No62 Canada Great Divide What A Gigantic Trail
Aug 13, 2016 | America, Blog, Canada
The longest MTB route in the world Great Divide Part 1 Banff to Eureka the Canadian Section.
Many years ago I added this trail to my bucket list. There are 4500 KM and 60,000 vertical meters from Banff, always along the Continental Divide, to the Mexican border.
The route traverses British Columbia and Alberta on the Canadian side and Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico on the US side.
In between, the trail crosses the continental divide 32 times and meanders along the Rocky Mountains through vastly different landscapes and types of vegetation.
Most of the route passes through wilderness areas exactly my kind of thing!
A few crazy cyclists ride the trail every year as a self-supported race. The record is a sensational 12 days. Totally utopian dimensions for me. I will take considerably more time and enjoy the trip.
The bike packed with maps, a bear bell, bear spray and a long cord to hang my food in a tree, I headed out. I had already sent my front panniers to the USA to have less weight to make my trip a bit easier.
The density of bears in some areas along the trail is high, but my curiosity was, as always, greater than the fear I had. But honestly, once you get underway and find yourself in the middle of the action, now and then it can become a bit creepy, but more about that later.
My sense of freedom returned, my passion awoke, and I felt so good that my whole body was doing cheerful somersaults on the inside.
Bike Shops And Repairs
There are plenty of bike shops on the Great Divide, and they tend to be well-equipped to deal with those of us riding through. Despite their very full schedules, we were accommodated immediately whenever we needed something adjusted or repaired .
That said, its common to go hundreds of miles between on-route bike shops. So its essential to carry what you need to repair common bike problems yourself. If something goes wrong that you cant fix, youll likely be able to hitchhike to a bike shop, but it may throw a wrench into your schedule or your budget.
Transportation To/from Start And Finish
The Great Divide bike route is long enough that youll need to handle transportation to and from each end separately no round-trip tickets here! Here are the most common ways of getting to and from the endpoints.
Antelope Wells, New Mexico: This small border post stands alone in the middle of nowhere, so plan your transportation ahead of time. I recommend contacting Jeffery Sharp. He provides shuttle services to and from the terminus and nearby airports and bus stations, as well as a Bike Ranch in Hachita with rooms, camping, bike boxes, tools, and loads of Great Divide enthusiasm and lore.
Banff, Alberta: Calgary Airport is the closest major airport, about two hours of driving or 1-2 days of riding from Banff. Multiple shuttles run between Banff and Calgary Airport. Banff Airporter is popular with bikepackers and takes boxed bikes .
Kalispell / Whitefish / Roosville, Montana: If youre only doing to the US portion of the route, the folks at Whitefish Bike Retreat are very helpful to bikepackers and provide rides to / from the small Kalispell airport and the border crossing at Roosville. I believe they also do shuttles to and from Banff.
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Who Can Ride This Tour
This route is creating a whole new category of athlete that Glacier Cyclery has termed backcountry bikepackers. Just because you are a road racer and can do 130-mile days does not mean that you are prepared for this route. If you are a long-distance bicycle tourist, but have never mountain biked, or are a mountain biker but have never packed gear, you, too, will not know quite what to expect! If you are a backpacker, mountain bike rider and self-contained cycle tourist, you will have the best idea of what to expect and be the most qualified. All of this said, riding the Divide just takes research, preparedness, determination and the ability to keep on pedaling.
Anyone in the mood for adventure can do it! For example, during the summer of 1999, the Barnett family of five, set out from Roosville, Mom and Dad, their 14 year old daughter, 12 year old son, and a 3 year old in a Burley trailer. Their goal was to spend 40 days biking the Montana portion of the Great Divide.
You can do this, and youll have an unforgettable life experience. Whether you are out for 2 days or more than a week, this will be a life-changing experience. Leave your dog at home!
Great Divide Mountain Biking Route
Great Divide Mountain Bike Route description from Wikipedia:
Following the Continental Divide as closely as practicable and crossing it 30 times, about 90% of the GDMBR is on unpaved roads and trails and requires basic off-pavement riding skills to complete. The unpaved portions of the route range from high quality dirt or gravel roads to a few short sections of unmaintained trails which may not be possible for most people to ride at all.
The GDMBR has over 200,000 feet of elevation gain and loss for the rider to contend with. While most of the GDMBR is off the pavement, the route does not require highly technical mountain bike riding skills. The route has been designed to provide a riding experience primarily on very low trafficked roads through mostly undeveloped areas of the Rocky Mountain west.
