A solo ride through Yellowstone National Park
On Saturday, September 6th 2014, I set off for a weeklong motorcycle ride to see Yellowstone National Park and a bit of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I had never been to Yellowstone before, and planned to meet up with a riding buddy who rode out a few days earlier to spend time with his family in Montana. We didn’t have specific plans to meet up, so I rode out solo with no agenda other than to see Yellowstone and spend a week riding in new places.
The gear that I chose for this ride:
- 2014 BMW R1200GS with Vario Panniers
- Touratech Expandable Touring Passenger Seat Bag
- Lightweight mesh riding jacket, armored full riding suit, and a drysuit
- Schuberth C3Pro with SRC audio/comms
- BMW Navigator V GPS, iPhone 5S, GoPro Hero 3+ black edition
I covered 2,224 glorious miles over six days of riding, staying in everything from the cheapest of motels to the most spectacular working cattle ranch. The only constant in the adventure was that days and nights were not planned in advance. Here’s how the ride unfolded, one day at a time.
Day 1 — Redmond WA to Lewiston ID (308 miles)
Since Washington is familiar riding territory for me, the first day was really about just getting across the state quickly. This meant I-90 to the Columbia River, and then a few nice stretches of Highways 260, 261, and 12 into Lewiston.
The only photos were at the beginning and end of the day.
The Guesthouse Inn in Lewiston is a basic inexpensive motel. $50 for the night with a AAA card. Two perks: covered motorcycle parking, and a free beer at the Italian joint next door if you show your room key. Yes, I dined there and yes, I got my free beer.
No trains came down the tracks behind the room, so it was quiet enough.
Day 2 — Over Lolo Pass to Big Sky MT (450 miles)
Crossing from Idaho into Montana along Highway 12 takes you over the famous Lolo Pass. It’s considered one of the best riding routes in America, ranked #9 by the AMA. It didn’t disappoint. But frankly, everything east of Lewiston was pretty spectacular.
The day started with an immediate bridge crossing of the Snake River, and winding along Highway 12 as it ascends into the Bitterroot mountains. This follows along the Nez Perce trail, which the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled as the natives guided them over the pass and down the Clearwater River.
It’s hard to describe how spectacular this scenery and riding is. The pictures do it little justice. Just before the real climb begins, you’re greeted by the most exciting sign for motorcyclists.
With 99 miles of great riding ahead, you begin the 5,233-foot climb up Lolo Pass. Winding along the Clearwater River offered continuous views like these:
At this scenic viewpoint, I met a father and son who were headed out hunting with their hounds. This one really wanted out of the truck, likely because it smelled like musky hounds.
Historic viewpoints appear every few miles along this route, as Lewis and Clark’s party stopped often, with their Nez Perce guides, for crossings. This was a long day at 450 miles, though, so I didn’t stop at most of them. At the summit of Lolo Pass is a significant historical center that’s a must-visit.
Being a bit of a Lewis and Clark expedition buff, I found the Lolo Pass Visitor Center pretty fascinating. I highly recommend the book Undaunted Courage,by Stephen Ambrose. It blends the actual Lewis & Clark diaries with a brilliant telling of the story of their journey. If you read that, you can’t help but sit for a few minutes in the glen behind the visitor center, the precise spot where the expedition came over the pass, guided by the Nez Perce tribe on September 13, 1805.
This pass also marked my realization that I was way behind schedule. It was already late afternoon, and I still had about 250 miles to cover if I wanted to get near the west entrance of Yellowstone. Plus, the bike was screaming at me that it was almost out of fuel. I was past the warning lights on the instrument cluster, past the flashing ‘!’ on the GPS, and past any remaining tick marks on the fuel gauge. I figured I had 20 miles at best, and the visitor center staff said that the next gas was 35 miles on the northeast side of the pass. Fortunately, gravity was my friend and I rolled into a station and filled the GS past the amount of petrol that the factory claims it holds.
Between the Bitterroots and Yellowstone was a long stretch of Interstate 90, which is not exciting riding. The only notable events along I-90 were crossing the continental divide, and pegging 5,000 miles on the odometer of my new-this-year bike under the big skies of Montana.
