Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 55 – Three Forks – Dillon: The Parrot Bench

Sunday July 13, 2014, 93 miles (149 km) – Total so far: 2,616 miles (4,210 km)

“Well, Verne. Good morning. Ready to go, are you”?

In the faint light of pre-dawn, I can see Verne right next to my sleeping bag, standing, looking at me. Normally, I stick Verne and Kermit up top in the tent’s mesh gear loft before I go to sleep. They rest up there with my sunglasses and headlamp. I must have forgotten to put them up there last night. But how he has gotten to be standing right next to my sleeping bag, arms half-raised and goofy grin greeting me as I first open my eyes, I do not know. Perhaps I do not want to know.

“Okay, little turtle, let’s get going”.

We pack up and are slipping out the gate and down the road at 5.40 am. The road descends to the river. Limestone cliffs close in close to the road on the right-hand side. The road drops directly down to the river on the left. The nearly full moon hangs in the sky above the rocks, a bright ball of light setting as the sun rises. I feel very connected to it all.

Heading out of Three Forks to the southwest.

The wildfire smoke has drifted away or been sent swirling some other direction. It is not so hard to breathe today. Only a residual raspy cough accompanies us down the road. I sound like an ex-smoker 🙁

Further along, in the distance to the southeast, the Madison Range outlines the horizon. To the southwest, the direction we’re heading, the Tobacco Root mountains rise in sparsely forested, rounded peaks. We are too low here to see the glaciated peaks of the main range. In the middle ground, along the river down below, the sprinklers shoot out long arcs of water as irrigation units water crops. Here, around me, the ridges stretch down to the floodplain in long grassy knolls. We climb and fall, climb and fall over grass so golden in the early morning sun, it almost looks like a painting.

The little locality of Willow Creek lies along the Willow Creek Thrust Fault. We crossed over this fault heading into the Little Belt mountains. We’ll ride just to the south of it and cross it again at the western end of the Jefferson River Canyon. In this area of the state, the Precambrian (very old!) fault delineates the northern limit of exposed basement rock (even older continental crust!) from the southern limit of the Belt rocks (which we’ve been passing through at times since White Sulphur Springs).

Just before the turn-off for Hwy 2 to Cardwell and Whitehall.

We turn off onto Hwy 2 and have a long climb up past the ‘Rockin the Rivers’ outdoor music venue. We pass the entrance to Lewis and Clark Caverns and can see people starting to stir in the campground. Then we enter the Jefferson River Canyon.

Highway 2 near Lewis and Clark Caverns.
Just after entering the Jefferson River Canyon.]

The walls of the canyon close in. The massive limestone slabs tilt at impressive angles and gleam like freshly painted white fence palings in the rising sun. The river threads a not-so-sinuous course down below. The railroad and the road curve with the contours of the canyon walls. It is a fairly spectacular way to start the day. The contrast between the depths of shade we ride through and the sun striking the opposite canyon wall makes me happy we are riding through here at this time of day.

Further into the Jefferson River Canyon. The white, tilted rocks are all Madison limestones. They were deposited about 300 million years ago in a shallow sea. There are good marine fossils in that formation.
The Madison limestones illuminated by the sun. We saw this formation back in the Little Belt mountains and back in the Black Hills. It was a very big, shallow sea.

Just before we pop out into LaHood, we cross over that thrust fault again. Now, to our right, you can see a grey rock that has chunks in it. The chunks are igneous and metamorphic rocks set in a mudstone. These rocks were deposited as mudflows sliding down the fault scarp. The fault is a billion years old, so there are significant expanses of time to consider as we ride today!

LaHood has the remains of an old motel, RV park and bar that was first started in the 1920s for tourists travelling on the newly opened road through the canyon. Sadly, the orignal hotel/bar burnt down some years ago.

As the road curves around to Cardwell and Whitehall at the end of the Jefferson Valley, we have to cross and recross I-90 on the old road. We pass the entrance to the massive Golden Sunlight mine. It is still very active and still producing gold and silver. Passing huge mining sites like this creep me out, just like passing old missile silos or large military bases. I don’t know why, but part of something deep inside me is uncomfortable in such settings.

Cardwell looks like the big brother of Columbus, Montana. It’s a railroad town with the exact same layout. It’s just got a longer main street and some taller buildings. There are many Lewis and Clark murals all over town on the sides of buildings, and yes, some of them show Lewis and Clark pointing at stuff! But I don’t linger.

