Riding Yellowstone’s big, silent landscapes while it’s still closed to cars

Every spring, Yellowstone National Park invites cyclists for a few magical days of exploring without cars.

I have a long history of visiting Yellowstone, but this was my first time riding a bike. I could not have been more stoked.

Massive ravens flew overhead or called from the trees. My tires hissed over the pavement or thumped over cracks and heaves created by countless freeze/thaw cycles. A breeze sighed through the lodgepole pines. None of it louder than my labored breathing. The road zig-zagged along the contour of the mountain climbing steadily toward the notch between Bunsen Peak and Terrace Mountain known as the Golden Gate. 

I rode right in the center of the lane to avoid the worst of the road damage. While there were no honking SUVs trying to get past, I wasn’t entirely alone out there. Several other cyclists were enjoying Yellowstone National Park’s annual bike-only week. Every spring, the National Park Service opens about fifty miles of roads including the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone to bikes and other non-motorized travel before opening up to cars, RVs, and buses. The result is a care-free tour of America’s first national park.

The road meandered through the jumble of fallen boulders known as the Hoodoos. In a car, they hardly draw a glance. On a bike, they rise up along the road like the broken white walls of a forgotten city.

hoodoos in Yellowstone Natioanl Park
The Hoodoos. Image care of National Park Service.

Millennia ago, the Hoodoos may once have been terraces like Mammoth Hot Springs. After the springs dried up and the travertine deposits they left stopped fortifying them, the terraces succumbed to gravity in one or more landslides that left boulders strewn across this meadow. Snow still covered the narrow, one-way track that cut off to the right through the heart of the boulder field. It was a remnant of the old stagecoach route that gave visitors a much closer look at the broken formation. The old road couldn’t handle the automobile revolution and had to be replaced with the current two-lane. It was a harbinger of much bigger changes to come. 

Yellowstone’s Golden Gate

Yellowstone is one of the most dynamic places in the world. Whether it’s the super-volcano that blew a 40-mile-wide hole in the Earth a few hundred thousand years ago or heavy snows that carve deep canyons and feed the Park’s abundant waterfalls, the landscape is in flux. There are also enormous human impacts which you’re more likely to see over a single lifetime. Some of those changes have been good for the ecosystem, like reintroducing the wolves. Others, like plugging hot springs with trash, not so much. I was riding during one of the most dynamic times in the Park, the dawning of spring. In the coming weeks, the snow would melt, the rivers would swell, and cars would come pouring through the gates.

Yellowstone’s Golden Gate and Rugged Falls still buried in spring snow.

Just past the Hoodoos, the canyon narrowed. The orange cliffs that Golden Gate is named for created perfect contrast with the blue sky while the sound of Glen Creek drifted up from below.

As I wove between patches of ice and rockslide debris, I started seeing other riders. A young couple passed while I stopped to take pictures. Two dudes on e-bikes whooshed by, their fat tires buzzing on the pavement. There were other solo riders and small groups. A woman on a carbon road bike decked out in flashy road cycling kit rode alongside a guy in a t-shirt and jeans on a 1970-something Schwinn cruiser. No single type of cyclist was over-represented here. We all waved and said “hi” when we passed each other. 

I stopped at a pull-out with a view of Rugged Falls. Spring runoff trickled over rhyolite terraces still under a thick covering of snow and ice. The sun and falling water lulled me into an almost hypnotic state as I sat on one of the massive stone blocks meant to keep cars from plunging into the canyon. 

Decades before, those same blocks saved me from falling into the falls. My family and I had been out cross-country skiing the Sheepeater Cliffs Trail which comes out of the woods on the Swan Lake flats just above the falls. While we were still in the woods, a blizzard had descended. The wind howled as we left the shelter of the trees. Driving snow obscured my dad who was just a few feet in front of me, burying his tracks. We made it to the road where our skis found no grip on the icy surface. My mom and sister made it safely to the far wall of the canyon, but the wind pushed my dad and me toward the brink of the falls. I careened into one of the stone blocks on the edge of the cliff and held on. After the stone halted my momentum, I was able to snap my skis off my boots. Dad and I made it over to where the rest of my family hunkered down out of the wind. Eventually, one of the shuttles stopped for us and gave us a ride back down to Terrace Junction.

Looking across at the falls’ 50-foot drop with its jagged rock stair-steps and mounds of rippling ice, I imagined what would have happened if my skis were pointed just a few inches to the right, missing the stone block. Yellowstone was a great place to be as a kid, but it wasn’t an amusement park. It was a wild place with only the most basic safety features.

