As cyclists, we endeavor to experience new places, new landscapes, and new challenges. We actively create memories that last a lifetime, whether that’s deep in the pain cave by ourselves or on a group ride with friends. But more often than not, our familiar home trails and roads become mundane – treadmills to keep us fit for the weekend escapes to new locales.
I find that it can be hard this time of year to motivate for the same backyard rides. I try to stay motivated, but I am guilty of losing inspiration for my local trail system come mid-August, even though the access and trails here in Missoula are world-class. It can be hard to punch out the same 2-hour rides time and time again. But how to mix things up…
Zoom out. Get creative. Invite a friend. Or, in this case, a family member. What follows here, dubbed “Dad Gone Wild,” is about how to find inspiration in your own backyard while creating lasting memories with family.
Rewind to Thanksgiving 2017. My partner and I visited my folks in Colorado Springs as part of a road trip to ride drier, warmer climes on our shoulder season. We were sitting around the dinner table and I asked my dad, “Pops, whatcha gonna do when you retire?” To my surprise, he responded, “I want to ride my bicycle from Colorado Springs to Durango to see your sister, then I want to ride from home to Missoula to see you.” How cool is that?
On the drive home, Eva and I hatched an idea: what if we could get both of our dads, two 60-something recreational cyclists, to join us on an overnight bikepacking trip in Montana? Differences in fitness, home elevation (Colorado vs. Florida), and lodging preferences (willingness to camp vs. hotel accommodations) had us considering routes that were logistically easy and had bail out options should something go wrong. We cooked up a few routes with dates and pitched it to the dads, both of whom responded positively (with some slight changes). We got to planning.
Missoula is surrounded by public land and open space and the community has done incredible work to build pathways and connectivity around our valley. We wanted the trip to be easy on our dads and ride-focused, rather than car/logistics intensive. We decided a door-to-door route would make things easier for everyone and a few options surfaced. 1) Ride to Seeley Lake and back on gravel; 2) Traverse the Jocko Road over to Arlee; 3) Take the new bike path down the Bitterroot Valley to Hamilton, then up and over Skalkaho Pass to Rock Creek.
We were limited in time– one-week plus travel days and packing– leaving us with about 4 days of actual riding and 3 nights of camping. Water is luckily not an issue in western Montana as it can be in other parts of the West, and because each of these routes is adjacent to public land camping (almost) anywhere made for flexibility to adjust daily mileage.
Eva’s dad was, unfortunately, unable to pull off the trip, so we were down to just the three of us which opened up some camping options. We decided to take advantage of our friends who had recently moved to Hamilton (a house = showers, a grill, and a store for last minute shopping, if needed) and ride the two-year-old bike path connecting Missoula to Hamilton as part of our trip. That meant choosing option #3.
A few phone calls to set expectations, a few planning emails to make sure my dad brought enough food (and the right kind of food) and gear and we were go for launch. Pops arrived on a Sunday evening and we spent all morning Monday packing up the bikes. I saddled up on my BSB 9 RDO I loaned my dad my Niner RLT Steel that I took to Ethiopia earlier in the year, fully kitted out in Blackburn Ranger bags. I must say, it was pretty cool to see him packing the bike that I bonded with in Africa earlier this year.
The route wound up being a little over 170 miles, about ¾ paved the other ¼ gravel. Broken up over 4 days, we pedaled an average of 42 miles a day, but the first two days ended up being a little over 50 miles each and the last two were closer to 30. Front-loading the trip with the longer, harder days was intentional; we weren’t sure how my dad would do with the heat and climbs, so we thought tapering as we went was a good idea. Read: “You got it pops, this is the hardest day of them all! The rest is all (literally) downhill from here!”.
We got a later start on Monday than we had hoped, putting us dead center in the hottest part of the day. Multiply that by the radiation bouncing off the pavement and we were pushing Day 1 in 90+ degree heat, fully loaded with all the food for a 4-day trip. My dad is in incredible shape and was eager to put some miles down, so we soon found him at the front taking long hard pulls against the headwind. Try as I might to break for him and slow him down a bit, cautioning that we had several more miles and days to go, I think his excitement was so high that by the end of the day he was suffering some leg cramps, cycling’s way of saying, “Take about 10% off there bud.”
Eva and I had a quick, mildly concerned check-in, thinking “cramps on day one and we have to ride Skalkaho Pass tomorrow. It’ll be another long, hot day. Can he make it?” Dad assured us he just needed some rest and Muscle Milk (seriously though, he nearly drank a whole 4-pack in one sitting) and that an earlier start would help. We spent the night at our friends’ house, taking advantage of their grill to make burgers and a big salad and went to bed early.
Day two started off with lots of coffee and an egg frittata. And the last Muscle Milk….Packing bikes on trips like this get easier as the days go on – you gain familiarity with the odd objects you have to pack and find perfect places to smash them in just right. By the end of the trip, your packing system is down to a science. We weren’t quite there yet on Day 2, however…but we did manage to get on the road to Skalkaho Pass by 8am to take advantage of the cooler temps and minimal vehicle traffic.
