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Spring prime time for bicycling Yellowstone Park

Bicyclists encounter bison in Yellowstone National Park while touring during spring, prime time to enjoy the park’s wildlife. (BRETT FRENCH)
Bicyclists encounter bison in Yellowstone National Park while touring during spring, prime time to enjoy the park’s wildlife. (BRETT FRENCH)

The sounds were few but defining: the steady crunching of fine black pumice crushed beneath bike tires, the patter of rain pelting helmet and jacket, labored breaths exhaled in plumes, and the drumming of a rapid pulse as blood rushed through my carotid artery.

The difficulty of slowly pedaling up a highway in Yellowstone National Park during a cool spring rainstorm had me wondering about the sanity of a sometime cyclist taking on 100 miles in two days where I could have comfortably driven my car.

Once I was dry, rehydrated and fed – not to mention a nice long soak at Chico Hot Springs – I remembered why I make such body-numbing trips. The aches and pains in my neck, shoulders, hands, crotch, thighs and feet were only temporary.

Riding a bike into Yellowstone National Park in spring has the virtue of forcing you to take your time and really observe, smell and hear the landscape.

Now – before the tourist season kicks into high gear around Memorial Day – is prime time for cyclists.

When visiting Yellowstone in a car, the scenery flashes by so quickly. The speed limit is 45 mph in many areas, and a passenger’s view is restricted by the car’s roof, doors and windows. On a bicycle, the view is 360 degrees and my average traveling speed is about 7 mph.

Stopping at pullouts when you’re driving a car can seem like a hassle.

To a bicyclist, it’s a welcome break from the saddle.

We pedaled close to the Gibbon and Madison rivers for miles. Cycling next to a stream is mesmerizing.

For bikers worried about their pedaling ability, the route from West Yellowstone to Madison Junction – a distance of about 14 miles – is the most level. The route also features a lot of elk, bison and waterfowl.

If 14 miles – 28 round trip – sounds too exhausting, consider driving in a ways and only riding as far as you are comfortable, or partner up with someone and trade off the driving and riding duties.

There’s also a section of old gravel road from the end of Fountain Flat Drive to the Midway Geyser Basin that is open to bikers and hikers only. The 1.6-mile route (one way) goes past Goose Lake and Grand Prismatic Spring.

Cyclists can also park their bikes at the trailhead to Fairy Falls – about halfway along the route – and hike the 3 miles round trip to break up the outing. Other bicycle routes can be found on Yellowstone’s biking web page.

I’ve visited the park in every season, and springtime visitors always seem to be the most accessible.

My theory is that after a long winter, folks are just happy to be out, feel the sun on their face and see and smell the signs of spring greening the landscape. Also, since the crushing crowds of summer haven’t yet arrived, folks are more at ease. Trips into Yellowstone in the fall are also quieter and generally the weather is warmer. But I find that people are less approachable by fall – kind of like bears getting ready for hibernation.

As we rode through Yellowstone recently on a two-day, 100-mile outing from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., to West Yellowstone and back, we met fellow riders from nearby and far away, stopping to chat at pullouts.

One man with a spotting scope sitting on the hood of his car offered a peek at a newborn bison calf. Barely minutes old, the shaky-legged bison calf was already nursing.

Cyclists in Yellowstone get to talk to folks from all corners of the world. We chatted with a Polish couple, marveled at a German’s huge Mercedes all-terrain vehicle and met a polite Ukrainian woman at a West Yellowstone shop. We saw busloads of Chinese tourists, energetic crowds of American Indian school children and heard at least five different languages being spoken.

The only way to improve on the pre-Memorial Day period for cycling is to avoid the weekends and pedal during the week. Sunday evening may be the lightest traffic of all as weekenders depart for home.

Fewer wide-bodied RVs travel into the park in spring, since few of the campgrounds are open. RVs and buses are the most frightening vehicles to have pass you while riding a bicycle, although most drivers are kind enough to give cyclists a wide berth.

Cyclists still have to hug the shoulder, ride single file and be respectful of auto traffic. In some areas, the road shoulder is fairly narrow, which may scare some folks away. The road shoulder is wider from Norris to West Yellowstone, but nonexistent from Norris to Mammoth.

Early in the spring, traffic is especially light because not all of the park’s entrances and roads are open. The park opens the Mammoth to West Yellowstone highway exclusively to cyclists, hikers and roller bladers only when the plowing first begins at the end of winter.

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