Off the Beaten Path: Circumnavigating Greater Yellowstone by Bike

Guest blogger Don Carpenter is a conservationist and adventurer - be it by bike, boots, or boats. He makes a living as an avalanche instructor and has lived, worked, and recreated in the GYE for over two decades. All photos courtesy of Don unless otherwise noted.

The image of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) on the wall above my desk kept grabbing my attention. The shaded relief map made the mountains and drainages visible, and the shape of the ecosystem popped off the page.

GYE map courtesy of Yellowstone Ecological Center and available for purchase here :

GYE map courtesy of Yellowstone Ecological Center and available for purchase here:

The map of the GYE was the inspiration for an off the beaten path bikepacking loop. I pitched the idea to my friend Gary Chrisman.  He was in. With an idea and a partner, the seed for an adventure had been planted.

We wanted to experience and appreciate the GYE from our bikes and, in the process, get to know the lay of the land better. The topography, land management, and presence of roads dictated we travel towards the edges of the ecosystem. We would travel mostly on dirt roads and trails, hitting pavement in only a few spots. The planning involved many hours pouring over maps and conversations with land managers and private landowners. The end result was a 1200 mile circumnavigation of the GYE. We started in Victor, ID riding north and 2 weeks later completed the circuit riding back into Victor from the south.

The GYE is composed of large tracts of wild and remote land. There are high snowy peaks and the headwaters of many significant drainages. Where the high country drops to lower elevations, much of the GYE is ringed by agricultural and ranch land. It is a mix of Federal, State, Tribal and private lands spread across corners of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Many individual parts of the GYE are impressive on their own, but the interconnectedness of so many pieces of wild land makes this ecosystem unique. This connection makes the sum of the GYE more significant than the parts, with habitat vast enough to sustain grizzly bears, wolverine, bison, and elk herds.

Circumnavigating the ecosystem by bike provided a unique perspective. Being in the saddle for 12 plus hours a day gave us a feel for the size and vastness of the massif. The diversity of terrain was incredible.  Conditions ranged from 20 mph on gravel, to a few sections of mud that forced us to walk our bikes as our tires would no longer spin. In places, gravel roads gave us access to the high country and allowed for alpine traverses. 

Lower elevation Forest Service and county roads took us thru broad stretches of farm and ranch land as the route linked together the ranges of the ecosystem. Riding a clockwise circumnavigation meant that the GYE was often over our right shoulder. Views of open ranch land rising up to forested hills and snowy peaks never got old.

Trails over several high passes got us deeper into wild country. Here we saw fresh bear sign and got a look deep into wild and roadless lands that are the core of the GYE. In these places, we were away from the perimeter and diving deeper into the ecosystem.

We crossed all of the drainages originating in the high country of the GYE. We traveled along large rivers like the Snake, Green, Madison, Shoshone, and Yellowstone and smaller drainages such as East Rosebud Creek and West Boulder River. Due to a triple divide, these rivers and creeks feed into the Columbia, the Colorado, or the Mississippi watersheds. As the mountains dropped to more arid and rolling terrain we saw that this water was a lifeforce for ranches, towns, livestock, and wildlife downstream. Seeing all of these rivers and creeks was a trip highlight.

The towns around the GYE were bustling in mid-July.  From tourists visiting these amazing public lands to locals living in the GYE, we met interesting and friendly people all along the way.  We were offered places to stay when the weather looked dark and stormy.  We stayed with friends in Bozeman and got a lot of smiles and waves rolling into Red Lodge during the Beartooth Motorcycle Rally.  Riding over Beartooth Pass with hundreds of Harley’s was an experience!

The drier terrain to the southeast of Thermopolis felt very remote. The few locals we passed on the road stopped to chat. They were excited to hear about our trip and shared tales of local history. We heard about growing up Lysite, WY, ranching, and Jim Bridger. These conversations were another trip highlight. At first glance, this land seemed too dry to sustain life, but it had clear spring water that supported a few ranches and lots of antelope. Rolling out of this remote terrain brought us to busier roads as we passed oil workers on their way to work in the oil fields. We were turning the corner towards the Wind River Range, riding out of this dry badland country and towards familiar mountains. We still had to cross through the Winds, the Wyoming Range, and the Caribous, but it was starting to feel like we were in the final stretch of the trip.

When we left home in mid-July, Gary biked from his house, picked me up, and we rode north out of the valley with the Tetons over our right shoulders. Two weeks later we were psyched riding over Pine Creek Pass back into Teton Valley. The Tetons were in view again. We were happy to be rolling home after a great adventure. After a stop at the brewpub to meet friends, we rode past Gary’s house, high fived and thanked each other. Rolling home, I looked up at the Tetons with a deeper understanding and appreciation of our extended backyard.

Back home at the local bike shop  Photo Courtesy Aaron Couch

Back home at the local bike shop

Photo Courtesy Aaron Couch