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Cycling Montana from the Perch of a Fire Tower

words and photography from XPDTN3 Club

Montana. Derived from the Spanish montaña (or mountainous), Montana is a state of mind as much as a place, embodying wild, untamed—the wild west. Home to the grizzly bear, Yellowstone and gobs of Ted Turner ranches, we went to Big Sky Country in seek of…what else…bigger skies! And what better place to appreciate the bountiful vistas than atop a mountain in the rustic recluse of a fire tower.

“Fire tower??” I hear you all saying. Let’s back up. For those not from around these parts, fire has a visceral relationship with the American West, particularly on the Idaho-Montana state line, harking back to Roosevelt, a cranky-as-a-toddler U.S. Forest Service and something called the Big Burn.

The mountain west was a tinderbox in the summer of 1910…draught…dry timber…hurricane force winds blew through and whipped up the largest fire ever seen in the U.S. After the ash fell, over 3-million acres of land had burned, towns were decimated and the U.S. government got bent on aggressively fighting fires. 20 years later, Roosevelt put American muscle to work building towers on the tippy-top of mountains and roads leading up to thus said towers. Lookouts popped up on nearly every hilltop—over 5000 of them—and the towers were manned all summer long to spot and squash early blazes.

Fast forward 80 years, high tech gadgetry now fights the front lines of fire detection, making lookouts nearly all but obsolete. While many of the lookouts have crumbled to wrack and ruin, the Forest Service had the audacious idea to protect a handful of these bueno vista hostels. A little known secret? You can have them all to yourself for as little as $30 a night! With three days in the pocket and two permits secured, we racked up the Exploros and headed to Montana.

Well, almost Montana. Montana is like an island oasis in a sea of Rocky Mountains. It’s remote even by regional standards. It’s so remote that we had to drive eight hours to northern Idaho, park the car, and then proceed to pedal into Montana—the hard way—over a 4,000’ pass. Only then did we find the Valhalla know as Montana. Here’s how we did it.

WALLACE

The epicenter of the “Big Burn”, Wallace, Idaho seemed as good as any place to start our fire tower tour bonanza. Nearly destroyed by the 1910 fire, the city was quickly rebuilt and today the entire town sits on the historic district with the highway buzzing with traffic overhead. Sunday morning in Wallace was tumbleweed quiet. The only action we saw was a pack of men working the hide off an elk strung from the tree just outside town. So we parked the truck in the safest place we could think of—the county sherrif’s office—racked the Exploros with gear for two nights, put a note on the truck window proclaiming “we’ll be back on Tuesday” and pointed the bikes up the old Burke-Canyon Creek road.

Wallace was and will always be mining country, where zinc, gold, lead and silver are still being siphoned from the earth’s veins by the metric ton. Over 1-BILLION ounces of silver have been mined from these hills since 1884, making it the world’s largest silver producer. But riches haven’t come peacefully. Back in 1892, a heated labor dispute ended with a keg of black powder being plunked down a flume, blowing up a building at the Frisco mine and igniting martial law for a short stint. Strewn with mining wreckage, a few rickety homes still back up against Canyon Creek. We paused at a sign taped to a window that read, “Support Lucky Friday Miners”. 100+ years later, things haven’t changed all that much.

The tarmac trickled to gravel as we pinched past the massive Burke Mine-come-ghost town; the river corridor was so narrow the once thriving Tiger Hotel spanned the gap and was built over the railway. Passing rotting timber joists, we sat back in the saddle and began the climb proper up 4,000’ to Cooper Pass where we finally found ourselves looking out into Montana.

MONTANA

In Montana, everything’s a little bigger, a little bit grander. Far below a fat ribbon of jade-green water–the Clark Fork river–snaked through the valley floor. Jagged peaks cut the horizon sky as far as the eyes could see. In the foreground, humpy green hills bubbled up everywhere. We were going to spend the night on top of one of them, but not before finding some chow in Thompson Falls.

We skittered on down Cooper Pass and burned up 20 miles into town where we found Minnie’s Cafe/Fly shop/Guided Fishing Trips, pretty much the only game in town to get some grub/flies/guides. Minnie’s gets 4.5 stars on Tripadvisor and has a perennial stable of characters lined up at the bar, strapped with pistols and bowie knives to prove it if you disagree. Little side note: I like to wear black spandex for not only its slimming qualities, but also for its known discreteness amongst the locals. So of course, we in our spandex saddled up to the bar next to the guns and knives. If you’re game, get the Minnie Big Burger … that’s a full pound of beef on a 10” bun for $17. I opted for the fish burger and fries and wasn’t disappointed.

