- Jan 17, 2012
We all know I love adventure with my favorite form of adventure being on a bike and exploring a new trail. I have wanted to try bikepacking for a long time. Usually, I don’t let much stop me when it comes to my adventures but the thought of doing a bike trip on my own wasn’t appealing especially in bear country of Idaho, which is pretty much everywhere in the mountains here. I have been trying to get over this fear of camping solo in the woods, which I really haven’t done yet anywhere. I will get past this and do a solo trip eventually but for this trip I found a willing adventure buddy who LOVES bikepacking. Micheal Woodruff, who is a member of Wydaho Gravel Grinders a group that inspires others to try bikepacking. Their motto Live, Love and Ride… I whole heartedly agree with that!
I picked the dates of the trip and not knowing really where to go or where I wanted to, I left those details for Micheal to plan. His plan was for me to meet him and his friend Bryon at 7:00 AM in Island Park at Robin’s Roost. We would head north and follow the Continental Divide route over Red Rock Pass up to Elk Lake, Montana. I was told this was approximately 25 miles to the lake roughly 50 miles round trip. I was a little concerned about doing 50 miles on a loaded fatbike across single track but when I asked, Micheal said it was mostly dirt road riding on one of his favorite sections of the CDT. I felt confident I could handle this with no problem. I was super excited!!
Getting ready for this trip was bit more challenging than I expected. Having moved twice in the last 18 months NOTHING is where it should be or easy to find plus the Monday before we left I was busy with kids and running errands and helping with the high school mountain bike team. Around 7:00 PM Monday night I got a message from Micheal, his friend had an emergency with his dog and wouldn’t be able to join us. Could I meet him 7:00 AM in Ashton at the Frostop Drive-In to pick him up, then we would head on up to Island Park? And could I give him a ride back home when we were done with the trip? Of course!
After I got back from team practice I busied myself with packing. This took me until 3:30 AM Tuesday morning to finish. I tried my best to pack light and only take things I would use or need. My usual mode of operation is to take more crap than necessary! I kept going over all of my gear and eliminating items. When I was satisfied with my choices I set my alarm for 5:30 AM to give myself 30 minutes to shower and an hour to drive to Ashton. I didn’t sleep much from 3:30 to 5:30 because as usual with a big trip I get nervous about being on time and I am always nervous when I ride with new people. I was worried that the whole trip would be awkward because he would be frustrated with my slow pace. Is he a bike Nazi that has to stay on schedule, or laid-back and whatever will be will be guy? Just my usual stupid anxiety I have when riding or adventuring with new people.
I made it on time to the Frostop, parked my car, and started eating breakfast at which time I received a text from Micheal. He was running late but they were on their way. This gave me time to actually enjoy breakfast instead of wolfing it down. Bryon and Micheal arrived at 7:30 and we loaded Micheal’s bike onto my car, told Bryon sorry he was going to miss the trip and hoped his pup felt better soon.
I don’t remember exactly when we made it to Robin’s Roost I would guess around 8:00 AM. I still had to strap everything to my bike. Being new to bikepacking one thing I lacked was a seat bag, Micheal had one for me to use. I quickly transferred my clothes from the dry bag I had to the Viscacha Revelate seat bag and Micheal attached it to my seat post. I strapped the other dry bag full of gear to my handle bars and stuffed my frame bag with other items I deemed essential, locked the car and carefully stowed the keys in my Camelback. Micheal bought some last minute provisions from Robin’s Roost and off we went on our adventure shortly before 9:00 AM headed west on Sawtelle Peak Road with dinner reservations at Elk Lake Lodge for 6:30 PM.
