in town and were continuing toward Helena. They said they were going to stop near Helena to get new shoes for the horses. I believe their names were Kaitlyn and Brianna. (I didn't write down their names for several hours, so I may have mis-remembered).


I did a quick resupply at the local grocery store and then went across the street to the gas station and used their bathroom. While I was in the convenience store, "Lookin' Out My Back Door" by Creedence Clearwater Revival began playing on the store speakers. I almost couldn't believe it. That song had been stuck in my head on a permanent loop for weeks while I was crossing Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. I tried everything to get it out of my head but I just could not shake it. It finally just vanished somewhere in eastern Montana. I was terrified that this coincidence might get it back in my head. I quickly left the store and was back on the road. Fortunately, the song did not worm itself back into my brain. Don't get me wrong, it is a fine song. I just don't want it running through my head during my every waking moment.


Another 25 miles down the road, I hit the small town of Ovando. A fellow cyclist had been killed in a bear attack in this town a few days prior. I stopped at the general store and got some Gatorade and a snack. While I was sitting on the porch enjoying an ice cream sandwich I began talking to a couple of locals. They informed me that the bear responsible for the attack had been located and killed the previous day. There was a suspicion that it may have suffered an injury at some point that prevented it from gathering food in a normal manner, hence it had started foraging around humans. They also informed me that the woman had food or toiletries in her tent and that probably attracted the bear. (Update: after the authorities released their report on the attack, I did not see any mention of the bear being injured. The official report did mention that the bear had become habituated to human food and this was actually a predatory attack).


The entrance to Ovando, MT where a grizzly had killed a fellow cyclists several days before.

One interesting piece of information they shared is that the bear had been hit multiple times with bear spray several hours prior to the attack. According to the locals, if you have to use bear spray it is essential that you pack up and leave as soon as possible. According to them, the bear will return to investigate what happened once the pain of the spray has worn off. I had never heard this piece of information before and have no idea if it is accurate. I will need to do some research from reliable sources of information.


I finished the day at the Clearwater Crossing Fishing Access Site. There was a nice little accompanying campground right next to a small tributary of the Blackfoot River. I set up my tent, hung all of my food and toiletries in a tree, and then took my camp chair down to the stream. I spent the late afternoon and early evening enjoying the cool water and soaking my feet in the stream. I slept like a baby that night.


 

Jul 11, 2021

Mileage: 68.3 miles

Odometer End: 5335.2

Avg Speed: 13.4 mph

Max Speed: 33.6 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 03 mins

Clearwater Crossing Fishing Access Site, MT to Arlee, MT


I have a habit of checking my route before I break camp every morning. I take a look at the roads, the towns that I will pass through, and whether I have to turn onto a different road at some point. I will also open up Google Maps and check out the route. One of the nice things about Google Maps is that it gives you information on the elevation change that you can expect on your ride. Today, Google Maps was telling me my ride would be "mostly flat". I was in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and this was not what I was expecting. In fact, my route had been "mostly flat" every day except yesterday when I climbed up to the continental divide. Ever since I left Bozeman, I kept expecting to encounter significant mountains climbs... I could see mountains all around me and I thought I should be riding up them. However, most of the roads through western Montana follow rivers... and the rivers are "mostly flat". I can state with certainty that crossing the Rockies was easier than the path I followed across the Appalachians in eastern Ohio.


The turn off for the Garnet Ghost Town just east of Missoula, MT on Rt 200.

I left the Fishing Access Site around 7 am and hopped back onto Rt 200 heading toward Missoula. After about an hour on the road, I passed a restaurant that was open for breakfast. I decided to stop and pick up some calories. This place was obviously a bar at night and a restaurant in the morning (although, I suspect you could get a drink there at 8 am). There were a surprising number of people there, and several of them were already playing video poker. The breakfast really hit the spot. A couple of granola bars just can't compare to a big breakfast.


I probably had a slight tail wind because I made excellent time getting to the outskirts of Missoula. I stopped at a Fishing Access Site just short of Missoula to use the bathroom. As I was leaving, I noticed a guy in the parking lot unloading his bike from his car. What caught my eye was his cycling jersey... it was the Maryland flag. I went over and introduced myself and it turned out he was from Ohio but had gone to school at U of Md in College Park (my alma mater). He and his father were doing a bit of riding through the area and were starting the day's ride at this parking lot.


I stopped for lunch in Missoula at a Famous Dave's BBQ. I'm not sure why I stopped at a chain restaurant. It is not usually my style. Looking back, I'm guessing that I was just really hungry and it was there. I probably didn't stop at a chain restaurant more than 3 times on the entire trip across the country.


While I was having lunch, I called a campground about 25 miles up the road. This seemed like a good goal for the evening. I spoke to the owner and asked if there were any open sites. She informed me the campground was full. I began asking some questions about other options in the area and explained that I was on a bike. Once I mentioned the bike, her attitude changed completely. It turned out that she had a site specifically for people without cars. I told her "Perfect... I'll be there in about 2 1/2 hours".


Leaving Missoula on Rt 93 heading north there is a bit of an uphill climb. There is approximately 1000' of elevation gain over the first 5 miles. I was going pretty slow and the road did not have a great shoulder. During this climb a silver Honda Accord was either not paying attention or was trying to intimidate me because he passed close enough that I noticed. I'm pretty sure his tires were either on or over the white line. Either way, he missed me and that was really the first time in the entire trip that I felt a car had come anywhere close to hitting me.