4,000’ (and 4,000 calories) under the belt, it was time to do it all over again and we pedaled west over towards Cougar Peak Lookout. Now the whole idea of camping in a fire tower has that glossy salon-quality travel magazine appeal to it. But unlike Sunset Magazine subscribers, we weren’t about to conquer the hill by auto…we were going to pedal it … all 15 miles … 4,000’ … 22 switchbacks … 13% grade … holy-crap-what-did-we-sign-up-for route. Nonetheless, after 2 ½ hours in the pain cave, we finally crawled out onto the crumbling summit and got to enjoy those Sunset Magazine views, replete with a bed and wood stove, all protected under the 360° glass cab. We put a pot on and watched the fiery sunset eclipse into the night over the Bitterroot mountains to the west. It_was_un_real!

What goes up, must go down, and the following morning we scorched back down the Cougar Tower forest road and rumbled into Trout Creek—the proclaimed huckleberry capital of Montana—to refuel our engines. We got to talking with Connie, our server, about bears, bear spray, bear food and everything ursa. “Fellas, it’s not the bears you need to worry about…it’s the wolves!” See, timber wolves were reintroduced back in ‘95 and have adapted with overwhelming exuberance, feasting on the region’s fecund moose and elk. Furthermore, wolves hunt in packs and can be much more precocious than bear. There are tales of wolves bounding into town, chasing elk on hunts gone wild. While we saw several piles of bear poop, we saw no makers of the poop and never once saw evidence of the wolf…which is probably the way the wolf liked it.

What goes up, must go down, and the following morning we scorched back down the Cougar Tower forest road and rumbled into Trout Creek—the proclaimed huckleberry capital of Montana—to refuel our engines. We got to talking with Connie, our server, about bears, bear spray, bear food and everything ursa. “Fellas, it’s not the bears you need to worry about…it’s the wolves!” See, timber wolves were reintroduced back in ‘95 and have adapted with overwhelming exuberance, feasting on the region’s fecund moose and elk. Furthermore, wolves hunt in packs and can be much more precocious than bear. There are tales of wolves bounding into town, chasing elk on hunts gone wild. While we saw several piles of bear poop, we saw no makers of the poop and never once saw evidence of the wolf…which is probably the way the wolf liked it.

Thank god our jaws were agape from the climb – it made the jaw-dropping views from Gem’s 14’x14’ live-in cab a lot less effort on our part. A light drizzle chilled us to the bone on the way up, so we got right to work fire building and soon enough, we were dining on the finest in freeze dried cuisine paired with an aged Bourbon. Life couldn’t get much better than that.

But the climbing wasn’t done. To get off the mountain and into Idaho, the following morning we climbed yet another 1,500’ up to the State line where we chatted with hunters about bear, elk, deer and the finer points of hunting mammals with bow and arrow and musket. Then down-down-down, we rapidly shed elevation as we plunged off the range and eased into Prichard for one last meal on the road.

Prichard Tavern…what can I say…to get there, you have to be well on your way to the middle of nowhere, which was exactly where we found it. But if you happen to be ‘in that neck of the woods’, make a point of stopping by. The ambiance is second to … not anything I’ve ever seen but everything you’d expect from a hole in the wall: Deer skin drapes, a bar wrapped in ostrich skin, a raging fireplace ornamented with bottles of rare scotch and taxidermied woodland creatures … guns hung from elk racks. The menu matched the ambience. Feeling ambitious, I ordered the rocky mountain oysters. Fortunately, it was coming off the menu and I settled for the special.

Fueled for the final climb into town, we rode the final stretch and descended into Wallace to find the truck wasn’t A) impounded or B) on blocks. Win-win! Celebration? We dropped by the Red Light Garage for huckleberry shakes – a sweet compote elixir that took the sting out of our saddle sores and lactic-filled quads.

Northern Montana sports a dozen or so fire towers, scattered along the horizon. We barely scratched the patina off the surface of what’s available and got ourselves to a pair of towers that matched our own timeline and objective. But for those with a little creativity and some upfront planning, the options are innumerable. Got some gumption? Like to climb? Get a map, sit back in the saddle, and get ready for some stunning views. Where will you ride?

TRIP INFO

Montana and Idaho are blessed with 30 or so towers available to rent through the recreational rental program. For lookout information, go over to firelookout.org and check what’s available. Firelookout.org will pipe you over to www.recreation.gov for reservations. For more information about the fire towers in general, check out the USDA page on forest cabin and lookout rentals.

