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The Great Divide Ride - Part 3, Yellowstone, Wyoming & Colorado

20 August 2019

Words and Images Sasha Smith

My Yellowstone National Park detour off the Great Divide ended up being a great decision. Geothermal wonders, big wild creatures, and a landscape that felt like a pterodactyl would swoop down from the sky at any moment. On my bike, I would weave in and out of a ‘bear-jams’ – i.e. gridlock caused by humans crawling past and pointing cameras at some massive beast that had decided to wander close to the road. I could also rock up at any campsite whereas the RVs queued at 6am to nab the last remaining vehicle sites. While the natural sights were amazing, the giant nature theme park feel was something completely new and foreign to me. Yellowstone is a uniquely American experience.

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (source: Adventurecycling.org)

The Grand Prismatic Spring, not so crazy if you’ve seen the geothermal attractions in the central North Island.

Massive nonchalant bison walking down the middle of the road with not a care for the traffic jam behind him.

Geothermal landscapes and an incoming thunderstorm.

A Yellowstone ‘walk-in’ campsite (a bit of deceptive photo – lots of big RVs were behind me).

After Yellowstone I continued into the immediately adjacent Grand Teton National Park. The Grand Teton mountains were a jaw-dropping sight as I dropped over the saddle from Yellowstone. Almost as jaw-dropping was the sight of plentiful fresh fruit and veges in the supermarket – I was so sick of pre-packaged and expensive tourist food after four days in Yellowstone.

It’s not easy to stick to the path when you keep getting distracted by those mountains.

I spent a couple of days resting at Jackson Hole in the Grand Teton National Park, including a day-walk into the mountains where I saw a massive moose having a munch just off the side of the trail.

Wyoming is the second least densely populated state in the USA (after Alaska). It is also a tax haven state, so many of the richest Americans flock to Jackson Hole; the small town is the most economically unequal metro area in the USA. Mingling in the fresh mountain air is the smell of money. A lot of it. The Tetons are incredibly beautiful, but landscapes are a product of human perception of nature…and these mountains do look rather expensive.

I stayed with a Warmshowers host who, as a well-regarded engineer slash planner, had a big role in the re-development of Jackson Hole ski village. It was all very lovely and pleasant with people hanging out and mingling and enjoying a free summer gig. I wonder how many millionaires are in this photo. Not long after Grand Teton, the scenery changed from imposing mountains to the brown desert open landscape that is more typical of Wyoming. The van-lifers and flash expensive family movers changed to beaten up farmers’ utes covered in a coating of Wyoming dust.

The heat was quite tough in Wyoming, with no water top ups and very few trees for a rest in the shade. Friendly road workers would offer bottles of water.

A bit more Wyoming-like. As I unpacked my tent at this campsite, a truck drove past me a couple of times. A slightly crazy old man got out and started lecturing me… on Trump… he (the lecturer, not Trump) was harmless but I made my excuses and got out of there pretty quick.

The Great Divide Basin desert was the next big feature after the National Parks. I knew there was only one water source for two days, which was nothing compared to the Continental Divide walkers I met who would carry water for six days, but it still made me nervous. Plus I had some horribly hot and windy, lonely, and dry ride pictured in my head.

Before embarking on the desert crossing, I spent the night at Wild Bill’s BnB in the tiny town of Atlantic City just on the edge of the Basin. This is another place I recommend staying – great local hospitality and Bill provides an interesting insight into rural Wyoming life. Most Great Divide riders and Continental Divide walkers stay here. Despite all the same old stories they must hear, Bill and Camilla were still kind enough to ask about my my journey so far, including the things I missed (fresh food being one of them). In the morning, Camille surprised me with a packed lunch of fresh fruit, home baking and PB+Jam sandwiches for the desert ride ahead. I don’t think all travelers get this treatment, I think Camilla just felt a motherly pity for me as a solo female cycle tourist.

At the Atlantic City bar.

Last stop before the Great Divide Basin.

