A Motorcycle Trip to Pensacola

Dispatch 2

Somers, MT to Denver, CO

May 8-11, 2007


Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park.  The park's premier mountains in the background.

I spent May 8 with my cousin Dianne and her husband, Dick, exploring the Flathead Valley and Glacier Park.  I was familiar with this spectacular area from the days when we had a Townhouse in Columbia Falls. 

The Flathead Valley is dramatically interspersed between the steeply rising Swan Mountains on the east, the Whitefish range to the north, which boasts the Big Mountain Ski Resort, the Bitterroot Mountains to the west, and the huge Flathead Lake to the south.

What I was not prepared to see was the aggressive construction going on in the valley.  Not since we vacationed in Ft. Meyers, Florida, a couple of years ago have I seen whole sections of land being chewed up for strip malls and vast housing settlements.  In an area that was mostly peaceful horse farms and agriculture, it is hard to see "progress" happen so fast.

Glacier Park was mostly the same and we sat for perhaps half an hour at  Lake McDonald and watched the awesome mountains of Glacier reflected in its still surface.  It was then time for dinner, so we went to the Back Room Cafe in Columbia Falls for their killer BBQ. 

Wednesday morning, May 9, I said goodbye to Dick and Dianne and headed south on Hwy 93 along the Flathead lake.  The lake is large, and like the valley, enjoys the drama of the Swan Mountains lining its east side.  It was nearly an hour of riding at highway speed before I left the lake behind in Polson, Mt. 

South of the lake I rode through vast wetlands, most of which lie in a Blackfoot reservation.  Then I descended through canyon lands and joined  Fwy 90 for the short eastbound ride through Missoula, MTMissoula is home of University of Montana, and I could see the campus from the elevated Fwy 90 as it climbs eastbound up the Missoula river valley.  Much of Missoula is old brick construction and I find that its downtown has definite charm.

The Swan Mountains south of Flathead Lake on the way to Missoula.


Sixty miles east of Missoula, I detoured off of Fwy 90 onto Hwy 12 to Helena, Mt.  I had seen Helena from the air, but never been there.  The road to Helena was a spectacular motorcycle road, with sweeping curves between irregular mountains, and scattered with picturesque horse farms.  Helena itself, the state capital, was a bit under whelming.  It seemed largely newish commercial and I did not catch the charm that I feel in many other Montana towns. 

I rejoined Fwy 90 south of Helena, and as I approached Bozeman, I could see the mountainous plateau of Yellowstone National Park about 50 miles to my right.  It was my destination for the night, but it was covered in thunderstorms and I could see wispy virga coming from the bottom of the clouds, a sure sign of rain and gusty winds.  Hwy 20 to West Yellowstone leaves Fwy 90 at Borger, Mt, so I pulled into a Harley dealership there and asked some riders what they thought conditions were in the park.  Their answers provided no definitive help, so I put the rain liner in my riding pants, put on my electric vest, and decided that I was there and I should try it. 

The 40 miles up to West Yellostone followed the Galatin River, a famous fly fishing river. I wound up heavily wooded terrain to the 6,000' plateau on which  Yellowstone sits.  I got only sprinkles of rain, but the temperatures definitely dropped with altitude.  I was cruising one wooded stretch by the river when suddenly a deer shot out of the woods to my left, straining to get across the road in front of me.  It had misjudged, and I was able to swerve a tiny bit right, and he passed just behind the bike.  I had heard of this happening, but it was my first experience while riding.

I paid my admission to the park and started the 14 mile ride to the nearest campground.  For perhaps the first 7 miles I was looking at a part of the park which had been burned by the massive forest fire of about six years ago.  The new growth was about 20' high, but these smallish trees did provide sweeping vistas across vast areas of the park.


A farm near Helena, Montana.


Highway 12 approaching Helena, MT.

I then entered meadowland, and the road followed a river.  Immediately, I was looking at large herds of elk grazing in the grass, and then groups of  Bison, eating grass by the river or standing in the water.  I came around a curve and there were three bison walking down the road towards me.  Several cars were stopped to let them by.  I could see that it was going to be close, so I shut off my engine and sat motionless on the bike.  One of the bison kept walking towards me, eyeing me, and as I forced myself to stay motionless, he walked past me three feet away.  That night, in the restroom of the campground, I was happy to see a poster describing that many tourists get gored by bison every year, "they are wild animals, so keep your distance."