We picked two towers that were available and reasonably close to each other, then triangulated a departure point—putting us in Wallace. This was a fantastic choice, but options abound.

Stage 1. Wallace – Cougar Lookout. 66 miles. Put your wings on and be thankful you are starting on fresh legs. Day one has two climbs, each over 4,000’ and both on gravel. Fortunately, the climbing is balanced with plenty of casual spinning on tarmac to work out the lactic acid.

Stage 2. Cougar Lookout – Gem Lookout. 55 miles. It’s not easy to drop all that elevation only to do it all over again, but the descent off Cougar is rip-roaring fun and Blue Slide Road rolls gently along the Clark Fork River past idyllic farmland to Trout Creek, where you can refuel or press on. But strap on the oxygen mask, because the Gem lookout is at the same elevation as Cougar, but climbs in half the miles. Pay attention to the road markers and/or map as there are several turnoffs on the way up to the top.

Stage 3. Gem Lookout – Wallace, ID. 50 miles. Your smallest climbing day starts with spectacular views up to the state line and across a time zone, followed by plummeting all the way down to the highway. The 3-mile climb at the end of the day will feel like a punch in the gut, but lucky you…it’s all on sinewy pavement.

Water. It should not be overlooked that mountaintops are devoid of rivers. Like nothing. No streams, rivulets, gutters, no hose or hydro engineered pump routed by some U of I grad school student. So be prepared to stock up on water…and haul it to the top. We each filled our bladders¬–all 5 liters–before the climb. This was enough to keep us hydrated on the way up, reconstitute food on top, and still have some left over for the ride down. Remember: “Pain is weakness leaving the body”…or “Shut-up legs”…we repeated both mantras like a monk.

Cooking. The lookouts are spartanly supplied. If you are lucky, you’ll find a spare canister of fuel. But don’t plan on it. And certainly don’t plan on finding food up there. We carried freeze dried meals and cooked them over a sweet little alcohol stove that boils water in minutes. BUT…the cabins come stocked with wood-burning stoves. If you have an alloy pot … and you’ve built a fire … you can boil water. Food for thought.

Pack it in, pack it out. If you pack it in, please pack it out. The cabins are rented daily and who wants to arrive to the top of a pristine location only to find someone else’s trash? I’m glad I didn’t.

Sleeping bags. Even though the cabins have a bunk, bring your own bedding. My favorite for cabin-to-cabin bikepacking is a lightweight 45°F quilt from Brooks Range. And because one of you will eventually draw the short straw, bring a pad or you’ll be sleeping on the slats. I absolutely love Nemo’s new Tensor pad.

Location Montana
Website http://firelookout.org
Stages 3
Distance 275 km (170 mi)
Ascent 4990 m (16371 ft)
Best Time The rental season generally opens end of June and runs through the end of September. Keep in mind that fire towers were purpose built. It would be prudent to check the last fire incidents and status. Skip on over to the USDA Forest Service Fire Page for the most recent status. Fire season generally picks up middle of July and can run well into fall. To stay clear of fires, plan your ride early or late in the season, when it tends to be cooler and wetter.
Weather As they say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes…”. Montana exemplifies this, where the mountains can bring 100°F temperatures, rain, snow…wind…all in one day. And the snow sticks around long into summer. Fortunately, the lookouts don’t open until after the snow melts. Middle of September, when we toured, is a fantastic time to visit. You will be able to enjoy cooler temperatures, changing fall colors…potentially rain…potentially snow (but nothing that will deter you too much)…and hunters. The hunters we met were exceptionally friendly and keenly interested in what we were doing. Good peeps. If going in September, wear bright colors.
Tires Repeat after me: Not all gravel is the same. This is my public service announcement to you. If you followed our Hot Spring ride, you might recall our hairy legs covered in a patina of fine-grit sand. Yeah, it’s pretty sandy down south. Northern Idaho / Montana sports a different kind of gravel bound by clay. This makes the surface super-fast and exceptionally rideable. We were ecstatic to strap a pair of the new award-winning WTB Horizons to the Exploros and they performed flawlessly as we toggled between the gravel and pavement. I know this is a lot of talk about gravel…some of my friends joke that I should grow a pair. But friends, if you find yourself riding up in these parts, I recommend you buy a pair. They are that good!
Gearing I ran a 1x with a 40T bolted up front, 10-42 in back—an ideal pairing that climbed like a baboon, descended like a falcon, and burned through tarmac faster than a Minnesota winter.

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