A Change In Plans: Bikepacking In Big Sky Country, Montana
Meaghan Hackinen is a Canadian ultra-endurance cyclist and writer whose adventures have brought her around the globe from Mexico to Europe and across Canada and the United States. Last summer, Meaghan had to drop out of a race at the last minute but still managed to find an adventure in Big Sky Country, Montana. Let's Go.
I pedal out of Bozeman, alone. Modern ranch-style housing developments recede as the pavement transitions to hard-packed gravel, heading north through the sweep of golden plains. My pace drops once I hit the climb, forehead and neck beading sweat. I ascend Rocky Mountain Road under a hard morning sun, eyes darting between hawks that alight on wooden fence posts.
The weight of my loaded Salsa Cutthroat surprises me, unnoticed on the flats but cumbersome with the slightest increase in grade. I glance down at my right knee, concealed within a black fabric brace. Further to my right, fields tumble into the foothills of the Bridger Range, a subrange of the Rockies that captivates me with its deep, furrowed gulches and imposing peaks. My route veers left—west—however, carving through arid ranch land on a rollercoaster of a road that dips, banks, and climbs until it drops into Three Rivers. There, I stop for pecan pie at the Iron Horse Cafe, the same restaurant that Big Sky Spectactulaire participants visited yesterday to earn their time bonuses.
The Big Sky Spectaculaire is a 1,435 km mixed-surface bikepacking race that takes place every year in late August, exploring Southwest and Central Montana on a fast yet challenging mix of pavement, gravel, and double-track. With time bonuses for pie and promises of “majestic views from sunrise to sunset and star-filled skies,” I was in.
Then an old knee injury flared up after finishing the Transcontinental Race in mid-August. I departed for Bozeman, Montana in a knee brace, still hoping for a miraculous recovery. My partner, James (also racing), and I tackled the 800 km drive in two days, our lively conversations about sleep strategy and resupply interrupted only by gas station pitstops for terrible coffee. A pre-ride briefing provided an opportunity to meet other riders on the eve of the race, my knee out of sight, out of mind beneath the picnic table. But alone with James in the camper van that evening, I opened up.
“If you thought you had a fifty percent chance of DNF'ing, would you still compete?” I asked. “For instance, if the scratch rate usually hovers around fifty percent, and on top of that you personally only had a fifty percent chance of success, would you start if the likelihood of finishing was, say, twenty-five percent?” “I'm not sure about your math,” said James, without looking up from his last-minute preparations. “My knee is pretty bad.” “You're not going to race?” he asked, turning to face me. “We'll see.”
The next morning, James and the rest of the grand depart left without me.
My first day was a bust: at the pie shop in Three Rivers I noticed my Spot GPS tracker missing, and spent the afternoon retracing my tracks up Rocky Mountain Road to find the device nestled amongst fragrant sage. Discouraged and more than halfway back to Bozeman anyways, I returned to the van to ice my aching knee.
The next morning I'm back in the saddle, however, determined not to bail on two adventures. To shave off some miles, I opt for a more direct, paved route to Three Forks, and by noon I'm rumbling south on an unmaintained gravel road alongside hazy fields and cattle ranches, alone aside from the occasional pickup truck that dusts me in passing.
My route—the whimsically named Spectaculaire-Odyssey—was created by Graham Goff, race director of Montana's rival bikepacking event, the Big Sky Odyssey. Craftily linking sections of both routes, the Spectaculaire-Odyssey showcases regional highlights, including the Ruby Range, Big Hole River, and Cougar Canyon in a 570 km primarily off-pavement loop.
After a beef dip sandwich at a classic American diner in Harrison and a brief stint breathing the fumes of big rigs on Highway 287, I peel off to follow rougher mountain roads over a short, satisfying climb. Rocky outcroppings punctate a green conifer forest that gives way to grassland as I soar down into the heat-drenched valley, around wind-chopped Ennis Lake, and then onto Ennis.
