Bikepacking Montana Trip Report

Shortly after the Gals at the Dalles trip in May, Whitney Ford Terry from the Montana contingent sent out an invite: 

Round TWO, Montana remix. I know its only been a few days but i'm always scheming. August 4-6th Whitefish loop through Glacier National Park to the lovely Polebridge Mercantile and back. You can roll your bike right up to the Amtrak station in PDX or SEA and take the train to Whitefish!
Who's in?

Without hesitation, I booked my Amtrak tickets, asked for vacation time, and it was a done deal. Logistics of figuring out how to bikepack on my bike would come later. I was going to Montana!

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Gear

I rode my bike that I ride for every other ride, Surly Straggler 650b. The primary modifications I made to make this a "bikepacking" trip (instead of bikecamping) was to add a framebag, butt rocket, and a Tubus low-rider front rack. I also removed my rear rack and fenders to make it as light as possible. 

Big thanks to my friend Greg for letting me borrow his Tubus rack, Madi for letting me use her panniers, and Josh for selling me his Blackburn buttrocket!

I didn't do a good job taking a photo of my pre-packed kit but basically I took everything I usually take bike camping, with a bit more attention paid to how I pack and food. With 1 planned resupply, it was important to know exactly what my meals were going to be.

Day 0 - Transportation, Whitefish, & Whitefish Bike Retreat

I took the Amtrak train from Seattle to Whitefish on Wednesday night. The train left Seattle around 4pm and got to Montana at 7am. This gave me lots of time in Whitefish on Thursday to explore town, stop by the local bike shop (with tons of touring cyclists in town), and get some fresh veggies at the grocery store.

The plan was to meet up with the Montana contingent at the Whitefish Bike Retreat around 2pm, so I had 7 hours to relax and explore town. My initial plan was to bike the 10 miles from town to the bike retreat, but after chatting with the folks at Whitefish Cycles, they warned me that the road was an 80mph highway and I'd be better off calling the free shuttle. Taking their advice (and free gear storage), I unloaded my panniers and set off to explore town, while waiting for the 3pm shuttle.

Google Maps doesn't a very good job routing you onto the bike paths, but I eventually found a great route to the local state park where I ate lunch and psyched myself up mentally for the upcoming ride. I also found a great hidden little spot to jump in the river naked (or so I thought until a few kayakers went by. Sorry!)

After a lazy day exploring, I eventually made my way back to town where I caught the shuttle out to the Whitefish Bike Retreat. There, I met up with Whitney Ford Terry, Laurie, and Annette who drove in from Missoula. We set up camp for the night, put together their bikes, and then explored the single-track by the bike retreat. 

Single track at the bike retreat!

Single track at the bike retreat!

Now, I don't love single-track. At all. But this was fun to ride on. We rode 3 or 4 miles to a hidden alpine lake where we were the only people for miles and  I skinny-dipped for the 2nd time that day. Pure perfection!

Day 1 - Whitefish to Apgar (by way of FAFFING around)

Friday was our first actual day of planned riding, and with 30ish miles planned, we had a fairly easy day planned. We took the free shuttle back into Whitefish where we met up with the Portland based crew made up with Jocelyn, Molly, and Christy, who had just arrived on the train.

In what would come to be a theme of the weekend, we fucked around forever in Whitefish, adjusting gear, buying coffee and more groceries (is 5 tuna packets enough? No...better buy one more just in case!), and reapplying sunscreen. Finally, around 11:30am we rolled out.

The first 5ish miles were on pavement, but we quickly made a turn onto gravel and didn't see pavement again until late in the afternoon. 

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The riding was super enjoyable, with mellow climbs, fast descents, and signs of wildlife all around (but no actual bear spottings.) We made a brief detour at lunch to eat by a lake and all throughout the day, our spirits were super high. We even found a spring water cache of fresh, ice cold water on the side of the road! Does it get any better?

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Eventually, the gravel ran out and we were forced back into civilization in West Glacier. But civilization also meant ICE CREAM and beer! It was like Disneyland! A quick resupply, and then we were back on the path into Glacier.