Michael enjoying the view as we climbed Sawtelle Mountain
Approximately 2.5 miles into the ride the pavement ended and we passed through a gate onto a gravel road that winded up the mountain. We climbed up past several fields of beautiful wild flowers. Even stopped once to take in the view of the highway below. Micheal said more than once “the road should head more north soon” we kept climbing up and up. We kept climbing and I kept telling myself, that whatever you go up you get to go down, so I didn’t mind the climb so much knowing it would eventually end. I felt really slow and worried I was holding Micheal up. I hate being the last person or the slowest in a group of riders but my fatbike is 40 pounds and loaded with at least 35 pounds of gear plus my own weight that I must pump uphill. On a lightweight bike I am not a fast climber, I was moving slower than a snail’s pace on this loaded fatbike. One thing is for sure, this set up makes for good resistance training going up a hill. I was worried at this pace we would never make Elk Lake Lodge by 6:30 PM! I kept at it. Soon the nicely packed dirt road turned into freshly grated dirt. This did not help my forward momentum or the burning in my quads. I felt that my pace was slow enough walking would be more efficient. Now it was one foot in front of the other pushing the bike forward. The Tetons looked beautiful from this vantage point I felt sure we would lose sight of them soon as we rocketed down the other side of this mountain towards our destination. Each corner that came into view I just knew that would be where the down would start and my hard work would be rewarded with a fun coast downhill. But with each turn we kept climbing. Soon Micheal tiring of my slow ascent disappeared ahead of me and that was fine.
A variety of wild flowers were blooming every where.
I pushed on, up and up and up. The road took a sharp turn to the right and I was certain this would be where the down would start. I rounded the corner, there sat Micheal on a rock, and as I looked past him I saw more road leading up and up, it led up to some serious switchbacks right up to the radio towers on top the mountain. I thought to myself this kinda sucks but at least I can take a break for a minute I am starving!! Breakfast felt like ages ago and my stomach had been growling at me for the last 45 minutes. As I pulled out a snack Micheal said “we needed to go back… we missed the cross roads… here let me show you on this map.” Wait, what did he just say?
I was warned and chuckled quietly inside. You see before this trip I was chatting with Danny and Terry Kelly and they told me of a hike-a-bike Micheal led Danny on up past Upper Palisades Lake. It was a ride that had Terry concerned she would never see Danny again. Micheal is kind of known for short cuts that turn into epics. Prior to leaving on this trip I had looked at a map of the intended route and felt sure there was no way he was going to get me lost. The roads were all dirt or paved roads and the route was simple. He did change the route from what he had originally told me. Instead of riding the old highway, he wanted to try a different road that connected over from Sawtelle Peak Road to Red Rock Pass. Straight forward, but I guess not because we missed the crossroad.
We had peddled 8 miles up the 13 mile road that leads to the top of Sawtelle Mountain which is 9,906 ft high. Robin’s Roost elevation is 6,290 ft and were we stopped was roughly 8,400 ft. On the map this road ends at the top, no road down the backside towards our destination. Neither of us even recalled seeing a crossroads. I joked about just finishing the climb. We were more than half way to the top. Maybe I was a little too sarcastic because Micheal asked me if I was mad at him. I found that question to be highly amusing! Me, mad, because we are 8 miles off course? First, I was warned. Secondly, you have to do better than 8 miles off course on a bike, even if it is all up hill. My mind reminisced over some canyoneering adventures such as bush whacking for hours straight up out of the bowels of Zion from Birch Hollow on an intended short cut that saved us from needing a permit to go through The Narrows. Please! Just get the permit! Or 120 foot rope that disappeared into seasonal muddy lake in Mystery Canyon. That rope… vital to exiting the canyon. Thankfully, between the 6 of us combined, we carried enough webbing that we pieced together the needed 120 foot length to use as a pull rope or we would have been stuck for the night in the canyon. That isn’t so bad except it really worries the shit out of folks at home who expected us to return that afternoon. This adventure was a simple detour, easily corrected.