Reconnecting to an earlier time in the Park

Bunsen Peak

I climbed up past Rugged Falls and hit that same (but less formidable) wind as I left the Golden Gate’s protective walls. The horizon expanded into the wide plain of Swan Lake Flats, anchored in the west by snow-covered Quadrant Mountain and Antler Peak. I added a layer and dropped a gear, pushing into the headwind. Even with several other cyclists in view, the road still felt far from crowded. Throughout the day, I often found myself at scenic overlooks or other destinations with a few other people, but mostly, I felt solitude.

Thankfully, the headwind was short-lived. Within a few miles, the thick lodgepole forest crept back toward the road blocking most of the wind. 

I pulled off the road at Obsidian Cliff. The cliff, glistening with black volcanic glass, brought back waves of nostalgia. When I was little, my family and I sometimes stopped here. 

Obsidian from Obsidian Cliff was used extensively for tool-making starting about 11,000 years ago. It can be flaked into a blade as sharp as a surgical scalpel, making it both a valuable tool as well as a trade good. Obsidian knives, spear-points, and arrowheads from the cliff have been found at archeological sites all over the U.S.

The Gardner River flows silently northwest near the Sheepeater Cliffs Trailhead.

Even the roadside kiosk has historical significance. Built in 1931, it was Yellowstone’s first wayside exhibit. Usually, cars fill the small parking lot. Today, four bikes were leaned against the kiosk or laid down on the pavement leaving plenty of space. I’d always been entranced by the shiny, black rocks–curious about how they formed and fascinated that they came out of the ground already smooth with swirls where they’d been chipped. This tiny roadside attraction in the middle of Yellowstone National Park was part of what sparked my interest in science.

Because of the traffic, it’d been decades since I’d stopped. Looking up at the sun glinting off the volcanic glass felt like being in the Yellowstone of my youth. A place where you shared a moment with a few strangers. Where you might be doing something as mundane as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the back of a van while gazing up at a geological wonder.

Norris Geyser Basin

Emerald Spring in Norris Geyser Basin

I enjoyed more nostalgia at Roaring Mountain where, over the last few years, the asphalt at the base had expanded to the size of a department-store parking lot while the fumaroles on the mountain shrank. I remember my mom talking about when she’d gone to Yellowstone as a girl, Roaring Mountain was alive with steam vents spouting clouds of vapor and howling loud enough that you could hear it before you saw it. A thin hiss traveled down from the lone vent in the gray moonscape. 

I stopped for lunch near a bunch of other cyclists stretched out in the sun at Twin Lakes. The air was crisp 1,000 feet higher than where I’d started that morning, but the sun warmed the pavement and beckoned me to take a nap.

Looking up at the sun glinting off the volcanic glass felt like being in the Yellowstone of my youth. A place where you shared a moment with a few strangers. Where you might be doing something as mundane as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the back of a van while gazing up at a geological wonder.

I wanted to keep moving, though. My goal for the day was to get to Norris Geyser Basin, one of my favorite places in the Park. While I don’t think of Yellowstone as just its thermal features, Norris has always been one of my must-stops when I visit. 

Named after Philetus W. Norris, the Park’s second superintendent, Norris is the hottest and most dynamic part of Yellowstone. One of the draws for me to hit Norris up is how it changes from year to year, sometimes season to season. Over the last four decades, I’ve seen some huge changes. I remember Pork Chop Geyser shooting a steady stream of water 20 feet in the air without stop for years. It was loud enough that you could hear it from the visitor center if the wind was right. Then one night in September, 1989, it exploded ejecting boulders 200 feet and leaving a jagged crater. My family and I showed up a week later to find the section of boardwalk leading to Pork Chop closed and debris littering the walkway. At least one sizable chunk had broken through the boardwalk’s 2×4 planks. Had it happened during a July afternoon, it would have made national news. Never a dull moment.

I rolled into the massive Norris parking lot, cruised right up to the trail, and locked my bike up next to a few others (no one else had, but old habits die hard). The boardwalk was covered in a couple feet of snow and ice packed down by winter visitors and unevenly melted by spring temperatures. Just navigating the trail became the most technically challenging part of the trip. I slipped and slid my way deeper into the geyser basin. It was starting to get late, and I had to visit an old friend.

Mount Holmes from Norris Geyser Basin

I know I’m in the minority, but the scent of pine mixed with a little hot-spring sulfur elates me. Add the view of Emerald Spring beside the trail and snowy Mt. Holmes in the distance and I’m in heaven. It wasn’t just nostalgia. I truly love Yellowstone. 