My fear soon disappeared as I started to pedal, marvelling at the vastness of the moody landscape. But at the end of the first day, the wind picked up, as predicted. I put my head down and pedalled hard into the headwind, only to overshoot my campsite and one water source. I plonked down in the middle of the road and pulled out my map to figure out where I’d gone wrong. I’d only seen a few vehicles all day, so it was lucky that a farmer drove by at the right moment and pointed me back toward the reservoir. I pitched my tent in the wild wind and filtered some water. And then all of a sudden the wind disappeared and it became dead calm. I spent a couple of hours enjoying the complete solitude, watching lightning storms crackling over the seemingly never-ending plains. I woke up in the morning and took my time to break camp before pedalling onto the longest straightest road I’d seen in my life.

Wyoming Horned Toad

Just keep pedalling

On Day 1 across the basin I came over the brow of a hill to this weird sight of oil drills and cattle.

Camping by the reservoir

One of the “HOLY SH**!” moments in the Great Divide Basin.

Mineral X road on day 2 across the Basin

Not long after the Great Divide Basin, I crossed the border from Wyoming and into Colorado. The change in the vibe was noticeable – the relaxed and welcoming feel of Montana and Wyoming gave way to a more intense and fast-paced energy. Vehicles were impatient to get past me, most people on their way to chase adventure in the mountains, looking out their mini rat race escape. Instead of big flat landscapes and cattle, I was surrounded once again surrounded by mountains. In the ski resort town of Breckenridge I stayed with some friends and rested for a few days. At 2500m, the altitude and days of calorie deficiency messed with me: I’d get crazy hungry very suddenly, bypassing the hangry stage and straight into a mild panic. I’d make a mad dash to the supermarket, a short trip which would leave me out of breath. And because the world is such a small place, I ended up hanging out with my friend Brian from Takaka who I had no idea was also in Colorado. Brian had attempted a go at the super tough Colorado Trail multi-day self-supported MTB race, but got beaten by injury, so was hanging out in Breckenridge.

Continuing through Colorado, I passed through another couple of ski-towns, before passing through some smaller mountain villages, including the little town of Del Norte. Del Norte was my last stop before my biggest climb, highest point and final day on the Great Divide.

Radium Hot Springs by the Colorado River.

Something to make a cycle tourist smile when battling a ferocious headwind.

I found a Great Divide map on the side of the road, and picked it up. In the next town, I met Dave who was missing his map. We rode together for a few days until I peeled off the Divide and into Durango.

The highest point on the Great Divide route is Indiana Pass at 3600m.

I was very lucky to have great friends, Sarah and Dylan, greet me in Durango at the end of the ride. I spent two weeks in their home, soaking in the mountain town vibe, being shown some amazing Colorado mtbing, and eating copious amounts of good Mexican food. In Durango I experienced an inclusiveness and friendliness, and I instantly felt welcome, even though my kiwi accent was a source of great laughter for the locals - “say ‘lobster’ for us again!?”. Even though the town is home to some mountain bike legends, Durango has a unique one-big-happy-mountain-biking-family vibe, with no judgement made on past racing achievements or the bike you ride. Just for a bit of name-dropping, I ended up going riding with the USA national XC champ Howard Grotts without even realising it at the time, and Sarah introduced me to Ned Overend in the bakery on the way home from one of our rides.

Durango bike gang!

Day trip in Silverton, Colorado - “We’re going over the other side of that” (That slope has also been used to set former downhill world ski speed records).

Hard not to be happy up in these mountains at over 4000m altitude, even after a 3 hour hike-a-bike. Thanks to Sarah for the loan of the demo-bike! Photo: Grady James (@grady_j)

Having a rest before the final push to the top. Photo: @grady_j

I’ve had lots of amazing mountain bike adventures, and I’ve never been able to pick a favourite. However this Colorado hike-a-bike easily nabbed the title of “best ever mountain bike ride” for me, and deserved the “epic” description that is often over-used. Best of all I got to share the experience with friends old and new, after 10 weeks of solo adventure. Photo: @grady_j

The plan was always to finish here in Durango, so I didn’t complete the rest of the Great Divide route through New Mexico to the Mexican border. That’ll always be waiting there for the next adventure…

Big thank you to Uriel and Jeff Carlson, Sarah Sturm and Dylan Stucki for your Colorado hospitality, the new friends I made along the way, friends and family back home for when things got a bit tough, and of course to the good crew at Ground Effect!

To read The Great Divide Ride - Part 1, Canada, click here, or to read The Great Divide Ride - Part 2, Montana, click here