Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 50 – White Sulphur Springs – Great Falls: Throwin’ down the miles – Kings Hill Scenic Byway

Tuesday July 8, 2014, 115 miles (184 km) – Total so far: 2,319 miles (3,733 km)

My little thermometer says 37F degrees. The moderately high elevation here in White Sulphur Springs at 5041 feet lends itself to cold mornings even in July. I rustle through my pannier to find my long cotton gloves to go over my riding gloves.

I’m rolling down the main street just a bit before first light. There is already a light breeze that feels more like autumn than summer. It goes down my lungs sharp and cold and causes them to constrict.

I feel a bit sluggish today. I don’t know if it is because of yesterday’s efforts, or the road gently climbs, or the wind is stronger than I really think. I just know I’m mooooving sloooowly this morning through the crisp, cold air.

As I turn at the junction of 89 and 12, the sun’s rays reach up to light the clouds from underneath. The moisture reflects pinks and oranges, the brightness of the colours exaggerated by the darkness of the hills still in shadow.

Of course it’s an early morning start. This early morning is quite COLD!

We cross the Willow Creek thrust fault at the road junction and pedal a gentle incline to the base of a steeper climb up into the Little Belt Mountains. This range is a broad arch with Precambrian basement rocks (the contintental crust itself – very ancient!) at the core that are surrounded by Precambrian Belt rocks and Paleozoic limestones on the outermost flanks.

The intial climb takes us over the Paleozoic limestones in open, grassy and hilly fields. These rocks were deposited between 570 -300 million years ago and often contain really good marine fossils. Pines grow in sparse clumps low on the slopes but in thicker forest at the top. Hills of thicker forest loom before us.

We zoom down a hill to meet a tree-lined creek which we follow uphill into a large open valley of grasses and pasture. The views show long ridges in the distance covered in such thick forest that I start to wonder when the last fire came through. In this section, we are riding across Belt sedimentary rocks – a common rock type in Montana. These rocks were deposited as sand and mud between 1.5 billion years and 600 million years ago (that’s a big stretch of time). They cover the entire northwest of the state – we are riding through outliers of that rock here where it is fairly thin.

Early in the ride on the Kings Hill Scenic Byway through the Little Belt Mountains.

The road rounds a long curve as we cross over the Volcano Valley fault and back into Cambrian and Devonian limestones. Here the open, grassy meadows fall away from the road to meet thick forest in the distance. We drop down to the creek which we will follow almost all the way to the road summit. It is flowing high. The trees come right down to the road in places. It is more open elsewhere.

We head uphill, gently, following a creek, for about the first 18 miles.

I’m feeling stronger now than I did when the day began. I don’t really feel any fatigue in my legs, and I’m spurred on by the empty road, the bright blue sky, and the sound of the creek rushing over rocks and tumbling through log jams. Once we join this creek, the climbing is steady and continuous but gentle. We are enveloped by the forested hills now.

Only the last few miles have really any gradient and even this is not too bad. There is much evidence of past logging through this section and parts of the forest are obviously thinner. Some of this may be due to fire, as well – sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Only about the last three miles of the climb have a bit of a grade.

By the time we reach the summit, we will have climbed about 2300 feet over about 24 miles. Really, it did not feel like we did that much climbing! I’m overjoyed to reach my first summit. I have that disease that afflicts some touring cyclists where I really, really like climbing. I like it as much as I like flying downhill on the other side. It’s not that I’m necessarily good at it, but I truly enjoy feeling my heart pumping, and my lungs and legs working steadily. I like the knowledge that I’m progressing toward a goal and that there will be an immediate reward on the other side. I like feeling a bit of pain before the exhilaration of the downhill. I love getting into a rhythm and just cranking it out.

At the summit. Now we will have about 30 miles of downhill 🙂

After a snack break at the top, and the decision that I don’t want to camp near the summit and go exploring (that was one of my thoughts for today), I go zooming down the first hill. Oooh, this is so fun. Lean it into the curves. Pass a trash truck because he’s only doing 20 mph and is quite whiffy. Feel the tires grip the road doing 40mph through a couple curves. Oh yeah, I love the plains because they speak to my soul. But I love the downhills in the mountains because they speak to the BMXer tomboy inside me.

