Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 69 – Anaconda – Missoula: Going long

Sunday July 27, 2014, 108 miles (174 km) – Total so far: 3,432 miles (5,523 km)

Mornings bring promise. As you pack up your gear, you can’t help but wonder what the day will bring. There is always the promise of smooth roads, a lack of traffic, interesting people and amazing scenery. There is always the potential it could be the best day on the road ever.

Then you ride away from the sheltered position of your campsite, the wind slaps you hard in the face, and all that promise turns to the prediction of ‘ifs’. If the wind keeps up like this, this will be the longest day ever. If the whole day is like this, I’m only going to make 30 miles. If something doesn’t change, I will just have to call it a day at the next teeny town.

And so we go into a rip-roaring headwind out of Anaconda to start the day. In the beginning, the road is flat and I feel like I’m in a physics diagram where there are all sorts of flow arrows being drawn to show the wind sliding down the topography and around my bike. Finally, we start climbing some low hills that fill the valley between the Anaconda and Flint Creek Ranges. We sometimes have a road shoulder and sometimes do not. Luckily, the wind drops off as we get into the mountains.

We ride into deeply forested areas where the hilly topography pulls in close. These areas are interspersed with more open sections where grassy slopes are punctuated by pines. This valley has been glaciated but it is hard to pick out the features – much of the landscape we are riding through feels like a forested jumble of earth backed by higher ranges. All along the road are dirt roads which lead to old mining sites. Between Anaconda and Georgetown Lake they’ve pulled out limestone, silica, tungsten, scheelite and magnetite iron-ore.

We have one fairly short climb that requires an easy gear and patience. An early start has helped us avoid a lot of the boat traffic heading to the lake, but it starts to increase after we get to the top of the hill. The road then pops out into an open area with the road curving along the edge of hills. Georgetown Lake sits in a topographical bowl with grassy meadows on one side and gentle slopes of pine-beetle killed trees on the others. There are many vacation homes lining the other side of the lake. Snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide stand in the distance.

Georgetown Lake – it was built in 1905 to supply water to the smelter in Anaconda but is now a popular spot to have a vacation home or to go camping, fishing, boating, etc.

Soon we are flying down Flint Creek Hill. At the end of Georgetown Lake, the road dives back into trees, and just beyond the dam, it slips through a crack in the mountains and dives right down. The rocks exposed through this section are the Precambrian Belt rocks which cover so much of western Montana. Here the exposures provide outstanding examples of ripple marks and baked mud cracks in the mudstones. I can even see them as I fly along at high speed. They are so spectacular, I have to stop and have a look. You know they are good if I will interrupt a downhill to check them out. Or you know I’m just way too big of a nerd.

After climbing from Anaconda to Georgetown Lake on the Pintler Scenic Highway, you then get a ripping downhill into the Flint Creek Valley. If you need a break climbing uphill, or are nerdy enough to interrupt your downhill, the rocks in the roadcuts have excellent examples of ripple marks and baked mud cracks. The Belt mudstones were laid down about a billion years ago.

The descent is long and winding. It is a joy to lean into the curves as the road clings to a hillside. It drops us into a grassy valley with flat fields and gently undulating slopes. To the west, the Sapphire Range pokes up out of the valley – not as tall as the ranges to the south and east but still an impressive block of earth shoved east like so many others around 70 million years ago.

Looking down into the Flint Creek Valley.
Looking back uphill to see the road winding up through the steep valley.

Traffic has begun to increase, and I take note of all the classic cars passing me. My dad is a car enthusiast and has built two hot rods, so I feel close to him this morning. One of his favourite things to do is sit along a road with a cup of coffee when a car show is occurring, and watch the cars go by. He enjoys that more than seeing them sitting stationary at the car show itself, since my Dad is more interested in the mechanics and the sound of the engine than the show and shine aspect of polished paint and interior trim.

