Motorcycling Under The Big Sky
January 21, 2010
By Genevieve Marie Schmitt
Want to know why Montana is called big sky country? Just throw a leg over the saddle of a motorcycle, crack open the throttle and you'll discover the answer. The wide open spaces and expansive vistas force your senses to zero in on everything around you. You and your iron horse are just a speck underneath the massive blue ceiling that stretches from one horizon to another as far as the eye can see. It is a really big sky, and you feel small underneath its presence.
Rumbling along the 12,000 miles of scenic highways and byways that meander throughout Montana, the atmosphere around you becomes breathtakingly clear. You're experiencing a 360-degree view of your surroundings. No windows and no roofs obstruct your vision. Yes, it is a big sky. It never fails. Every time I ride a motorcycle underneath Montana's wide, blue canopy my mind always wanders to the question "How can the sky be that big here? Why is it not that big in other states?"
It's easy to lose yourself in thought and ask abstract questions like that while riding a motorcycle in Montana. You'll find yourself getting reflective about the world, and about your place and purpose in it. You might even turn into a poet if you spend enough time motorcycling in Montana.
"Riding in Montana is like nowhere else on earth," remarks Eric Albright, manager of Yellowstone Harley-Davidson in Belgrade, Montana. Albright should know. The 34-year-old has been riding a motorcycle in Montana since he was 10 when he started out on a little Honda dirt bike. Between the dirt and the pavement, Albright, who now rides a 2004 Harley-Davidson Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide, has experienced most of the roads in the Treasure State. "It's euphoric in the sense that the smells and the views and the scenery you ride through are incredible."
Albright favors the twisties, as motorcyclists call them, tight "s" turns that challenge some riders to "push the bike over as far as you can," Albright explains. "If I'm not dragging metal and pushing sparks out the back, I'm not pushing it hard enough."
While so much of Montana's landscape is wide open with long and winding roads, there are plenty of canyons begging to be carved by riders like Albright. "To me riding a motorcycle you need a lot of curves." One of his favorite curvy roads is Highway 279 out of Helena traveling up the Continental Divide over Flesher Pass towards Lincoln. "It's the only road I've been on that when you see a sign that says 'caution 20 mph,' it means 20 mph, even on a motorcycle. It's really fun."
He's not kidding. Even on a map (where lines for roads rarely indicate the curvature of the pavement) the line for Highway 279 near the pass has lots of tight squiggles.
At the other end of the motorcycling spectrum are those riders who just want to get out and cruise effortlessly through long, winding roads as they bathe in the sights and smells before them. "The odors in Montana are so wonderful," says Gary Smith, a BMW rider from Billings, who's been riding 40 years. "One minute you're going through alfalfa, the next minute you're riding through pine. There is such a sensory thing to riding through Montana."
Smith enjoys motorcycling so much that he heads up a group of BMW riders called the Beartooth Beemers, aptly named because the famous scenic byway, the Beartooth Highway, is right in their backyard. Smith says he's ridden the amazingly scenic 68-mile stretch of pavement on a motorcycle at least 300 times. "It's such a beautiful thing up there," he says stealing a phrase about the highway from well-traveled author Charles Kuralt who described it as "the most beautiful drive in America."
The Beartooth Highway, with its stunning panoramic views of mountain peaks, plateaus, alpine lakes, and wildflowers, was on my list of life's "must dos" up until two years ago when I finally had the chance to ride a motorcycle over it for the first time. What I remember the most is that this amazing stretch of road literally puts you on the level with all the neighboring 10,000-foot and higher peaks. You are up above the clouds looking out at all the mountains and plateaus around you. The road takes you through a variety of topography, my favorite being the picturesque streams surrounded by evergreens and wildflowers.
Smith, who knows this road better than most, cautions, "There's a surprise around every corner," referring to tourists who stop alongside the highway to take pictures, and wildlife that takes its time crossing the road. "The weather can change up there in 10 minutes. I've been up there in snowstorms on the fourth of July."
No joking. My highly anticipated mid-July jaunt over this famous pass had my partner and I riding into a hailstorm as we approached the 11,000-foot summit of Beartooth Pass. We braced ourselves on our motorcycles while dodging pelting bullets of hail until we could reach the nearest shelter, a gift shop at the top of the pass. We hastily parked our bikes and ran for cover inside to wait out the worst of the storm. Sipping hot cocoa, we chatted with the store employees who weren't the least bit fazed by what non-locals would view as un-seasonal weather.
The Beartooth Highway is one of 52 roads in America recognized as a National Scenic Byway. The other one in Montana is Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. I checked that road off my life's "must do" list last summer when I, again, straddled a motorcycle and cruised the 50-mile scenic journey from East Glacier to West Glacier. The topography is much different in the western part of the state with craggy mountain peaks that pierce the sky and a more rugged feel to the land surrounding it. The Going-to-the-Sun road weaves through this rugged beauty, climbing and climbing and until you feel you have, in fact, reached the sun.
