This time of year, the crowds have mercifully left Yellowstone National Park. And, unbeknownst to some, after the gates close in November, you can still get into the park on two wheels. However, since park roads are closed to automobiles, you'll have to ride in from one of the entrances.
Indeed, biking in Yellowstone in fall almost guarantees an epic experience: It's calm, beautiful, and so isolated, you’ll feel like you have all 2.2 million acres of wilderness to yourself. Park Service and concessionaire employees are still driving around, but from November and beyond, there won’t be a single tourist sharing the road with you to worry about, gawking at wildlife and the landscape.
Here, three recommended rides for fall that take full advantage of this sublime time of year in one of America's most popular national parks. If you go before the gates close, you can drive in, park your car, hop on the bike, and roll to your heart's content.
Fishing Bridge to West Thumb
This 44-mile roundtrip adventure is popular among local cyclists. Rolling along the shores of Lake Yellowstone you'll catch views of the spectacular southern Absaroka Mountains. This section of Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road is in excellent condition, with few potholes and an intact edge, as well as one of the widest shoulders in the park.
From Fishing Bridge, it’s just seven miles south to Lake Junction. The stunning, colonial-style Lake Hotel, the oldest hotel in the park, won’t be open, but it warrants a quick stop anyway. South of Bridge Bay is Gull Point Drive. This is one of the few remaining sections of original stage road in the park, and is a lovely little two mile side trip.
Back on the main road, you’ll ride through old-growth spruce forests as well as younger lodgepole pine thickets. Stop for a picnic lunch at West Thumb and walk around the thermal basin. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness a geyser erupting into the waters of the lake.
Norris to Madison Junction
This ride, which is 14 miles one way, is best done as a car shuttle, or continuing an additional 14 miles to West Yellowstone and a cozy hotel. There are some decent hills, but the road has a two-foot shoulder and it’s mostly downhill to Madison. Watch for cars stopping unexpectedly at Beryl Spring and the turnoff to Gibbon Falls.
From Norris, you’ll ride through the thick, short lodgepole pine forests, which regenerated after the 1988 fires, then along the grassy banks of Gibbon River. Scan the meadows for elk, bison, and even grizzlies. You can park your bike and walk the half-mile trail to Artist’s Paintpots, with its colorful hot springs, a perpetual geyser, and some mud pots. Make sure to check out Gibbon Falls, then it’s all downhill to Madison Junction.
Madison to Old Faithful
During tourist season, this is probably one of the busiest sections of highway in Yellowstone and the shoulder is often nonexistent. It’s 16 miles one-way, but because of bears, bison, and some of the most popular thermal features of the park, it’s a difficult route. If you’re up for a challenge, this is your ride. However after the season ends in November traffic will be a non-issue, but you'll have to ride in from West Yellowstone, which is an additional 14 miles.
From Madison, you’ll follow the Firehole River all the way to Old Faithful, with plenty of geyser basins to explore. The first is Fountain Paint Pots, with several geysers that erupt frequently, plus some incredible deep blue springs. Fountain Lake Drive is a two-mile, one-way jaunt. This section of road made national news two summers ago when the asphalt melted due to excessive underground temperatures, causing speculation on the next great blowout of the Yellowstone Super Volcano.
Midway Geyser Basin is home to the brilliant blue and orange Grand Prismatic Spring, the most photographed spot in Yellowstone. Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin follow, then you’re at Old Faithful. Check in at the visitor center for the next predicted eruption of Yellowstone's most famous geyser.
Before You Go
In fall, chances are good you’ll experience the weather of all four seasons in the same day. Be prepared for a quick change in the weather. Also note there are few visitor services available after mid-October. It’s tough finding a snack (or even a cup of coffee), so take your own provisions.
Local cyclist Pam Noesner recommends never riding alone and carrying bear spray, even on a bike, on the road. Grizzlies are often right next to the asphalt, foraging away. Bear spray works on bison too. Should you have an up-close encounter, putting a car between you and a one-ton behemoth is a good way to stay safe.