THE GALLATIN TRAIL


The screen door slams shut on the porch as I head out into the backyard and climb onto my loaded Hayduke in the wee hours of the morning. It’s dark, and especially cold for August.

Each breath is visible in the brisk mountain air as I pedal down the driveway and out into the lights of the silent neighborhood streets. An overnight storm has brought early season snow to the higher elevations but the dark morning sky looks to be clearing out nicely before sunrise.

I take a turn and pedal another block downtown where Tuck and I meet up at the Café with loaded bikes and ready appetites. Inside, lone tenants sip coffee at the bar amongst the noise and commotion of the kitchen. The walls are adorned with prize fish, ungulate skulls, and old photos showcasing a long history in this valley. The breakfast plates are full and the coffee flows until you put a stop to it, which we reluctantly do.

"It's getting light out, and we've got miles to cover."

As we are leaving the cafe, an eclectic pickup truck pulls up to the curb and rattles to a stop. Out step a couple and we hold the door for them as they head inside. They take one look at our bikes leaning up against the building and say, “You two look like you are about to have a good time.”

Dawn is breaking and starting to show on the buildings around us. The sounds of downtown are steadily increasing with each passing car as early risers in the Gallatin Valley make their way out to start the day. It's getting light out, and we've got miles to cover.

Walk a straight line south of Bozeman and you will quickly find yourself in the heart of the Gallatin Range, passing through the Custer Gallatin National Forest and into Yellowstone National Park through a wild and uninterrupted landscape.

This interconnected corridor with all of its rivers, forests, mountains, and wildlife is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a critical swath of land surrounding and including Yellowstone National Park.

In an age of rapid expansion, it is a rare place—both untamed and alive where humans and animals alike can live in unison and experience an undisturbed ecosystem.

This wild land is also home to an extensive system of backcountry trails, a handful of which are accessible to mountain bikes through a unique collaboration between local land managers and mountain bike advocacy organizations.

Winding throughout a collection of various mountain ranges, these interconnected epics skirt along wilderness boundaries, climb over high ridgelines and wind throughout forests and meadows stretching from Bozeman and Big Sky to West Yellowstone and beyond—into the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Early light shines through the lush and mossy forest reflecting off of last night’s precipitation that hangs on the thick flora and brushes up against our legs and feet as we pedal along through the underbrush.

Silence is interrupted by the birds as they bob and weave in the canopy above our heads, leading us deeper into the forest. Along the forgiving soil we pedal from town out into the foothills and begin our climb up into the rugged Gallatin Range, navigating a network of underappreciated trails, careful not to make a wrong turn on a worn game trail.

For miles, we follow in the footsteps of a bear—slowing the pace and increasing our presence so as not to spook the locals. The footprints are big enough to keep us on edge—disappearing off the side of the trail at times before returning to the saturated dirt path to continue on alongside us.

"It is a rare place—both untamed and alive."

Up into the high basin, we can eventually look back down the valley toward the town that we pedaled away from, and across the peaks and ridgelines toward that which we are pedaling into. Against the clear blue sky, the thin layer of fresh snow above us is a stark contrast to the green alpine terrain underneath our tires and feet.

From where we reach the top of the saddle, our trail drops off the backside of the mountain and into a long and flowing drainage that leads to a primitive backcountry cabin deep in the forest on a lonely stretch of trail. It’s not much, but tonight it is home.

This route has been building in my mind for some time. Yet, it can take years to explore a trail system in this way—crafting new connections and exploring that missing link. Out on the trail now, the pieces are coming together.

From the front deck of our rustic cabin the next morning, bags are loaded in the frost of the early hours. The wood stove inside gave up hours before and we close the door on it as we take one last look around before pedaling off down the trail.

Singletrack connects out in the meadow and winds past a trickling creek in front of the cabin. We’re now on a beloved stretch of singletrack high up in the drainage and begin our morning by coasting casually through rock gardens and meadows letting the wheels do the work.

"It’s not much, but tonight it is home."

It is still relatively dark down in the canyon where the mountain walls block the sun and heat this time of day. Coasting over buff singletrack with our loaded bikes, we start to find our groove.

“There’s one.” I yell back at Tuck who is a few bike lengths back enjoying the calm and easygoing miles. The bear is on the trail in a low spot near the creek and we briefly stare at each other in a moment of hesitation before it is off down the trail. For a while, we follow in the damp singletrack but eventually the bear disappears down deeper into the canyon. It’s getting late in the season and she has work to do.

 

This place belongs to the bears and the wolves and the elk and so many more. Deep within our local trails and mountains, a sense of home exists in this place for us as well, but we can only ever be visitors here. This is evident in the abundant animal signs, the rustling and howling in the night, and that feeling you get on a quiet stretch of trail that lets you know you are not alone.

The further we ride, the more trails that we connect, and the increasing amount of time we spend in this wild ecosystem, the more we come to the realization that these unique and cherished lands are alive, and they are home to a wild riding experience that is nothing if not exceedingly rare.

"That feeling you get on a quiet stretch of trail that lets you know you are not alone.."

Standing atop a ridgeline late in the day after a particularly brutal climb, we look out into the deepest part of the route both tired and satisfied. The evening light is getting low on the mountains and it starts to turn an orange hue on the steep walls and peaks surrounding us.

It will be dark by the time we arrive at the next cabin, but we’re happy to spend a bit more time up here in the alpenglow. For now, we are home, and this is what we came here for.


LOCATION | MONTANA

WORDS + PHOTOS | RYAN KRUEGER

RIDER | DAVID TUCKER

BIKES | ESKER HAYDUKE