Downhill. Yippee!
Scenic ride down canyon.

We stop at Memorial Falls to do the short hike. The guys are all about getting out of the handlebar bag and down into the habitat. I’m all about checking out the rocks. The rock type here is a unique quartzite that is only found in two other places in the world. It is angular and chunky, a smoky deep pink to maroon in colour. It also has dark green sandstones and shale within it if you look really close.

The trail follows Little Belt Creek to start then rounds a corner into a narrow canyon with high cliffs. The quartzite creates a rocky trail bed with much rock hopping to be had. Further up, the trail squeezes through between fallen logs and rock walls. It opens up near the lower falls, and the red rock colour is accentuated where the sun strikes the walls.

Memorial Falls.
The guys enjoy getting out of the handlebar bag for a bit.
Memorial Falls from another angle.

Back on the bike, we keep cruising downhill. Little Belt creek flows beside the road. Neihart is a tiny little place strung out along the highway – full of historic wooden buildings from when this was a lead, silver and zinc mining area. Just after Neihart we pass through some outcrops of that basement rock, ancient rock that looks here like someone raised a book on end then sat on it. The deformed layers look like squashed book pages.

Cruising on downhill…..

We keep cruising downhill past Monarch. Here we are surprised with a decent grade hill to climb when Little Belt Creek heads northwest and the road veers away northeast. The climb is through Madison limestone cliffs which frame the road. This is the same age of the limestones we clambered over in the Black Hills a few weeks ago. It will stretch your mind if you think about time, scale and distance long enough.

After a long downhill, the creek goes one way and the road goes another. This means you have a three-mile climb to reawaken the legs before you get another long downhill.

At the top of this climb, we find ourselves on treeless grassy knolls with long views to the forested ridges and spectacular folds of limestone rocks. The downhill here is fast!! It curves down through open country and back into the Little Belt Creek valley. Yippee! I was not expecting so much downhill today 🙂

The views of the folds in the rocks are spectacular.
Downhill back to the creek. Expect to go 40 mph minimum down this if you don’t brake 🙂

We stop for a snack at the overlook into Sluice Boxes State Park. The creek winds through a canyon carved out of the limestones. There’s a trail down there that follows the old rail line which was built in 1891 to service the mines near Neihart.

Looking down into Sluice Boxes State Park near the end of the byway.

After this our downhill gradient decreases as we rejoin the creek in open country with long and tall grassy ridges underlain by limestone. We pick up a pretty decent headwind but it is counteracted by the gentle downhill gradient.

The junction of 87 and 89 brings a lot more traffic. There are heaps of trucks going through the weigh station next to the rest area at the junction. After such a traffic-free morning, the noise, the smell of the exhaust and the thought of sharing the road is slightly saddening.

There are some steep climbs out of this valley onto the plains, and there is no shoulder for some time. So I ride just long enough to get to a road that cuts over to a local road on the other side of valley. This road winds along the edge of the valley and cuts through the pinks, greys and purples of the Jurassic Morrison formation (I’m nerdy enough that I have a favourite rock formation – and this is it. The red Triassic mudstones are my second favourite. Nerd. Nerd. Nerd).

I stop at an RV park because it’s getting to be mid-afternoon quittin’ time at 74 miles into the day. It is attractive – large shade trees and not many people. But I can’t rouse anyone at the office or the house so decide to move on to Belt. It is an old mining town surrounded by high valley walls. There is a brewery or two here, and the narrow main street lined with historic brick buildings is on a very human scale. It feels cozy and comfortable. The grocery store is part of the gas station – not that well-stocked, but I am able to get some cottage cheese to complement what I’m carrying on-board. I take it to the park and consume.

I contemplate what to do. I could probably get permission to camp here. But there is not much to do in town. The wind is a bit gusty, but after 10 miles of headwind on a back county road, we would just have 15 miles of crosswind to get to Great Falls. No way I’m riding on that shoulderless 89. I still feel good and I’ve still got legs. If we go, we’ll break the century mark, but I think I can do it.