Things got interesting again when I turned south onto MT-85 and US-191 to ride south toward Yellowstone. The plan was to arrive in Big Sky, Montana to spend the night. Big Sky isn’t much more than a gas station, a couple of lodges, and some bars. But it was getting dark and cold and I realized that it’d be better to stop here than try to make it all the way to West Yellowstone because the mountains were something to see in the daylight, not ride blindly through at night.
Still about an hour north of Big Sky, here are the final daylight photos that gave me a sense of the beautiful riding that was to come over the next few days as I rode into those mountains.
With the sun going down and the temperature dropping, it was time to turn on the auxilary lights and just straight-shoot it to the lodge where I had made a reservation while taking these photos. Seemed simple, but nature had a different plan. Forty-five minutes later, I had to emergency brake for this herd of bighorn sheep blocking the road.
Bighorn sheep are amazing climbers, as you can see in the video as they race up the rocks. With them clear of the road, it was time to get on to Buck’s T-4 Lodge, a neat place to spend a night. The entire place is made up of rooms that feel like cabins. They’re warm and not too expensive — about $150/night. I was lucky to get the last available room.
Buck’s has an overpriced restaurant in the middle of the lodge buildings. It has table service and was on the fancy side, so I ate in the bar where a full menu is available. I had a Bison Meatloaf Sandwich, which I highly recommend. In fact, this marked the beginning of several days of dining on bison, buffalo, venison, and other gamey meats. After 450 miles and a long day of great scenery, I slept like a bison. Little did I know that the bison I ate, and the sheep that I herded were just a small preview of what was to come the following day.
Day 3 — First day in Yellowstone (243 miles)
This is probably the most excellent day of riding that I will have this season. I was headed into new country that I had never seen before, among wildlife that I had never encountered before, visiting some of nature’s amazing sights.
The plan was to enter Yellowstone from the west entrance, which is about 45 minutes south of where I woke up. Breakfast was first on the list, and I found the stereotypical Montana breakfast place while heading south along Buck Creek. Of course it was a tavern that serves breakfast.
Breakfast was venison sausage gravy over biscuits, and it was time for the last leg before entering Yellowstone National Park.
The National Parks service discounts motorcycles. It was $20 for a pass that allows unlimited park access for seven days. The first ten miles after the entrance announced that I was in Yellowstone. There were slow winding rivers, sheer rock faces, and traces of monstrous volcanic activity below the surface. Here are the first few shots that I took in the park.
Another few miles into Yellowstone, I stopped to see a bison grazing. These beasts are huge, and weigh about 2,000 pounds. I learned that there are few deaths in the park each year from tourists being gored by bison. You can’t get too close to them, and you need to keep a tree between them and you. This one meandered across the field, and then lay down for a nap. Yes, I am really close and no, there is no tree between us, but he just looked so friendly and animals love me. (…said every gored tourist. Seriously: give the bison plenty of room. They can be very dangerous.)
I was really excited to see Old Faithful. I’ve seen the mega-volcano shows on TV, so I know that Yellowstone is volcanically active and Old Faithful is part of that. But I was amazed that the more spectacular geysers are on the way to Old Faithful, in the southwest part of the park.
Winding down US-89 takes you past a lot of hot springs and geysers. The first area that I stopped at after seeing steam from the road was the Fountain Paint Pot Trail. It’s a series of hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and geysers. It was all interesting stuff.
After walking around this trail and filming the various volcanic events, I was pretty certain that when this supercaldera blows, there will be no place to hide. The next big feature was called the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser Crater. It’s hard to describe how beautiful this gigantic hot spring is. It’s literally a complex of lakes of scalding walter, bacteria pools, and steam erupting where the superheated water meets the snowmelt river.
Rather than trying to walk you through it with words, I shot video along the path. Just click to watch, and set it to HD.
After these stops along the way, Old Faithful was was up next. I arrived just a few minutes after an eruption, so I grabbed lunch (a bison bratwurst!) and waited for the next predicted show. Since I was so early, I got there ahead of the crowds, but a lot of people showed up.
