Bikepacking The Continental Divide Trail: Idaho/Montana Border - Rollercoasters, Vision Quests & Breakdowns
Photos by Scott Morris
It rained for three days straight in West Yellowstone. Not just a drizzle, but a full-on, soaking downpour for hours on end. We stayed huddled in an inexpensive cabin waiting for the gray cloud to lift. When it finally did, we headed north, planning on rejoining the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) as it left Yellowstone National Park at Reas Pass.
It was a welcome reintroduction to riding trail after our several hundred miles of pavement and dirt roads from Togwotee Pass to West Yellowstone. We weren't expecting much, as the miles of trail south of Togwotee had left something to be desired, like an actual trail and trail markers.
But, as it turned out, the Lionshead section of the CDT had been newly built and was maintained by a crew of mountain bikers out of Bozeman. They hauled chainsaws on fatbikes to clear the trail of deadfall. The trail climbed steadily out of the trees until reaching the ridge. Perfect switchbacks, perfect grade, and the threatening weather failed to turn into any actual precipitation on our heads.
The next day brought a switchback challenge. 19 technical switchbacks up to a pass followed by an endless descent down into the next valley. We counted 49 switchbacks down, going from high alpine terrain, down into trees, through meadows filled with colorful flowers, through grasslands, and finally down to the creek. We were blown away and not surprised when a group of mountain bikers we'd run into called the segment, “The best section of singletrack in Montana.”
Now only if the rest of the state could be like that.
After getting caught in a torrential rain shower, we made our way down to Red Rock Pass, the Montana/Idaho border where we ran into Jay Petervary mid-Fitzbarn Race. We looked up towards Montana with him, “Looks like you might get wet.” He did.
We ran into several other racers as we made our way toward Island Park on the GDMBR (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route). A three-mile segment of the CDT was in a Wilderness Study Area, so we had to do a 38-mile road detour around it to rejoin the trail in the Centennial Mountains.
But once back in the Centennial Mountains, our minds were blown. Beautiful trail, bluebird skies, with views of Montana on the right, Idaho on the left. We'd follow the border of the two states for the next several hundred miles, sometimes hitting each and every high spot, other times, contouring mercifully around them.
We left the small town of Lima packed with food for three days and two nights out. About three hours out of town, we started rationing food. “It's going to be a hungry few days,” we decided. Somehow, we'd drastically miscalculated calories.
The trail followed an endless roller coaster on a decent road surface. The views were otherworldly. Hike up. Ride down. We passed Bannock Pass where most hikers hitch down to the town of Leodore, a notoriously difficult hitch on a remote dirt road. Two hikers had left a case of beer in the bushes with a note, “Good luck with the hitch.” We continued on.
We rationed dinner that night, knowing that it was most likely going to be three nights out to get to Jackson Hot Springs, our next resupply.
Sure enough, a day and night later, we rolled into the small town completely famished. The mercantile where we were planning on resupplying was closed, permanently. Crud. That was going to be a problem for another day as the lodge had an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a hot springs to soak in.
After a 36-mile round trip to the Wisdom grocery store on the highway the next day, we left Jackson to rejoin the trail.
The passes through the Big Hole Mountains were steep and rocky. I found myself walking both up and down them. The riding was awkward, but the views breathtaking.
It was about mid-day when I broke down. “This isn't fun any more,” I declared, looking up at the next pass that I'd surely be walking, having just finished walking down the last one. “I'm done. This is stupid.”
In hindsight, I was probably still running a calorie deficit from our vision quest from Lima to Jackson and being irrational, but I was done with the trail. I lay down on the side of the trail, thinking about what I needed off of my bike in order to hike out and back into civilization. I wasn't going to push my Spearfish up any more hills.
Luckily, I came to my senses.
The trail just over the next pass had been rebuilt, sustainably, which meant it was a blast to ride down. Montana to the right. Idaho to the left. We were truly riding the Divide. Even a rainstorm that stopped us in our tracks couldn't dampen our spirits. Raspberries lined the next climb and we stopped often to indulge. We got to camp just as another rainstorm unleashed around our tarp. We huddled, digging a trench around our 8 x 10 foot space of dryness. We ate well, knowing that we'd be in town first thing in the morning.
We'd be in Montana for good now, leaving the roller coaster of the Montana/Idaho border behind. It was spectacular, but it was brutal. Pieces of amazing trail interspersed with miles of heinous hike-a-bike. Sections of smooth flow interspersed rocks and roots. Good time and bad.
But there wasn't a single mile that wasn't drop dead gorgeous. It was the CDT at its finest.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com