Words: Stephen W. Clark Photos: Stephen W. Clark, Simon Cudby
Some people measure their rides by how far they go, others by how fast. For me riding in the Rocky Mountains, I like to measure rides by how many times we get above ten thousand feet. There’s just something so satisfying about sitting on top of a beautiful alpine ridge, surrounded by snow and looking down on the rest of the chaotic world. In the relatively undeveloped western states there are only a handful of roads that can get you to this kind of elevation, so you really have to seek them out. For our trip to Montana we knew of a few spots that could scratch our itch for elevation so we packed up the bikes, gear and cameras and headed out to explore parts of the Big Sky state.
Our first stop was the Gravelly Range in South West Montana. Just north of the Continental Divide this range has a highest peak of 10,542 feet and has some great roads that grant access to the incredible terrain. It’s basically a high elevation plateau with really unique rolling hills covered with lush green grass and wildflowers. The road is a surprisingly well kept smooth gravel road that is perfect for adventure bikes. It is by far the smoothest, nicest dirt road I’ve ever experienced at this altitude, and despite being just a stone’s throw away from the madness of Yellowstone, it is not well traveled and we hardly saw a soul. We accessed this area from Spencer Idaho on I-15 then crossed over the Continental Divide into the ranch lands of Centennial Valley before snaking our way up into the gravellies. We headed essentially due North along the East side of Black Butte, the highest peak in the range before dropping down past the Talc Mine into the Madison River Valley. From there we headed North and stopped for lunch in Ennis. Nacho Mama’s is a little Mexican restaurant that makes some incredible food; the pork quesadilla was incredibly good and enough food to last for a while.
From Ennis we headed over the mountain to check out Virginia City. This old mining town is a National Historic Landmark and has been preserved in its original state. Many of the buildings on main street still have original items inside and have been turned into little exhibits. There are a few touristy stores, an ice-cream shop, a saloon and a few restaurants. It was an interesting stop and a good way to wind down after several hours on the bikes.
Most places worth seeing take effort to get to, and in the case of Cooke City and Beartooth, that effort is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is incredible but the crowds, construction, road closures, traffic and constant stopping make it really difficult to enjoy on a motorcycle. The park gets around 13 million visitors per year, and with international travel all but shut-down we thought 2020 would be a great year to see it. Unfortunately, domestic travelers have more than made up for the lack of international visitors and Yellowstone is as much of a junk-show as it’s ever been. From Ennis Montana the only alternative route to Cooke City would be up and across the interstate which didn’t sound too pleasant, so we sucked it up and headed through the park. We did our best to obey the slow speed limits, made the best of it and got through to Cooke City as quickly as possible.
Grabbing a quick lunch in Cooke City we headed towards the iconic Beartooth Pass. Beartooth is an incredible mountain pass that climbs over 5,000 feet to an Alpine summit of 10,947 feet. Switchbacking its way to the top and back down the other side, it has a very European Alp’s feel to it and is absolutely fantastic on a motorcycle. It’s often rated as the best motorcycling road in the US and after riding it, it’s easy to see why. Much of the Beartooth Highway goes through Beartooth - Absaroka Wilderness, so there are limited off-road opportunities. Once we dropped down into the valley on the Red Lodge side we were able to find some great dirt roads. All the roads we found in this area dead-end in wilderness, so they are out and back routes but still really fun with incredible views.
Cooke City is a tiny mountain town nestled between the North East Entrance of the park and Beartooth Highway. It’s probably one of the most amazing locations I’ve ever seen in the US; it sits right on the highway with mountains towering above. There are a few hotels in town and a few eating options. Bearclaw Bobs makes a fantastic breakfast and a really good cup of coffee; the almond crusted french toast is almost worth a trip in itself. Miner’s is a western style saloon bar that’s the kind of place that if its walls could talk would have some incredible stories. They pour a stiff cocktail and make some fantastic thin crust pizza.
Right outside of Cooke City there are some really cool trails that access Alpine terrain. The Lulu and Daisy pass trails make a loop up into some old mining country and have a ton of offshoot trails. Lulu and Daisy are rocky with some climbing but were totally doable on the V-Strom and 790 we were riding; but if you are looking for more, the off-shoot trails are more technical. Even in mid July the trails were barely clear of snow and there were tons of snow patches around. At this elevation it’s a short summer and locals say you can really only ride in July and August. That being said, these trails offer some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen and are well worth a visit.
Between the Gravellies, Cooke City and Beartooth we got to over 10,000 feet three different times which in my book is a success. To top it off we saw some really neat little towns and ate some great food. There is no way to sugar coat it, the section through the park really sucked. But it only made us appreciate the peace and beauty we experienced in other parts of the trip. Traveling by adventure motorcycle is so incredible because of the places you can go. You really can’t fault the park travelers as they are just trying to enjoy the outdoors like we are. The difference is that a normal car is essentially limited to paved roads so they have much fewer options for adventure. Montana is an enormous state and we barely scratched the surface on this trip but it does have us hungry for more. We will be back.
SUZUKI V-STROM 1050 XT: The Suzuki V-Strom is one of the original ADV bikes; it has been around for years in many different levels of trim and engine sizes. The latest version, the 1050 XT, is the most off-road focused, yet it features a v-twin engine in a compact comfortable frame with 19/17 wheels.
Built on a legendary engine platform, the bike has great smooth power and, in spite of riding it in temperatures ranging from freezing to ninety degrees and elevations between four and eleven thousand feet, the fueling was spot-on the whole time. Never once did it pop, splutter or hit a dead spot which is impressive. The power delivery is really smooth and it always has plenty of torque. On the road you can roll-on and roll-off and hardly need to shift even when passing. The bike is a really nice size, not near as big as some of the twin cylinder bikes on the market with a nice low seat height. The cruise control was also really nice on the road sections.
Off-road the bike works pretty decent; its lack of skidplate is very limiting but that could be easily fixed with an aftermarket option. For more aggressive off-road use we would like to see a different handlebar with less sweep and more rise. The 19/17 wheels strike a great balance between on-road handling and off-road capability; they offered adequate clearance for the trails we rode, and on the street offered great traction and turned in really nicely.
Our Montana trip consisted of a mix of street and gravel roads with just a couple of rocky trails thrown in. The V-Strom was a great bike for the trip and we had almost no complaints. Not only did it work well but the bright red and white color looks fantastic and got lots of compliments from other riders.