Yellowstone wakes as the snow melts, but it does so quietly without the ribbon of RVs and roar of motorcycles on the roads. For a few precious weeks every spring, a select stretch of roads belong to bikes.
There are steep hills to climb and zip down, and abandoned turnouts and boardwalks normally teeming with visitors where you can stretch out and rest. Instead of sharing your view with hundreds of strangers, take in the silence and keep the moment to yourself. Yellowstone’s abundant wildlife can be seen without the barrier of glass and steel.
No facilities are open, so you must carry your supplies, food, tools and gear in case a sunny day quickly turns to snow.
Biking in Yellowstone is a wonderful adventure, and this year’s dry winter and spring makes it the perfect year to take advantage of the nearly car-free roads. Many of Yellowstone’s roads are now open to non-motorized traffic — weeks earlier than normal, said Amy Bartlett, spokeswoman with the park.
The main road stretches about 49 miles between West Yellowstone, Montana and Mammoth Hot Springs. Many people start at one entrance and go for a short ride in and out of the park. But those wanting more can cycle across the park. Just be prepared for quickly-changing weather and a steep climb. Especially from the Mammoth side, there’s a lot — about 1,000 feet — of climbing.
“You really have to earn that flat riding,” Bartlett said.
Facilities in the park are still closed, so the farther into the park you go, the better prepared you need to be to fix your bike or conduct a self-rescue. Biking Yellowstone is an amazing way to see the park, said Tim Young, director of Wyoming Pathways. It’s quiet and peaceful.
“The park, nature, streams and wildlife are waking up and it’s incredible to be there for that,” he said.
But it’s an adventure that could be even greater if the park opened more roads. Along with the road between West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs, the North to Northeast Entrance from Gardiner, Montana to Cooke City, Montana is open all year. A short segment from the east entrance and the route from the South entrance to West Thumb is open once conditions allow. But even in years like this one when the snow melts quickly, some roads, like the one to Old Faithful, remain closed. Opening these areas in years like this one could enhance bike access, Young said.
The park limits access for a variety of reasons. Often times the roads aren’t fully cleared of snow, because staff works on plowing the main road first. In years when the roads dry early, wildlife is an issue. Animals are just waking, and they don’t need the added stress of people walking or cycling in those areas. Often there are carcasses left in the area which draw bears and boosts the chance of bear encounters.
Young says he understands concerns about bears and the limited staffing, but thinks the park could give visitors information and emphasize caution at the gate. Visitors could assume the risk like they do with any other backcountry experience in the park.
“It’s a means to get to the park and through the park in a very environmentally friendly way,” he said. “It’s a great way to build a special connection with the park. There’s very few cars and it’s pretty much wide-open space.”
There are a few vehicles on the road for construction projects and some staff, so cyclists need to follow the rules of the road, Bartlett said. A construction project north of Norris also means bikes need to be prepared for some dirt-road travel.
People also need to carry bear spray and watch for wildlife. If there are bison the road, keep your distance, Bartlett said. Don’t try to make them run. Give them as much space as possible and be prepared to turn around.
The roads in Yellowstone open to car traffic April 17, but there will be few cars in the park until June, Bartlett said. It’s still a great time for people to ride to Old Faithful and explore the rest of the park, she said. Once peak visitation starts for the summer, bikes are still allowed on the road, but people need to watch for RVs and big vehicles.
Grand Teton National Park also opened its road early to cyclists this year. The road between the Taggart Lake parking and Signal Mountain Lodge — a 15-mile stretch — opened March 27 to bikes, walkers and even roller-blades. People can take advantage of the car-free road until May 1.
Walking, rollerblading and biking the Teton Park Road without vehicle traffic is a “rite of spring” for residents and visitors to the park, said Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman at Grand Teton. If you go early you have the road to yourself. If you go in the afternoon, it’s a social gathering, Skaggs said.
It often takes several weeks of plowing to expose the pavement on the Teton Park Road. This year, according to the park, the thin snow cover meant staff cleared it in a single week giving an extra week of non-motorized use. Year-round bikes can use the same roads as vehicles, but when covered in snow, the Teton Park Road is not open to bikes. The multi-use pathways from Gros Ventre Jct. to Moose and from Moose to south Jenny Lake are also open, but these pathways still have some lingering snowdrifts in places, Skagg said.
Spring time adventure-seekers must still be alert for the occasional park vehicle on the roadway and crews clearing auxiliary roads and wayside areas. Bears are also awake and active and visitors should carry bear spray, make noise, travel in groups and maintain a 100-yard distance from the animals.