From downtown Bozeman, the heart of the Gallatin Range is just a bike ride away.
We’ve been following the bear’s footsteps for about a mile now, whistling and chattering nervously. The prints aren’t large and based on where we are, we’re pretty sure it’s a young black bear, but we still don’t want to surprise it. Most likely it passed this way hours ago, using the overgrown logging road as a foraging super-highway. It’s only late August, but a fast-moving squall ripped through the area the night before, leaving the mountains snow-dusted and triggering the animal’s instinct to gorge.
We’re using the road for a different purpose. It’s guiding us south from Bozeman to the core of the northern Gallatin Range. For three days, we hope to connect cherry singletrack to decommissioned roads to Forest Service cabins, bikepacking from our doorsteps to the depths of the Custer-Gallatin.
Our journey begins at the Western Café on Main Street just before daybreak. The regulars guzzle coffee and shoot the breeze while we hoover breakfast. The plan calls for almost 100 miles of riding in 72 hours, so we don’t skimp on calories. For the most part, we’ll carry our supplies on our bikes, with one caveat—instead of sleeping in tents and on ground pads, we’ll be racked up in cabins on mattresses. The first night it’ll be Fox Creek up South Cottonwood, and the second, Window Rock south of Hyalite Reservoir.
Tabs paid, we mount up in the still-dark morning, pacing ourselves on town trails for the first few miles. Bozeman is sleepy at this time of day, without the rush of commuter traffic, and bikes are the perfect tools for the task at hand. Pedaling south on S. 3rd, we make good time but aren’t removed from the elements—the headwind or the sights and sounds—as we would be in a car. I’m struck that open land still exists so near the city’s urban core. Whitetail feed in the farmers’ fields where I’ve seen elk herds in the spring.
Within 45 minutes, we’re climbing Leverich, grunting steadily along as the sun makes its way into the canyon. Resting at the top of the first big climb, we look north and see town, still waking up. We know this trail well, having memorized the ups and downs, the gentle descents and the steep climbs. Higher up, we connect to Moser—and that’s where we find the bear tracks.
For years, we’ve wanted to execute a trip like this. We’re riding trails we’ve ridden before, some on a weekly basis and some every once in a while. But what would it be like to spend three days out here, connecting the trails across this vast landscape to our front doors? Removing ourselves from Bozeman without cutting the cord entirely, leaving while simultaneously returning? At times, Hyalite feels distant, usually when we’re buried in work and missing deadline after deadline. This morning, it feels close, only a short bike ride away.
A few hours have gone by since we left the Western, and in that time we’ve hardly seen a soul—a rarity in crowd-crunched Hyalite. Trails and old logging grades crisscross the timber on either side of Hyalite Canyon Rd., ushering us through woods we’ve never ridden in before, right before spitting us out directly at the Westshore trailhead.
Here, the real fun begins and it finally feels like we’re bikepacking. Our plan is to bike up and over the Blackmore saddle before descending the upper South Cottonwood trail to the Fox Creek cabin, our home for the night. Blackmore is a steep, rugged trail, challenging without loaded bikes; with them, it’s slow going to say the least. We ride when we can, which isn’t often.
After a grueling couple of hours, we emerge from the shady trail into the sun-bleached basin below Elephanthead and Blackmore. The trail levels out and we’re finally riding more than walking. Snow still blankets the mountainsides, un-melted despite the long, sunny day. We grind up the above-treeline switchbacks, heads down and breathing hard—it’s not until we reach the saddle that we can take stock of our surroundings.
Alex Lowe Peak dominates our view, sharp and three-dimensional in the late-summer light. Snow clings to the mountain’s nooks and crannies, a surreal sight given the time of year. This is the divide between tame, Bozeman Hyalite, and a wilder, less-visited landscape, into which we are about to descend. Blackmore may be a common daytrip, but few people do it from town, and fewer still mark the saddle as their halfway point. Once we’re back on our bikes, it’s a long, technical descent to Fox Creek.
The Fox Creek cabin is modest, to say the least. Outfitted with a bunk and a stove, it’s not much more luxurious than an emergency bivy, and the potential presence of hantavirus makes for a less than restful night. We wake early shivering and groggy, motivated by the cold to get back on our bikes and on our way. Not more than 20 minutes into the day’s ride and we’re tire to tail with a bruin.
There are times when you can feel the presence of an animal in the woods before you see it. Dense fog hovers over a trickling creek and the hair on your neck stands on end. We knew that we’d see another bear that morning—they’d been on our minds for the entirety of last night’s descent, and now, here one was.
As is usually the case, the bear is more surprised to see us than we are to see it. It scampers into the woods and we continue on our way, up and over Wheeler Gulch, climbing newly rerouted singletrack before linking up with more logging roads.
Conifers do their best to regrow after years of logging have altered this landscape, but Mother Nature is quickly reclaiming what’s hers. Burns have done what they do, and avalanche activity is obvious on hillsides along the route. Few bikers make the journey into this nook, perhaps because of the long, hot climbs up dusty, rocky roads. After one final leg-burning grind, we’re at the top of what will be a welcome downhill.
As the saying goes, what goes up must come down—the same is true in reverse. Unless a downhill ends at your car, a brewery, or your campsite, your work is not done. Never has that been truer than when we arrive at the bottom of this long descent, stoked to have covered a few quick miles, but daunted by what lies ahead.
Now we have to make up all the elevation we’ve lost and then some, biking, hiking, and pushing our way across the divide between Gallatin Canyon and Hyalite. It’s one-step-at-a-time progress, but progress nonetheless.
And once we’re back on top, the reward is well worth the effort. We stand in a stiff breeze looking east across the Divide Creek drainage at Hyalite Peak, Mount Bole, and beyond to Paradise Valley and the Absaroka Range. Late afternoon is quickly becoming early evening, but it’s hard to leave a place like this. We’re miles from where we were this morning, and further still from where we started. But we’re still on a ride that started from our houses back in Bozeman. Like the bear we saw this morning and the one we missed the day before, we’re wandering around our home range, following well-worn paths along creeks, over mountains, and through the woods. Shadows stretch across the basin, reminding us we can’t stay any longer. We begin the downhill to Window Rock.
After a better night’s sleep in the roomier confines of Window Rock, we’re up and at ’em with the dawn. On our third and final day, we ride back over to the Bozeman Creek drainage and pedal high above Mystic Lake before riding out the Wall of Death to Sourdough. The Bozeman Creek Trail feels like the interstate compared to the steep, tight singletrack we’ve covered, and quickly we find ourselves coasting past the Triple Tree trailhead. In a few more miles, we’re cruising down Peets Hill. We pop onto Main Street near the library and stop at a red light. Across the street is the Western, wrapping up another day of fueling Bozeman. It’s mid-afternoon so we head to Map for a beer and a meal.
Sliding onto my stool at Map, I’m struck by the ease with which we just traveled deep into the backcountry. The effort wasn’t easy, but the idea was simple. With the right tool and a little planning, a bike ride from your doorstep can take you anywhere. And when you get back, things are mostly the same—but you’re closer to the place you visited, and in turn the place you’re returning to. Your home range has expanded and you’ve learned something new about it. Connectivity is important, and connecting town to our wild back yard helps us see the interdependence of the two.