While I was waiting faithfully for Ol’ Faithful, one of the most interesting and unexpected events of the trip happened. While I had been posting an occasional instagram photo to Facebook, a couple of longtime friends noticed that I was in Montana. Rick and Judith have been family friends since 1990, but I haven’t seen them in over fifteen years, except on Skype. They’re not just any friends…
Rick was my technical mentor when I was an intern at Microsoft. He taught me much of what I know about Microsoft’s C/C++ compiler, debuggers, editors, and other tools. Judith was my partner in crime as a compiler tester in the early 1990s. Together, we ensured our tools were compliant and the code they generated was correct. We had a blast doing it. We were all part of a team that changed an industry, and deep friendships were forged in the process. Rick and Judith weren’t the average corporate types, and I say that in the most complimentary way. While crazy smart, they’re also super down-to-earth people who decided to think very intentionally about where the wanted to raise their family and what their lifestyle would be. They made a major lifestyle shift and bought a cattle ranch in Wyoming and built a wonderful home there. I knew they were somewhere east, but I had no idea where.
A Facebook message came in from Rick while Old Faithful was percolating. He asked me how far east I was headed, and I told him I expected to cross Yellowstone that day, exit Montana, and find a room in Cody, Wyoming. Both Rick and Judith insisted that I continue an extra 25 miles to their ranch and spend a night with them. It was an easy decision to seize a chance to catch up with great friends and spend a night in a home rather than a motel room.
Immediately west of Yellowstone, just shy of the town of Cody, is the Buffalo Bill Resevoir. Even though I was running late to meet Rick and Judith, I couldn’t help but stop for a few photos. The landscape was beautiful.
We met up for excellent pizza and beer in Cody, and continued onto to their spectacular working cattle ranch, the Triple-L Walking Ranch. The only thing more wonderful than their home was the chance to catch up, talk about our kids, and remember the good ol’ days together.
Judith is a talented crafter in addition to teaching high school. She made her own lamp shades for their media room, and each is done as a sci-fi character. Anyone who is familiar with the Tulip Ride knows of my affiliation with Cylons. I had to laugh when I saw her handmade Cylon lamp shade.
While life took Judith and Rick out of the Pacific Northwest, it definitely can’t take the Pacific Northwest out of them. You can see Puget Sound elements throughout their lovely home. It was an absolutely perfect place to spend a night in the middle of this trip, and I can’t thank them enough.
Day 4— Beartooth Pass and heavy weather (229 miles)
Early September brings some of my favorite riding weather of the year. Crisp mornings turn into warm days, leaves begin to change color, and the threat of heavy weather is still a few weeks away. But during the night, a freak cold front began to move in that threatened to bring the earliest snow in Montana history.
Two roads were important to me to ride that day. One was the Chief Joseph Highway heading north out Cody, and the other was the famous Beartooth Pass Highway. Rick decided to take the day off to be my guide across these historic routes that draw motorcyclists from around the country (read: Rick wanted to slack and go ride with me). He also knew how weather fronts cross the region, and had a plan to keep me southwest of the snow by a few hours.
We started out early in fog, but climbed into the hills and broke out above the cloud layer as we headed north toward Montana. The Chief Joseph Highway is like something out of a motorcycle dream. Those roads…
Everyone stops to take a photo here. The smiles on our faces are a direct result of the endless twisties ahead of us as we descended from this pass. Plus, our fingers were thawing now that we were out of the fog.
Apparently, plenty of other riders stop at this spot, because there were chipmunks waiting for us. They’d run up and climb onto the toe of your boot, demanding food.
Before long, we were climbing Beartooth Pass. It shoots up to 10,947 feet in about 20 miles. The most aggressive riding is a rise from 5,200 feet to 8,000 feet in 12 miles, all of which is switchbacks, all of which were pure joy. It got cold up there, and pretty desolate.
Part of the frigid temperatures was being up above the snow line, and part of it was proof that a cold front really was moving in. The sky started changing quickly, and I still had about 150 miles to go if I wanted to cover the roads and towns that looked interesting. So Rick broke off and headed home via Red Lodge, Montana while I took in the twisty road again headed west.
This meant dropping down off the pass on the Wyoming side, and then heading north back into Montana toward the small town of Cooke City.
This is an interesting place — snow cuts it off from the outside world for part of the year. It’s a tourist stop, with a few hotels and several great restaurants. But the most interesting thing that I saw was elk grazing right in the middle of town, between the rustic buildings. They were just eating grass, big as life, while tourists walked past them.
