Tuesday July 15, 2014, 43 miles (69 km) – Total so far: 2,703 miles (4,349 km)
Sometimes it’s so quiet outside the tent in the morning, you wonder if the world will still be there when you unzip the fly. There was thunder and rain through the night, but it is almost totally silent now. I can’t even hear the river. Aaahhh… it is so peaceful and quiet. That is not something Montana has served up recently on the ride.
The road between the campground and the very tiny town of Wise River passes through a narrow canyon. The slopes are sparsely forested to start, but the forest becomes thicker as we head upstream. At Dewey and Wise River, the canyon opens out to wide park-like meadows of grassy flats and clumps of trees. Otherwise, the canyon is fairly narrow as it passes through limestones and igneous intrusions.
At the Wise River settlement, there is no sign on the main road to indicate that the road going south is the scenic byway. However, a hundred feet down the road, a faded byway sign confirms that you are on the right track. The byway runs for 49 miles and was designated in 1989. I’ve spoken to many Montanans so far whom have never been down here. Before the trip, I also spoke to people whom had vacationed many times in Montana and never been to the southwest corner of the state. Of course, that makes this sound like something I’ll really enjoy, if not many other people bother to go this way.
The road is flat as it traverses the wide valley near the mouth of the Wise River. The road is freshly paved all the way to the forest boundary. The road turns to chip-seal in the national forest, but it is in good condition the entire length of the byway.
As the valley starts to narrow and the hills and forest close in, I see two guys on mountain bikes going the other way. We just wave as we pass. I’m sure they’re doing the Great Divide route, as it uses this road through here. I find out later that it was a Dutch and a Spanish guy, and they were, indeed, doing the Great Divide.
The road gently climbs through the thick forest. There are a few pine beetle outbreaks but none are extensive. Mostly, the road just ascends through forest with the river adjacent or close by. It is so peaceful. There is very little traffic.
As we climb further up the valley, the road occasionally breaks out into open, dry meadows and willow-lined, wet meadows. Views to the distant peaks show a scenic contrast between the high, jagged peaks to the east and the low, rounded mountains to the west. Both ranges are one billion-year-old sandstones that were thrust about 25 miles eastward over younger rocks about 70 million years ago. Then, magma rose up and solidified as it intruded the sandstone. While all of this was going on, a fault also raised the eastern range and dropped the western mountains by nearly a half-mile in elevation. Consequently, the west side remains rounded with the intrusions still buried, while the higher eastern peaks have eroded more dramatically. In between lies the necklace of parks and meadows that we are riding through.
This area is definitely somewhere to return when I could do some backpacking. There are more than 50 peaks over 10,000 feet and 30 cirque lakes. This entire area was glaciated by valley glaciers 10,000 to 18,000 years ago. It carved the eastern peaks, as well as the U-shaped valleys we are riding through.
The parking lot at Grand Vista is huge, but I’m the only one here. It is so nice to ride a road without all of the traffic. After Grand Vista, the road climbs a bit more, then it falls again. I’m a wee bit concerned that it seems like every time we’ve climbed a bit, then we’ve descended a bit and never gained much elevation.
Finally, about six miles north of Crystal Park, we get some real climbing as the road heads up the side of a mountain and away from the river valley. The road quickly gains elevation through two back-to-back switchbacks in thick forest. There is a little more climbing, then we pop out into more meadows and parks.
Crystal Park has quite a few cars in the parking area. For a small fee, you can go digging for quartz and amethyst here.
We pedal back into forest and there is a little bit more climbing before we reach the road high point at 7800 feet and descend to more large meadows. We are now in the Grasshopper Creek drainage.
Then the road drops and we zip down through the curves. There are no sneaky uphills. Yippee! The only thing that slows us down is the cattle grazing along the roadside in a few places.
We pass Elkhorn Hot springs and pull into Grasshopper campground. It is the largest campground on the byway with 24 spaces, but curiously, it has the least number of people camping here. It is only $8 to camp. It is a very nice campground with water spigots, tent pads and bear boxes. I quickly decide to stay for two nights. $8 is worth it to me for bear boxes and water spigots. That makes the logistics so much simpler than staying in a dispersed site (of which there are tons along this road).
It does piss me off that I’ve had to pay so much more for other Forest Service sites in Montana and elsewhere that had fewer amenities. Why is this place only $8? Because it hasn’t been privatized. It is still run by the government rather than on contract with a concessionaire. I am still unconvinced that privatization of anything makes it better. In my experience, it just means the service or amenity is worse off or left to deteriorate, and the price goes up!
I climb off my soapbox to discover that the best site in the campground is available. It is right on the creek, has shade and a tent pad, and is near a water spigot and bear box. On one side there is no adjacent campsite, and on the other side, the nearest campsite is not all that close. Only two other groups are camping here tonight and they are way up the other end. All for only $8. Big-time score!