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Awesome Motorcycle Adventure: Ride to Yellowstone

yellowstone-motorcycle

 I had a week to spare and a motorcycle just waiting to be ridden. What else could I do but ride to Yellowstone National Park?

In This Motorcycle Travel Article You Will Discover:

  • Riding Routes to Yellowstone
  • Small Town Americana
  • Why Camping Alone is Creepy

It is the first morning on the road when adventure truly begins. For me, on my solo motorcycle trip to Wyoming, this meant waking up at a fleabag motel in Coeur d’Lane, Idaho. Three Harley Davidsons — brethren in ethos, if not in steed — work well as an alarm clock when fired-up simultaneously outside your window.

I had left Vancouver yesterday; Labour Day. I carved up Washington State’s scenic North Cascades Highway, zipped past massive hydroelectric dams and motored through character townsites like Wild West-themed Winthrop while I basically just tried to put as many kilometres between myself and my home before nightfall. A lovely ride, sure, and one full with fellow motorcyclists as well. But it is when you awaken in a strange bed that you truly feel gone.

My destination is Yellowstone National Park, in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Having visited Colorado just a month earlier, Wyoming remained the only Western State I had not yet visited.

This, along with my special affinity for hot springs and that I had always wanted to see Old Faithful seemed like more than enough reasons to head southeast for a week.

testicle-festival

What can I say? In Montana, they love their bull testicles.

Leaving the lovely lakeside town of Coeur D’Lane, I know today is all about miles. My set destination is Gardiner, Montana — the gateway to Yellowstone, some 800 km off. I blast east on Interstate 90. Normally I eschew highways that start with “I” — they offer nothing for the motorcyclist but dull-straight super-slab and aggressive traffic, but this time it’s the only logical route to cut across the skinny end of Idaho and into the Great Plains of Montana.

Now, on a fancy BMW touring bike, 800 km is peanuts. On my rough-and-tumble KLR650, it’s a grind.

Thankfully, I had installed a 16-tooth front sprocket on my bike earlier in the year; raising the overall gear ratio and allowing for easy 125 km/h cruising. If you’ve ever been on an American Interstate, you know to at least keep pace with the 18-wheelers.

An hour into Montana, I begin to regret my decision to ride the Interstate today. The scenery is lackluster. The crosswinds are brutal. And I’m burning a lot of gas at these speeds. I pull over to a roadside cantina — The Nut Shack — for a burger and fuel. Their specialty is Prairie Oysters — that is, deep fried bull testicles. Normally I immerse myself in local culture and cuisine, but I just can’t do it. Nothing about Prairie Oysters sounds appealing. Nor can I get gas — the pump looks like it hasn’t been serviced since the Eisenhower administration. I trust not what flows from within.

yellowstone-bison-plains

Bison grazing in Yellowstone’s high-alpine, windswept plains.

My decision to pass gas almost turns foul — my KLR650 runs onto its reserve tank earlier than I expect, thanks to the headwind I’m now facing, and I ride for nearly 60 km before I find a service station in Deer Lodge, MT. I had never put 20 litres of fuel into my tank before — until today.

Livingston, MT, some 700 km from where I started this morning, represents a coup. I am officially turning off the Interstate and am now dead in-line with Gardiner. Sure, the crosswinds pick up and the temperature begins to drop as my elevation increases, but I don’t care. Tetons and freestone streams break up the scenery. The dinner hour approaches and I enter Gardiner, grab a riverside campsite at Rocky Mountain Campground and wash a medium ham-and-pineapple down with a Shock Top Ale at Outlaw Pizza. Good night.

The sun has been up for less than two hours by the time I finish my cheesy breakfast burrito, ride under the Roosevelt Arch and enter Yellowstone. I require yet another campsite, yes, but my number-one mission of the day is to find the elusive Boiling River Hot Springs and have a soak.

boiling-river-morning

Looking for the elusive Boiling River? Just follow the steam!

Hot springs are my favourite natural phenomenon — the more au natural the better.

