The Great Divide

A .kmz file of the route for Google Earth: Great Divide kmz

If you have between seven and fourteen weeks to spare and love mountain bike touring, this is the tour to take. I enjoyed every minute of it and have been heartily recommending it ever since. There are two caveats, it would be useful to have some sort of bike touring or backpacking experience beforehand and you must be prepared to cycle uphill, a lot.

Planning

That said, this is not an especially difficult route to plan as Adventure Cycling have done all the hard work for you. They initially planned a route that ran from the Canadian border with Montana, through Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado and finished at the New Mexico border with Mexico. Since I rode the route, they have added a short northern extension up to Banff National Park in Canada making the total route distance 2700 miles. After riding some extra off route into towns for food and accommodation, I’d expect this to rise to over 3000 miles.

The book on the route is available from Adventure Cycling and also from Amazon in the UK, and details more or less everything you need to know. It is well worth also buying their maps of the route which show helpful things like food shops, campsites and bike repair services. They also include some elevation diagrams which, unfortunately are so inaccurate as to actually be a hindrance in planning your day.

Of course there is no need to ride the whole route in one go. It can easily be broken down into shorter chunks; my friend Fraser who was unable to take more than three weeks off work, rode with me from Canada to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For a short trip, this section through Montana is probably the one to do since it is incredibly beautiful, and doesn’t have the really high mountains of Colorado or the desert of Wyoming or New Mexico.

My family, and other animals

I won’t go into details on the route since it is readily available elsewhere. Likewise, I won’t exhaust my superlatives on the scenery: have a look at the photos. Instead, perhaps I should mention a few things that you might not have expected on a trip of this nature.

It is very much a wilderness experience, you’ll be camped under the stars for the majority of nights. You’ll see a fair bit of wildlife too, hopefully not within your tent. Grizzly and black bears are common though we didn’t encounter any. We did see moose, elk, deer, chipmunks, a diamondback rattlesnake, black widows and we heard plenty of coyotes.

Most riders invest in some anti-bear pepper spray, which the man in the shop was keen to tell us would also work on mountain lions, before adding ‘of course, you’d never see a mountain lion coming’.

There are plenty of interesting human characters to meet too. This is small town America and it’s inhabitants are some of the friendliest anywhere. If you’re coming from overseas, they won’t share your political views and they won’t have a clue where you live, but they’ll help you in any way they can.

We spent a great evening at Warm River campground in Idaho with two seperate local families. First, we were lent an inflatable raft to float down the river, given beers to drink in the raft, and given a lift back in the kind raft-owners truck. The name of our benefactor? ‘They call me The Bullet’, he said.

After The Bullet had left, leaving us with a further 10 beers, we were invited to our neighbours’ camp dinner. The happy family we dined with was the result of a successful first date in which Romeo had taken his future wife bear-baiting. One to try in the future…

Five very different states

The crossing to Colorado exemplified one of the striking things about this route: the sudden scenery changes. The Divide in Wyoming is made up of the Great Divide Basin, a desert where little rain falls and, that which does drains inwards and evaporates. There’s little surface water and we ended up doing big milages, 100 mainly off-road miles in a day at one point, in order to reach water sources. A fascinating experience but we were certainly glad to reach the state border!

All at once, the scenery changed. Now it was lush green alpine meadows and aspen trees. The first store that we arrived at was a beutiful timber cabin with a healthfood cafe, a welcome contrast to greasy Wyoming fare. That’s one of the things about the Divide – just when you might be getting bored of it, it throws up something completely new and fresh. It does this time and time again, more-so than any other route I’ve ridden making the experience that much more compelling.

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