Big Sky Country. A couple of days ago, I overheard a guy at the table next to us in a local restaurant–ok, yes, I was eavesdropping–regaling his group with adventures at Glacier Park over 50 years ago when I remembered that I never did complete journaling our own trip to Montana in 2021. Unlike that guy, my husband and I have been to the state often several times each year. before Covid Interruptus, for the past 20 years. And, while each trip has been special, I’d not be a good “granny” if I didn’t choose the two for the births of grandchildren #2 and #3 as the most special,* and #2 was already graduating from high school. So, what else? Road trip . . . with bikes, of course.
Over the hill–way over–age-wise, we checked off several bucket-list cycling adventures and discovered some back roads in western Montana. We’d driven by Blue Slide Road that stretches between Trout Creek and Thompson Falls, MT many times on our day trips to Idaho, but on this trip we were actually staying on it.
While Montana is a HUGE state with LOTS of open land, it’s not ideal road cycling territory. The two-lane frontage roads that parallel major highways don’t normally have a lot of traffic, but never mind bike lanes, there are seldom any shoulders and the daytime speed limits may be 75mph. So, we chose our riding routes carefully, and we were rewarded for safety with beautiful scenery in early June, and few passers-by even in the midst of the area’s over-saturation with Covid refugees from the coastal western states.
The actual name of this tiny town is Wild Horse Plains. To us, it’s the last town we travel through from the airport in Missoula before reaching Thompson Falls. Where we have to slow down to 20mph for the 1/2 mile stretch of small shops and RR crossings. Where just past the town, we’re likely to see big horn sheep that love to “take the road” there. The town whose high school teams played our grandkids’ teams. It’s not a place we’d ever thought of stopping in, until this trip.
Just a turn off route 200 and a couple of blocks over the RR tracks, (Railroad tracks run aside the main streets of most western towns.) we found a small public park where we could park and unload our bikes for a ride through town to Lolo National Forest, 2 million acres of trees and wildlife. As we were setting out for our mid-day ride, a horse and buggy passed us; this was the 4th or 5th town in which we’d ridden on this trip that was home to either Amish or Mennonite families.
The ride, itself, was a pretty uneventful couple of hours–no need for the bear spray as we didn’t reach the forest’s roads–but we did climb one perspiration-producing hill that was a thrilling descent on the way back. A few locals in pickups passed us, each offering a wave and respectfully slowing down.
Unlike in the Northeast where we would meet other cyclists no matter the time of year or day of the week on a road like this, we were lonely travelers. Our gear included a couple of canisters of bear spray, per the advise of our older granddaughter, who had worked as a firefighter for the US Forest Service in the Plains Ranger Station the summer before.
Trout Creek is the other bookend for Thompson Falls. Another town in which we never before stopped for any reason on our annual day trips to Idaho. However, we found ourselves staying in a small cabin on Blue Slide Road on the Clark Fork River, 23 miles drive to our daughter’s and son-in-law’s home. Twenty-three miles would make a great bike trip, if it weren’t all on route 200 with its 70 – 75mph speed limit most of the way.
The longest ride I could convince Bill to do from our cabin a couple of times was down the western end of the road and over a bridge on 200 to the only market in town. Timing is everything in life, so no photos taken on that bridge as it took some pretty quick pedaling to avoid being on the short bridge with vehicles.
Trout Creek is a very deceptive little town. It took some searching to find the spot where our cabin’s owners told us they bike, but when we did, the search was worth it. Another bluebird perfect day for riding a couple of hours, this time with even fewer passing pickups. View of the snow-capped mountains made it hard to keep eyes on the road ahead of us that was a bit rougher than in Plains.
With no reliable cell service in Trout Creek, i.e. no GPS, we were afraid that doing the loop I chose from River Road might have had us been biting off more than we could do in the dry heat. We learned (the hard way, of course) early in our travels to the state that even a “short” back road could go on and on with no cross roads. To the “locals,” 30 miles is “just down the road a bit.”
This little town, excuse me, “city” with approximately 1,200 residents is our adopted home away from home. We spend every Christmas holiday there and when visiting do what the locals do. Attend HS basketball games. Eat breakfast at Minnie’s. Shop at Harvest Foods. But, the one thing that locals don’t do is bike through town. So, our pedaling was limited to a few loops around town roads on the shores of the Clark Fork River with our grandson. He considered it his “training” for our trip to the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho that he’d been looking forward to for the two years since we’d last done it. Unfortunately, nowhere in Sanders County could we replicate the experience of pedaling through the Taft Tunnel.
Our daughter, who spent lots of time around farms in New England, finally got her own acreage and barns a few years ago. Sanders County has a milder climate and longer growing season than most of the northwest, so we eat lots of fresh veggies whenever there.
Did I say how big Montana is? Two other more common modes of transportation than bicycles–an airstrip behind the house and train tracks across from it. Almost every small town has a small airport.
If I could sum up our rides on back roads in Sanders County, they were peaceful. And, awe-inspiring–not for their distances or challenges, but for all the beauty around us no matter which direction we looked.
We spent two weeks in Trout Creek and Thompson Falls. Much too little time with loved ones, but with lots of memories and adventures that had this granny in gear and keeping up with the young’uns. It’s six years until the next HS graduation; I plan to be still wheeling around on my ebike, God willing. After all, our grandson is counting on another trip over the Thompson Falls Pass into Idaho to the Hiawatha.