Columbus, MT to Red Lodge, MT

46.0 mi / 9.3 mph / 2817 ft. climbing
Home: Lupine Inn

No hotel-maximization this morning; the alarm went off at 5am so that we could beat the wind. At least it felt like less of a waste leaving our $70 motel room four hours early than if it had been a $193 motel room! I went to the gas station store to fill our ice bucket for Rett’s water bottles, and expected to just dispense it from the drink machine, but no, there was a separate ice maker with a scoop (and even coffee!) for us motel guests. Fancy!

Our final view of the Yellowstone River. For now! We will see you again soon, friend, in one of the most dramatic places for a river to flow.

Today’s destination was due south of our start point, but to get there we would need to tack southeast and then southwest, like a sailboat into a headwind, and in fact that was the headwind that was supposed to come up in the afternoon!

Riding MT-421, a shortcut between the Yellowstone Valley and the Rock Creek Valley.

That meant we were leaving the I-90 corridor behind after four days. The first phase had us climbing out of the river valley on MT-421 and cutting southeast across the hills (rather than continuing east to Billings), and Rett was powering up the 6% up-and-downs. But 20 miles in we descended into the Rock Creek valley, made a sharp right turn onto US-212, and even though it was much flatter, her energy completely vanished. We got some Hostess Donettes into her, and that seemed to help.

US-212 started with a wide shoulder, but apparently I should have done a more-careful StreetView, because it wasn’t long before it narrowed to a mere foot or two, with vegetation encroaching on our limited space. Worse, traffic was at least three times heavier than I expected it to be. It definitely wasn’t a fun combination. We could have instead taken a southwest-to-southeast tacking route that would have taken us through Absarokee, and probably should have, since one of my main reasons for choosing the US-212 route was the assumption that it would have better shoulders creating more-relaxed riding. Too late now!

From our turn onto US-212, we would need to steadily climb 2000 ft. over 25 miles to reach Red Lodge. What a wonderful downhill that would be going the other direction, but that route was not for us today! About 10 miles in, just north of the small town of Roberts, we stopped at an awesome and unexpected MDOT rest stop for toilets and cold water (the first thing like that we’d seen in forever), and while dorking around on my phone I noticed the Strava heat map showed heavy cyclist usage of a gravel road that branched off right here that would parallel the highway most of the rest of the way into Red Lodge.

Hmm, tempting, but we’ve been tempted by gravel roads before, and the cuts from our last Delilah were fresh enough to still be smarting. Still, since this one never strayed too far from the highway, we would have more opportunities to bail than we did on Swingley Road. Unable to make a decision, I just hopped on the bike and crossed US-212 to see if the first 100 yards would tell me anything. And it did! The road was actually paved at this point, and there were a couple of very friendly horses, so now Rett was convinced too.

Friendly horses, luring us onto a gravel road.

We knew it wouldn’t last forever, and were happy to at least get two miles of traffic-free pavement before it turned to gravel. And then it was smooth, well-graded gravel that we could still move quickly on (well, as quickly as the slight but steady uphill would let us).

A smooth section of gravel, with the Beartooth Mountains coming closer.

But then we hit the (inevitable?) switch, where the gravel suddenly became sandy and washboarded. Ugh. Fooled again! We were able to continue riding forward, but needed to switch to the mode where we use the entire width of the road to find (and re-find) the least-bad track through it.

And then, in the distance, the surface looks different… Hooray, it’s back to the smooth stuff! For a quarter-mile. Ugh! Unlike Swingley Rd., where there was a fairly continuous variation in surface quality, this road switched starkly between only these two types. The only pattern I could detect was that it seemed to be freshly-graded when it passed in front of residences, perhaps to minimize the dust from passing vehicles?

Even though Rock Creek, the river draining the big valley we were ascending, was flowing somewhere below us on our right, there was this second narrow valley filled with farms to our left. I think it’s an irrigation project that sends a parallel river down this valley, but it’s unusual to have this parallel valley structure (with our gravel road riding the ridge that separates them) to begin with!
A loose calf lost out on the road. You don’t get this if you stick to the highway! There was quite a bit of mooing from the nearby herd, almost as if they were looking for their wayward son, or trying to call him home.