I am excited to be back in Ennis, a one-horse town that feels like a big city after the quiet solitude of backroads. In 2017, I passed through Ennis briefly during the Trans Am Bike Race, but other than the dingy motel that I holed up in to escape the havoc-wreaking headwind, I witnessed little. This time, I treat myself to a post-ride dunk in the river and stay the entire night. Rachel, my generous Warmshowers host, has three other guests: a young couple from the Netherlands touring the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and an American veteran crossing the country from west to east. We dine al fresco on Rachel's rustic patio, swapping stories late into the night and discussing everything from food—a favourite topic among cyclists of all stripes—to the quirks of life on the road as the stars pulse brightly overhead. Bellies full of bratwurst and heads thick with whisky.
My knee buckles while I'm climbing out of Ennis. The joint gives so abruptly, I can do nothing but exclaim into the pain as I shift my weight to the other leg, continuing my achingly slow ascent into the foothills of the Gravelly Range. The loose shifting road surface adds another layer of instability, though all around is wonder: mighty distant peaks that emerge from a soup of cloud; the undisturbed blue of Axolotl Lakes glimmering in striking contrast to verdant woods.
I pause near the summit to soak in the view. I'm also trepidacious about continuing into unknown territory with an unstable knee, but it's not like I'm bushwhacking into Virginia City. Besides, it's more downhill than up.
Just take things at your own pace, I remind myself. And I do just that: braking for bulls that I mistake for black bears and pausing to assess the steep, rutted double track.
I'm soaked to the bone by the time I arrive at Twin Bridges Bike Camp that evening. The thunderstorm I'd been trying to outrun since Dillon caught up with me a few miles from town. My knee buckled again on the hot, heavy grind over the Ruby Mountains, but scarier still was narrowly avoiding a rattlesnake, sunning itself on the range road.
But the highlights outweigh the lows: from an impromptu lunch with another bikepacker to expansive big-sky views, to the swashbuckling descent into Dillon where I transformed into a cowboy: pedals parallel and knees slightly splayed, tucked low in the drops as I steered my carbon pony—it's unbelievable how much can happen in an afternoon.
Twin Bridges (population 351) is a fly-fishing mecca at the confluence of the Big Hole, Ruby, and Beaverhead Rivers, and my companion tonight is a drifter named Tom, hunkered down in the Bike Camp to recover from food poisoning. At first, I'm affronted. Tom's possessions sprawl on every surface—he doesn't even own a bike. But once we start chatting, I experience a change of heart: this cozy bunkhouse is a sanctuary for the weary traveler.
Still, I can't shake the discomfort of sleeping alongside a stranger in a small, confined space. After devouring a personal pizza from The Shack (highly recommend), I unfurl my bivvy on the grassy riverside, only to scurry indoors at the first clap of thunder. My body relaxes into the threadbare sofa while a few feet away, Tom's booming snores mingle with the deluge drumming against the metal rooftop.
I surprise myself by rising early, despite the absence of an alarm. A peek outdoors reveals crisp, clear sky and a few wispy clouds that hardly hint at last night's storm. Eager to knock off some miles before the smothering midday heat, I pack up. Soon, I'm blazing north on unpaved range roads, the Tobacco Root Mountains rearing up to my right and the Big Hole River snaking S-bends on my left. I stop to apply sunscreen and snap photos that don't come close to capturing Montana's natural grandeur, but it's enough just to be here.
In Whitehall, I check the race tracker as I dig into a farmer's breakfast: James is in the lead and rapidly approaching the finish. Instead of staying out for another night, I opt for a big push into Bozeman so I can celebrate his arrival. Luckily, a gusty tailwind helps me on my way as I breeze east over secondary roads that circumvent the highway in delightfully unusual ways.
Although I didn't accomplish what I set out to, after four days of exploring Montana's backroads and byways I've found fulfillment, despite the current limitations of my body. I didn't carve out space for touring in this season's busy event calendar, and that was a mistake. As much as I revel in the chase of bikepack racing, slowing pace to balance stop-time with motion has its own unique rewards, opening doors for human connection and increased self-awareness, off the beaten path. This journey has offered a preview of the Last Best Place, and I'll definitely be back.
Right now, however, I look forward to reuniting with James when he crosses the finish line. To the east, storm clouds are brewing, another afternoon downpour imminently approaching. But I couldn't care less. Each pedal stroke brings me closer to the end, and I plan to savor every last one.
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