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Whos Riding The Gdmbr
How many people ride the Great Divide each year? I dont know exact numbers, but I was told that a few thousand riders started southbound in 2021.
To me the GDMBR felt well-traveled, but its all relative. I usually ride in places where seeing another cyclist is rare, so I was surprised to meet 5-10 southbound riders nearly every day as I rode northbound through Colorado and Montana. I even leapfrogged with a few other northbounders at times, though there were far fewer of us heading that direction.
The cyclists I met were a diverse and wonderful group. There were retired folks, young college graduates, those of us in-between, and even a few families with kids. People rode solo, as couples, and in groups. Though white men may have been the majority, I met people of all different races, genders, and ages. It was always a welcome break to chat with other riders, even for just a couple minutes before continuing in our opposite directions.
Solo Riders: Ive heard people say that this is not a route to ride solo because its too out there. I disagree.
Some people prefer company in grizzly territory, and some people simply get bored riding solo . But if you want to ride solo, go for it. Women, this applies to you too, though some people may try to tell you otherwise. Though the usual precautions apply, crime is uncommon in the types of rural areas that much of the route traverses.
Enjoy Wild Camping But Not At The Places Marked On The Maps
Dispersed camping, sometimes called wild camping, is one of my absolute favorite ways to camp. Its more peaceful than a developed campground, offers more flexibility in daily distance, and costs zero money. Despite the lack of amenities like picnic tables and toilets, Ill take a quiet night of dispersed camping over a busy campground almost every time.
At first I expected to do my dispersed camping at the little brown tent icons marked informal campground in the Adventure Cycling GPX data. But often I would roll up and find a large dirt pullout, sometimes filled with RVs and perhaps littered with bits of broken glass. Eventually, I realized these sites are meant for RVs and car campers, and cyclists can do better. An informal campground means youre on public land either National Forest or Bureau of Land Management where dispersed camping is legal. If the marked spot doesnt have the right vibe you can probably find another that does.
An important reminder that youve surely heard before: Leave No Trace skills are essential for this type of camping. This includes pitching shelter on a durable surface like dirt or pine needles instead of living plants, skipping a campfire if there isnt already a fire ring or if a fire ban is in effect, packing out all trash and food scraps, and digging a proper 8 deep cathole if you cant make it to the next pit toilet. Since much of the Great Divide is in bear territory, youll also want to use bear-aware camping practices.
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What Is The Eastern Divide Trail
Stay Flexible And Embrace The Variety
The GDMBR is a constantly changing patchwork of roads, communities, and terrain. This keeps life interesting over thousands of miles but also requires careful attention. Twice-daily restaurants will transition to three-day food carries , plentiful surface water eventually gives way to the longest dry stretch on the route , and abundant camping vanishes unceremoniously into long sections of barren private land. As soon as you think you know what to expect, youll be surprised.
The best advice I can offer is to embrace just-in-time planning. It would be maddening and futile to precisely plan each day in advance but you also dont want to roll out of town unprepared for what lies ahead. Even experienced riders need to remind ourselves of this balance from time to time. To give some structure to this process, answer these questions during each town stop or shortly before:
- How many days until my next food resupply, and are there any restaurants in between?
- How far until the next water source, and are there any extra-long water carries coming up?
- What are some good potential camp locations for the next couple of nights, and are there any long stretches of private land?
- Whats the weather forecast?
- Any route closures or detours in the next section?
- If you want a motel room in the next town, is it busy enough to require a reservation in advance?
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Remote Terrain Equals Limited Services
The remoteness of this route translates to long stretches of country without basic services, particularly emergency services. All services are minimal at best, except near larger towns, and cell phone coverage is only about 5 percent of the route. About one third of the overnights are characterized as undeveloped wilderness sites, and most others are Forest Service sites with pit toilets and a water source. Food sources are usually small-town establishments, convenience stores, and campground groceries with limited supplies. Towns are spaced every two to three days along most of the route. They tend to be extremely small and often have limited services. It is necessary to be flexible in what you eat. Showers, flush toilets, drinking water, and laundromats are sometimes widely spaced. It is good to have some back-country camping experience before riding the Great Divide to know how to minimally impact the land. The Great Basin in Wyoming and New Mexico both call for long-mileage days and carrying food and water for several days at a time.
