The Great Continental Divide Route Part 1

I keep thinking back on this trip and wonder why I never got around to telling this story. In August of 2020 in the midst of the great pandemic, Deby and I decided to ride the Continental Divide Route, CDR for short, on our small bikes. This would be my last trip on my trusty WR250R and Deby was on her updated WR250R,we were riding the twin Yamahas. Riding the CDR is challenging enough but we found that navigating the logistics during the pandemic threw in some unexpected curve balls.

As I write this in June of 2021 the pandemic is not over but Deby and I have been vaccinated and things are slowly getting back to some kind of normal, at least here in the United States. I seem to have a couple of reasons to circle back and document this trip. I think this little essay might be useful in the future to give a glimpse into what life and motorcycle travel was like during the crazy year of 2020. Secondly, after almost a year of retelling some of the more colorful events to my riding buddies I realize how the story is better with age. The rough edges are a little smoother and the bad days are now accomplishments to cherish. Ok, let’s dig in!

What is the CDR?

The Continental Divide Route is a series of mostly dirt roads from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. There are a number of variations of this route with some meant for hiking and others meant for bicycle riding. The motorcycle version of the route, to the best of my knowledge, mostly follows what was or still is the bicycle route. Deby and I rode this route back in 2012 when we were both pretty new at adventure motorcycle travel. This was before this blog existed so I documented our trip on ADVrider.com. If you want to see what we looked like almost 10 years ago check it out here: Rocky Rocky Mountain Ride. Look at the bike Deby was riding in 2012, an awesome G650X BMW. She still says that was her favorite bike.

Back then we were following some GPS tracks uploaded to the internet by some guy named Big Dog. I never met him or knew anything about his experience preparing a route like this but we blindly followed his tracks and are alive to tell the tale. To this day it looks like people are following his motorcycle version of the CDR. At some point along the way this guy GPS Kevin came up with his own version of a North South Continental Divide route that he calls the Great Continental Divide Ride (GCDR). I’ve overlaid the two routes and they are the same in some places and different in others. Kevin’s routes have easy and hard options which is sort of nice.

GPS Kevin’s Route Overview

Our Plan

This is always the problem, how to get from home to the start point of the ride and then back from the end point of the ride. In 2012 we were on big enough adventure bikes that we rode the whole way. This time we wanted to take the 250s and did not want to spend days and days riding those little bikes at freeway speeds.

It’s always good to have a three step plan. 1) put motorcycles in truck and drive to Eureka, Montana the start of the CDR. 2) Ride CDR and end up near Mexico. 3) Hmmm, how to get back… hey, let’s turn around and ride the CDR back!

So that’s the rough plan, of course there are those darn details. We decided to ride Kevin’s GCDR route south and then the Big Dog CDR route back. We had time and it would be fun right?

Day 0

It was a hot August 9th when we arrived by truck at the Riverstone Family Lodge in Eureka, Montana. It was a good sign that there were about a half dozen other adventure motorcycles in the parking lot with some shaggy looking guys standing around drinking beer and tinkering with their bikes. I think almost all the bikes were really nice KTMs, mostly the latest 790 models, and one guy on a big BMW GS. I’m sure it wasn’t true, but I felt like I was catching the stereotypical KTM rider vibe that any other brand is kind of a woosie ride. Ok, in fairness both my sons who are accomplished motorcycle riders (and ride KTMs) both claim the WR in WR250 actually stands for Wossie Ride. Nonetheless, soon after I unloaded the WRs we were all hanging around sipping cool ones and telling tall tales about motorcycle adventures. I recognized the name of one of the guys, Bill Whitacre. He was the guy on the big GS and even had a sticker with his name on it.

Bill is on the board of the Backcountry Discovery Routes organization, the organization that creates and promotes the Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDRs) for motorcycles in various states. We recently saw his videos on YouTube as part of Expedition 65 about a group of riders going through all the same places we were in South America. Nice guy.

Here is a nice “before” picture of Deby’s bike in the parking lot.

We were ready for the long distance with our AirHawk seat cushions on our trusty Yamaha adventure bikes.

Yea, who are they calling woosies? At least we would be comfy. Here’s Deby at our cabin at the Riverstone Lodge.

