Montana Motorcycle Rides: Touring Big Sky Country
Story by Roger Hotelling
[Montana Motorcycle Rides: Touring Big Sky Country was originally published in American Rider magazine]
Our Montana ride began with two thunderstorms. Not good omens. We were finally on dry pavement, our rainsuits repacked and the Ultra’s cruise control set on 75. Sue and I were crossing eastern Washington on our way to Billings, Montana, where we’d meet the rest of our tour group. I was looking around at miles of deserted country and Sue was about to doze off on the back, when we hit something. I still don’t know what it was. The first thing I saw was the fairing-mounted GPS flying through the air. I thought it was gone for good.
Then I felt something odd, looked down, and there it was, balanced on my leg, up against the gas tank. I grabbed it. Right when I slid it back on the fairing, the rear tire went soft and squishy. In the space of a few seconds, the back of the bike (with my wife Sue and a full complement of gear) was fishtailing back and forth about 20 degrees each way. No time to get to the right shoulder. I managed to get the bike safely stopped on the left side, partially in the median, then very carefully separated myself from the seat and calmed down for a few minutes.
The rest of the 4th of July consisted of getting towed to Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they happened to be having their grand opening. Greg Ernst, the owner, was nice enough to hold the doors open for us so the bike could be locked up for the night. They had us back on the road in the morning, right on schedule. Very nice folks in Coeur d’Alene.
So began our five-day trip through some of the most beautiful riding country we’ve ever seen. I’m very happy to say that the rest of the 2,200-mile trip was mechanically uneventful.
Still on the way to Billings, we found a little gem of a town worthy of mention: Anaconda, Montana, a former copper-mining town, now home to a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course. The people were delightful. We were even able to get into the local theatre for an after-hours tour. Anaconda has one of the premier historical theatres in the country and it would put many big-city theatres to shame. Anaconda also has the honor of being the former home of a Medal of Honor winner from the Civil War.
In Billings we met up with our official tour guide, Steve Riebe, the owner of Northwest Motorcycle Tours, out of Whitefish, Montana. We told him we had five days to see the best parts of Montana. He took it from there, providing us with a leather-bound tour book with each leg of our trip mapped out, including descriptions of the unique things we’d see that day.
From Billings, Steve led us southwest on Highway 212 to Beartooth Pass. At 10,974 feet, Beartooth is a simply stunning alpine pass. A two-lane winding road will get you there, but it’s not a quickly traveled road, festooned as it is with hairpin turns and the occasional rough spot; we took our time and enjoyed the view. Guard rails are few and far between and it’s a ride that will challenge your skills, so leave the sightseeing to your passenger, at least until you stop at the scenic overlooks.
Descending the southwest side of the pass, we dipped in and out of Wyoming on our way to the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. In more than 30 years of riding, this was my first venture into the park, and to say it was worth the wait is an understatement. You will need to purchase a ticket for entrance, but that same ticket will get you into any other National Park. Don’t throw it away.
Traffic moved well in Yellowstone, even though we routinely saw buffalo, deer, elk, a couple of moose and the occasional antelope. The road meanders through the country with places to pull over and observe animals, but visitors are encouraged not to get out of their vehicles, as the wildlife is just that—wild. A motorcycle presents a couple of obstacles in that department and it’s probably best to keep moving, especially if you happen to see an animal larger than you. Although it was a little crowded for my taste in Mammoth Hot Springs, it was worth the stop simply to see the elk walking around the city park. There were 20 or 30 of them enjoying the clover, basking in the summer sun and observing the people that were observing them. A park ranger kept the really curious people back, as the elk are definitely wild. You really get a sense of perspective when you realize you’re not as tall as the shoulders of some of the bulls.
After Mammoth, we were eager to get out into the open spaces again. Our destination was pretty much the middle of nowhere, Chico Hot Springs. Once we left Yellowstone, we only had about 40 miles to go and we experienced the flavor of wide-open, Montana-long, straight stretches of deserted highway with nothing in sight. We located Chico Hot Springs nestled in a little valley in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountain Range, not far out of Pray, Montana. There really are hot springs there, and the 103-degree water was a relaxing finale to the day. The rooms are nice and with no television or telephones, relaxation is the norm.