Skalkaho Pass is rad. It is such a nice pedal; starts off with a super mellow paved road that winds its way up the valley and then into a canyon, passing a few second home starter castles with ‘No Trespassing’ signs and hobby cows. It eventually enters Forest Service land and turns to gravel. You’re surrounded by pine and spruce at first, but as the grade picks up and the road leaves the creek bottom, the views through old burns really start to give perspective. Up and up, for a few solid hours we climbed until reaching Skalkaho Falls, a spectacular waterfall right beside the road and a great place to pause for a bit, eat some food and top off bottles. Not far to the top of the pass now, and with one final push we were over the summit and coasting down Crystal Creek, past some cool dispersed campsites and trailheads. I made several mental notes to come back with a mountain bike…
The long coast down the east side of Skalkaho is an absolute blast. It’s midday Tuesday and nobody is back here. We settle into the drops and do our best impressions of F16 fighter pilots as we duck and weave around potholes and the occasional grapefruit-size rocks. The breeze from our speed cools us off and before we know it we’re back on pavement, hauling even more ass as we go down down down to Rock Creek. We hit the bridge in no time and bust out in laughter and high-fives, having topped out our gears on the open road descent. The majority of our day is over. Only 8-miles downriver to go, so we decide to take a long lunch break and do some fishing.
I had just gotten a Tenkara rod to take on trips like this and wanted to see how the telescoping rod would handle a famous Rock Creek cutthroat. Three awkward roll casts later and I was hooked up! But my excitement got the best of me and as the fish turned its head my tippet broke. Oh well, the only thing left on the agenda today is to fish/ride our way to camp, plenty more chances. The mellow pedal to camp went by quickly and before we knew it we were napping in the shade at Stony Creek Campground, our destination for Day 2.
Dinner that night was something I was really looking forward to: steamed tamales, sliced bell peppers, and wild rice! One of the fun puzzles inherent in bikepacking is menu planning. You burn so many calories that damn near anything is fair game, but you need to be conscious of weight and space so there’s a game to play that goes, “I will eat it all, all the food, but where do I pack it?” Experienced bikepackers out there likely have their go to meals; light and small but dense in calories and easy to prepare. Since Eva and I were hosting my dad, we figured we could splurge a little and pack foods that were non-traditional in the backpacking / bikepacking realm, like tamales! It worked out perfectly, for future reference. The only thing we forgot was hot sauce…
Day 3 kicked off early, again to beat the heat, but with the added benefit our two biggest and hardest days behind. The strategy, we agreed, was to enjoy a saunter down fabled Rock Creek, swimming and fishing and playing around whenever we wanted. 38-miles seems like a short distance, but gets drawn out when bikepacking, especially self-contained and on gravel, but we felt strong and certain we could crush those miles in no time. We set off with eyes for fishing holes.
Rock Creek is legendary around western Montana. It’s been written up as a “blue ribbon trout stream” in all the guidebooks, evident by the number of out of state plates clogging up the access spots. To be honest, because of the attention it gets I tend to stay away from Rock Creek and have found my honey holes on lesser known stretches of water nearby. Fishing for me is always good, it’s the catching that can occasionally be excellent. Regardless if I’m hooking up on fish, just being on the bank of a river is good enough for me. Multiply that by the fact that I arrived here by bicycle, and that my best friend and partner and my dad are here beside me and things just couldn’t get much better in my book. It took a while to get comfortable with the Tenkara rod but eventually, I got in tune with its spine and we worked together to land some nice fish. Eva and dad grew tired of watching me cast so they headed down the road. I spent a few hours pedaling, stopping at a hole, rising a few fish, then pedaling again. Good old fashioned fun in my book.
When I finally caught up to Eva and my dad they were finishing homemade sandwiches at the Fisherman’s Mercantile near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River. It was cool to see them bonding and I was psyched they got to spend the afternoon pedaling together and getting to know one another. I ordered up a club and Coke and we made plans to camp at the Merc for the night. Day 3 ended with a trip back to the Merc for pie (and a slice of Oreo cake for Eva), after having demolished a pot of tortellini and pesto. The sun sank behind a sparsely timbered ridge to the west, reflecting its hues on the creek below us, almost telling us to follow, that just behind the ridge was our final destination…and ice cream.
We were motivated to crush some miles on the last day. Each of us feeling strong, having lighter bikes and excited to complete the journey, we finished off the remains of the instant oatmeal and packed up for the last time. I led a safety talk about how right after we leave camp we had to ride a short section along Interstate 90, before we could hop a fence and take the frontage road. Once we all knew the plan, it was time to merge into traffic, put down some watts and get our asses to that frontage road, ‘cause it’s freakin’ scary being on a bicycle when trucks blow past you going 80. The three of us formed a tight paceline and lickety-split, we were handing bikes over a barbed wire fence and crossing an irrigation ditch to get to the frontage road that led us back to Missoula.
The 23 miles back into town went by quickly, just like the trip itself. It’s always remarkable to me just how fast adventures come to an end. A day ago I was bike-fishing 30 miles up Rock Creek and now I’m sitting at home writing about bike-fishing. Just a reminder to you, dear reader, life is short, time flies, make the most of this rad adventure called life and take time to share experiences with the people that enhance your time on earth.
Having the time to host my dad on a bikepacking trip, door to door from my house to a legendary trout stream while camping out and eating semi-luxuriously, has been the cherry on top of my summer so far. I am so lucky that my dad has taken such good care of himself that he’s physically able to pull off a trip like this, let alone crush it after settling into a sustainable pace.
Planning and executing this trip with my lady friend was a hoot, too. Running through the logistics and meals, backup options, fun things to do to keep morale high deepens our connection and got us thinking about the future and what we’d like to do in our later years. Maintaining our bodies so that we can do trips like this when we’re in our 60’s feels essential.
I don’t mean to end this blog all sentimental-like, but things in our world can be hectic and confusing and hard to comprehend at times. I find a remedy for that just might be breaking the routine, thinking outside the box and planning an adventure that takes you from your door on some obscure route you pieced together on google earth with a friend, partner, relative or total stranger. ‘Cause we could all use a respite to connect with a trout, a waterfall, tamales, a slice of pie, and ourselves.