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Through some sort of magic, just after the entrance to Glacier National Park, we took a bike path all the way to the Apgar Campground. This meant we avoided all the cars and were able to ride on most of the most beautiful bike paths I've ever been on. Highly recommend!

Day 2 - Apgar to Polebridge

I had been nervous about Day 2 since seeing the route. It was planned to be 44 miles and nearly 4,200 feet of climbing, including a mountain pass.

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Our route was intended to take us through Glacier National Park on the Inside North Fork Road , which is the least visited part of the park. Only the first 6 miles are open to cars, after which it is hiker-biker only. The entire road is also gravel and dirt. Woo wee, here we go.

Jocelyn admiring the scenery on Day 2.

Jocelyn admiring the scenery on Day 2.

We did not make it all the way to our intended destination. A combination of rougher going roads, slower traveling speeds, and challenging riding slowed us down. 

But oh my gosh was it pretty. After a seemingly endless climb, we eventually hit a plateau that was bursting with wild flowers and new growth. As you can see in the photo of Jocelyn, the area had a wildfire a few years ago, so most of the big trees were gone, but there was tons of new growth. 

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We also encountered more bear poop than I ever want to see again. Thankfully, no actual bears, but I was definitely on watch for them. Most of us, myself included were riding with bear spray. Mine was in my feedbag (attached to my handlebars), which is usually used for snacks and a camera. For this ride, it was for bear spray.  At some point I noticed however that my feed bag was empty. Bummer. Somebody gets a good ground score!

Anyway, late in the day we eventually made it to Polebridge, which is the cutest little town ever. They've got a bar, a mercantile/bakery, a few houses, and a hostel. But that was the best damn little town I've been to in my life. 

The bakery offers up excellent home baked goods, cold beers, and great food. They also give a free pastry if you arrive via foot or bike, which was absolutely amazing after riding all day.

All of us practically collapsed on the porch of the mercantile, replenishing calories and dreading the remaining 17 miles for the day. It was all uphill over Red Meadow pass. And boy did we not want to do it. Somebody came up with the idea of sleeping in Polebridge and once I heard that, I knew I wasn't getting back on my bike for any significant distance.

We made arrangements to camp at the hostel, which offered a real kitchen and SHOWERS! I know it had only been 2 days, but damn did I need a shower. I'm not really cut out for the life of a long-distance/real bike packer. I like my creature comforts.

We also got to watch a solar film festival that was touring through the town, which was pretty cool.

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Day 3 - Polebridge to Whitefish

Sunday presented two options: complete the original route, including Red Meadow pass for the return to Whitefish, or a much lower elevation, similar distance route. I was still pretty gassed from the previous day's riding and was not stoked on a huge climb. I made the decision to take the alternate route, which looked to be about 50 miles back to Whitefish through Columbia Falls. One of the other women, Christy also decided to join me.

Our plan to get back to Whitefish from Polebridge

Our plan to get back to Whitefish from Polebridge

We all left together early Sunday and split off at mile 1 for what would prove to be the longest distance day yet. The first 30ish miles were all gravel, but they followed the river from Polebridge to Columbia Falls. This meant the elevation gain/loss was minimal and the riding was pretty easy. The kind of gravel riding that I love and excel on.

#roadslikethese 

#roadslikethese 

At some point, the gravel transitioned back to pavement, the speed limit went from 25 to 70 (WTF?!) and the magic sort of drained out of the trip. It was also nearing 95 degrees, and we were ready to be done with the riding.

After many stops in the river to cool off/refill water (hooray for portable filtration), we made it back to Whitefish. About an hour later, the rest of the crew arrived who had taken the other route and we were a big happy family yet again.

We stuffed our faces with celebratory burgers and beers, took lots of pictures of our dirty bikes, and said our goodbyes. I got on the train back to Seattle with a full heart, tan (and dusty) legs, and a yearning for more riding in Montana.

Huge thanks to Whitney for putting the route together for us (adapted from this Bikepacking route), and for all of the other women for their encouragement and companionship on the ride!