You should also carry bear repellent, available at sporting goods stores in the larger towns of Canada and Montana, and become familiar with its safe and proper use. Always be bear-aware, and follow these rules when camping:
You may also wish to sign up with Warmshowers, a reciprocal hospitality site for bicycle travelers, for other overnight options.
So How Hard Is The Gdmbr
This is entirely relative to your skills and experience. If you primarily ride flat terrain or paved roads, are not used to camping or mountain weather, or dont have much experience with loaded riding, the GDMBR might be the hardest thing youve ever done.
On the other hand: If you regularly ride mountain bike trails or gravel routes with lots of elevation gain, have experience camping in the mountains, and have done plenty of loaded riding in the past, youll find many sections of the Great Divide relatively fast-rolling.
In either case, pace is a huge factor. The same route for the same person could be a pleasant experience at three months or a death slog at one month.
For me personally, the GDMBR at two-month pace was medium in difficulty. It was physically easier than pushing the pace at a bikepacking race like Smoke n Fire, mentally easier than riding solo amongst an unfamiliar culture like Sudan or Cambodia, and both physically and mentally easier than a thru hike like the Arizona Trail.
But the constantly changing terrain, weather, and surfaces kept me on my toes and the sheer length offered physical and mental challenges. While the route on average is very rideable, the most challenging 10% is legitimately rugged and steep. Unpredictable challenges like storms, smoke, and the occasional frustratingly busy and dusty road prevent the mood from lingering too long in purely relaxing territory.
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Dont Be Afraid To Go Against The Grain
Traditionally the GDMBR runs southbound from Canada to Mexico. Starting in the mountains and finishing in the desert means its all downhill, right?
Each year a small but growing number of renegades start at Antelope Wells in the south and pedal north, like salmon swimming upstream. I was one of them, hoping to arrive at the Canadian border shortly after it opened to tourists for the first time in over a year.
During my original research, riding NOBO sounded scary. Seasoned bikepackers noted that winds blow from north to south and climbs are steeper on the southern side. That sounded bad. Would I be fighting my way north against constant unrelenting headwinds and unrideable climbs?
As it turned out, not really. Though Ive never ridden southbound to compare, riding northbound worked fine for me. I did fight nasty headwinds in parts of Wyoming and southern Montana and I certainly pushed my bike up some steep climbs, but for every mile of headwind or hike-a-bike, I also enjoyed hours of friendly weather and gradual grades. Judging from roadside chats with southbounders, they had their share of headwinds and steep climbs too. It seems, at least for those of us not racing, that northbound-specific difficulties are lost in the noise of other variable conditions.
Resist The Town Vortex At Least Sometimes
After a few days out in the woods, few things compare to the joy of rolling your hungry, grubby self into the oasis of a small town. A restaurant and motel and, heaven on earth, a grocery store! can feel like the only things youll ever need again in this lifetime.
Hence the town vortex. Maybe its the physical comfort, social contact, or the feeling of achieving a measurable milestone of forward progress. Probably its mostly the food. Whatever the reason, it can be hard to drag ourselves away from a pleasant town once the chores are finished. Thus many Dividers hop from town to town, rolling in during the late afternoon and succumbing to the temptation of a comfy motel room for the night.
I have nothing against comfy motel rooms! In fact, I adore them. But I do want to offer a suggestion that worked well for me: Try, at least sometimes, to ride through towns and camp outside them. If you plan to hit town in the middle of the day and mentally prepare to pedal out by mid-afternoon itll be easier to resist the vortex. Youll save a lot of money too! A room can easily set you back $120 or more in some towns, and finding one at the last minute can be stressful.
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Great Divide Bike Trail Facts
States: Trail end points: Trail surfaces:
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The Great Divide Trail sits is a one mile non-motorized trail through a negihborhood at the northern tip of Joliet, Illinois. The paved trail, which sits in the shadow of electric transmission lines, starts on Old Renwick Road, and heads southwest, through Old Renwick Park, before concluding at Indian Head Lane. The pathway is suitable for uses including walking, jogging, biking and rollerblading.
Your Headquarters For The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish makes for a perfect staging area for both northbound and southbound tours of the Northern sections of the Divide Route. If youre starting in Jasper or Banff, Whitefish is a welcome respite. In Glacier Cyclerys neck of the woods bikepackers can expect incredible views, quiet wilderness, a variety of wildlife, challenging roads and small charming Montana communities.
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