Day 1 – Crazy detours and unexpected ending

It was just one of those days when I look back and have to laugh. It started with me asking the hotel lady if we could leave our truck in the parking lot. The answer was no. I’m really not sure why, this was Montana with wide open spaces everywhere. The parking lot was huge and due to Covid the hotel was mostly empty. Still, the answer was no. She recommended I go across the street to a sort of run down shack and ask there. It was a place with storage lockers of sorts and a big parking lot so I negotiated parking for three weeks and just parked in the back of a big lot next to some old construction equipment. It seemed slightly dicey but we wanted to get going so I put any worries out of my mind.

By 8:00 AM we were on the road heading south on the highway for a short distance before turning east onto some gravel roads to start the journey. Our route today would take us through Glacier National park before stopping for the night in Browning, MT. Everyone I tell this story to stops here and winces. Browning? And then they usually have a story about the place. I had no idea about the reputation of the city and now I have a story of my own. We decided to make hotel reservations online the day of or a day ahead of time because we never know for sure what our progress might be. It seemed like a reasonable distance to Browning so I tried to book online but was having a problem finding a room. Odd. I finally found a hotel in town that had a quirky online reservation system of it’s own and it said they had a room so I booked it. I won’t mention the name of the hotel for reasons that will become clear later.

The riding was great with wonderful dirt roads heading east towards the east entrance of Glacier National Park. The first stop was the very very small town of Polebridge, Montana. It’s really just a tourist stop with a population of about 100 during the summer and less than 10 in winter. There is a somewhat famous place called the Polebridge Mercantile where we stopped for some baked goods and a rest.

The guys from the hotel were there and we chatted a bit. They were riding the Big Dog route so this was the point where we diverged. We never saw them again. Our route took us on a dirt road that crossed into the park. There was a ranger station a mile or so down the road where we stopped to show our National Park passes. Ok, senior passes, I’ll own that. A few miles further down the road we came to a “Road Closed 20 miles Ahead” sign. Huh? Maybe the park ranger should have said something? We sat there for a long time deciding what to do. Against my better judgement we turned around. I thought I would ask at the ranger station at the way out but the door was locked because of covid and we would have to drive around and wait in line to speak at the driveup window. Forget it. Upon checking the map and GPS it looked like the dirt road just followed the paved road for 20 miles and reconnected so we took the easy route.

The paved road cuts into Glacier NP just north of the actual West Glacier entrance so we never came across an entry gate or anyone checking our passes. I didn’t think about it. Soon we were on the famous Going To The Sun road over the mountains. So, I have to admit, this is one of the most beautiful roads in America but for me I can skip the traffic. Even during covid and maybe especially because of covid there was just a line of cars the whole way.

I could have skipped it but the alternative to our destination was pretty far out of the way. We slogged it out in traffic, it was hot and slow, we just wanted to get through the park. We skipped the crowded tourist pullouts and passed on double yellow when ever there was a slowdown because someone saw an animal. Finally past the Logan pass visitor center the traffic thinned and we could ride a little faster. Ahhhh. By the time we passed the Rising Sun visitor center we were almost to the East Gate entrance and out of the park. That’s when we came to a road block with some tough looking dudes. Clearly not park rangers.

I pull up my visor, “what’s up?’ “Road’s closed.” “Huh?, why?” “This is reservation land, it’s closed.” “How can that be? I asked, “I didn’t see a sign.” Frowning he answered, “You didn’t see the huge lit up sign?” “What, where?” “At the West Entrance where you paid your fee.” Awww man…. since we came in on the dirt road and then the paved road from the North we never went through the West Entrance and missed the sign. Sixty miles of slogging through traffic in the heat and now we had to turn around and do it again. I tried but there was no changing his mind. Later I talked to some friends about this and they were surprised I didn’t know the East Entrance and the Blackfeet reservation was closed. “Didn’t you see it on the news?” was the common response. So we turned around, tired, hot, hungry from not stopping for lunch, frustrated and suddenly realizing we had over 60 miles to go to the next gas which would put our range right on the edge. We broke a few laws riding back through the park but made it to the West Entrance on fumes and found gas and a restaurant with outdoor dining. I drank a beer and I think Deby did as well. According to my GPS we had 70 miles to browning on US 2. I didn’t put two and two together that Browning is on the reservation, and the reservation was closed.

I suppose I can’t really complain. US Highway 2 is a beautiful road that follows south east along the Flathead Range before it cuts northwest towards Browning. There was very little traffic and we started getting back into a good riding groove enjoying the views and settling into the hour and a half ride.