So off we go following a creek west of town. This area was under Glacial Lake Great Falls, so it’s fun to think about being way underwater in this little valley. The headwind pushes my speed down to 9 mph, but we’re still feeling good. Verne urges me faster. “Shut up, little turtle! We did 41mph down the Little Belts!”

We pick up a bit more traffic when we meet with the county road that will take us into Great Falls. The Highwood Mountains, an old volcanic stack of debris, rise off to our right. Then we put them behind us as we gaze up at one big hill. Oh, do the legs have it in them? Who cares – it doesn’t matter. We’re committed to Great Falls now!

80 miles into the day and a hill like that is a bit more daunting than at 9am. We’ve got a pretty decent crosswind blowing us around right now, too, but on we go. This is the county road between Belt and Great Falls – since Hwy 89 doesn’t have a shoulder for a while in between but does have lots of trucks.
Highwood Mountains – some rare volcanic rock up there. I’ll see these from the other side when I come back near here in late August.

So up the hill we go. It plunges down the other side, curves right and climbs another hill. We are back up high on the Cretaceous sandstones and shales. These easily erode, so there are no rock outcrops, but there are lots of steep climbs in and out of each little valley that’s carved its way into the glacial debris deposited on the Cretaceous rock. We’re still riding through old Glacial Lake Great Falls – its enormity is fun to contemplate as I spin up the steep hills and coast down the other side each time. The endorphins are well and truly kicking, so I’m feeling goooood!

Wheat, high glaciated plains. Sunny day. Endorphins kicking 100 miles into the day. Good stuff!

Eventually the road curves around Malmstrom Air Force Base and back toward the highway. This base is responsible for all the missile silos on the plains near here.

We rejoin the highway just east of town. It has a large shoulder and plenty of traffic. We hit Great Falls at 5.15 pm – not the greatest time of day to try to negotiate an unknown city of 60,000 people. But it pumps me up. It’s a challenge. I love those. I used to love playing in and reading traffic, so let’s go!

I barrel down the shoulder of the highway. As we get into town, the traffic lights start to slow up the traffic enough that I can keep pace over in the shoulder. I just kick it up and keep a watch for people who might turn right across my path. Zoom! I’m in a groove and keep hitting all the stoplights green. The traffic is heavy, but this is fun! I’m so high on endorphins I’ve got boost and confidence. At one point, I can see that my shoulder disappears, so at that corner, I turn right, leaning into the corner like I’m in a criterium race rather than rush hour. I don’t even know what road I’m on, but I figure I just need to go north a bit and then find a road west. I cut through old neighborhoods and eventually find myself in the city centre. A commuter cyclist miraculously appears and I just follow him down two streets to a bike path. I use the bike path to get over the Missouri River and through another old neighbourhood in an industrial area. This road and path takes me to the RV park.

The girl at reception looks at me like I’ve descended from another planet. ‘Would you like a cold drink? You look very hot’. So I score a free can of rootbeer while she checks me in. She makes up discounts to give me so that it comes to $18 after tax instead of the $25 before tax it was supposed to be. Yeah, we finally found the friendly part of the state.

As I’m leaving the office, a short woman with short hair who is probably in her late 50s comes up to me.

“Is that your bike?”, she asks.


“I don’t think this is possible, but did we see you yesterday near Ringling?”

“It’s quite possible. I rode through there yesterday.”

“Oh my god, and you are here now? How did you ride that far that fast?”

“Oh, well I did a longer day than normal today. I started in White Sulphur Springs today.”

“Wow. That is simply amazing! When we saw you yesterday, it was really windy. We could see your shorts billowing in the wind and we felt really sorry for you. Wait until I tell my husband we shouldn’t have felt sorry for you because you are a speedster and are already here!”

I laugh and then head off to the crappy tent camping area. I’m so endorphined-up, it’s not even funny. 115-mile days are like the cyclist form of binge drinking! You cannot wipe the silly grin off my exhausted face.

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