The next day showed us a wonderful picture of what Montana was like in the 1860s. After rolling through little towns like Red Bluff, McAllister and Ennis along the Madison River, we pulled into Virginia City. Right out of the Old West, Virginia City is nearly all original. You can stroll the board sidewalks and look through the original windows into the stores as they were more than a century ago. Steve took great delight in showing us the original Hangman’s Building, where the local vigilantes hanged five men in 1864. It’s striking how small the buildings are. We needed to duck when going through doorways. It was well worth a couple of hours.
We hit the road after enjoying copious amounts of old-fashioned hand-made ice cream, and made our way to the Copper King Mansion bed-and-breakfast in Butte, another 75 miles north. A favorite touring waypoint, the Copper King Mansion was built as a private home in 1884 and is now a reasonably priced B&B. You cannot leave there without experiencing the only shower in the mansion. Possessing what seems like miles of perforated pipe and so many valves you can’t keep them all straight, it looks like some type of medieval machine of dubious purpose. Under the shower your experience will vary from needle-like jets of high-pressure scalding water, to a cold dousing. An invigorating experience, to say the least.
The next day took us to another equally interesting destination via 300 miles of what Montana is known for. We saw vistas that simply defy description. I remember riding through a vastness that seemed to have no end and wondering how in the world I would get the feeling across to readers. It looked like there was no end to the country. Empty space in every direction framed by an unending sky so blue it was mesmerizing. I constantly wondered what it would have been like in a horse-drawn wagon, making my way west.
The day’s ride came to an end at the Izaak Walton Inn, an active train stop and hotel in the foothills of the Rockies in Essex, Montana. It’s an oasis in the forest, complete with a restaurant, a bar, and a large lawn where guests can relax and watch the trains doing all their train-like things. In the surrounding area there are old cabooses that have been converted to hotel rooms. They’re not modern conveniences made to look Old West—they are Old West with a few conveniences added to make them comfortable for guests. You really get the flavor of what it was like a hundred years ago. We were right on the southern edge of Glacier National Park on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The next day would take us through undoubtedly the most beautiful country I’ve ever ridden through in this country of ours.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast in the inn’s restaurant, we backtracked a few miles east towards Kiowa, so that we could enter Glacier National Park from the east side. Steve’s plan for us was to take our time climbing 6,646-foot Logan Pass, motor down the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, and exit the park at West Glacier.
Once again, it is nearly impossible to describe the simple vastness of the country. Different from the empty expanses we had seen in the days before, Glacier Park consists of vibrant, aqua-colored glacier-fed lakes, the endless green of untouched forests and the ever-present blue of the Montana sky. Despite some traffic between East Glacier and Logan Pass, the road was a stunning mix of deserted stretches through the forest and occasional sections of steep climbs and switchbacks. It was definitely a 25- or 30-mph affair, and paying attention was the order of the day. It can be chilly there, so remember to wear layers. RVs, campers, boats and motorcycles abound and everyone is looking at the views. Once at the summit of Logan Pass, it seemed that there were motorcycles everywhere. Riders congregated in the parking lot to talk about the roads in both directions and what to expect. One group of riders was talking with a park ranger, and with binoculars they were watching a herd of absolutely huge bighorn sheep. There was some movement near the sheep, and the ranger identified a number of wolverines.
By this point, I was confident that the sights we’d seen could not be topped. That was all over when we began the descent from Logan Pass. I have never seen a road like the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Cut into the side of the mountain, it was a series of switchbacks that went from merely steep descents to awesome plunges through waterfall spray, with mountain goats munching the grass alongside the road. It is nearly inconceivable that a road was built on the sides of those mountains. In many places, the only barrier between us and hundreds of feet of drop-off was a stone wall, perhaps knee high. It wasn’t possible to even stop for pictures due to construction, the width of the road, and the need to stay out of the way of other traffic. The day’s ride was short in miles, but by far the most stunning of the trip. The remainder of the day consisted of riding a beautiful road winding through the trees and finishing up near Whitefish. We cruised into town where Steve hosted us at his home. There we washed a week’s worth of road grime off the bikes, recounted our thoughts about the trip, and contemplated what ride we might be able to do next summer that could even approach the beauty of western Montana.