Saturday, March 28th was the official kickoff to trail season. We decided to get the season started right with a bike overnight. But instead of carrying all three children, it was time for the girls to ride independently and carry some of their own gear.

It was a last minute plan, haphazardly hatched the night before. After a stop by the storage unit to dig out drybags and front panniers and a late-night trip to the grocery store, we were almost ready. Our original idea was to ride the River’s Edge Trail, a 25 mile path in Great Falls, paralleling the Missouri River and following the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But after sleeping off the workweek hangover and hearing news of incoming weather, we tossed the three-hour drive in favor of a local ride.

The girls proudly loaded panniers on their bikes in the driveway and rode through town with a swagger. I’ll admit, I was proud of them. There is no freedom like carrying all your necessities under your own power.

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It took an epoch to get out of town. But when we did, the adventure truly began. South down the valley we rode.

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Emmett changed his mind every 10 minutes whether he wanted to ride himself or tow his bike and ride the back of “the Dummy“. Clara required frequent gummy bear stops and whined about the headwinds. Just get through the notch, I urged. The winds will die down soon.

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But then the pavement ended. The rail line continued on the other side of HWY-89 in a really short distance. I had driven by the section hundreds of times, it was a really short distance… in a car. By bike was a bit more of an undertaking.

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But we finally made the crossing, and the two track was sweet!

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We took a break from the bikes…

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All was right with the world. Next we crossed the highway again to Yellowstone Trail. The Old Yellowstone Trail was the first transcontinental automobile highway through the United States, established in 1912. It ran straight across the States from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington with a little spur to bring tourists into Yellowstone National Park. A few weeks back we rode a neat section of this road closer to Gardiner in the Tom Miner basin, but more on that another time.

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This is a perfect road for riding.

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In the flatter sections, even Emmett got in on the action.

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Montana at it’s best.

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Red-winged blackbird spotting. One of my favorite songs.

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Then we needed to cross the valley to get to the other side of the Yellowstone.

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Which included a fun little jog on the old rail line. This area is begging for a rail-to-trail project. Can you imagine, a bike path from Livingston to Yellowstone? What could that do for cyclotourism in this region? For small businesses in the valley?

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Back to the reality today, and on the road. Thank goodness for rural roads and detailed maps.

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And meeting old classmates! Faces white with sunscreen. Did I mention it was nearly 80 degrees on this March Montana day?!

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We made it to the campground, mile 19.5 pedaled by these 6-year-old legs. She impresses me.

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Hooligans!

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Final stretch. Time to set up camp.

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We brought the huge tent this time. That’s the beauty of the bike overnight. You can “glamp” if you want to.

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Camping on the Yellowstone River at Loch Leven. Quick public service announcement: Loch Leven is just one of many river access areas funded by the Land & Water Conservation Fund. Visit this site to find out what parks and recreational treasures were funded by LWCF in your Montana community. To learn more about the awareness campaign I am part of to reauthorize the LWCF, check out our community group Families For Access. Now back to our regular programming. :)

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Despite Clara’s insistence to keep riding south to Chico Hot Springs, high winds blew us back north in the morning. Tailwinds allowed us to cover the 5-mile stretch on East River Road in record time. Unfortunately Clara got a little too much speed descending into Pine Creek, started to speed wobble, and crashed. Her forehead and forearm got a little banged up in the crash. It may be time for a new helmet. I adjusted the straps earlier in the day, but they loosened, exposing her forehead. That Nutcase provided excellent service for the last three years. We’ll definitely buy another.

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Staying close to home proved advantageous for this overnight. After the crash, Oma and Opa drove the short distance down the valley to pick up a shaken-up kiddo and her two siblings. Not 5 minutes after we loaded the kids’ bikes in the truck, the wind direction and temperature changed for the worse. Rain came in sideways. A cross wind nearly threw me into the ditch. Mark and I waved down the rescue party and hitched a ride home too. As high and alive as we felt on the mini adventure, it sure made us appreciate home, heat, hot coffee and cocoa.

If you are interested in bicycle touring, we highly recommend starting with a bike overnight. Even right from home. Experiencing even a familiar stretch of road or trail can feel entirely different on a bike. We may have driven these roads countless times, but we saw, heard, smelled more of this section than ever before. The kids are acquainted to these lands in a way they couldn’t be from the back seat of a car. The copse where we heard the red-winged blackbirds, the ditch where the dead porcupine lay, the flat stretch Emmett rode and the hawks circled overhead; these places have new meaning and memory.

Although we are extremely fortunate in Montana to have a multitude of public natural spaces and campsites within a short distance of our home, I’d guess most towns have a park or recreational point of interest close by that would be perfect for a bike overnight. With kids, even a ride across town to a friend’s house for a sleepover could be a grand adventure. Is the weather looking favorable next weekend? Why not load up your bikes and ride?

Written by Mark and Erica