It was awesome. Singlehandedly the best ride of the trip and will be very difficult to surpass.
We woke up to hear the wind hadn’t settled at all from the night before. It was coming down the Rockies and meant that pulling my tent down was a hassle because as soon as the pegs came out, it wanted to blow away. After the tent came down, I headed over to the bear boxes to get our bags. St Mary was bear country and any bags that had food or smelly things in, including deodorant, had to be stored there. We had just gone with the easy option of throwing everything in as there was plenty of space.
The campground was actually just inside the national park, so we headed out of Glacier to the visitor centre to get some information and so we would ride all of the Going to the Sun road. There was also the idea of going out to the town to get some snacks, but it would have been a 4-5 mile loop and, with the headwind, didn’t sound worth it.
At the visitor centre we watched a video where we learnt that grizzly bears ate 100,000 huckleberries a day as well as about the fall in the number of glaciers over recent times. Nothing was mentioned about global warming, it just seemed to suggest that it was a natural occurrence which C felt was strange. We also got advice about possible hikes and places to camp, including one that was about 8 miles down the road if we really didn’t enjoy the wind.
Heading out of the centre, I was excited but slightly nervous. It would be our biggest climb – from 4200 to 6500ft, but that wasn’t the concern. I was worried that if we had to contend with as strong a wind as we had been, it would make for a very long day.
The first few miles of riding were wonderful. They were quite flat, next to a glacial lake and with the Rockies towering above us. The grey sky was the biggest downer and was leading to views and pictures that weren’t as clear as I’d hoped for. The wind was gusting at times, but was generally not too bad. We were making steady progress and I was feeling strong. Traffic was giving us lots of space, and we even had motorbikes with British licence plates overtake us. When I saw the first one I was sure I was wrong, but it was followed by a couple more and then I was just confused.
When we got to the next viewpoint, we pulled over and saw our second black bear. It had been fishing in the lake just before we got there and was now sat in the bushes about 100ft below us. It was fun to see it although I did wish I’d seen it fishing. We also saw another fun thing while there, the 3 motorbikes with British plates were parked a bit further along. I headed over to talk to them and learnt that they were a few weeks in to an organised Alaska-Argentina ride that would take about 4 months. They were having an amazing time and, having seen countless grizzlies in Alaska, weren’t as excited as we were to see the black bear by the lake.
A little further down the road the climb actually started. It was about 6%, a very doable grade. We spent the next 90 minutes or so gradually climbing up and making steady progress. We stopped at every viewpoint to take pictures and enjoy the spectacular views. I had thought that the rests would have been great for recovery too, but because of the grade they weren’t essential.
Work is being done on the mountain 24/7 throughout the summer, and the top of road is closed all night other than a 20 minute window where they take a break. When we got within 4-5 miles of the top, construction started. There had been big avalanches earlier in the year which combined with the long winter had meant the road hadn’t opened until July 15th and so there was a lot of work to do. Flaggers would control traffic flow to minimise the chance of accidents and they made us let all cars go first and then follow. I was told that the policy had been introduced the previous year after a cyclist had been hit the year before.
The flaggers slowed us down, but allowed us to get more pictures from places we wouldn’t have been able to stop at normally. It also gave C some rest time, as she was falling behind me and starting to struggle. I’m not a fast rider, but if I have a strength it’s my consistent endurance and going up long climbs.
I made it to the visitor’s centre at the top and we had our first negative experience for a while. There was a ramp that headed up from the car park to the toilets and so I rode slowly up it. When I got there an official woman started shouting at me that cyclists weren’t allowed up and that I’d ignored the no cyclist sign. I hadn’t seen one, but apologised assuming I’d been wrong and said I’d go and put my bicycle down at the bottom. I went down and put my bike in the camouflaged bike rack and looked around for a no cyclist sign. There wasn’t one. The only sign I saw was one that said pets were prohibited. Maybe the lady thought that my bicycle was a pet, but I didn’t. I walked up to the visitor centre to speak to her and point out the lack of a sign. She didn’t seem to want to listen to what I had to say and was still adamant that I was wrong. I explained there wasn’t a sign and that while I understand it’s a busy area that cyclists who have spent the last 2-3 hours climbing would probably prefer not to be yelled at for not following a rule they didn’t know existed. She wouldn’t pay attention so I headed outside to relax. 30 minutes later I was still kinda annoyed so went back in and filled out an official complaint form about her behaviour. The reaction she had to both C & I had tainted what should have been a really positive experience.
After that incident it was starting to get a bit chilly standing round. There was a couple of hour hike, but we no longer felt in the mood. We decided to ride the 30 miles down the west side of the mountain to a campground at Apgar. After we got down a couple of miles we started to get in to the sun and warmed up quickly. The west side was even greener and more beautiful than the other side had been. I think it was also helped by going down as well as the sun making the area glow. One of my highlights was seeing an Alabama licence plate, the first one I remember seeing since I started the licence plate game (trying to get a picture of a plate from each state) back in Washington DC.
Near the bottom when the road flattened out, C was starting to tire and by the time we got to Apgar she was definitely done. We found the hiker biker section of the campground and threw our tents up. We met Clay & Aaron, two backpackers who were sharing the site. They were both using bivis which sounded so tempting to save weight, but I’m not sure how I’d feel leaving my bags in the open if I camp in a public park. We spent the evening talking with Aaron, who was on a trip from Seattle to Minnesota, and made plans to hike the next day. Crawling in to the tent I felt a sense of satisfaction of having crossed the Rockies and fell asleep almost instantly.