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Cycling Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park

Louis Melini's picture
Cycling through Grand Teton National Park south of Yellowstone. Cycle Traveller

Imagine riding down a road and coming upon a large open field with a large cloud of steam rising above pockets of bubbling water. There are geologically shaped cauldrons with thick bubbly sulphur-smelling liquid, and further along, a geyser of water shoots into the air. When you get home from your bike tour and tell your friends what you saw, they reply by asking what and how much alcohol you consumed! This was the same reaction to explorers of Yellowstone National Park during the early part of the 19th century. Their reports were thought to be the hallucinations of too much alcohol or outright fabrications. 

It wasn’t until 1870 that an expedition was sent to document if there was truth to the stories. The results were impressive enough that the U.S. Congress allowed for 2.1 million acres (3,281 sq. miles or 8,500 sq. kilometers) to be set aside as the first national park in the United States and the world in 1872.

Old Faithful and cyclist, Yellowstone National Park, US. Cycle TravellerThe super volcano

Yellowstone National Park is certainly the land of enchantment. These stunning geological features have brought me back to bike tour through Yellowstone many times over the years, including my 1975 tour across the United States. There is a sense of wonderment knowing that the geological activities I see from the seat of my bicycle are a function of the Yellowstone Caldera – a super volcano 55km wide and 72km long (34 x 45 miles). There are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features in Yellowstone, just over half the world's total, including the most famous feature, the Old Faithful Geyser.

But there's more to Yellowstone than its amazing geological features: it is also a haven for American bison (buffalo), grizzly bears and elk. I have seen numerous elk and bison from the seat of my bicycle, but bear sightings are rare. It is so easy to see the wildlife up close that you will at times think you are in a large unfenced zoo. The wildlife is another source of enchantment in Yellowstone, but do remember that these wild animals have the potential to harm. 

Where to ride

While in Yellowstone you will be overwhelmed with competing scenic areas that you will want to ride to. The sights would include, but not be limited to, Mammoth Hot Springs in the north, the centrally located Norris Hot Springs as well as the Upper and Lower Waterfalls of the Yellowstone River, and to the south, the Old Faithful Geyser and the geyser fields of West Thumb. You also won’t want to miss the park ranger programs.

Entrance to Yellowstone is $12 per cyclist, good for entrance to any national park for seven days. (This should allow you to ride through Grand Teton National Park and use the same entrance pass to enter Yellowstone.) Once in Yellowstone you need to know that you will primarily be above 7,500 feet (2,286 meters). Thunderstorms can suddenly occur and nighttime temperatures could, on occasion, drop to near freezing. Being hit by a sudden hailstorm is not an unheard of event!

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Cycle TravellerIf you plan an extensive tour through the United States there are, in my opinion, two ways to incorporate Yellowstone into your bicycle travel plans. One is to ride the Adventure Cycling Association’s TransAmerica bicycle route (if your plans include riding across the U.S. from ocean to ocean).  The second choice, and one that I would recommend, is a national park tour that would either start at the Grand Canyon, travelling north through the some or all of the five national parks in Southern Utah, then proceed further north to Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. That would be the route if you started in April. For a mid-July starting date, one may consider starting in Glacier and then travel south due to the weather.

For a one-month tour, one could fly into and out of Salt Lake City, riding to and from Yellowstone with enough time for time in the park to enjoy the geological wonders. I should mention that Teton National Park lies just 10 miles south of Yellowstone, a smaller park, but worth spending time there as part of the Yellowstone experience.

Mountain bike tourers travelling the Adventure Cycling Association's Great Divide Trail also skirt close to Yellowstone and can easily make a side trip into the park and rejoin the trail south at the Grand Tetons.

Looking down into Yellowstone Canyon. United States. Cycle TravellerRoad conditions

Overall riding in Yellowstone is good. There are sections of the park roads that have no shoulder such as the road from the south entrance station to the Grant’s Village area. Other parts of the park, such as from Old Faithful to Madison campground, have a decent shoulder. For about 10km (six miles) in this same area there is a non-paved bicycle trail that one could easily ride with a loaded touring bike. The “Oh Ranger, Yellowstone National Park Guide” states; “Pedaling through Yellowstone can be a memorable, but potentially dangerous, experience.” I have personally found that traffic is rather respectful of touring bicyclists in Yellowstone, many times slowing down to cautiously pass.

Camping

When I first travelled through Yellowstone in 1975 by bike, camping was a difficult process as most campsites were taken by the time I arrived at the campground. Now there are hiker/biker sites that will accommodate late arrivals on bicycles for a cost of only $8-10 per campsite. Check the regulations upon entering as some of the hiker/biker sites allow for only one night. You will need to move to a regular campsite in that campground on subsequent nights. If you are riding with a large group, you may not find enough space in the hiker/biker camping area. Grant’s Village, for example, only has three hiker/biker sites. Not all campgrounds are available to cyclists. Fishing Bridge RV campground is restricted to hard-sided vehicles only. Of the 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone, seven are operated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Know before you go

Teton Camping:  800-628-9988; the website states campgrounds are on a first-come, first served basis; no reservations except at the group sites at Colter Bay and Gros Ventre.

Louis Melini cycling through Yellowstone. Cycle TravellerYellowstone Reservations:  Check the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website. If you wish to call for advanced reservations the number is 307-344-7311 or 1-866-439-7375. For same day reservations call 307-344-7901. Many of the sites are on a first-come, first served basis, including the hiker/biker sites.

Fees: $12 for seven days entry to either Park. (You should be able to use the same entry pass to enter both Parks given the proximity of the two parks.)

Vehicle storage: Storage Stables Jackson Wy. 888-867-8673.

Bus from Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Express with service to Jackson and West Yellowstone: 800-356-9796 or 208-656-8824 (I have not used this service. When I called, the customer service representative said there would be a $10 fee for bikes. You should tell customer service when you book your reservation that you are bringing a bike, as they will then arrange to pull a trailer for bicycles.)

Other air service: Commercial air service is available to Billings, Bozeman and West Yellowstone in Montana, Jackson in Wyoming and Idaho Falls in Idaho.

Attractions easily seen by cyclists: Lewis Falls; Norris and West Thumb geyser basins; Old Faithful and lodge; Upper, midway and lower geyser basins; Firehole lake drive and the bike trail at midway geyser basin; Lower and upper falls and Gibbon falls; Mammoth hot springs.  

Images from top: 1. Cycling through Grand Teton National Park. 2. Watching Old Faithful. 3. Bison are common on the roads. 4. Overlooking Yellowstone Canyon. 5. Louis Melini in Yellowstone.

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