Reprised a loop from three years ago with a few modifications/new roads thrown into the mix.
Highlights of the trip include:d Gibbons Pass from Sula to Jackson, the lovely view from Big Hole Pass and descending out of the Pioneer Mountains to Wise River in rain, hail and even some wet snow, on the way to Divide Bridge Campground (saw about a dozen GDMR participants); the rough, unpaved but isolated and beautiful Melrose Bench Road between Melrose and Twin Bridges, which is not for those with loose teeth, skinny tires or flimsy wheels; two relaxing days at the Twin Bridges Bike Camp, where I crossed paths with Cycle Montana and took a 21 mile spin to Sheridan and back; Pipe Stone Pass, which is harder than it looks on paper, on the way to Butte; the Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway up to Georgetown Lake and then down to the pleasant town of Philipsburg; panning for sapphires at Gem Mountain and the wet and wild ride over narrow, twisty, unpaved Skalkaho Pass to Hamilton.
I inadvertantly tossed my daily mileage log, but there this is the approximate breakdown:
Missoula to Sula: 83 miles
Sula to Jackson: 67 miles
Jackson to Divide: 76 miles
Divide to Twin Bridges: 34 miles
Twin Bridges to Butte: 47 miles
Butte to Philipsburg: 57 miles
Philipsburg to Hamilton: 64
Hamilton to ACA Headquarters: 43
Travel got off to a rough start. Unbeknownst to me, my 6:00 a.m. flight from PHL to CHI had been cancelled the night before due to weather in the Midwest and I had been rebooked PHL-IAD-DEN-MSO. Fortunately, the flight to IAD left at 6:14, so there was not much of an additional wait, but I had a 4 hr. layover at DEN, so I didn’t arrive at MSO until 5 p.m., well after the original 12:45 p.m. arrival that I had booked. By the time I could get a cab to the KOA, it was nearly 6 p.m. (I am wondering if I should move to the area and start my own cab company.) One of the reasons I chose to ship my bike to/from the Missoula REI is that you can literally see the back of the store from the campground office, and they are open relatively late. My fully-assembled bike, stove and fuel bottle were waiting there for me. I also picked dup some last minute supplies, like fuel. At $40 for assembly and another $40 for re-boxing, I feel I got a good deal compared to locally, where a LBS boxing will run you about $75.
The original riding plan was to spend one night in Twin Bridges, ride to Ennis the next day and then on to Butte. That would have necessitated an 86 mile day to Butte with a 4 mile, 4% climb early on, Pipestone Pass late in the day and likely lots of headwind riding in between. Seemed like the waste of a good hotel room in Butte (the Hotel Finlen rocks!) so I took it easy and ended up in Butte with plenty of energy to enjoy a good steak at Casagranda’s. Gem Mountain was fun. Walked away with a total of 15.02 ctw in small sapphires. Not going to retire on that, but it was still worth the $20 for the bucket of gravel.
Biggest disappointment was not seeing many exotic critters. I did catch a glimpse of one Dahl sheep. Other than that, there was nothing notable of the four legged variety. Birds were a plenty, including cranes, herons, a few vocal owls and what looked like ospreys. On the road to Twin Bridges I startled two Common Snipes, which proceeded to put on a noisy show for me.
I will post a link to photos once I have uploaded them to Flickr. Send me a PM if you would like route details. With some planning and alternative overnight stops, this route can be done as a “credit card” tour. It would be unwise to attempt it with skinnier tires and/or less than sturdy wheels without a few route modifications. (I rode 37c Conti Top Contact IIs While there is a paved, parallel alternative to Gibbons Pass (Lost Trail and Chief Joseph Passes), avoiding Melrose Bench and Skalkaho Rds. would require route modifications which, in my opinion, would significantly detract from the nature of the route. You might also have to do a bit of I-90 riding to escape Butte. There is a series of frontage roads that you can use to avoid I-90, but there is a mile or so of unpaved riding that might be dicey on anything less than 32c tires, but maybe not.