As we finally rolled away from the Montana/Idaho border, I breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully, the incessant rollercoaster of a trail was over, grades and trail conditions would improve, and the unsettled weather would let us be.
I should have known better.
Bypassing a Wilderness area from Wisdom, Montana, we rejoined the office Continental Divide Trail south of Fleecer Ridge, an iconic section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. While we would have been pushing our bikes up the GDMBR route, the CDT took a civilized route consisting of ATV trails and smooth dirt roads. For once, the CDT was an easier way to travel than the GDMBR. The descent down to I-15 was equally rideable with smooth, flowing turns. The ATV trails were built to a sustainable standard with signs asking all trail users to treat each other with respect. It was refreshing in more ways than one.
The CDT and GDMBR overlapped once again to cross I-15 south of Butte and shared the same steep road climb, but the CDT soon cut off to trail; trail we’d been promised would be good. We’d heard that promise before and were skeptical.
As it turned out, we were soon on the Butte 100 racecourse and the trail was divine. We spent the afternoon and the rest of the next day exclaiming that if the entire CDT were like that, we’d ride it every summer. We even ran into our first mountain bikers since central Colorado out for a day ride.
We followed some local knowledge to trails that took us into Butte, home of the Outdoorsman, a GDMBR-friendly shop. Rob, the owner, and his mechanic Larry helped us out with rapidly failing bikes. Our last trip to a bike shop had been nearly a month and a half ago and it showed. New cables and housing, new brake pads and chains, and we were good to go.
We knew that the next section of trail would be our last on the CDT as the Bob Marshal Wilderness and Glacier National Park would force us onto roads after Lincoln, so we were determined to enjoy it.
Enjoy it we did until it started to rain on us. 40% chance of rain in town always translated to 100% chance of rain up on the Divide. Still, newly built trail called us forward and we spent the entire next morning without a single section of hike-a-bike. Maybe the rest of Montana would be straightforward?
The CDT kicked again. A long hike-a-bike up to a highpoint led to a rocky and rooty descent to a ghost mining “town” called Leadville where we spent a chilly night listening for grizzly bears. While the trail started mellow in the morning, crucial due to the fact that it was near freezing and technical riding was out of the question with our minimal clothing, it quickly deteriorated to tried and true CDT.
A quick resupply run to Elliston, Montana, found us at the bar where the search for Big Foot started years ago. We got the silent stare from all the locals when we walked in looking for a meal. We were glad to leave and get back on the trail, unafraid of Big Foot, but still worried about grizzly bears.
North of Helena, we experienced the “death by a thousand rocks” on our descent to Priest Pass where we intersected the GDMBR again. The roads looked so inviting after the beating that we’d gotten during the past 20 miles, including large areas of downfall, awkward rocks, and disappearing trail, but we were committed – CDT to outside of Lincoln, then we could bid the trail good-bye forever.
The CDT “trail” eventually turned to ranching roads and we paralleled the GDMBR on a high ridge. The views trumped the GDMBR and travel was faster than it had been for days. With blue skies, we flew along, loving life. At least until we got to Blackfoot Mountain where another three-mile hike-a-bike took us to another highpoint and to a tricky, but rideable descent.
Our standards had been lowered. If we could ride a descent, it was a good one. Gone was the need for fast and flowy, we just wanted to get down at a pace faster than walking. We camped a final night up on the ridge, ten miles shy of our turn to Lincoln.
Morning brought a long ridge walk. And snow. And wind. It was time to get down.
We arrived in the small town of Lincoln mid-morning and immediately got a room. While we would have had time to make the hop over to Ovando, we were cooked. The CDT was taking its toll. We met other touring cyclists, plus a handful of CDT hikers were in town preparing for their seven-day traverse of the Wilderness area, and we all shared stories of the trail and the snow. Winter was bearing down and we all felt the need to push on.
Done with creative route finding, we took the GDMBR from Lincoln to Ovando, Ovando over Richmond Peak to Swan Lake, and northward to Columbus and Whitefish where our bounce box and passports were waiting at the post office.
While there were many options for finishing the tour, we opted to ride across Glacier National Park via the Going To The Sun Road. The climb up the west side was overcast. We spent the time looking at the white cloud that was spilling over Logan Pass, the Divide, and we slowly rode into it. What followed was a finger-freezing, 2,000-foot descent down through the east side of Glacier.
We stopped often to stick our hands in our pants to warm them up. $5 gloves for traditional tourists at the next lodge did the trick in keeping our hands from falling off.
We’d packed light under the assumption that we’d finish before winter set it. We were wrong and were paying the price.
We rented a small cabin north of St. Mary’s for the night and made it six miles north to Babb the next day before we cried surrender to the snow, which was coming down with increasing intensity.
48 hours was spent in the tiny “town” of Babb, watching the snow fly horizontally, watching bad movies, and looking at the sign that said the US border was a mere ten miles away. But we wanted to do more than tag the border, we wanted to go to Waterton, Canada.
The moment the skies cleared, we set off north, crossing into Canada at Chief Mountain Pass, marveling at how the landscape had been transformed to winter in the space of 48 hours. The mountains surrounding Waterton rose up around us as we rolled into town late afternoon. All that was left was a four-mile hike back to the US border to the end of the CDT. Then we could call our trip done.
The trail was icy in the morning and bike shoes made for some treacherous walking, but two hours after we set out, we reached the last CDT marker of the trail. Surrounded by snow and with soaked feet, we lingered only long enough to take some photos and meet some thru hikers who were finishing at the same time. Then it was time to hightail it back to civilization and figure out a way to get home.
When all was said and done, we’d pedaled 3,600 miles over exactly four months with 400,000 feet or so of climbing. We rode 88% of the CDT that was open to bikes, met 82 thru hikers, and ate more boxes of mac and cheese than I wish to count.
Exhausting? Yes. Worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? No way.
The goal was to put together a new route for others to follow. I really hope they do because the trail is, and was, a truly spectacular place to spend a summer.
Photos courtesy of Scott Morris…
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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