It’s no secret that in peak season Yellowstone National Park is getting really, really crowded these days.
Standstill traffic, limited parking, and long bathroom lines are becoming the norm. But there’s one little-known way to experience the park that offers a rare, private glimpse. It’s by bicycle, before the roads open to motorized vehicles and just as the snowpack is starting to melt. So I decided to experience it for myself.
It was about 1 p.m. when I pulled into the south entrance of Yellowstone in my Subaru. In the summer, this spot can be a total zoo. That day though, there were only a few parked cars and nobody to be seen.
During this time of year, services within the park are shut down. That means very few, if any, rangers or park employees around to answer questions. The road at the south entrance was still closed to cars, and a locked metal gate blocked cars from going any further.
As I got ready to hop on my bike, Michelle Cheng and her boyfriend pulled into the parking lot. They both live in Jackson.
“We actually primarily mountain bike, but to be able to ride in the park without all the cars and before all the tourists come in, it’s a great opportunity to get there on the road bikes,” she said.
Cheng planned to ride the 44 mile round trip to West Thumb and back. She had packed water, sunscreen, and some snacks.
“We have all the essentials to make sure if anything happens to the bikes. So spare tubes, and inflators for tires,” she said. “And a bunch of layers, because we are still in that springtime conditions, so it could get pretty cold.”
Cheng also packed maybe the most important thing: bear spray. Black bears and grizzlies are active this time of year. Cheng said she wouldn’t mind seeing one, “but not too close! [It] would be great, [but] I don’t know if I can outride them, even on my road bike.”
I agreed, having already spotted two grizzlies that morning on my drive through Grand Teton. It was exciting from the relative safety of my car, but not so much from my bike.
Cheng and I bid each other happy trails, and I checked the forecast one last time, just to be sure: partly sunny with a high of 55. So I hit the road.
Flanked by pine trees, it wasn’t long before Wyoming’s usual gusty winds showed up. At times snowbanks on the side of the road rose to fifteen feet tall, though the road was completely dry. The road was also mostly uphill.
About a mile in, the road crossed Spirea Creek, a wide and shallow stream of water. It was just the kind of place you’d see wildlife. But I had no such luck, so I kept pedaling.
At the top of the first major climb, I stopped for a snack and some water. I ate jerky and cheese as I looked over the valley where Lewis River winds through the park. Back down the road, I could see a distant glimpse of the snow-capped Tetons. But what really struck me was how quiet it was. Even the wind had died down. It felt like I had Yellowstone National Park completely to myself.
I biked a few more miles before I decided to turn around. It was a nice change to coast downhill for most of the ride back.
In the parking lot, I ran into some other cyclists that just wrapped up their ride. Like me, they didn’t see anyone else on the road. Jeff Huot, of Jackson, was surprised there weren’t more people around.
“Because it’s the last weekend, I thought there would be more cyclists as well. It’s not as nice today. It was forecast to be more sunny. But still it was beautiful” Huot said.
He also said it was the best way to experience the park, but not a lot of people know about it.
“They don’t publicize this and it’s hard to find out if it’s open,” he said.
Updated road information is available on the website, but it can be tricky to navigate. And taking in the park by bike attracts a specific kind of visitor—one that doesn’t mind cardio or cooler temperatures.
“We come out every year, and we try to do this and it’s really a treat,” Huot said.
I agreed. Tired after a great ride, I was really looking forward to indulging in a slice of pie à la mode in the next town over. I didn’t see as much wildlife as I expected. But as I drove away from the park I did see some--three more grizzlies.