29.0 mi / 11.1 mph / 1532 ft. climbing
Home: Range Rider Lodge
The alarm went off at 5am, once again trying to get us to complete our ride before the afternoon headwinds rose. Surprisingly the temperature had “only” gone down to 41 degrees, which isn’t too bad considering our bed was 2590 ft. higher than where we had woken up yesterday. We still had the campground loop completely to ourselves (though there were plenty of people in the two/three other loops).
Even better, we had the road to ourselves too! Partly because nobody wakes up as early as we do, partly because the road doesn’t see a lot of traffic anyway, but mostly because we’re halfway between the two sources of traffic (Red Lodge on the east and Yellowstone on the west), and even if those drivers were awake as early as us, it would still take them hours to get to this point.
We had hoped to secure some second-breakfast/snack items at the Top of the World Store, but apparently the early bird does not always catch the worm, because the store had not yet opened by the time we rolled through. Oh well, hopefully we can make it to Cooke City with the remaining calories we have with us!
We hit a section of road that had very-recently been reconstructed, and the combination of perfect asphalt, zero other vehicles, sharp cliffs, a gushing waterfall, and layers of mountains in the distance made it feel like the world’s greatest bike path. With all of my focus yesterday targeted on getting us over the top of the pass, I had no idea how epic the ride today would continue to be. So it confirmed our decision not to push any further yesterday, because doing this section in the empty morning light, when we were refreshed and relaxed, was far more enjoyable than it would have been yesterday afternoon.
Even though we had come down 1500 feet from the pass yesterday, we had nearly another 3000 feet to drop before we would start climbing again. Five miles in we hit a switchback that began bringing us down the canyon wall into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River valley. Even though we were still far from the park boundary, the completely-unexpected vast scope of the valley (looking something like The Grand Canyon, but with trees) brought forth a particular feeling of our own human smallness that I strongly associate with Yellowstone. Somehow the long downhill wasn’t even cold, so we could just relax, roll, and revel in the wilderness that rose and fell further than even our minds could grasp.
Yellowstone has five entrances: North, South, East, West, and Northeast. I’m lucky to have been through the four cardinal-direction ones, riding in the East and out the West on my bike in 2007, and driving in the South and out the North in the car in 2021. And while the approaches to them are all surrounded by incredible landscapes (hell, the southern approach is its own National Park, Grand Teton!) it’s already feeling like I’ve saved the best for last.
Near the bottom we crossed the junction with Dead Indian Pass Road, an alternate that someone had recommended we take out of Red Lodge rather than going over Beartooth Pass. At the time I figured there was no way in hell we were doing that, and now having conquered the Beartooth I’m even prouder of our decision. But! Looking back to where the other road was coming up from the valley, I can say it sure didn’t look like a bad ride either. Next time!
The other good reason we had to not push any further yesterday was that despite the long overall-downhill from the Beartooth Pass to Yellowstone, we still had to climb “The Plug”, a 1000-foot steeper-than-yesterday hill to take us into Cooke City. They don’t plow that section of US-212 from October to May, so snow cuts off the eastern approach to town for much of the year (though it opens the corridor up to snow-based recreation).
Partway up the climb we crossed another (unmarked) state border: Montana! Wait, didn’t we just leave Montana yesterday? Yes, and we’ll leave it again tomorrow, this time for real. US-212 does an unusual sweep back north across the border for a mere 11 miles, giving Cooke City a Montana address while keeping it entirely connected to Wyoming in every other way.
After plateauing, a final spectacular mountain-guarded descent brought us into Cooke City, a strip of business and a few residences collected in the crease between those mountains, and the first thing even close to a town since leaving Red Lodge three days ago. We just beat the wind, arriving in town before 11am (which I know because we had to wait for one of the restaurants to open to get our burger-and-beer lunch), but our bodies that had been dripping sweat coming up The Plug were suddenly the coldest they had been all day as the west wind came galloping through the center of town. Even with our down jackets on inside the restaurant we were still cold! After lunch we used some WiFi at the Visitor’s Center/Museum (no cell reception for the last couple days, or the next few!) and then stocked up on groceries at the Cooke City General Store, a place where many of their items were delivered from the wall behind the counter by the clerks, like those general stores from old movies. Among other things we got a wedge of cheddar cheese cut from a giant wheel by their antique cheese wheel cutter.
I mentioned the stickers, broadly available in Red Lodge, that you can buy to commemorate your conquest of the Beartooth Pass. However, when we were in Red Lodge we had not yet conquered the Beartooth Pass, so it seemed presumptuous (if not downright cursed) to purchase one. But now as proud warriors entering Cooke City on the other side, it was time to claim our spoils. The general store had a variety of local-themed stickers (as did at least one other gift shop that we checked), but nowhere could we find any Beartooth Pass stickers! WTF!? How unfair and stupid! I’m choosing to assume it’s because we’re the first people to actually make it all the way from Red Lodge to Cooke City (everyone else must just turn around at the top and return to Red Lodge, missing out on this day’s grandeur), so that makes us even awesomer, and we don’t need no damn sticker to prove it! Harrumph!
We then had three more miles to ride, to the distinctly separate (and smaller) town of Silver Gate. Accommodations in these Yellowstone gateway towns are not cheap, so we’re staying at the cheapest, the unique AirBNB-booked “Range Rider Lodge”, a huge old log building that felt just as I hoped it would: like a traveler’s inn from a fantasy novel or a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. The rooms were all against the outer walls on the upper level with shared privies (er, bathrooms) in the hall and their doors opening out into the cavernous two-level interior. We were arriving very early, so the tables down in the common room had not yet filled with drunken dwarves or hooded rangers or civilized mountain trolls, but I was sure they would eventually. Due to the lack of custom, we were able to bring our pack mules (er, bikes) inside and just leave them down in that lower level.
The small store/office next door had a decent amount of food and supplies (as well as WiFi), so we further augmented our haul a bit and had a cold bed-picnic dinner. We could hear the bar downstairs had filled up with people, and listening to their muffled revelry coming through the floor and walls as we tried to fall asleep was simultaneously annoying, and the awesomest feeling of living inside a fantasy novel that I’ve ever felt. But I’ll really appreciate it if no Nazgul come to stab us through our mattress while we sleep tonight!