The Mountain Goat Gallery

Bicycling through Yellowstone in the fall

Posted by Jim Steele on November 20th, 2016 filed in Mountain Biking, Yellowstone National Park

After seeing Old Faithful dozens of times, I experienced something new this fall: witnessing an eruption all by myself, in the middle of the day. I’ll never forget the experience of being the only person on the boardwalk for the world’s most famous water show.

After most of Yellowstone closes to cars in early November, some of the park roads remain open to bicyclists and hikers until snow makes them impassable. In many years, winter weather means that only the heartiest people venture far into the park in November. This year, a lack of snowfall and gorgeous weather conditions combined to create a perfect weekend to explore Yellowstone by bicycle.

On November 11, I set out to bike from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, leaving on a chilly morning after sunrise to give myself as much time as possible to explore the geyser basins along the way and to stop at some of the turnouts that are just too easy to pass by when you are in a car. It’s hard to explain, but it’s easier to enjoy the scene when you’re not trying to race from one end of the park to the other at 45 miles per hour. Being on a bike makes you feel smaller, and the fact that you’re not protected by the shell of a car makes the wilderness feel closer. Scenes that you would normally drive right by on your way to the next geyser basin or trailhead become remarkable.

So for the 14 miles between West Yellowstone and Madison Junction, I savored the scenes from the pullouts. I took the time to bike along Riverside Drive. I enjoyed the view of Mount Holmes to the north and the glint of sunlight off the fire lookout. I saw buffalo roaming and elk crossing the Madison River. The road became much more than just a basic route into the park.

After a quick pause at Madison Junction (where a building with restrooms, a water fountain and snack machines remained open for anyone needing a pit stop), I started the 16-mile ride to Old Faithful, enjoying the ride along Firehole Canyon Road and the scenes of the geyser basins that dot the landscape. Finally I arrived at Old Faithful. Just minutes after I pulled in, Old Faithful began to erupt. I sat on the benches and realized that I was the only person watching. I had seen a few workers in the parking lot in front of the Old Faithful Inn a few minutes earlier (they could have been working on a major geological survey that was under way, or could have been park or concessionaire employees), but they were nowhere to be found. An eruption of Old Faithful was mine, and mine alone. I don’t know if I’ll have Old Faithful all to myself ever again.

I certainly didn’t that day; shortly after the eruption finished, more bikers started trickling in, with many asking me if I knew when the next one would be. I was glad to realize that others were out taking advantage of a day with temperatures in the 50s and, at times, not a cloud in the sky. I just had gotten an earlier start.

The next day, I returned to Madison Junction, then made the climb up Gibbon River Canyon to Norris Geyser Basin, relishing the views of Beryl Spring, Gibbon Falls and a bald eagle along the 14-mile segment. When I finally arrived at Norris, I was again surprised to find that there was no one in sight (there was one truck in the parking lot). As far as I knew, I had one of Yellowstone’s most famous geyser basins to myself. Just like the day before, another group of bicyclists arrived a few minutes after I did, having biked south from Mammoth Hot Springs.

I biked 130 miles over those two days. Although the early sunsets didn’t allow for a lot of exploration, I did have enough time for some side trips. I biked the Firehole Lake Drive, saw Grand Prismatic Spring and Sapphire Pool, biked to Morning Glory Pool, walked the boardwalk at Terrace Spring, hiked the Artists Paintpots Trail, and walked the Porcelain Basin boardwalk and to Steamboat Geyser at Norris.

Yellowstone amazes me every time I visit, and this trip was no exception. The feeling of traveling through the park without a car separating me from the wilderness was thrilling. Although it might be tough to make this trip this year because snow has finally fallen, keep an eye on the weather next spring, when there may be another opportunity to see Yellowstone by bicycle.

A few notes:

  • There are virtually no services available within Yellowstone after the roads close. Make sure to pack everything you need and check with the National Park Service to find out which roads are open.
  • Not all roads are technically open to bicyclists. Check the Yellowstone Web site.
  • Unfortunately, the road from Madison Junction to Old Faithful typically is not open to bicyclists in the spring.
  • A little elevation change can make a big difference. At Norris, which is about 900 feet higher than West Yellowstone, the breeze felt much more biting than at lower elevations.
  • Although the roads are closed to the general public, there will still be some traffic from park rangers, concessionaires, and people working on facility maintenance.

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