It was just starting to sprinkle, when I pitched my tent, and it was raining  hard as I finished.  It is a new tent, and I had just sealed the seams before leaving home, so I was happy to see that it only leaked in one corner of the tent.  I moved my sleeping bag to the other corner.  It rained off and on all night, and at 6,500' elevation, the temperature was somewhere in the low 30s.  I won't say that I was toasty, but in my 26 degree rated sleeping bag, my riding jacket over my feet, and a wool sweater on, I did manage to get some sleep.

Elk and Bison in Yellowstone Park.  Forest fire damage is visible on the mountain. 

Bison grazing by the Galatin River.  New growth trees are visible in the background.


I shut off the motorcycle and three bison passed immediately beside me.




The morning brought blue sky, and while I let my tent dry , I explored the park a bit.  Finally I packed up damp camping gear and loaded the bike.  Hwy 287, which I was hoping to take south out of the park, was still closed for snow, so I exited west, back onto Hwy 20, and took the 60 mile ride south to Ashton, Idaho.  It was a steady descent through trees along a great looking fishing river, and it was only just before getting to Ashton that the trees thinned out and I was in the vast Pocatello farming valley.  I turned east onto Hwy 31/37 in Ashton and rode a surprisingly wonderful motorcycle rode which rolled up and down and swept back and forth through rich farmland.  About the only traffic was the occasional truck, piled high with famed Idaho potatos. 
The ride took me south along the western side of the jagged Grand Teton mountains, and then headed east over a pass in the Tetons to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  This pass was incredibly steep, with 6 degree climbs to the summit and a stretch of 10 degrees down into Jackson Hole


Looking at the western side of the Grand Tetons 

from just outside of Ashton, Idaho.  This is potato country.

I had seen Jackson from the air, heard about it all my life, and I was anxious to see this sportsman's' paradise.  Saw it I did.  Before I hit the valley, there were mountain bikers on trails to my right, then rafters, white water kayakers, and rock climbers clearly being schooled in the rudiments of bouldering.  Virtually every SUV had a Tule rack for some kind of sporting endevour.  In the busy traffic of the neuvo quaint downtown, road bikers in correct spandex attire vied for room with the cars.  And the cars were mostly European or sported names like Lexus.  The homes on the hills were each unique, fitted with huge windows and large beams, and blended into the mountains with architectural precision to the degree that a huge, multi-million dollar home can blend.  It was keeping up with the Jones' on steroids, and I was actually relieved to move north to the relative solitude of Grand Teton National Park
I traveled north, not only to get full view of the Tetons, which are certainly some of the most striking mountains in the U.S., but to finally hook up with Hwy 287.  I wanted to travel this road because over the years, when I flew over a particularly scenic spot, I would jot down its Lat/Long as a place I wanted to visit at some point in the future.  Hwy 287 got logged at several places along its great north/south length.

Just north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, geese wander in a meadow below the Tetons.


Looking at the mountains from Grand Teton National Park.

I met Hwy 287 south of Yellowstone, and it headed me east, climbing gently through wonderful meadows, rolling mountains and pine forest, towards the continental divide.  Soon the patches of snow became huge snow fields, and I was not making good time because I had to stop and photograph the vistas at regular intervals.  The road steepened and eventually a sign marked the Continental Divide at 9650'.  At this spot, a cup of water poured would end half in the Pacific Ocean and half in the Gulf of Mexico. 
Then began a long steady descent.  At first it was still forest, but soon it was evident that the eastern side of the Rockies is dryer, and the soil turned from deep brown to red.  I stopped for lunch in the town of Dubois, and here was cowboy country, with cattle pens scattered through the small town and pickup trucks equipped for ranching. 
Past Dubois, Hwy 287 turned south and followed the eastern side of the Rockies all the way to Denver.  For 400 miles I rode at an elevation of about 6,000'.  The scenery featured mostly vast sage range land with the Rockies to the west and rolling foothills as far as the eye could see going off to the east.  Occasionally I would enter canyon lands with deep red cliffs, much like a miniature Grand Canyon, but then I would be back onto the plateau of sage and grass.

The Continental Divide, Highway 287.


East of the Rockies, Wyoming immediately became dry.  Highway 287 just east of Dubois.

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