We finished up our snack break flipped the bikes around and bombed back down the hill searching for our missed crossroad. My fatbike may be slow as a snail going up that hill but don’t get in my way going down! Micheal said we were going 40+ mph downhill. Even loaded like it was that fatbike felt stable and I am pretty sure I squealed with joy the entire way down. Yes, all the way back to the gates still no crossroad. First thought in my head as I rolled through the gates. SHIT! I have to turn around and go back up, how in the hell did we miss this road twice!! Now I was mildly annoyed. As we rolled back through the gate there was a road on our right and a parking area to our left. As we pulled into the parking area to check the map again, Micheal noticed and ATV trail that exited the parking lot heading north, and here was our missed crossroad. Two hours and 16 miles later, we still had 20 miles to Elk Lake Lodge.
ATV trail that goes from Herriman State Park to Henry's Lake
Little pond on the ATV trail
The next 5 miles I loved! I wish the whole ride was like this. Two track ATV trail through the trees and relatively flat which was a nice reprieve from the Sawtelle climb. This ATV trail met up with Red Rock Pass Road and we took a left onto the pavement. We made really good time after getting over the first hill on Red Rock Road which winds around Henry Lake towards the pass and eventually turns back into a dirt road. Just past Spring Eagle Ranch we saw a fellow divide rider from Louisiana. His name was Dave a regular bikepacker who runs a bike shop out of his home by appointment only. As we parted company and wished Dave a good ride he told me “Don’t let this be your only bikepacking trip!” I assured him it would not be.
You can see Sawtelle the peak on the left we were more than half way to the top.
Dave from Louisiana and Micheal
The road started climbing toward the Continental Divide and as it did my saddle became insufferably troublesome, actually quite painful. I also started noticing my ravenous hunger. This is ridiculous! I feel constantly hungry on this ride! I took a long hard look at this hill leading to the top of the pass. I was going off of less than two hours of sleep. Already rode 8 miles up Sawtelle Road burning my quads out, and couldn’t sit in the saddle to pump up hill. The struggle was real! I decided that walking would be more efficient again. I awkwardly pushed the bike up the hill with an apple in one hand and caramel sauce in the other as I snacked to quiet my growling stomach. A cowboy in a truck from Montana pulled up alongside me and offered a ride but I politely declined and plodded on. Soon I spied Micheal waving his arms to let me know I was near the top. I made it to the Divide a quarter after two. I rested a bit while Micheal told me about another route variation he wanted to try. I groaned a little on the inside. We took the mandatory divide pictures with our bikes and then we continued the journey.
We reached the alternate road Micheal wanted to take about 3PM. Turns out is crosses Red Rock Creek but the bridge had been washed out. A beaver had dammed the creek and this structure looked like you could walk across. I really didn’t want to find out and lucky for me neither did Micheal. I was too tired for more short cut adventures. We arrived at our destination an hour later!
I quickly became very enamored of Elk Lake Lodge. Thoughtfully situated on the shores of Elk Lake and encircled by the peaceful beauty of the Montana Mountains. The places is rustic and gives of an air of comfortable hospitality that you long for. You feel home the second you roll up. How would it be to have a place like this? Would it satisfy my appetite for the need to be in the outdoors? I feel so caged anymore and suffer from the need for adventure to escape the day to day stress. Would I chose this over wanderlust? I choose wanderlust.
Elk Lake Lodge
One of the cabins available to rent for the night.
Jake and Laurel Delong gave us a warm welcome as we propped our bikes up against the lodge. Laurel offered a cold beer and a chair to enjoy the late afternoon as we chatted with our hosts. I sunk into this chair and every muscle started to relax and tired exhaustion begin to set in. When Laurel returned she had two frosty mugs and the beer! This was the best beer I have ever earned!! But with every delicious cold sip I knew this was going to backfire on me. We talked for a while with our hosts then walked down to the lake edge. I took my shoes off and soaked my feet in the cool water from the dock. Micheal sat on a bench near the water’s edge quietly taking in the evening. To me this was one of those satisfying moments in life.
At the time this was the best beer EVER!