I roll into Phillipsburg to find the main street blocked off for the car show. Vendors are just setting up. The main street has been restored and there are plenty of trendy cafes and tourist shops filling the stores. There is even a microbrewery and restaurant on a corner. The festive vibe only grows in the time I’m roaming the streets looking at all of the historic buildings. Phillipsburg got its start in 1867 when a prospector found veins of silver and gold in the granite hills above town. This area is one of few places in the country that is rich in manganese. Mines at Granite, a ghost town four miles out of Phillipsburg, produced nearly 30 million dollars of bullion in a few years. However, the Silver Crash of 1893 sent the whole town of Granite packing. Mining resumed in 1898 and continued sporadically for decades, but Granite never recovered.

Heading down to the main street of Phillipsburg. The big courthouse you see was built in 1917.
Main street Phillipsburg. There is a car show today, and many, many more cars fill the street after I’ve taken this photo.
Looking down into town. Note the batch of old cars coming down the hill into town.

I wander around the hilly streets to find the jail. When the woman at the Lost Trail Pass info centre found out I would be riding through here, she insisted I had to go see the jail. I find it, and note that it looks similar to the buildings constructed in Australia in the same time period. I then spot the noose hanging in the main tower – ah, that must be the unique aspect I needed to see.

The woman at the Lost Trail Pass rest area said I had to seek out the jail in Phillipsburg. Why? She wouldn’t tell me, but said it was a unique sight.
I believe the unique bit about the jail is the noose hanging in the tower. Note the stone says the building was constructed in 1896.

I stick around and watch the cars pouring in for the car show. By the time I leave, both sides of the main street are filled and two rows of cars line the middle of the street. They are running out of room to put the cars in the blocked-off section. Good for them, though. It’s great to see a tiny town raking in money through festivals and shows. Apparently, two years ago, the car show had a record number of entries, but last year, numbers were down because the weather didn’t cooperate.

More historic buildings in town.

I stop at the supermarket on the way out of town. It is surprisingly well-stocked and has good sale prices. Yesterday, I gave away most of my snack supplies to a homeless couple, so I’m really longing for my morning bananas!

Not long after Phillipsburg, the valley narrows as we cross over the thrust faults along the leading edge of the block that moved the Sapphire Mountains. The MT bike map suggests there is no shoulder between here and Drummond, but thankfully, there is one that gets wider further north. There is plenty of traffic along here today on a summer weekend, and it would not have been fun without the shoulder.

Heading down the Flint Creek Valley. The MT bike map indicates there is no shoulder between here and Drummond – but thankfully, there is, because there is heaps of weekend traffic today (even though this photo makes it look like nothing!).

The narrow valley opens up to a very wide valley at Maxville. The hills are low in the distance and ranches predominate. The day has already gotten quite warm, and I’m going through my water quickly.

Drummond sits on the interstate below cliffs of Cretaceous sandstones. Back in the days of Glacial Lake Missoula, this was on the upper end of one its arms. Drummond was sort of my goal for today, but the fishing access site south of town doesn’t look very appealing and has little shade. It is only noon and 91F – I can’t see hanging out there in the heat and sun all afternoon. So I get a milkshake at a small Dairy Freeze type of place then head up to the library (it’s in the high school) to do some research on places to stay on the way into Missoula. I don’t have this information in my trip notes, because I had not planned on going into Missoula. But I desperately need a new patch kit and a good spare tube, plus the rear wheel needs to be radially trued – I can’t get it to centre in the frame.

I sit in the shade – the wifi signal has no password and can be picked up outside. There looks to be an RV park a few miles west, another one closer in, and a fishing access site and a state park along the way. Good enough – let’s head west and position ourselves to ride into Missoula early tomorrow.

Sometimes when the freeway has replaced an old highway, the old highway will closely follow the river, and the interstate will have the big climbs. But that is not the case here. Old 10 climbs and descends the hills on the edge of the valley and curves in and out of the feeder drainages. Some of the climbs are pretty steep. It is scenic, but there is not a lot of shade, and it is quite hot!