I can't imagine experiencing this ribbon of pavement on any other type of vehicle than a motorcycle. I would miss the fine mist spraying my face as I ride by the many waterfalls that cascade near the road's edge. I'd also miss the fragrant smells of alpine that permeate the air. I think I've found the place candlemakers go to bottle the smell for alpine-scented candles.
Gail Ohs, a rider from Whitefish, Montana, boasts that Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of her "local" roads. She travels it on her 1998 Harley-Davidson Road King Classic at least five times during each riding season. "It's the most awesome road ever to ride. The view is fabulous," she said.
One of those road trips is with a group of female riding friends who call themselves the Rocky Mountain Vixens. There's about 15 or 20 of them, and any brand of bike is allowed in the group.
Look for the Rocky Mountain Vixens to take their annual trek just after Labor Day when tourist traffic is not as heavy. Ohs remarks, "When I go to the top of the park in a car, I kind of get vertigo. But when I'm on my bike, I can look over the edge I feel great. It's just an open feeling of freedom riding up there."
No matter where you ride in Montana, all motorcyclists who reside in the state agree that one of the luxuries to motorcycling in the Treasure State is the lack of traffic. "We're not hampered by all the cars here," says Gary Smith.
Lots of small towns and secondary roads also make Montana a motorcyclist's paradise. "If you stay off the interstates, you can find beautiful two-lane roads that have very little traffic, plus they're fun roads," says Ken Conrad, a rider from Helena who owns eight motorcycles and has been riding for 43 years. One of his favorites near Helena is The Recreation Road. It's a an old two-lane road that parallels the Interstate and starts 15 miles north of Helena. You can ride the two-lane road along the Missouri River all the way to Great Falls without every having to go on the interstate.
There really isn't a bad road to ride in Montana. With the abundance of scenic beauty, and history around every corner, a motorcycle journey in any direction in Montana is bound to be glorious. The big sky above just makes what's below that more majestic. Maybe that's why it appears so big.
Genevieve Marie Schmitt is the editor of Woman Rider magazine. She recently moved to Paradise Valley, Montana, to enjoy the great motorcycling roads right in her backyard.
Montana Riding Weather
While Montana is known for its long winters, it doesn't stop some people from riding their motorcycles all year long. Gail Ohs brags she's taken out her 1998 Harley-Davidson Road King Classic on balmy winter days. "I've got pictures of myself on my bike in West Glacier on Feb. 28. It's fun to see how early you have pavement to ride up there, but there is still snow on all the peaks. We definitely have our winter season."
Down near the south central and eastern part of Montana, Chinook winds blow away most of the snow that's fallen on valley floors. In Paradise Valley, just south of Livingston, it's not uncommon to see riders out on a winter day when the sun is shining and temperatures around 40. With all the technical riding gear and heated clothing that's available nowadays, it's possible to ride nearly all year long.
Great Montana Riding Routes
Here are some favorite loop tours in Montana. The scenery will leave you breathless. For trips totaling more than 150 miles you might want to consider spending the night halfway between so you can take your time and enjoy every nuance of the journey.
Loop 1, The Beartooth Route, 233 miles:
Start in Billings. Head west on U.S. 90 for 26 miles to Columbus, exit 408. Head southeast on Montana 78 to Absarokee. Then ride south to Roscoe and Red Lodge. At Red Lodge, take Montana 212 south, which turns into the Beartooth Highway. At Coulter Pass, head southeast on Montana 296. At Montana 120, you can head 16 miles south to Cody to spend the night. There's lots to do in Cody including visiting the fabulous Buffalo Bill Museum. Head back to Billings on Wyoming 120 north. It becomes Montana 72 when you cross the border into Montana. Continue north on that. At Bridger, Montana, it changes to Montana 310. Follow that north to Billings.
Loop 2, The Yellowstone Route, 240 miles:
Start in Livingston. Take Montana 89 south of Livingston to Gardiner and the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Continue on through the park to Madison and then onto West Yellowstone. West Yellowstone is fun place to spend the night with lots of shops to keep you busy. Take Montana 191 north toward Big Sky, and then into Belgrade. At Belgrade, hop on I-90 to head back the last 34 miles to Livingston.
Loop 3, The Flathead Lake Route, 102 miles:
Start in Kalispell. Head south on U.S. 93 along the west edge of Flathead Lake. At Polson, head east on Montana 35, which then turns north up the east edge of Flathead Lake. Have lunch in Bigfork. Just north of Bigfork, head west on Montana 82 back to Route 93 (you've now made a circle), then hop on U.S. 93 north back to Kalispell.
Loop 4, The Glacier Route, 191 miles:
Start in Whitefish. Head east on Montana 40 toward Glacier National Park. At West Glacier, take U.S. 2 southeast around the southern outside edge of the park. At East Glacier, take Montana 49 north to Kiowa, then Montana 89 to St. Mary, the east entrance to Glacier Park. Head west on Going-to-the-Sun Road. At West Glacier, hop back on Montana 40 into Whitefish.
How to Get Involved in Motorcycling
Motorcycle training classes are offered by the state of Montana using the proven Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum. Visit http://motorcycle.msun.edu or call 800.922.BIKE for information on a class near you in Montana. For general MSF information, visit msf-usa.org, or call 800.466.9227.