GDMBR: Helena to the Tetons

Posted on: Monday September 12, 2022 GDMBR Bikepacking

It’s already hot when we try to leave Helena in the morning. The heat sinks into the valley, soaking into the concrete and asphalt. We just need to get out of town, up into the cool pines and everything will be ok.

I don’t feel ok though- that old malaise from too much town time, or maybe something I ate. I never feel particularly good leaving town, but this time is worse than usual. Nausea rises, until I’m gagging on every climb. The whole day is a climb too - up high on Lava Mountain, then down around its shoulders to climb back up again. The trail is rough, and we end up pushing for long miles, trail runners slipping in the loose gravel. We start the descent- just as rough. I’m exhausted. A tree branch reaches across the trail and I bump into it. It’s enough to knock me off balance and down I go. It’s a slow speed fall and nothing hurts, but my confidence is shaken. A kilometre later, I fall again, putting a foot down on loose gravel when the trail is steep. I’m not having a good day. Still, it’s a long downhill to the town of Basin, which lets bikers sleep in the community center. There’s already another biker there when we arrive- the trail is busy.

We pedal under the interstate in the morning, then climb up to the first CDT crossing of the day. We meet a hiker on the downhill- he’s walked out of Butte on the bike trail rather than try and hitch. We stop and chat for a while, then pedal on. Ten minutes later, we meet two bikers going in the opposite direction. They barely say hello. Hiker and biker culture is so different, and I know which one I prefer.

We pedal into Butte in time for a late lunch of pizza and salad. On the way in, a man in a pickup truck yells at us for riding on the road. Steve is upset, but I’m impressed. It took a thousand miles for an irate motorist- most have been lovely. Still, it doesn’t help our opinion of Butte, so we don’t linger after lunch. At least we try to leave quickly: Steve’s rear tyre is flat, and it takes several tries before the tubeless tyre will hold air. We climb away from the city to camp where the CDT crosses the road.

A deer rustles near our campsite for half the night, annoying me into half sleep. I’m groggy and grumpy in the morning. We drop down from the divide to sage brush balds, where we chase cows down the road. We cross under the interstate and I’m intensely grateful it’s a cloudy day, the heat of the last few weeks tempered by the shade and the wind. Trees are scarce down here, but we climb back up towards them on the other side of the valley.

It’s a long, gentle climb up to Fleecer Ridge. We crest the ridge and Steve’s smile is as wide as mine. Smoke fills the valley in front of us but the wind tosses our hair and we can still see for miles. We drop down gently at first, pushing our bikes as we know what’s coming. The trail steepens until it’s near vertical. I stick to the rough ATV track for as long as I can, before I slide too much. Then I detour through the brush to make my own switchbacks down. After losing 500m or so, the trail mellows and we get back on our bikes. We pedal through Wise River where we stop for burgers and beer, then continue on to our campsite for the night.

We climb on smooth pavement, up to high alpine meadows, then drop down to the tiny town of Polaris. We stop in at a store not much bigger than a garden shed for ice cream and soda, then pedal on. The day is wonderfully overcast, and I couldn’t be happier to avoid the heat, especially since we’ve left the trees behind. We make decent time over the scrub to a tiny saloon. They aren’t open yet but they let us buy some face sized cinnamon rolls for dinner. We ride just a few more miles to camp at a cyclist friendly ranch, where a large white dog greets us enthusiastically. We’ve done 100km by 6pm despite stopping twice in town, but today has been easier than many 60k days we’ve done. The trail is flattening, leaving the steep climbs of the north behind.

We’re just 100km from Lima. We leave the ranch in the rain and head up a long slow climb to the pass. The rain stops: everything is exposed and pretty. We bomb down the pass on cruisey gravel, then through a tight canyon. Dark clouds tower over the steep walls and we pedal as fast as we can, racing the storm. We get to town five minutes before rain and wait it out in a steakhouse. Lima is one of the trail towns that is shared by both the GDMBR and the CDT. Hikers mill around. We make friends with Gump and Juniper, who invite us to camp in the RV park with them and share some beers. Gump trades us our Tyvek tent footprint for the silnylon one actually designed for our tent: it doesn’t work with his tent and he’s looking to shed some weight. We pass the night in the glow of neon town lights, heads spinning from beer and good company.

We’re slow to rise in the morning. I’ve had too much fun the night before, so we take our time, getting breakfast and drinking coffee until I feel a little better. Four other cyclists are at the diner, though they don’t say anything to us. I’m starting to give up on making friends with bikepackers: instead we hang out with Juniper and Gump until it’s time to go. The road is bumpy, rocks forming cobblestones and potholes, but the elevation is gentle. We cover 90 kilometers despite starting just before lunchtime. We camp at a lake, where mist already hangs low. The bikepackers from the diner arrive just behind us. We chat a little this time. We have the same distance goal for tomorrow. I guess we’re in a bubble now.

We cross into Idaho early in the morning, then drop down to Mac’s Inn/Island Park. There’s a million people, most of them on ATVs, and we’re instantly overwhelmed. We chat with a few thru-hikers, grab a sandwich, then head out into the dust from the ATVS. We follow a soft and bumpy rail trail, which flows through a canyon. The steep sides shade us from the late afternoon heat. We stop at a campground, and go chat to the host to pay. I’ve been frustrated by paid campgrounds lately- being limited to roads on the bike means we often don’t have a lot of choice but to pay to camp in an established campground. The host senses my frustration and tells us we can pitch in the bushes by the river for free. He asks if we’re taking a rest day, and says he’d love to cook us dinner if we’re around tomorrow night. Unfortunately, we have miles to make, but I’m touched by his generosity. There’s an Adventure Cycling tour group here too. Steve found some keys on the trail, so we head over to see if they belong to anyone. They don’t, but the guides invite us to join them for breakfast in the morning.

We camp in the bushes by the river, and in the morning, everything is heavy with dew. We eat breakfast with Adventure Cycling, then, fueled by french press coffee, we climb up across a pass. We leapfrog with the tour group for a while, excited to chat with new people, then drop down to a highway. Highway riding terrifies me, and we’re on this one for twenty long kilometers. There’s a decent shoulder for most of it, but I still wince every time an RV passes us, buffeting us with slipstream. Finally we make it to Teton National Park. It’s beautiful, but overwhelming in the way national parks always are, with too many people desperate to see pretty places from the comfort of their cars. We eat, shower and do laundry, then collapse in a quiet hiker/biker campground.

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Eloise Robbins (Fun Size)

About the Author

Eloise Robbins (Fun Size) is a writer, triple crown thru hiker, and adventurer. She is a lover of the outdoors, hiking, canoeing, and most of all mountains.

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