Liard River Hot Springs, in Northern BC, had previously ranked as my fave outdoor bathtub — but Boiling River takes the crown. Here, superheated water seeps from the Earth and mixes perfectly with the frigid Gardiner River — you find your perfect temperature and let your cares evaporate. (Which I do, for some unknown amount of time…)

Mammoth Springs Campsite appears some three kilometres further into the park. It’s rustic, and apparently frequented by grizzly bears, but it’s as good as any. I set up, unload my bike and set out for a park-tour.

It seems many times that I have pictured Yellowstone in my head, I was actually picturing Yosemite in Northern California. Rather than the high mountains and shear cliffs, Yellowstone is 9,000 sq-km expanse of tetons, wind-swept alpine plains, canyons, rivers and volcanic activity. In fact, it is the latter that really gives Yellowstone its character. Everywhere you look, a new boiling pit of water, bubbling pot of mud or steaming geyser pops up. Old Faithful isn’t the main attraction, it’s just a voice in the symphony.

yellowstone-klr650

Cruising Yellowstone via KLR650.

Old Faithful was actually a bit of a disappointment.

No, not the geyser itself — perhaps the only thing as impressive as the 30-metre violent aqua-eruption is that seismologists can predict every occurrence to within about 10 minutes. Yup, no guessing. Just check the “Old Faithful Forecast.”

The disappointment was the 1,000-person crowd than hovers around the geyser, the fact that you sit at least 75 metres away on aluminum benches and the whole area is crowded with tour buses, a hotel, gift shops, cafeteria and so on. I liked the Spasm Geyser better — it blew up practically in my face, soaking me with sulphur-scented water. I don’t come to parks for the crowds… I can only imagine this place on a long weekend in summer.

But Yellowstone Park does live up to its legends. I could ramble on ad nauseum, but instead I’ll direct you to this Yellowstone Photo Essay I posted a couple of weeks ago, right after I returned. I would take weeks to fully explore this, America’s largest and oldest national park.

old-faithful-webb

Dodging the crowds to get a glimpse of Yellowstone’s famous Old Faithful geyser.

My campsite, at Mammoth, sits at a hair over 6,000 feet of elevation. From a pleasant 20-degree-Celsius day, the evening temperature is falling like the Dow-Jones. I’m wearing three layers. Make it four. I sit at my picnic table as the sun sets, watching the light fade and the stars come out one-by-one until they nearly blot out the dark. I stay out as long as I can, star-gazing, until the bitter chill of near-zero temperatures force me into my sleeping bag.

I wake at 3:00 a.m. to the sound of wolves howling in the distance.

I listen, one part engrossed in this quintessential sound of the wild — the other because I’m frickin’ freezing. It’s definitely in sub-zero temperatures now. Damn it, I have to go to the bathroom… Maybe the tent wasn’t such a great idea. I’m beginning to wish I had stayed at one of those Yellowstone Cabins I had seen on Flipkey.

The unzipping of my tent sounds like rumbling thunder in this serene night. Will the wolves hear me get up? A breeze rustles my tent. A shadow? A footstep? Solo camping, I realize, can be kind of creepy.

mammoth-nightfall

Watching night fall in serene Yellowstone Park. Camping alone can be creepy…

My day starts with a two-hour soak in the Boiling River. I never want to leave. Let last night’s cold wash away… but by 9:00 a.m., though, I know I have to get going. There’s a long ride ahead of me, and it’ll be noon before I even exit the south end of this tremendous national park. Good-bye, Yellowstone.

To the south, Grand Teton Park dominates the skyline with mountains higher than anything in Yellowstone. Six days to get from Vancouver to Yellowstone and back does not leave enough time for exploration. I lunch in Jackson, Wyoming — gourmet grilled cheese, the best meal of the week — then ride over the winding, breezy Teton Pass Highway, one of the most scenic passes of the trip. By mid-afternoon, I’m back into Idaho. At a McDonalds in a boring little town called Idaho Falls, I determine my destination to be the hamlet of Arco — simply due to the presence of a $40-per-night motel and that it takes me away from the Interstate and past Craters of the Moon National Monument.

grand-canyon-yellowstone

Motorcycle ride rest-stop at the scenic Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

The barren desert of Southern Idaho will be unchanged post-apocalypse.

In fact, residents here might not even know when it happens. My westward route, Highway 26, is as monotonous as it is desolate. Leering at my fuel gauge, I pray Arco actually exists somewhere in this wasteland.