I had a great lunch in Cooke City, optimistic that I’d have decent riding weather since the skies had cleared up during my ride down from Beartooth Pass. But when I walked out of the restaurant, the air was noticeably colder, and the sky was downright menacing!
With temperatures dropping and precipitation imminent, I hopped on the bike and headed south through a little-known entrance to Yellowstone Park. Immediately after the park entrance, the rain started coming down — and hard. I had to change into a drysuit on the side of the road, and realized that I was in for a few hours of very wet riding. Heated grips kept my hands warm, and I had plenty of layers under the drysuit. The ride wasn’t miserable, just a bit tense as riding through heavy weather always is.
About an hour back into the park, all hell broke loose weather-wise. Lightnight began to flash across the sky. At some points, I could see bolts go almost from horizon to horizon between the hills. An occasional glimpse of blue sky would just tease me before the next bolt of lightning and downpour.
I was committed to getting back to the North Entrance — the one route in/out of the park that I hadn’t taken — by nightfall. After these photos, I planned no stops until I was in a town with accommodations. But in Yellowstone, you don’t always get to choose when and where you stop. Sometimes, the wildlife sets the pace, as this herd of bison demonstrates.
The final stretch north through Mammoth Hot Springs and back into Montana should have been straightforward. A road winds down from the hills at Mammoth, Wyoming into the town of Gardiner, Montana. I passed the very nice resort at Mammoth Hot Springs just as several police cars passed by me, headed down the hill at full speed with sirens and lights on. Three patrol cars passed me, one fell behind. I probably should have stopped there and gone back for news, but the hotel in Gardiner was only 20 miles away. What could go wrong?
Rain was still pouring down as I descended the twisties. It was nice for a few miles, as there were ominously no other vehicles on the road. And then I came upon the first earthmover. The torrential rain from the afternoon was washign out the road, and big tractors were sent up to clear emergency drainage. The patrol cars that had passed me were closing the road. The trooper who stayed behing was sealing it off behind me. I was the last vehicle to descend.
The gigantic excavator was digging along the side of the two-lane road, which already had about an inch of slippery mud across it. The tractor driver saw me stopped uphill from him, paused his work, and flagged me by. I carefully rode around him in the opposite lane, being careful to keep the bike at a steady throttle in second gear, electronics set for rain-slicked surfaces. No problem crossing the mud at all.
Another couple of miles brought another excavator. This time, the road had partially washed out. Some water was flowing under the road and had caused the concrete to crumble. Other water was flowing over the road and had carried rocks along with it. Passing this tractor required a bit more thought. I had to avoid the larger rocks, ride over the smaller ones, and rode through new gaps in the asphalt. It was safe, but took more focus. I figured that was the last of it.
With the town of Gardiner now in sight, I came to the last road issue: a drainage culvert was blocked and a river was now running over and across the road. Two of the patrol cars were stationed here, one on each side of the flowing water. I stopped next to a trooper who said that a 4×4 truck made it across, but that they held a couple cars back. After looking at the bike, he left it up to me whether or not I should try to cross. I had crossed state lines 5 times day day, ridden through hours of downpour, tangled with bison, and cleared two road closures already. Of course I was going to cross it!
I flipped the bike into Endure mode, turned of ABS, and entered the water standing on the pegs at the very bottom of second gear. I have forded a little bit of water before, but this was approaching a foot deep and rushing pretty quickly. It was a piece of cake. Honestly, this bike makes it a piece of cake. I rode through, got a thumbs up from the officer on the downhill side, and headed for the comfort of a motel room and some grub. I was too busy concentrating on riding to get photos of this, but here’s what the bike looked like afterward:
I was so tired after this day of riding that I got food to go, ate it in the room at the Best Western (not a great place, but the last available room in town), and fell asleep early.
Day 5 — Craters of the Moon (374 miles)
I got a text message from my riding buddy Walter when I woke up. He was still about 90 miles north, in Bozeman, with his family and needed another day up there. He had a kind offer: his sister-in-law had an air mattress that I could sleep on if I came up there for the night. But that meant heading into the oncoming cold front, and potentially getting snowbound in a city. The other choice was to head south through the glorious national park, find warmer temperatures, and just keep riding. Walter is a good friend, and I love riding with him, but I decied to head south. Like a true motorcyclist, he replied, “It’d be fun to ride together, but get the good miles in. Honestly, I’d do the same.” So south I headed.