While I’d seen several bikes leaned against the fence at the trailhead, I felt like I had almost all of Norris to myself. I ran into the e-bike guys watching Steamboat Geyser’s steaming crater. Erupting to over 300 feet, Steamboat is twice as tall as Old Faithful. But unlike Old Faithful, Steamboat is unpredictable, often going years between eruptions. You have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing Steamboat go off. 

I’d seen Yellowstone in all seasons, including snow storms in August. I once watched a grizzly chase a tourist who got too close. I was also here when the 1988 wildfires tore through the Park, blackening over a third of the landscape.

That didn’t stop all of us from getting our hopes up every time a jet of steaming water would spurt 20 or 30 feet out of the hole. I stood with them a while, chatting about Yellowstone. Only one of the two had been to the Park before, and I wondered what it would be like to be seeing this for the first time. I’d been lucky to grow up so close. I’d seen Yellowstone in all seasons, including snow storms in August. I once watched a grizzly chase a tourist who got too close. I was also here when the 1988 wildfires tore through the Park, blackening over a third of the landscape. 

That summer, Norris was encircled by the North Fork Fire. A hillside just beyond the geyser basin showed the forest’s recovery: a blanket of young lodgepole pines growing up in the shadow of limbless, burned trunks now white with age. The 1988 fires felt apocalyptic, but they were just a turning point. Since then, uncontrolled wildfires have choked the West, feeding on extreme drought and beetle-killed forests, both the result of climate change.

Cistern Spring is one of the fastest-growing thermal features in the park, depositing almost half an inch of new material each year.

I left the guys behind and continued past Cistern Spring which drains completely after Steamboat erupts because of some underground system of natural plumbing that scientists are still trying to figure out. I made my way to the edge of the basin where Echinus Geyser waited.

Echinus is the largest acid geyser in the world. Acid geysers are a very rare type of thermal feature with an acidity similar to vinegar. I didn’t know it had an pH of 3.5 when I used to sit on the boardwalk waiting for it to erupt as a kid. At that time, Echinus would go off every 45 minutes or so, from a big red-orange pool. You could tell how close it was to erupting by how full the pool was. If the pool was empty when we got there, we’d just walk the rest of the basin and come back. If the pool was full, we’d wait until it went off in a series of breathy, uneven explosions launching water 50 feet in the air and sometimes spraying us with warm droplets and steam. After erupting for 10 or 15 minutes, the explosions would subside, and the pool would drain in a swirl like a flushed toilet (great fun for anyone who appreciates toilet humor). After it drained, the few of us who’d been watching would wander off down the boardwalk.

Then, sometime in 1998, after the Park Service had built benches into the hillside to keep up with the geyser’s rising popularity, something changed in the geology. The eruptions became irregular and then nearly stopped. I don’t think I’ve seen it go off since, but I’ve come to visit many times. It was a great lesson in enjoying what you’ve got while you have it.

Unlike standing among the crowds that gathered around Old Faithful, this little geyser felt like our secret. Eventually, a sign was added where rangers would scrawl expected eruption times in grease pencil. More people began gathering to watch it go off. Then, sometime in 1998, after the Park Service had built benches into the hillside to keep up with the geyser’s rising popularity, something changed in the geology. The eruptions became irregular and then nearly stopped. I don’t think I’ve seen it go off since, but I’ve come to visit many times. It was a great lesson in enjoying what you’ve got while you have it. 

Echinus Geyser looking pretty much how it’s looked since its eruptions became erratic in 1998.

I sat in the April sun for a long time on one of those benches. The orange pool was full like always, but all it did was boil, churning out white noise that took me back to my childhood. A young woman came and went. Echinus looked and smelled the same, but it was totally different. I don’t know whether seeing Steamboat or Echinus erupt that day would have made me feel luckier. Probably Steamboat, if I’m being honest, since I’ve never seen it go. But watching Echinus erupt again would have made me happier.

The sun was low as I balanced atop the snow on the so-familiar Norris boardwalk heading back to my bike. The guys who’d been watching Steamboat had given up and left. I stopped for a moment to listen to Steamboat’s hot water growling just out of sight. A cold breeze whispered through the pines and a raven called out in the distance. For a moment, Yellowstone, one of the most trafficked parks in the U.S. National park system, felt like mine alone. 

