They Told Us Not To Ride Bikes in Yellowstone National Park – Morgan Taylor

Words and photos by Morgan Taylor.

They told us not to ride bikes in Yellowstone National Park. Why? Mostly the roads: little to no shoulder and overrun by tourists in RVs. That’s enough to spur some questions for a potential traveler, and with a quick bit of research, you’ll find the camping situation looks dire – especially from a cyclist’s perspective. Where can you even buy food that isn’t in an overpriced restaurant? And what’s there to see beyond geysers and animals, anyway? Maybe they were right.

After our incredible experience over the preceding few weeks in Montana, you might think that we’d take the advice. After all, the message was coming not only from the official Yellowstone website but from other bike travelers, people whose opinions we trusted. Stick to the Divide Route. Ride gravel. Avoid tourists. But, as I noted in that story, we didn’t set out strictly to ride the Divide or to ride gravel at all and we found that, especially in Montana, genuine human interaction made our experience of bike touring so rich.

The beginning of an amazing stretch as we headed upriver toward the park boundary.

Follow Your Nose

We went into Yellowstone really not knowing what to expect. Old Faithful and herds of bison, right? We knew there had to be more but the theme of this trip has been following our noses and locals’ recommendations. We didn’t do a ton of research because we figured simply going would be worth it. But in the national parks, this looked like it might be problematic.

At Yellowstone’s North Entrance gate, the ranger we bought our parks pass from didn’t even know if there was bike camping available at Mammoth. Considering we were looking at a thousand feet of climbing just to get to the visitor’s center, this was problematic. We celebrated passing the park boundary by swimming in the Gardner River, and made our way up – late in the day, as was the only option.

#natureismetal

The Actual Camping Situation

From afar and now from in the park, we weren’t sure if our “follow your nose” approach to bike camping would work in the national parks. Dispersed camping isn’t really an option; backcountry camping requires permits, and that’s focused on areas where bikes aren’t allowed. We were still Canadians trying our best not to do the wrong thing in the land of the free. Our fallback option – which we were truly comfortable with – was to find some people with an RV who weren’t using their tent pad.

Arriving at Mammoth in the late afternoon, we were relieved to find extremely helpful volunteers at the parks-run campground – which turned out to be full, obviously, but had a “hiker biker” site that hadn’t yet been given away. We gladly paid five bucks apiece for a tent pad and a picnic table, drinkable water, flush toilets, and a bear bin all to ourselves.

We set up camp and headed up to Mammoth Hot Springs to check out the thermal features before sundown, and talked with some really helpful rangers at the visitor’s center. They couldn’t say for sure what the walk-in camping looked like at the privately-operated campgrounds, but they were certain that it existed and we’d be accommodated.

...free to lick all the tents they wanted.

The Roads

The entire modern Yellowstone experience is catered around car travel and RV camping. The Yellowstone website is nothing but cautionary about riding bikes in the park, and looking at it now, it’s obviously written to prevent families from expecting that they can ride around on the park roads. Touring cyclists are such a miniscule part of the park’s overall scope that they simply haven’t made the effort to make the information we need – specific road info, camping, and food – easily available.

Honestly, we had two negative experiences with vehicles, both of which within 5 miles of a park entrance gate. The first, within minutes of our entering the park, was an RV that turned into a pull-out a bit close for comfort. The second was a driver who was mad that I was taking the lane at 35 mph on the descent to the south exit in a 45 mph zone. Yes, there were loud pickup trucks and motorcycles, but those are everywhere, not just in parks – and the usual speed limit of 35 mph and actual enforcement by rangers really keeps traffic in check.

Racing back down to camp in time to make dinner in the fading light.

The rangers at the Mammoth visitor’s center were also super helpful in explaining the park’s two main loops and the distances between services. Yellowstone has been a national park since 1872 – well before cars became a thing. The distance between each main center is about 20 miles – apparently about how far a pack horse can travel in a day. Once we had this information, things really started to make sense.

With the rangers’ help we plotted out a longer route than we’d initially intended, looking at four nights in the park, going two-to-three pack horse legs each day. We would swing east the next day to climb the highest pass in the park at 8859 feet, en route to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Switchbacks.

The road surfaces themselves were quite good. If you look at a map of Yellowstone you’ll see two loops within the park, and more of the roads on the lower loop have been improved with wider shoulders. Even on the yet-to-be-widended sections we rarely had a complaint. Yes, sometimes we had to ride the white line. But we have to do that on our own highways at home too. Drivers were very respectful, mostly waiting longer than we’d even think necessary for a safe place to pass.

We also noticed that a lot of people tow a car in with their RV, park the rig at the campground, and tour the park in the car. So during the day there aren’t as many RVs on the road as you might expect. Anywhere near an attraction (or an animal) and cars are creating their own traffic jam that you can ride right past, leading us to come up with our own Yellowstone bumper sticker: “If you had a bike, you’d be there by now.”

The shoulder came and went on the multi-hour climb and around this point we began to feel the effects of the elevation.

What About Food?

As it turns out, there were reasonably stocked grocery sections at most of the gift shops. I’m not talking a huge selection, but a passable level of food as long as you know how to cook. Milk, eggs, some vegetables, bread products, some canned stuff, and it wasn’t really more expensive than outside the park – $1.29 six-packs of eggs were as expensive as we saw. It’s possible we spent more money on ice cream than actual food, considering a number of families shared meals with us – though one traveler who was happy to hear our stories insisted on buying us ice cream, so maybe it’s a wash.

Seriously, though, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is a thing.

Just Go

Despite the lack of positive and bike-friendly information out there on the web, we left Yellowstone really happy we’d made the effort. There is truly something special about being in a national park. Sure, we had our challenges. Times when we didn’t have enough water, when the wind was bad, or when didn’t eat soon enough. There are tourist traps, but then sometimes you just want a double scoop of ice cream, right?

In Yellowstone we found incredible natural wonders, traveled roads that were in better shape than we’d been led to believe, and experienced the kindness of strangers every single day. I don’t care what they say. Go there, bring a positive attitude, see other travelers not as a nuisance but as an opportunity to connect, and ride straight past the traffic. The reward is worth it.

That's it, I never need to see another thermal feature, this is the one. So damn good.

____

If you’re interested in hearing more about Morgan and Stephanie’s experience in Yellowstone, focusing on the practical lessons learned about routing and camping in the park, they are presenting at the first of Swift Industries’ 2017 Stoked Spoke Adventure Series in Seattle on January 18th.

Follow Morgan and Stephanie on Instagram at Found in the Mountains and see their routes on Strava.

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  • Kerry Nordstrom

    Wait, $840 a person to camp? Did I read that correctly? Also, Stephanie’s tan lines are cracking me up!

    • The decimal didn’t show up properly in the caption, but it was in there. Fixed with words, just for you Kerry.

  • Benjamin Reynolds

    Amazing photos, I took a road trip there a few years ago and left the bikes at home thinking there would be no where to ride. After reading your write up, I could have certainly found some roads. However, I don’t think my wife would have been too happy. She definitely falls into the group of cyclist the park makes some efforts to keep off the roads.

    • There are a few car-free or car-lite options that your wife might be into, such as that gravel trail around the back side of the Grand Prismatic. If you brought your car and drove your bikes to the trailheads, it could be a great way to see Yellowstone from a different viewpoint. And if you like (unloaded) solo road riding, there are definitely a few rad loops and out-and-backs to be smashed.

  • breed007

    Great piece and I’m glad that worked out for you. The people in national parks can be annoying but most of them are there for the right reasons and fun to be around. And as unsightly and annoying as the tourist traps are, they tend to keep the ‘wrong kind of people’ at bay. I totally want to do this now.

    • Good point, we never worried about our bikes in the park at all, though we did lock them when we weren’t in sight of them.

  • bicyclecrumbs

    Where did you get that WTB nano decal on the purple mug?

    • I scored a bit of it from Scott at Porcelain Rocket when we visited his shop. It originally went on the inside of the cuben fiber bags on the Soulcraft in WTB’s booth at Interbike 2014. Seemed all too appropriate once we landed on the Nanos for the trip!

    • ha ha, i had to go back and look

      • OK, OK, but did you read it as “deckle” or “deecal”? Inquiring Canadians want to know.

  • hans

    great stuff Morgan and Stephanie!

    • Thanks Hans! Soon enough this story will make its way to LA…

  • Angelo Medina

    This photoset is sooo good. But that coyote photo; essential.

  • Whitney Ford-Terry

    I’m glad you didn’t listen to them – myself included ;)
    Visiting the park as often as I have for work over the last few years has left me a bit jaded and anti-(tourist)social. I’m stoked you had such a positive experience and were able to provide a visible alternative to folks traveling in the park. Bike travel is the best. Y’all are the best.