The first stop was unintended, to make way for this friend…
The further south I rode, the more the skies cleared and the warmer the temperatures got. It was in the mid-sixties when I got a video message from Walter that it was hailing hard up north, in the forties, and dropping fast. I had made the right choice.
After three amazing days in some of the most beautiful riding country I had ever seen, it was time to exit to the west. Lunch in the town of West Yellowstone at Buckaroo Bill’s BBQ was interesting. They have a dining area that is made out of covered wagon booths, circled around a campfire at which a wolf is about to attack a bison (while a duck looks on). I had elk stir-fry and baked beans for lunch, because it felt like the right thing to do at Buckaroo Bill’s.
Heading south into Idaho took me along some beautiful plains routes toward the foothills of the Rockies. It was nice riding, and bordering on hot outside. In some of the small farming communities, homesteader cabins stand right alongside the road. A few improvements are visible, but they’re pretty rustic.
My next stop was Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. This is an interesting spot for geography. Much like the Hawaiian Islands, which were formed as a tectonic plate slid over a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle, Craters of the Moon is a series of volcanic craters caused by our own tectonic plate sliding over a hotspot under Idaho.
Cinder cones and pillars of lava make for a bizarre landscape. It’s so barren that NASA has used it to train astronauts for lunar landings.
The below shot gives a really great sense of how — over millions of years — the Pacific Plate slides over a hot spot, causing eruptions in a line.
Through three states thus far today, the riding had been perfect. Blue skies were overhead for the remainder of my ride to whichever town seemed like a good place to stop. Off I went through into the southern Idaho farmlands.
Until a haboob hit.
This was the second haboob that I’ve dealt with this summer. The winds were really strong, with the bike leaned over quite a bit just to counteract the force of the crosswinds. When I stopped to shoot that video, raising my helmet visor allowed dust into my eye, nose, and mouth. It was pretty awful, forcing me to drop my speed to about 35 m.p.h. for the duration. As quickly as it arrived, it was gone. I made it to the town of Twin Falls for the night, staying at Comfort Inn. It’s a typical interstate business hotel but it had exactly what I needed: a hot shower to rinse the dust away.
Day 6 — The long way home (620 miles)
Occasional Facetime chats with my daughters were suggesting that it was time for me to head home. I had planned to take one more night to make it as easy ride back and explore a few more unplanned backroads. I had 620 miles between me and home, which is a very long day in the saddle, so I figured I’d play it by ear.
Morning temperatures on the interstate were nice for riding, there was little traffic, and data service along the route made for hours of listening to Spotify. Before I knew it, I was stopping for lunch and 250 miles were behind the tires. The bike was really showing the effects of the weather, with bugs blasted into dust caked atop mud.
Suddenly, 620 miles felt like an achievable mental and physical challenge. I decided to ride it through. On past trips and on other bikes, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But the combination of comfortable ride, nice weather, good gear, and endless music made it fun the entire way.
I rolled through Yakima just as the sun was showing signs of setting. Canyon Road north out of Yakima is one of my favorite roads in Washington, and I couldn’t pass it up even if it added time to my already long day. My last photo from the trip was of a scenic spot along the Yakima River on Canyon Road…
Espresso in Ellensberg prepared me for a 45-minute wait while blasting crews worked on the closed road at Snoqualmie pass. It made for some good conversation with other stopped drivers who were curious about the bike and where I was coming from.
When you are standing next to a mud-splattered, bug-covered, loaded adventure bike and someone asks you where you’ve been, hearing yourself answer,
“I just spent six days riding over 2,000 miles through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. Much of the time was in Yellowstone riding amongst bighorn sheep, elk, and bison. Oh and I managed to hit three of the top riding roads on the continent in the process.”
…puts it in perspective. I try to do at least one epic-class ride each season, and this one was it for me this year. There is something magical about motorcycling solo with no agenda, no commitments, and no worries about what’s around the next bend. This ride proved that even if the next bend puts you face-to-face with a 2,000 pound bison, it’ll all work out just fine.
You can see an interactive map here to get route details.