In a few short days, the quiet would be broken by the voices and footfalls of thousands of tourists and engines groaning up the roadways. The summer will bring more wildfires. It may also bring efforts by the Park Service to lower impacts. One of those efforts, I hoped, would be to make Yellowstone more welcoming to cyclists whose impacts are far lower than vehicular travelers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned riding Yellowstone’s roads without cars is that it’s an even more magical place when you get deeper into the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape. Some of the changes that occur in the park are out of our control. But most of the visible impacts aren’t. Expanding parking lots gobbling up grassy hillsides: human. Trampling the thin crust in geyser basins by walking off the boardwalk: human. Altering hot springs and geysers by throwing trash in them: very human. The truly existential threat of the climate crisis: yeah, that’s human, too. I’ll admit that on that last one, I’m part of the problem.

I’m not going to suggest that my generation will be the last to enjoy the Park. Yellowstone, as a chunk of land, will continue to go on long after I’m gone. But in the 40-some years that I’ve been coming here, I’ve already seen dramatic changes that I would never have predicted when I was a kid. It’s going to continue to change rapidly for the foreseeable future. Things are going to be lost, and we’re going to miss them when they’re gone.

Ancestral lands of the:

  • Cheyenne
  • Eastern Shoshone
  • Apsaalooké (Crow)
  • Očhéthi Šakówiŋ

Riding Yellowstone without cars:

The National Park Service opens the Park Loop Road from Terrace Junction to West Yellowstone to bikes for an unspecified number of days each spring before allowing cars. Depending on road conditions and weather, it’s generally a week or more. Check their website for closures.

Planning your visit: Gardiner, Montana

Gardiner, Montana, is the gateway to Yellowstone’s North Entrance (the one with the famous arch). It’s perched on the edge of a gorge over the Yellowstone River. Visiting in April means you’ll get to experience the town with only its 800 year-round residents than the thousands that populate it in the summer. Even in the shoulder season, there’s a lot to see and do in the area, so book a couple of extra days to check it all out.

The road between Gardiner, Montana, and Cooke City, Montana, is open year-round and makes its way through the Lamar Valley where bison, elk, and wolves can often be seen. While it’s far from busy in April, there will be vehicles on the road, so pay attention if you’re on your bike. Also, pay attention to bison herds that use the roadways because it’s easier than traipsing through the snow. Give them at least the 25 yards of space mandated by the Park Service, getting off the road if necessary.

Lodging:

Distributed forest service campgrounds and most private campgrounds don’t open until summer, but the KOA near Livingston appears to be open in April. Cabins can be rented at Yellowstone Hot Springs year-round, opening the possibility of a hot soak in mineral water after a long day in the saddle. There are a number of Bed and Breakfasts open year-round including the swanky Paradise Gateway on the banks of the Yellowstone River and the convenient Gardiner Guest House B&B located right downtown. Gardiner also has an assortment of hotels open year-round including the Absaroka Lodge with views of the Yellowstone River gorge running through downtown and for a more historical vibe, check out the Park Hotel.

Food: 

Hit up Wonderland Cafe and Lodge for your coffee and take advantage of their charging stations to top off your GPS (not that you need it) and other gadgets. Make sure you pack an assortment of their pastries for the ride. In the evening, grab a burger at Gardiner’s longest-run establishment, The Corral, or if you’re in the mood for award-winning dining and a hot-springs soak, make the short drive to the Chico Hot Springs Dining Room

Planning your visit: West Yellowstone, Montana

West Yellowstone is wedged into a little triangle on the borders of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The West Entrance to Yellowstone is on the outskirts of its kitschy downtown. The landscape is surprisingly gentle, considering its located between several of the most rugged mountain ranges in the western US. Like Gardiner, there’s a lot to do here, even in the shoulder season, so give yourself a few days to check it out.

Lodging:

Just like the North Entrance, distributed Forest Service campgrounds are still closed throughout April. Again, KOAs come through (there are two of them). The Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone offers community fire pits for that almost camping experience. For us roadtrippers, there’s nothing like staying at an old-time motor court like the Evergreen Motel right downtown. If you’re willing to shell out a little more for the eco-friendly option, check out the Three Bear Lodge.

Dining:

If you’re going to cycle Yellowstone’s roadways, you’re going to need a hearty breakfast. Ernie’s Bakery’s back-to-basics approach to breakfast will keep you fueled all the way until lunch, which, coincidentally, they also offer, packed and ready to travel. I’d argue that no bike adventure is complete without great pizza to share with friends (or keep for yourself, no judgment, here). Check out the Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon for excellent post-ride recovery calories. If you’re looking for something a little fancier, Bar-N Ranch offers fine American dining in a picturesque location and with a dining room that will make you feel like you’re in Montana’s natural habitat. If you don’t mind a short (by Montana standards) drive, there’s world-class barbeque just 50 beautiful miles up Highway 191 at Riverside BBQ in Big Sky, Montana.  

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