We stopped for lunch at a fishing access point, and though it had a picnic table (in the blazing sun) and a shaded river (down a steep rough slope), we sat in the grass in the sliver of shade provided by the vault toilet building (which thankfully wasn’t very smelly).

We had a chance to divert back to the highway after lunch, but once again we got lured in by a section of smooth gravel (“maybe it’ll finally stay like this the rest of the way as we get closer to town!”) God, what suckers we are. The uphill also was getting worse, along with the predicted headwind, so I was really glad (but untrusting!) when the road became paved again a few miles before I expected it to. But it stayed that way all the way until it returned us to the still-busy, still barely-shouldered highway just north of Red Lodge.

We stopped for roadside peaches in town, and then made it all the way along the continuous uphill to the south end and our motel. They had an unusually-strict 3pm check-in time, and reviews said that the South Asian guy running the place could be a real ass, so we just sat in the lobby until he was ready for us. It seems like I may have gotten a bit on his good side because he was miraculously the second person in two days I met with a connection to Schaumburg, IL! And unlike yesterday’s 1960s-dweller, this guy still owned his house there, and it was about 3 blocks from the house I had owned in Hoffman Estates! Small world in the Big Sky country.

We walked back down to the grocery store at the north end of town, and on the way back got socked with a cold wind-blown rain quickly soaking through our summer-afternoon clothes, and setting us shivering in the 55-degree air. Luckily we at least had a motel to go back to instead of a tent, so we could dry out our clothes and crank up the heat (on a day when two hours ago we had been hiding from the burning sun). Well worn out, Rett fell asleep before 8pm.

Days 2-6

We had booked two nights at the motel because Red Lodge is the last real town before we would ascend into the wilderness of the Beartooth Mountains and on into Yellowstone National Park. But the weather forecast for the next four days was looking pretty dreadful, with rain and wind every day. Yesterday’s soaking on the way back from the grocery store was actually a blessing in disguise, because it let me know that if Rett was that unhappy with a brief and recoverable wet-and-cold, heading off into the mountains with the risk of even worse conditions was completely untenable. But it went well beyond comfort: those conditions in the mountains could be downright dangerous. Whether it would be lightning striking out of a thunderstorm above the treeline at 11,000 ft., 45-mph wind gusts blowing us off the narrow switchbacks, or simple hypothermia from getting soaked and blown through at high altitude, pushing forward would have been a risk to our lives, not just our happiness.

So I made an attempt to push everything back four days. I had already booked a campsite a day out of Red Lodge, and cabin in Yellowstone four days out. Several campgrounds in Yellowstone are closed this summer, mostly due to the catastrophic flooding that happened last year, so I had been searching multiple times a day over the last couple weeks to find an opening at the Roosevelt Lodge. A week ago I found a cabin and booked it, and then a day later booked a second night when a different cabin appeared online. Making it to those bookings now seemed impossible/stupid, but in the morning I saw that there was one night in one cabin available four nights after our initial dates, and much to my surprise, I was somehow able to call and “cancel” one of our two nights (getting a refund of the $156 we’d paid), and push the other night out four days, all with no change fee! We did need to pay a change fee for our USFS campsite, but a total of $10 was way less than I expected this reshuffling to cost us!

We made the most of the motel’s “lite” continental breakfast (definitely better than nothing!) and did lunch and dinner in the room. We did the same with breakfast the next morning, and then at checkout time rode back north to the grocery store and ate a charcuterie lunch in the town park on a sunny beautiful afternoon.

We spent the next four days in “The Bee”, one of the nicest AirBNBs we’ve stayed in. At $180/night, it was more-expensive than the motel we’d been in (though less-than or equal to most other motels in town), but we were able to cook all of our own meals. Even though it barely rained in town over those four extra days, the radar showed plenty of activity up in the mountains, and having the four days to relax and do extra planning was really useful on its own.

Colored stripes on colored stripes, and proof that we had at least some rain during our Red Lodge extension.
Is the the signal that Montana puts out indicating that the owners of this house have won the state’s lottery?
A rainbow, a storm, Red Lodge, and the Beartooth Mountains.
The extra time allowed us to make multiple trips to the excellent Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop, where we stocked up on new/replacement gear, including these new water/hiking/biking shoes for Rett.
Downtown Red Lodge, Montana.



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