I pass by a decommissioned nuclear power plant. I would learn later that Arco was the first town in the world to be powered by atomic energy, and this plant — known as the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 — was the site of the world’s first nuclear meltdown. Also, it has so-far been America’s only fatal nuclear meltdown, killing four unfortunate souls. Today, you can take a guided tour of the plant.

As I pull into Arco, I immediately think, “Well, this looks like a town where travellers get murdered.”

I’m not kidding. I’m actually legitimately leery, but the nearest next town is 100 miles away and I’m dog-tired. I risk it, checking into the bone-simple, but clean, Arco Motel. Its helpful proprietor points me to the Arco Dinner Club for a meal (the “upscale” joint in town).

southern-idaho

The barren lands of southern Idaho. Hello… anybody out there…?

I enter the restaurant and the whole place stops dead, each patron turning his or her head to examine the stranger like I’m walking into a Hollywood western. Arco doesn’t see a lot of visitors, I suspect. ‘Specially not foreigners.

The fried chicken dinner is cheap and tasty — real home cooking. They even have a decent selection of craft beer by the bottle. It’s not long before a local strikes up a conversation with me, in between spits of his chewing tobacco. He’s friendly and engaging. In fact, everyone is. We chat through dinner.

As I leave, the whole restaurant waves and wishes me “safe travels.” Damn, I couldn’t have been more wrong about this place. Arco, I’ll think of you fondly; one of my road-trip’s sleeper hits.

The next morning I am back on a mission to put on miles. I’m two days from home, but following nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument, there’s little I want to see.

arco-id

Arco, Idaho — a lovely little piece of roadside Americana.

Craters of the Moon National Monument is an odd place; a massive expanse of lava and jagged rock totally out of place in southern Idaho. Interesting, but I’m not sure what one would do here. I putter through the park for a half-hour then move along, heading west on the Peaks to Craters scenic byway. As a west-coaster, I can smell rain in the air. An hour later, my suspicion pans out, and I ride until lunchtime in a driving downpour.

By the time I pass Boise, it’s hot and dry again, and I’m back on the Interstate for a while. I cut across the plains of eastern Oregon, feeling almost home as I re-enter Washington State. Exhaustion forces me to bed in Kennewick for the night, a characterless strip-mall of a city. I’m glad to leave in the morning, and angry at myself for not pushing on a little further the previous night as I pass nearby Prosser, with its wineries and boutique B&Bs.

At Ellensburg, I veer off the main drag and head towards Leavenworth — a town whose overwhelming Bavarian influence catches me off guard. Everything is kitschy and German — right down to the gas stations and road signs, and I’ve arrived during the annual Quilt Festival. I’ll have to return and investigate this mini-Germany another time.

Soon, I’m on the Stevens Pass Highway, enjoying the curves as I flop my motorcycle side-to-side. An hour away from the I-5 — my final push home — a massive traffic accident, with a fatality, stops traffic for hours.

I wait, patiently, using the opportunity to remind myself the dangers motorcyclists — and motorists, as was this instance — face on the road. I finish my ride of Stevens Pass just a bit slower than I had started.

leavenworth

A little taste of Germany at Bavarian-themed Leavenworth, WA.

The I-5 is, of course, miserable. It’s an anti-climactic way to finish for sure, but Stevens Pass had been my mental end point anyhow. I stop for an ice coffee to power up for the final blast home.

There’s nothing like motorcycle travel. You are connected with the landscape you travel, not flying seven miles above it. Every smell, every sight, every bump in the road, every change in temperature is experienced — not passed by in a blink. It takes not two days home before I yearn for the open road again. It’s disheartening, here in Canada, to know riding season comes to an end every year.

Ride while you can. I’m already planning next year’s trip.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

3 comments… add one
  • Cecilia Feb 7, 2016

    Looking for blogs about travel from Vancouver to Yellowstone (not necessarily on a bike lol) I came to your post and loved it!
    Delicious reading!
    Thanks for sharing.

    Cecilia

  • Shaun Marsh May 15, 2015

    I guess you must have enjoyed driving your bike in these places. I really liked and enjoyed your blog.

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