The riders are tired. It’s been almost a week, and they’ve ridden hundreds of miles. Some have put in extra miles, while some have added hikes or other post-ride activities. Almost all have camped in tents, swapped stories over beers, and gotten closer to nature. Each rider has seen wildlife that they have probably never encountered before and gazed at raging rivers and a mountain landscape so picturesque it seems like a painting has come to life. All have had the time of their lives and are likely planning a return trip.
They’ve seen most of it from the seat of their bicycle, thanks to Cycle Greater Yellowstone.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition dreamt up Cycle Greater Yellowstone back in 2011, with the first official 7-day ride taking place in 2013. The mission was simple: to show people what they were missing. The area outside of Yellowstone National Park may not be protected as a national park, but it is arguably one of the last great wild places in the world. At somewhere between 18,750 and 34,375 square miles (ecosystem boundaries can be tough to determine), the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on the planet. Spanning Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho, elk and grizzlies roam as free as the cyclists who pedal around hoping to catch a glimpse.
Working to Protect the Ecosystem
The coalition is working on several campaigns to protect the "next 4.5 million acres in Greater Yellowstone." Their goal is to permanently protect these special places and the animals that live there, as well as working with a variety of public and private landowners and agencies to safeguard wildlife migration routes between Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies. Cycle Greater Yellowstone raises money towards these efforts, but also gives people the unique opportunity to see for themselves why this land is worth protecting.
And while you could hike and camp throughout the area, it’s best seen on bike. If you tried to hike it, you’d never be able to explore as much in a week, but a bus trip would mean missing the wind in your face and the connection that a cyclist can make with the nature that surrounds him.
"Multi-day cycling tours let us move through the ecosystem, and camping brings them even closer," says Jennifer Drinkwalter, the Cycle Greater Yellowstone Coordinator. “The nights get down to 35 degrees sometimes, or sometimes it’s really hot. They’re closer to the experience.”
Connecting with Nature
Camping is an added bonus, but is also a necessity. You’re not in a well-populated area, and its possible most of the land you’ll ride through has more elk than people per square mile. "There’s simply no way we could get enough hotel accommodations for everyone, there aren’t enough rooms in the towns to accommodate them." says Drinkwalter.
But there are always a few small towns on the route that are worth stopping in. And if you really loathe the idea of camping, there are some hotel options. "Some of the riders will stay in hotels—about a quarter of them—so we have shuttles to the hotels. That’s actually a plus because we sell out the available hotels and that helps really boost the local economy," she adds.
The point of the trip, though, has always been to connect riders with nature and share the importance of preserving it. "The best story I have is my friend Amy—she’s always into her cycling computer, always knows how long she’s gone and how fast," says Drinkwalter. “This year, she forgot her GPS. She wanted to buy a new one, but the bike shop didn’t carry any. She said she needed it for her bike, but I said, ‘Who cares? For six days, you have a route prepared.’ The last day, she came up to me and said, ‘Thanks so much for encouraging me to ride without my GPS. This is the best time I’ve had riding my bike - I stopped and looked around more than ever."
With 22 million acres to explore, it’s not surprising that the route varies each year. From the first Cycle Greater Yellowstone tour back in 2013 through the most recent iteration, no two routes have been the same. Some faces have consistently come back—Drinkwalter says there are a couple riders who’ve returned every year, and more who’ve come back for at least two cycles around different spots adjacent to the park.
"2015 was my favorite," admits Drinkwalter. “That year was the most challenging as far as weather and terrain: The ecosystem really forced us to know what it was all about. We’ll have some of that, like Beartooth Pass, in the route for 2019.”
"2017 was planned along the eclipse, so there were a lot of new riders here just riding because of the eclipse," she explains. "So that was a lot of people who weren’t used to the rigors of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its challenges. People get so used to city amenities, so understanding why a cell phone isn’t getting reception can be tough. Towns don’t have bike shops, and very little cell service. But that’s the great thing: you have new people learning this and getting that experience.”
And ultimately, the eclipse lived up to the hype in Driggs, where they were blanketed by complete darkness. "It was amazing. I didn’t think it could possibly be that cool!" Drinkwalter exclaimed.
A Look Ahead
Cycle Greater Yellowstone could just repeat the same routes year after year - that’s how a normal bike tour works. But while some towns will be revisited, she wants to continue pushing the envelope and finding new pockets of quiet, twisting roads that have yet to be pedaled, with small towns and campgrounds that are begging to be explored. "Every challenge is a welcome challenge," she explains.
That’s what’s made the tour special until now, and a big part of what will keep people coming back year after year. It’s always an adventure—and never the same one twice.
So, what’s next? "Coming up in 2018, you’re at a higher elevation, but you might not feel like you’re doing any major climbs up big passes," Drinkwalter says. “But you’re still at 6,000 feet of elevation, so people get tired. Thermopolis to Dubois is arid, hot and dry, and at elevation. So challenges are everything from staying hydrated to dealing with changing climates and more difficulty riding even when you don’t feel like you’re climbing.”
"In 2018, we also hit Lander and Dubois, which we hit in 2014, and we’ll hit Cody, which we hit in 2015, but the rest is all new," she adds. “So people might have a similar route to a past year at some point, but it’s always a little different. And of course, we want to hit the towns and routes that were really great again.”
Whether you love riding or preserving nature (or both!), Cycle Greater Yellowstone might be just the challenge you’ve been looking for.