Near to my destination for the evening, I stopped at the small town of Arlee and picked up some food from the grocery store. They had pre-made sandwiches, so I grabbed one of those and enjoyed it in the parking lot. (At this point in the journey, I was eating at least 4 meals every day).


While I was standing next to the building chewing my food, a car pulled up with a mother and daughter. The mother ran inside and the daughter began talking to me. Her name was Brittany and she was from one of the nearby reservations. (I believe Arlee was also part of the reservation). We had an interesting conversation and she was curious about my thoughts and experiences on the reservations that I had crossed on my trip.


Brittany also told me a folk legend about a local woman that used to live nearby. According to her, people will occasionally pick up an old lady that hitch hikes on the outskirts of the town. They will drop her off and she will disappear. Later, they learn that she has been dead for years. I responded by saying "So, it's basically the legend of Large Marge... except she isn't driving". Anyway, it was amusing and made the entire conversation worthwhile.


When her mother returned to the car, they gave me their contact information and told me that if I couldn't get a site at the campground, give them a call and they would let me stay in their yard. I'm kind of glad the campground worked out, because they were a little bit sketchy.


There was another 3 miles out to the campground. The owner was amazed that I had made the ride from Missoula. I explained to her where I started and just how far I had ridden since May and she was a bit incredulous. The campground was nice and quiet. I got my first shower in 3 or 4 days and settled in for a good rest.


 

Jul 12, 2021

Mileage: 64.8 miles

Odometer End: 5400.0

Avg Speed: 13.8 mph

Max Speed: 27.8 mph

Riding Time: 4 hrs, 41 mins

Arlee, MT to St. Regis, MT


I left the campground this morning around 7:15 am. I rode about 8 miles up to the intersection of Rt 93 and Rt 200. My plan was to turn onto Rt 200 and head west toward St. Regis. There was a small restaurant called The Bison Inn at the intersection and they were supposed to open at 8 am. I was in the parking lot around 7:45 and decided to wait because there did not appear to be any other restaurants over the next 50+ miles.

The approach to Ravalli, MT just prior to turning west on Rt 200.

8 am rolled around and there was no sign of the restaurant opening. There was no one inside and no indication of any activity. From what I could see through the window, it certainly appeared to still be in business. I gave them another 15 minutes, but they never opened. I begrudgingly ate a couple of granola bars and started riding west on Rt 200.


I followed Rt 200 for the next 30 miles as it paralleled the Flathead River. It wasn't a great road because there was almost no shoulder. On the upside, there was also very little traffic. There was noticeable smoke from the nearby forest fires but it was not overwhelming.


For the 2nd day in a row, I had another incident where a vehicle did not give me any space. I was passed by a large RV at a dangerously close distance. There was plenty of visibility down the road, there were no oncoming cars within sight, yet this RV shot past and I'm pretty sure he didn't move over at all.


The intersection of RT 200 and Rt 135. The end of Montana is near!

I turned south on Rt 135 where the Flathead River meets the Clark Fork River. This road would take me all the way to St. Regis. A few miles down this road, there was a small hotel/resort with a restaurant attached. It had cabins that sat right on the river. I was more interested in the huckleberry pancakes the restaurant was serving. It was mid-morning by this point but the pancakes certainly improved on the granola bars that I had eaten a couple hours before.


The smoke from the forest fires was much thicker down this valley. At one point, there was a fire fighting helicopter that flew over my head and dipped a water carrier (bucket?) into a small reservoir right next to the main river. It took the load of water and flew off to the southeast. That was something I had never seen before except in videos.


The view over The Clarks Fork River. You can see the smoke from wild fires in the distance.

The rest of the ride to St. Regis rolled through some gorgeous country but was generally uneventful. The most interesting part was that I rode 65 miles through the heart of the Rocky Mountains and did not climb a single hill worth noting. The rivers have carved routes through the area and created huge "mostly flat" valleys. The roads, interstates, and railroads in this part of the country all follow these natural corridors.


I had yet another flat tire this afternoon just as I was approaching the outskirts of St. Regis. I could literally see the town about a 1/2 mile up ahead, but had to stop to fix the flat. This was flat tire #18 for the trip. I had picked up a nail at some point, so at least there was a good reason for the flat.


I got a spot at the campground in St. Regis. I was able to do some laundry and get a shower. I was in a really good mood because this was the end of another map on my cross country ride. When I planned this ride, I broke the entire trip up into 6 distinct maps. The separate maps helped me to set specific goals that were achievable. It is easier to say that my next goal is 300 miles away instead of 4000. This was the end of what I referred to as "The Big Map". It covered about 800 miles from Mt. Rushmore to St. Regis. It really felt like an accomplishment and now the Pacific Ocean was only 2 states (and 1 map) away.

I was sitting at the picnic table at my campsite and was talking to my parents on the phone when the campground manager rolled up to the site adjacent to me. She had another touring cyclist with her. I waved, but could not speak at the time since I was on a call. After a moment or two, they wandered off back toward the campground office.


When I was done with the call I rode over to the office and asked where that cyclist had gone. They pointed me toward his campsite and I made my way over there and introduced myself. His name was Peter and he had left D.C. one week before I did, but had spent a week in Helena, MT visiting some friends. We discussed bits of our ride, and exchanged contact information and made plans to reconnect in a day or 2.


Tomorrow was going to be a big day. I was going to hop on a rail-to-trail called the Trail of the Olympians and follow that up to Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.


 









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