    Also, the last time I cycled through Mammoth Falls I tuned a blind corner into a herd of buffalo.
    It was one of the most terrifyingly majestic experiences of my ‘lil life.

    A bit of info on Cycling in Yellowstone from the NPS, albeit cautionary at times is still helpful and provides a list of non-vehicle roads and maps: Bicycling in Yellowstone

    • I think you’re right about the jaded local perspective. When you live close to an incredible attraction, that attracts tourists to your neck of the woods, and you’ve seen it once or twice or more, you tend to be more selective about when you go. And with some attractions, you see it a couple times and you’re good.

      For example, we live near a suspension bridge that hangs 150 feet over a canyon in the BC rainforest. This particular spot is so special to us that we choose to live near it so we can walk there. It’s really nice in to have it to yourself, in all kinds of weather – especially when it’s sheeting rain like it does all winter here. But travelers are not so lucky. They want to see the bridge. And they should. Even when hundreds of others are there too.

      The official “Bicycling in Yellowstone” link was seriously discouraging when we were trying to find out about the park. It doesn’t say a single thing about the hiker-biker sites that every campground has. It doesn’t say “the volunteers here will make sure you have a place to put your tent”. It doesn’t have any cycling-specific information about routes other than the feeling that you shouldn’t be doing it. 1.5 to 5 miles here and there does not a cycling infrastructure make, but touring cyclists don’t need that – only to feel like we are welcome.

      We got a map from the volunteers at the Mammoth campground that we never saw again. It had elevations that weren’t listed on the main map, with elevation profiles for a few routes (though not for all the roads in the park). I haven’t been able to find it online, which means I should dig it up and take a photo of it.

  • Don’t ride bikes in Yellowstone,pfft! I was there this summer and saw tons of people riding. Some touring others out for what looked like full blown training rides..

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Kawika Samson

    Epic!

  • Adam Sklar

    Hey I thought I told you kids not to go in there! Also Yellowstone looks P. Cool.

  • Jason Marshall

    Great write-up and amazing photos Morgan! I rode through Yellowstone last summer during the Trans-Am bike race. I will say that the roads are a bit narrow. Especially at 2am, I found myself pulling off the road when a car was approaching (and I have very thick-skin). However you guys have a great attitude. To support this: I stopped at a store to buy some food. When I got to the register the woman behind the counter informed me that the food was already paid for by an anonymous supporter. That almost made me cry :)

    • Nice to hear a different perspective. If you rode the TransAm route you barely scratched the surface – and I could see things being dicey at night, as I suspect fewer people adhere to the speed limits with nothing to gawk at. But you sure are right about the people… we can’t wait to go back to Montana and Wyoming.

  • Don Ald

    awesome awesome awesome and those tan lines…

  • FireUrEngine

    nice adventure! Great photos!

  • Andrew Wade

    With that kind of attitude and a riding partner you’re destined to have a great time. Excellent photos and write-up. Thanks for adding captions to the photos. It makes clicking through them like watching an old fashioned silent film. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c68279137762b76044a54b784b62bde01db0cb7063864f2de0f933aeda0c24f9.png

  • Angela

    I biked almost all the roads the tourists drive in Yellowstone this summer (skipped the part with construction). Pretty much threw a pack on my back and saw the same sites as if I had been driving but over four days. I thought it totally worth it. I slept in my truck and did out and backs each day. The mileage each day day was around 45-65 miles but I was comfortable with that. I knew driving my big truck would be a pain, but I like that it forces me to ride more.

    • Cool! I think that’s the most realistic way that people will visit the park by bike. Flying to either Bozeman or Jackson leaves you pretty far out of the park itself, but driving to Wyoming is within reach for many people in the west. Glad to hear you had a good go of it!

  • Jonathan McCurdy

    Honestly, a lot of the route along the PCH, certainly a bicycle tour worth doing, has little to no shoulders and lots of traffic. I don’t really consider that to be a deterrent anymore (of course roads with less traffic is always preferable, I don’t let it stop me!)

    • Having ridden from SF to LA a couple weeks after going through Yellowstone, we were definitely way less stoked on the overall traffic situation and shoulders on PCH. Higher speed limits and less respectful passing for sure. I’d definitely go bike touring in Yellowstone again, but I’m tempted to say I would not need to ride PCH on a loaded bike again.