The road out of Cardwell is pretty busy as we climb up out of the river and onto thousands of feet of basin fill down a broad valley. With all of the cars and trucks on the winding, narrow road, it’s not all that pleasant for a bit. Luckily, the road gains a shoulder at the junction with Hwy 41 and retains it all the way to Twin Bridges.

Through this section, the Tobacco Root mountains loom large to the east with jagged peaks and considerable bulk. It is part of the Boulder batholith, a large igneous injection of rock that pushed up through the basement rock about 70 million years ago.

A large bench of sediments slopes away from the mountains. You can’t help but think: Crap, I’m going to have to climb up onto that or over it at some point. It reaches so far across the valley. It’s called the Parrot Bench. The geology book says it’s an old surface from the Pliocene (about 5 million years ago) when this area had a desert climate. It is an impressive landform – but my photos don’t capture it.

Hey, Dad – more project cars for sale for you in Twin Bridges.

Twin Bridges caters to touring cyclists – it’s on the TransAm and the Lewis and Clark routes. The supermarket is expensive and doesn’t have much selection, but the woman is kind and offers me a plastic spoon for my yogurt. “Um, no I carry a spoon. I don’t need one, thanks.” Outside I say hello to a woman older than me apparently touring solo. As I’m sitting at the park eating my food, I see her head out. I also see two guys in their 20s go by. Yep, must be on the TransAm when you see three cyclists within five minutes!

Beaverhead River outside of Twin Bridges – the Jefferson becomes the Beaverhead at Twin Bridges (I think – there is definitely a name change in there somewhere along the way).

The road out of Twin Bridges is flat and has a nice shoulder for a time. Then the shoulder disappears and the riding isn’t nearly as much fun. It isn’t as crazy as 287 down to Three Forks (MT bike map indicates this has less than half the traffic volume of that road), but it’s still not very fun.

Luckily, for me, a semi has rolled a bit further down. It is mostly off the road, but not totally. The driver is fine. He is sitting on the back of the ambulance chatting to the police. It will be a while before they can get something down here to pick up the truck and set it back on its wheels, so it means I get long bits with no traffic coming from behind and then a big pulse, as the stop-go guys alternate one-way flow through the accident scene.

Beaverhead Rock – can’t see the head from this angle but it was an important landmark for all who have passed by. Do you recognize the rocks that comprise the bottom? Yes, it’s more Madison limestone – that 300 million-year-old rock deposited on the floor of a shallow sea.

Near Beaverhead Rock, the road starts to throw down a bunch of rollers. This continues almost all the way into Dillon. You ride high in the landscape as you look down over the green valley and over to the Pioneer Range far in the distance on the other side of I-15. This hilly area is part of the same surface as the Parrot Bench we passed earlier. You are riding across a surface eroded 5 million years ago in the Pliocene when this was a desert.

What a great day – a spectacular canyon, 300 million-year-old rocks, a 1 billion-year-old thrust fault with associated conglomerates, a mountain range with a 70 million-year-old granite intrusion, a 5 million-year-old bench surface – and that’s just what was next to the road!

The KOA proprietor in Dillon asks if I’m with the ACA group. One of the self-supported tour groups is staying there tonight. I tell him that I’m alone and doing a route of my own that includes a couple months in Montana.

He asks where I’m going next. I give him a general idea and he says, “That’s kinda crazy. We see A LOT of TransAm-ers, but what you’re doing, out there alone doing loop-de-loops of Southwest Montana in the middle of a four-month tour, now that’s something else! You look like a nice girl on the outside, but on the inside you’re crazy”! I tell him that is the absolute best kind of woman 🙂

The KOA owner tells me there are two older guys camping that are also on bikes not doing the TransAm. I go over and chat to them later and meet Christian and Dennis from Sonoma County. They are doing a West Coast to Yellowstone tour on their own route. Christian is incredibly intense but very inspiring. He’s a high school science teacher and rides 365 days a year. He goes touring on every single school break. He is a minimalist and only carries about eight ounces of water on the bike each day. Everything fits in a little roll on the back rack. He doesn’t even use a bike computer, so has no idea how many miles he’s ridden. It would be a phenomenal amount! Dennis is much more laid-back and carries more gear. He and I think we could ride together. We both like rest days (Christian does day-rides on Dennis’ rest days), we average a similar speed, and we both like having plenty of water. I have a really great conversation with these guys – a perfect end to a really nice day!

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