Every August since 2013, 350 cyclists have gathered near Yellowstone National Park for the bike ride of their lives. The riders are tackling Cycle Greater Yellowstone, a 350-mile bike tour that doesn’t actually go through the park, but gives you an up-close look at the massive ecosystem that encompasses the area.
"Greater Yellowstone is described as the last large, nearly intact ecosystem in the northern temperate zone of the earth," writes Paul Schullery of the National Park Service. The ecosystem covers between 18,750 and 34,375 square miles of Wyoming, as well as parts of Montana and Idaho. Schullery says that "conflict over management has been controversial, and the area is a flagship site among conservation groups that aggressively promote ecosystem management.” Groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the ride’s founders, work to keep it intact—and to make sure that people are experiencing some of the last great wild places on earth.
"You’re not coming to ride the park. You’re coming to learn about and experience the entire ecosystem by bike—and you can’t have that experience any other way," says Cycle Greater Yellowstone Director Jennifer Drinkwalter. Riders come for a week of pedaling, which often includes 50 to 70 miles a day and one rest day with optional activities. After a long day of riding, they’ll settle in at camp, which is either in a beautiful secluded area (there’s not much out here, after all!) or one of the small Western towns along the route.
The route changes every year because there’s just so much to see. And with both long, flat stretches that meander past thundering rivers and brutally hard climbs up mountain passes, it’s nearly impossible to decide on the "best" route. But one thing is for sure - riding through the ecosystem allows cyclists to experience the grandeur of Yellowstone, soaking in more scenery than a hiker could ever hope to spot in a week of scampering around the trails.
Then there’s the weather, which can change within minutes. "The weather can be wild," says Drinkwalter. "We’ve had 95 degrees and snow… in the same week! It challenges riders—and their ability to pack for everything.”
The scenery is perfect for bike touring, with every day showcasing a different part of the land. Because it’s an ecosystem, it has everything: chilly mountains, lush valleys, gushing rivers, stretches that feel like a desert, and of course, plenty of wildlife. If you’re interested in conservation and have an affinity for cycling, this is the week of your dreams.
"You can show people photos, but dropping them in the middle is huge," says Drinkwalter. "Lots of people go to Yellowstone National Park, but the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is so much bigger. Grizzly bears don’t understand a road sign that says ‘This is the edge of the park.’ Elk migrate in and out of the park. They don’t care about signs. So that’s a huge area that we work to protect.”
Drinkwalter says that the Coalition was aiming for an intimate experience for riders, to give them a chance to get close to the environment and really take it all in. "You see it, you feel it," Drinkwalter explains. "They [riders] feel the weather challenges, they feel the terrain challenges. That’s why we started the bike tour. To bring people to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and help us protect it. And as a human-powered trip, it’s more impactful."
But it’s not just about the pedaling: the friendships formed while crawling up a hill, or cracking open a well-earned cold beer at the campsite before sitting down, riders find their new best friends, soulmates, or just cycling buddies for the next day.
"People come back and I see them looking for each other," says Drinkwalter. "There’s a group from California that has people come every year, and there’s a group from New Jersey that does the same, and when they get there, they start to sync up, start chatting, start riding together. People come without groups too and start riding with the people who’ve been here every year, learning even more about the area. It’s great to watch those friendships develop over the week. You see that happening and it’s just nice."
When asked to explain why someone should do the ride, Drinkwalter falters. After four years, she can hardly process why someone who loves riding even half as much as she does wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to bike tour with a purpose and watch pronghorn graze in fields and moose wander through willows. And so, it takes her a minute before she responds with, "I just don’t think someone could ever forget it."
"There’s just nowhere else where you’ll experience something this magnificent, and this wild."