  • Daniel Fleming

    With Canada celebrating our 150th this year and all the national parks being free, maybe the answer to visiting them is by bike! You’ve got my trip planning brain ticking away now… Great story and photos as usual.

    • We’re also seeing what we can line up for the Canadian National Parks this year!

  • Jameson

    Looks like there’s panels, but did Stephanie knit that cap in #83. Really cool design.

    • The cap is from Tracko and you might just get your hands on one by contacting the folks at Golden Saddle Cyclery.

      We’re already scheming on our next trip to Yellowstone. It will probably involve driving in and setting up camp, then doing day rides.

  • Chris Fogler

    Do you happen to have non Stava gpx files of your route? Looking to ride the divide this summer but not strictly committed to the route and this look like an awesome extension!

    • Shoot me an email morgan at the radavist and I’ll see what I can do about sending you some GPX files. Might actually be easier for me to draw it up in Ride with GPS. Either way, shoot me an email, we’ll get you sorted!

  • Ty

    Were you ever turned away from a campground because it was full? I’m doing Yellowstone & Grand Teton next month and into July.

    • We went in concerned about the possibility of being turned away because the existing literature seemed to indicate that, but the reality on the ground was that the campground hosts were very accommodating and we got the impression they’d always find room for cyclists. I mean really, a tent doesn’t take up much space, and many RVers don’t even use their tent pads. People are nice, it’ll all work out.

      The other point worth noting is the “hiker biker” areas were often large, walk-in only, and yet we only had company on a few occasions. Jenny Lake in Grand Teton was an exception because people seemed to park in the parking lot and “hike” the quarter mile in. So a good number of tent pads at that spot were claimed by non-human-powered campers. We still met some really nice people there, though.

      • Ty

        Thanks for the reply Morgan. Oddly enough Jenny Lake is the only campground I’ve had any issues with in my planning. The other campgrounds I’ve contacted, Signal Mountain and Madison to name a few, said they’d never turn away cyclist when the campground was full. The host at Jenny Lake was very rude to me and suggest I not bike through Grand Teton because I won’t be welcome if they’re full (her words). Jenny Lake is only 10 miles from Signal Mountain so I plan to leave at first light and be at Jenny Lake ASAP. It’s an hour ride. I wasn’t aware of the parking lot 1/4′ mile away. That’s BS that car campers take up the hiker/biker spots. Totally unfair. They should ban parking over night there. Your post is reassuring though and takes some anxiety away. I appreciate it. If you want to see my route look at my Instagram; Portland_2_Portland – It’s the post I made today.

        • You know what… I wonder if the camp hosts at Jenny Lake are the same as when we were there last year. I won’t go into too many details but let’s just say we felt like a burden to them. And the price was higher than any in Yellowstone at $11 per person. The whole place was being torn apart and renovated at the time, so we also couldn’t directly access the lake.

          Jenny Lake is one of the car camping spots that has a lineup at 6am. Highly sought after due to its easy access to the canyon hikes on the other side of the lake… though from our perspective as cyclists, not as secluded or inviting, and not much to do that didn’t involve leaving our bikes behind. If you do want to hike in the Tetons, which is certainly worth the effort, I’d see about sweet talking the rangers at the visitor’s centre to let you leave your gear somewhere.

          Madison was the most inviting of all… first they showed us around the camp spot which was behind their office, then they told us that cyclists get free coffee and cookies in the morning – which actually just means they’ve got a pot of coffee on and you’re welcome to pop in the back door and grab some.

          Mammoth was our first night in the park, and we shared the hiker biker site with a family in a car as we showed up in the early evening (big climb out of Gardiner) and they wanted to accommodate these people. Turned out said family wanted to cook us some eggs and potatoes in the morning. Canyon campground was huge, but the hiker biker spot was super rad, and we had it all to ourselves. Would absolutely go back. Lewis Lake was also quite nice, not serviced, more secluded feeling.

          Oh – and do the Junior Ranger program in both parks! Lots to learn, and you get a patch or a pin.

          • Ty

            I replied. Did you get it? I don’t see it in here….?

          • Can’t see anything under mone either…

          • Ty

            Weird. I know the host at Madison and Bridge Bay so we’ll be camping behind their RVs for free. I don’t plan to do much if any hiking while I’m there. I don’t carry a lock with me while I’m on tour. Forget what else I said in my reply…..