Cruising down the old highway near I-90. There is a lot more climbing to do on the old highway, but there is not much traffic on Old 10 until you get to Clinton.

The RV park a few miles west of Drummond is defunct. Option one gone. When I finally get up to the second RV park, I don’t feel like stopping. Option two gone. At one point, Old 10 disappears and you have to get on the interstate. This is not a problem – the shoulder is wide.

Heading toward Missoula – it is hot today! Mid-90sF – I am able to fill my Camelback and water bottles at Beavertail St Park though. Those rocks are more of the Madison limestones we’ve been seeing all over the place. The red streaks are iron oxide.

By the time I make it to Beavertail State Park, I’ve ridden about 85 miles and it is 94F. The miles since Drummond have had a fair bit of climbing into a headwind. I’m ready to call it a day. It would leave about 25 miles into Missoula for the morning.

The camphost comes up to greet me at the info kiosk. I ask her if there are spaces available. There are plenty – I can have my pick. However, they are all electric sites. Montana, like Wyoming, gouges out-of-state residents for camping fees. Even with my parks pass that provides a discount, which I purchased before the tour, the site will cost $25. For that price, I at least want a shower, and perhaps wifi. I don’t care about electricity. So I tell her I’m not going to stay, but could I please refill my water. I’ve been out of liquids for about 10 miles. She tells me to take all I want from the nearby tap.

The water is very cold. Oh, thank goodness. I pour some over my head, then drink a litre in one go. I refill my Camelback, drink another litre, then refill both empty 1-litre Gatorade bottles I have and mix in some drink sachets that taste like fruit punch. The woman and her husband come back over and start asking the standard six. They are sorry they can’t help me with a cheaper campsite but tell me to relax as long as I want in the shade. They think it’s too hot to be riding. After I soak my jersey in the water and get ready to go, they give some suggestions for camping further up (12 miles off the highway to a Forest Service campground) and tell me under no circumstances to stop in the bar a few exits up. The people there are very, very bad and could cause me harm. Okay- I can’t remember the last time I stopped at a bar anyway.

I decide that it looks like I’m committed to riding all the way into Missoula. Ugh. I was really ready to be done. Back onto the interstate. It’s not too bad, but the traffic is getting heavier as everyone starts to head back to Missoula from their weekend fun. Near Clinton, Old 10 reappears, but it also appears to have pretty heavy traffic. They’ll be doing a similar speed to the interstate (speed limit 70 vs 75 over here) and there will be no shoulder – no thanks, I’ll just stay out here.

The interstate seems a good choice, until I get quite close to Missoula. The traffic now is almost constant. I figure I will get off at the eastern-most exit of Missoula (107). This is a huge mistake. If you are ever approaching Missoula from the east on I-90, get off at Exit 109 for Bonner and use Old 10 into town. The interstate is fine up until 109, but after that, the interstate has no shoulder on the bridge over the Clark Fork River. On a Sunday afternoon in summer at 5pm, it is a bit of sheer terror to make it over the bridge. I look for a small gap in traffic (there are few) and pedal as hard as I can. I make it 2/3 of the way across the bridge before I’m caught by the traffic. Two cars go speeding by, then a double tanker passes me within inches. I don’t blame him – there was traffic in the other lane and he did move over as much as he could.

I do believe I may have just used one of my lives there. The adrenalin does push me the rest of the way into town, though. Broadway is the nightmare of traffic I remember when I was last here in 1996, only 18 years later, it is worse. The bike lane disappears, and I’m in no mood for sharing, so I more or less take the lane until I can get up to a motel to spend the night.

Mornings begin with promise. Evenings most often end with a mental and physical satiation that only a few activities, like bike touring, can provide. There is nothing better than feeling like your mind and body have both been stimulated and that sleep will come easy. But some evenings just end in exhaustion. And this is one of those.

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