After two nights in Jackson, thanks to the generosity of Molly’s friends (thank you Kate and Brad!), we pack up and move on, riding north on the “Jackson Spur” part of the Continental Divide Trail maps (that I bought from the Adventure Cycling Association). Molly wants to ride a little further east of the set route though, toward Kelly, Wyoming, where another friend of hers says we should be able to see more of the local wildlife, including bison.
As we ride toward Kelly, we spot a lone male buffalo off to the side of the highway moving along at a decent pace, obviously on a mission to somewhere. A few miles ahead, I think I spot what he was heading toward. Nearly a mile off the road, we spy a dark grouping of animals gather together out on the golden horizon of the grazing fields. There are a half dozen vehicles parked among the speckling of herd. Molly turns off the highway and wants to take a closer look.
In South Dakota, there’s a fairly large herd of buffalo, maybe 1300-1400 of them, roaming freely in Custer State Park. And while I think of them as being fairly wild, I can tell an immediate difference between those buffalo and the ones were are seeing here in Grand Teton National Park. These animals are much more wild. I point out to Tammy and Molly that this is mating season and the males are very aggressive, so we need to be careful. I can actually see a few of the males watching us, apparently set on edge by the rumbling engine noise of the bikes. We shut them off and stay close to a pickup truck whose occupants are quietly enjoying watching the herd. We take a few photos and try to enjoy the show, but even with no people or vehicles moving around, the bison are edgy and milling around. A large male approaches a female and another male isn’t happy about it, so some pushing and shoving starts, and turns toward us. These guys aren’t predictable enough to trust, and I’m not finding a place where we can be safe here. So after only a few minutes, Molly turns her bike around and I follow suit, heading back to the highway to carry on along the Divide.
A dozen or more female antelope are being herded by a protective male while another male loiters by himself in the tall grass and sage nearby. Love is in the air these days and all the animals are acting strangely.
We ride through the National Elk Refuge Valley, and near Gros Ventre Wilderness. After Kelly we turn north following the paved two lane road until it turns sharply west and returns to the highway. Instead we continue riding north on a forest service trail that leads out across the prairie. We stay off road as much as we can until we get closer to Moran Junction.
The CDT joins (or closely parallels) the highway from near Moran Junction almost to Dubois as we ride east. We ride over Togwotee Pass on the way and stop to admire the contrasting view of bright blue sky ahead of us and dark clouds rolling in behind. There’s snow in places near the pass, and snow falling on the higher elevations around us as we ride.
Less than a mile off the highway we find a small clearing and decide to stop for a short lunch before we begin the climb up the mountains toward Union Pass and a long stretch of road that will fill our afternoon.
Tammy settles into a nice spot in the sun for a nap, but then the wind picks up and the temperature drops. The storm is catching up with us. We decide to get moving. We have no plans as to where we may camp tonight, only that we will ride south as far as we want, and as long as the weather and sun hold out.
Our dirt road climbs and winds up steep pine and spruce-covered slopes, doubling back on itself to press further up the mountains. At one outer bend, I stop to look back at the highway below and Togwotee Pass in the distance. We seem to be nearing the same altitude, somewhere around 9000 feet.
The dirt road is in great condition when we first start out, and for many miles. Although no motorized vehicles are allowed in a wilderness preserve, our route takes us so close to the edges of both the Fitzpatrick and Brider Wilderness areas.
But as we continue to climb higher toward the pass, and beyond it, we find that the road gets wetter and bumpier. Washboards are filled with standing water and the dirt road turns to mud in places. We see a warning sign for Grizzly bears and start to feel less excited about camping. In fact, after the sign, we don’t stop much, and when we do, we don’t dismount the bikes. And we seem to be riding more closely together and intently, instead of sightseeing and lolly gagging as can sometimes happen when you have no agenda.
We see a few campers on the high plateau but only one or two vehicles on the trail itself. And the day continues to wear on toward dusk very quickly. Each few minutes I’m becoming more mindful of the dwindling daylight we have left and the miles we have to cover before we get out of bear country. Make that Grizzly country. Most of the blogs and notes I’ve read say that Grizzlies aren’t seen very often south if Pinedale, Wyoming. Even though I know the bears can’t read maps and won’t pay attention to popular misconception, the idea of reaching Pinedale becomes an unspoken goal.
I stop taking photos in the bumpy and muddy sections, worried that any hungry Grizz could just snag me with a single claw as I putter by at our snails pace. We press onward, hoping to at least get out of this more rugged mountaintop stretch of the road. If we’re lucky, maybe we can reach Cora.
We ride up on a Jeep filled with a family of six, the youngsters clamor for peeks at our bikes. The gracious young father offers to snap a picture of the three of us before encouraging us to pass him and keep moving.
Finally, after winding through the forest and high meadows for hours, the road emerges at an open ridge line, extending for many miles into the distance to the Green River. The road is open and clear and should be fast for us. It’s getting toward dark, and I’m glad to see a fast stretch of road in sight.
We see a sign for a saloon and lodge and decide to stop for a hot beverage and warm up before carrying on. The trail has reached a paved road, part of the CDT, that leads to Pinedale. I’m within reach of my imagined safe place.
As Molly tries to get cell service back out on the highway, Tammy and I settle into the lodge of the Kendall Valley Lodge and I splurge on a cup of soup to go with my hot tea. I look out over the valley to the mountains east of the lodge and admire the silhouette of a sunset cast by the western ridge line’s shadow on them. The backlighting of the sunset is painting them beautiful colors.
After a half hour or so, Molly arrives, fresh from her phone call. It’s late into dusk, but since the road is paved, we could easily carry on to a campsite somewhere ahead. The Kendall Valley Lodge doesn’t offer camping, but they do have cabins, and an incredible view to match the sunny dispositions of the friendly staff. We decide to settle in for the night and have a hot breakfast before getting back on the trail in the morning. What a beautiful place to land.