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Aug 16 2013

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Beartooth Pass to Great Falls

4 August, 355 Miles

4 August, 355 Miles

Just for a change we had another early start. This time it was so we could ride the Beartooth Pass before it got too busy. As we rode out of Cooke City there were a few people around but on the whole it was sleeping off the night before. We had another glorious, if a little chilly, morning. In fact chilly isn’t quite the word, it was 4.5˚C. We’ve become somewhat acclimatised to the heat so the low temperature and our summer gear made it feel downright cold (if we had any sense we’d have stopped and put some of our warmer gear on).

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There were quite a few cows on the road, I suspect they move back onto the pasture as more traffic comes through

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As we approached Beartooth Pass we discovered road works to repair a chunk of the road that had disappeared in a rock fall; it wasn’t pretty. We waited for ages for the light to go green and soon found out why – the section of missing road was about 1/2 a mile long.

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The air was crisp and clear and made everything seem clean and shiny. As we got further up the mountain we could see pockets of snow remaining in some of the hollows. Along the road were the tallest snow poles I’ve seen yet, a clear indication of how much snow they get here in the winter. Luckily for us that wasn’t a problem we had to deal with today.

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The views from the pass were breathtaking but there was an official viewpoint as well at which we stopped. There were several other bikes, all of which were going the opposite direction to us. A group of about half-a-dozen Harleys left soon after we arrived; we could hear their engines reverberating round for ages as they went up the mountain and down the other side.

There were chipmunks here as well. These were much more tame than the ones in Bryce Canyon and the scattering of nut shells indicates they are fed by people.

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It was still cold enough to keep our jackets on and done up

The down side of the pass was on the dark side in the morning and we were pleased to come  back into the sunshine although we regretted we didn’t have time to turn round and ride it again…and again. Not that it would have been the same as our early start meant we’d had an almost empty road and the traffic was now getting quite busy. It’s always nice to have clear road in front of you.

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After about 60 miles we came to the first town after Cooke City, Red Lodge, where we saw a suitable place to stop for breakfast. We parked right outside the café and walked in. It was heaving. There were four people in front of us but we decided to wait and it was worth it. We asked the waitress why it was so busy and she said it was the only place in town where you could get good food. Fair enough!

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After the mountains of the Beartooth Highway the scenery softened again into rolling pastures. We transitioned from Wyoming to Montana and, sorry Wyoming, Montana soon became our new favourite state. It’s a beautiful place. Clearly the fields are used to provide for cattle but unlike some of the other states the fields looked more manageable – they weren’t quite so large and somehow looked more ‘farm’ and less ‘prairie’. Some of the land appeared to be uncultivated and was left for trees to flourish.

There were still mountains to one side but these seemed softer too. The road went up hill, down dale and, delightfully for us, round long sweeping bends.

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There were still plenty of grain silos but many were of a different construction – more like large buildings than the huge cylindrical silos we had seen elsewhere.

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Bison were grazing in some of the fields. Reminiscent of times past.

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Lots of towns have their own train exhibit by the side of the road

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The bike was absolutely covered in this fine dust.

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We saw hundreds of straw bales. They even baled up the grass verges

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One of our National Parks stops was at the Great Falls Visitor Centre which celebrated the arrival of Lewis and Clark in the area. Until we came to the US neither of us had heard of the illustrious couple but this was the second time their names had occurred at national parks. We had anticipated this being a small visitor centre which we’d have a quick look round then be on our way. Two hours later we emerged; it was really interesting.

Lewis and Clark were commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to explore and map out land newly acquired via the Louisiana Purchase and to find a route to the Pacific, the fabled Northwest Passage. Their journey took them about two years to complete and started in 1804. They jointly commanded a group of around 30 people, including an Indian woman Sacagawea and her baby son, when they came across the Great Falls on the Missouri River. Imagine their dismay when they discovered that not only did they have to portage round the Great Falls, there were another four waterfalls to navigate upstream. Instead of taking a few days to complete this portion of their journey it took them a month.

The museum had a film with a brief overview of the expedition and a couple of talks by the Rangers. The first talk was about the importance of Indian women to the expedition (Sacagawea was multi-lingual and helped to communicate with other Indian tribes, she also helped to negotiate for horses when they were required from the Shoshoni’s. Another Indian woman who had been captured and spent time with white people apparently saved the expedition from a nasty death by saying she had been well-treated). The second talk was about plants of the area which were of use to the expedition.

My favourite quote from the museum was from the expedition recruitment advert asking for men to volunteer. They obviously needed practical people as ‘sons of Gentlemen need not apply’.

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A life-sized model of one of the canoes that Lewis and Clark (and team) had to man-handle round the waterfalls

Whilst we were there we bumped into another couple of bikers, Dave and Ginny from Calgary. Despite only meeting us for a few minutes they were kind enough to offer us a bed for the night if we were passing through. Thank you both for your very kind offer and we’re sorry we didn’t make it.

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After the museum we decided to take a look at the falls for ourselves. Just downstream is a tiny island which you can go onto to view the waterfall and, added since Lewis and Clark, a hydro-electric plant. We came across this quirky little building which contained nothing but a few electric hobs.

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The falls are slightly less ferocious since the damn was put in but they keep them flowing by restricting the amount of water that can be siphoned off to the power station

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It was getting late now so we booked into a local hotel. We didn’t quite get as far as we’d planned as we had spent so long with Lewis and Clark but we had a great day so didn’t mind.

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