We arrive at the hotel that shall remain nameless to protect the owners, and it looks vacant. As a matter of fact, the whole town looks vacant. There is yellow police tape surrounding the parking lot and no cars nearby. Hmmm, We sneak the motorcycles into the parking lot under the police tape and go to knock on the door that looks like it could be the office. Nothing. Nobody. There is a sign on the door with a phone number.

I call and I can hear the phone ringing inside and someone answers. “Hi, I have a reservation.” “What?” “I have a reservation.” I repeat. “That can’t be, were closed.” Oh great I’m thinking. Now it’s getting late in the day and seriously, Browning, Montana is a long way from anywhere. The nearest town was East Glacier and when we rode through everything looked closed. This might not end well. I tried again, “I already paid online.” I try to sound both nice and desperate. Suddenly the door opens and a native American looking woman with a small baby in arms looks at us and our motorcycles in the parking lot and lets out a big sigh. “You can’t park there, you have to park around back where nobody can see your bikes.” I took this to mean she was going to give us a room and was correct. I took a few pictures to give the general vibe of the area.

It get’s better. Evidently we were special enough to get the honeymoon suite.

I liked it but couldn’t talk Deby into a soak in the jacuzzi tub. The next order of business was food. I learned all the restaurants in town were closed so my only hope was to walk a few blocks to the grocery store down the road. I donned my mask (the ones with skulls on it) and went for a hike. I came across this sign.

Umm ok, I was kind of catching on by now that they were taking the pandemic very seriously and I shouldn’t be there. at all. Before going into the grocery store there was someone checking temperatures and asking everyone for their name and phone numbers. There were a few people in front of me so I acted casual, pulled down my baseball cap and hoped my skull mask hid my white guy features well enough. I noticed everyone was giving only a seven digit phone number because probably they assumed everyone had the same area code. When it was my turn I resisted the temptation to call myself Don Big Bear and settled for using my first and middle name along with my real phone number but without the area code. It worked, and I was in. Beer…. I found the beer isle and there was a sign, “No alcohol sales after 7:00 PM. I had five minutes, geesh that was close. All I could find for dinner was some chips and a few other snacks. It made me think of our friend Michael who you may remember from a few of our South America adventures. Whenever we had to have beer for dinner he would proclaim that there was a pork chop in every glass. I got back to the motel and we had more than one pork chop.

I bent the rules a little. I didn’t park all the way behind the building just in a gravel parking lot off to the side where we could see the bikes from two chairs we dragged outside in front of our door. We removed anything valuable, secured the fork locks and used a cable lock around the front tires. That was the best we could do and always served us well when travelling in Mexico. We probably shouldn’t have, but we sat outside and ate (drank) our dinner. It was highly entertaining. A sedan with tinted windows parked perpendicular to our bikes and a big box truck. Nobody got out but there was suddenly a regular flow of people coming up to the car, they would hang out for a minute and then leave. Hmmm, I wonder what that was about.

We eventually had enough of the excitement and decided to call it a night. We could hear voices outside and people going back in forth but we felt relatively secure. We met the woman that ran the motel when we were outside and she seemed really nice and just asked us to keep low. I was in that deepest part of early sleep when someone was banging on the door. Great. I didn’t even think about it and opened the door. “You’re not supposed to be here.” the guy said. I recognized him as someone associated with the motel and maybe the car with the tinted windows. “Somebody reported you to the tribal police and we could get in trouble.” he explained. He asked if I could write a statement that we were travelling through and it was an emergency and we needed to spend the night. I figured that was close enough to the true story so I wrote it out in my best penmanship, signed it and handed it over. One last thing, he needed my phone number. Well, ok, I took the pen and wrote it down. The phone call didn’t come until the next day.

Long post for just one day but I had to tell the tale. At least the bikes seemed to be running great, too bad that didn’t last.

Stay tuned for more.

Donn and Deby

3 thoughts on “The Great Continental Divide Route Part 1

  1. Interesting story! Leanne and I spent a night in Polebridge after a few days in Glacier back in 2010 – stayed at the hostel, run by Oliver. Ate delicious baked goods from the Mercantile. Really liked the place.

  2. Browning does have a nice museum of the American plains Indians, other than that seemed super sketchy. We did love the Buckhorn in Augusta. We stayed in the historic hotel in town and sampled all the bars in town

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *