Cycling Glacier and Waterton Lakes is very popular for cyclists and I understand why. Great scenery, interesting wildlife, challenging hills, good historical sites, and the camaraderie of meeting many cyclists make this loop a “must do.”
Day 1 – Columbia Falls to Avalanche Campground, Glacier (37 miles, 1675 ft. elev. gain)
After a good coffee, quiche and French toast at the Montana Coffee Company we took the North Fork Road 486 to Blankenship Road to Belton Stage Coach road to a cycle path parallel to Highway 2 thus avoiding all traffic to West Yellowstone.
We ate picnic lunch in Apgar on the shore of Lake McDonald and swam to cool off while killing time until 4:00 pm when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is again open to cyclists. (Note- Cyclists may only use Going-to-the-Sun Road before 11:00 am and after 4:00 pm.)
At exactly 4:00 pm we cycled to Avalanche Campground where we shared the hiker/biker space with 7 other tents. We chose this campground because it’s the closest to Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The crowded campsite made for a fun evening with good conversation. My only regret is that we did not stop at the Lake McDonald lodge for dinner. before setting up camp. I hear it’s good food in a beautiful lodge.
Day 2 – Avalanche Campground to St. Mary’s Campground over Going-to-the-Sun Road. (35 miles and 3717 ft. elev. gain)
We can thank the many joyful songbirds birds for our early start at 5:30 am. Cliff bars and a shared can of Starbucks espresso constituted breakfast, functional but not enjoyable.
What can I say about Going-to-the-Sun Road?! It is beautiful with glimpses of tall glaciers on three sides and a view to McDonald creek in the valley.
The winding road built in 1929 shares all of the typical National Park Service early construction projects including narrow lanes, tunnels, stone retaining walls, sharp curves, and splendor. This ride is 11 miles of steady 6% grade with plenty of pull-outs to stop, take pictures, and allow the many cars to pass. Even with our early start there was plenty of traffic.
We spent almost two hours at Logan Pass – enjoyed a hike through the snow, a great view of a mountain goat, and a picnic lunch. There were many skiers hiking up to do some glacier skiing.
The ride down was fast until just before Rising Sun where it got very hot and hilly. We dragged ourselves into the Two Dog Restaurant and enjoyed the air-conditioning almost more than lunch.
We rolled into the St. Mary’s campground around 2:00. After setting up camp we cycled to the visitor’s center and took a nap in the air-conditioned auditorium while a 15 minute film about Glacier played.
We rinsed off the sweat and did laundry in the freezing cold St. Mary River near our campsite and then ate dinner in St. Mary’s. It was probably a good thing that, due to a Blackfoot Native American Festival, no alcohol was served. As much as we wanted a beer, the four glasses of lemonade we gulped down were probably a better solution for our dehydration.
The dinner was surprisingly delicious: salmon with huckleberries, a salad with huckleberry vinaigrette, and huckleberry crumble with ice cream for dessert.
A “small-world” kind of moment was when we met our camp neighbors and one of the women happened to be from Grand Junction 10 miles from Fruita.
Day 3 – St. Mary Campground, USA to Waterton Town Campground in Waterton, Canada. (50 miles, 3000 ft. Elev. gain)
Today was Eric’s favorite road. Once we turned north onto Highway 17 and entered Canada at Chief Mountain, the traffic dropped off significantly, the shoulder got wider, the pavement smoother, and the scenery became equally spectacular to the Glacier side.
To make the day even more enjoyable we crossed paths with many cyclists – a group BAC (Bicycle Adventure Club) with about 24 riders going from Missoula to Fernie. We also met a German from Bingen (near Frankfurt) and saw some additional bike packers.
Canadian National Parks are a little different from American National Parks in that they don’t reserve hiker/biker campsites. I was a little nervous as we approached the Waterton Lakes park entrance. But two good things happened. First there was no park entrance fee. All Canadian parks are free in celebration of Canada 150 (150 years of being a country). Second, the ranger at the entrance booth called ahead to the Waterton Townsite Campground and reserved one of the few remaining spots for us.
This Townsite campsite is bucolic. Located less than 100 yards from the shore of Lake Waterton and surrounded by Glaciers, this clean campsite includes covered cooking pavilions and REALLY hot, really beautiful showers!!!
A cold pint of Canadian pilsner, a tasty pizza and salad, and a huge bowl of ice cream revived us enough to cycle up the hill to the historic Prince of Whales Hotel overlooking Waterton Lake. Built by an American railroad tycoon who recognized the idyllic location suspected thirsty Americans would cross the border during Prohibition for a drink with a stunning view. What a visionary!
Day 4 – Waterton to Pincher Creek – (36 miles 1200 ft. Elev.) – Rolling hills and hot.
We took advantage of camping in a hip, touristy place by cycling to breakfast before packing up. Nothing like a good cup of coffee and a dry tent to start the day off right.
On our way out of town we stopped at the Welch’s Pie and Candy shop and had a lovely chat with the owner who is the most upbeat grandma and positive salesperson I’ve met in ages. We ended up with a delicious chunk of maple fudge and a slice of Saskatoon berry pie that we proceed to enjoy at the top of a very long hill climb.
When we arrived for the night in Pincher Creek we joined a “happy hour” with the group of 24 cyclists we kept passing or being passed on a supported tour with Bicycle Adventure Club (BAC). BAC seems like a nice combination of a supported tour with volunteer leaders sot he price is reasonable.
Day 5 – Pincher Creek to Blainemore (Crowsnest Pass Area)- 36 miles 1500 feet – Much cooler and a tail wind when we needed it.
Today was one of my favorite days because it included a lot of history.
In addition to the Hutterite farm lands just outside of Pincher Creek, we found the Leitch Collieries (the Scottish name for coal mines) which was a great history park explaining the mining operation in 1903 to about 1914 (just before WWI),
and the Frank Landslide exhibit which showed the largest landslide in North Americam occurring at 4:10 am on May 29, 1903 and lasted exactly 100 seconds, completely covering the train tracks, half of the town of Frank, and the road.
We also learned about the Hillcrest mine disaster in which over 180 miners died and was (and still is ) the worst mining disaster in Canada.
Although some of the history was quite sad, we found the lovely Lost Lemon Campground along a river.
Unfortunately, we were mostly stuck inside our tent trying to stay dry from the rain and hail and hoping lightening did not strike our tent for most of the night.
Day 6 – Blairemore to Fernie (50 miles 900 feet ascent, mostly descent)
The day started at 6 am with a hard rain so we packed up a wet tent. (Extra Weight..lol) But our spirits we not dampened because we’d heard about an amazing bakery in Coleman called Cinnabears. We cycled the 2.5 miles to Coleman along a beautiful cycle path only to find three other cyclists looking longingly through the windows of a closed storefront. Advice to future cyclists…plan your trip to Coleman so that you don’t arrive on a Tuesday or Wednesday, the days this famous bakery is closed.
Knowing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we cycled back 2.5 miles to Tim Horton’s before heading out.
The heavy rain accomplished two things. First it cleared the air and made for beautiful picture taking. Second, it brought all the glass to the road surface where I picked up a nice, big sliver resulting in a flat tired.
Fifteen minutes later we were back on the road with traffic, headwinds, and varying degrees of potholes and rough shoulders. Aside from a stop at the biggest truck in the world, the rest of the ride was uneventful and noisy.
We celebrated our arrival in Fernie with two pints of Project 9, a pilsner brewed in Fernie.
Impulsively we went to the local movie theater and watcher Spiderman 3 in 3D. The best part of the movie was the popcorn and cold bottle of water.
Days 7 and 8 – Rest Days in Fernie
Don’t underestimate the rejuvenating power of rest days. Being in one place, leaving panniers behind, and a more relaxed schedule are great for the soul.
Because Fernie is a VERY popular mountain biking town, we felt it deserved exploring by bicycle and hiking. Hindsight is 20-20 and we probably should have rented mountain bikes. Most of the trails around town are gravel but smooth enough for skinny tires. Where we struggled a bit was on the Lazy LIzzard Trail heading towards Island Lake Lodge. I was still carrying one rear pannier remnants of a trip to the laundry and Eric still had both front loaded front panniers, indications that we’d left our hotel room with no idea about how much Fernie is a mountain bike town.
On our second “rest” day we enjoyed a lovely hike and picnic to Fairy Falls.
We also ate lots of delicious food – tacos at Nevado, sushi at Yamagoya, and Indian at Tandoor and Grill – all worth trying.
Day 9 – Fernie, BC to Eureka, Montana (54 miles, 3084 ft. ascent)
The next three days were highlights for me because 1) we cycled with some Canadians who knew the scenic backroads, 2) we also cycled with some Italians who had a great sense of humor and 3) we were on very little paved road.
Leaving Fernie and using Cokato Road to Elko we avoided the busy highway 3 and enjoyed spectacular scenery and lots of shade. We joined highway 93 and crossed the US/Canadian Border at Rooseville after which we took a sharp right on airport road and, again, had a peaceful, traffic-free ride into Eureka where we spent the night.
Day 10 – Eureka to Polebridge, MT (57 miles, 1365 ft. ascent)
After a delicious breakfast at JAX in downtown Eureka we headed out of town US 93 at a long, rainy steady climb to Grave Creek Road where we again exited the highway. We then took NF 114 to Trail Creek Road and continued on towards Polebridge. Several parts of the road were rough and narrow, more appropriate for a 4-wheel drive but they were manageable with our slightly bigger tires.
This route actually follows part of the Great Divide Trail which inspired me to put that ride on my bucket list. We had a little bit of rain which made for good pictures and greatly appreciated much cooler temperatures.
We arrived at Polebridge, MT just in time for cold beers and prime rib at the Northern Lights Saloon. I could write an entire blog post on Polebridge but suffice it to say, it’s totally worth an overnight visit to experience the saloon at night and the mercantile and bakery for breakfast!
Another fun note about this place is that REI was filming ads for their website and they needed some ladies biking gloves. Be sure to check out REI’s fall website and see my “famous” well-worn cycling gloves.
We camped on the lawn in front of the Polebridge Hostel and enjoyed meeting hostel owner Oliver who also works as a part-time Forest Ranger at the Polebridge Ranger Station. j
Day 11 – Polebridge, MT to West Glacier and then back to Columbia Falls (52 miles, 2667 ft. ascent)
The pile of pastries and espresso for breakfast did not quite prepare me for the difficulty of today’s ride. We too the Inside NorthFork Road which is closed to cars about 7 miles south of the Polebridge Ranger station.
The good parts of this experience are that there was very little traffic, great scenery, and the road ends at Lake McDonald in West Glacier.
The less-than-ideal part of this experience is that the road is in very bad condition – bridges washed out, steep inclines, sharp rock piles to navigate. With a little maintenance, this would be a PERFECT cycling trail.
As it stand, the road gradually reverting back to wilderness. Luckily a refreshing dip in Lake McDonald revived me so I could appreciate that we’d completed such a great ride.
A picnic lunch, a double scoop of moose tracks ice cream and several liters of water later, we said “good-bye and thank you” to our Canadian Friends for showing us a beautiful ride.
We then cycled our last 20 miles into Columbia Falls where we met back up with old friends from Washington and enjoyed more food, beer, a hot shower and a good bed for the first time in several days.
This is another trip I highly recommend!