Time to find camp. We started up a rather large hill and by this point in time the lack of food, exhaustion and that cold beer started taking affect. The plan had been to set up camp and ride back for dinner. Once I reached the top of the hill and looked down to where Micheal wanted to camp, I wanted to cry. That was a steep hill and we had to come back up and down to get to dinner, then back up and down to get to bed. At this point I was ready to lay down on the side of the road and sleep in the dirt. Micheal decided it was best to ditch our gear at the top behind the sage brush and go back for dinner, retrieve our stuff after dinner and set up camp. Brilliant!! No complaints from me.
Back at the lodge we took a seat in the living room and waited for our reservation. I tried holding a conversation with Micheal but in order to keep the conversation moving at a decent pace he had to finish my sentences. I can only think of a couple other times in my life I have been this exhausted. I chuckled as he apologized for finishing my thoughts. Actually, he was doing a really good job. We took our seats at the dinner table and I struggled to keep my eyes open. In fact, I am pretty sure I did fall asleep for a split second. Dinner was some of the best food I have ever had. Bacon wrapped filet mignon with sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and steamed vegetables. Anyone who knows me, knows I can’t stand mushrooms. I ate every mushroom on top of that filet and eyed the ones on Micheal’s plate! Was I just that hungry? No, Laurel is a fantastic cook. Dessert was a Hummingbird cake, so moist and light and full of sweet deliciousness. I highly recommend this place. Outstanding service, food, and overall atmosphere.
With a full stomach I perked back up and rode right up that hill without issue. We grabbed our gear and noticed a herd of cows had decided to make the stand of trees Micheal wanted to camp in their home for the night. Quite frankly neither of us wanted to share close quarters with the cows. It was getting dark so the very next stand of trees we came to Micheal declared “One good thing about hammock camping is you don’t need level ground to set up camp!” Micheal showed me how to hang my hammock and set up my tarp to keep any rain off. The trees we hung my hammock between were too close together, but given the straps I had, we didn’t have much choice. I was so tired I don’t think it really mattered except at one point in the night I almost fell out of the hammock. Not the most comfortable night’s sleep, but not the worst. I am glad we set up the tarp because it did rain a bit in the night.
Nothing beats up cup of coffee in the morning to get you warmed up and going.
We woke to grey skies, made coffee and I ate the rest of last night’s steak for breakfast. Laurel must have given me Micheal’s leftovers because there were more of those tasty mushrooms, yum!! As we packed it started to softly rain. We quickly gathered all our stuff hoping to put it away before getting too wet. I stowed my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup that Laurel gave me yesterday in my gas tank bag. A delightful treat for later. The hill we had to ride was steep enough even Micheal pushed his bike up. I remember looking at the sky hoping it would not dump on us. I was sick and tired of cleaning caked on mud off of my bikes for this years bike season. I did not relish the idea of riding the bike today after becoming so sore the day before. I gritted my teeth and eased onto the saddle, to my surprise I was not tender and even my legs had a renewed strength.
Started off the ride by pushing our bikes back up the steep hill.
Jake and Laurel Delong
I took one last photo of the lodge and cabins and we started the grind home. The weather held, it was cloudy and cooler temps all the way back to Robin’s Roost. The ride back was pretty uneventful. We did meet two more Divide riders as we rested at the Divide sign. The return trip only took 4.5 hours as opposed to the sevenish it took to get to Elk Lake Lodge. I am not going to lie, it is easier if you don’t climb 2,200 feet in 8 miles before trying to ride the 25 or so miles to your destination. In all we biked roughly 80 miles. Pretty good for my first bikebacking trip. My favorite section of the ride was that 5 mile “lost crossroad”. Maybe one day I will plan a bikeback trip where all I do is ride along the ATV trails in Island Park and when my legs don’t want to go any further that is where I will camp.
Return trip home. Skies were moody.
Scottish Highland Cow
Fatbike leaning on the ground
Return stop at the Divide.
Heading back to Island Park
Lunch at Frostop before taking Micheal home.