Friday, June 21, 2013

Tobacco Root Packbike

David Chenault just below the Tobacco Root Divide.

Ever since I started looking into possible packbiking routes, the Tabacco Roots have been on my radar. The nice thing about the mountain range is the absence of designated wilderness. Which means mountain biking is legal. But at the same time, there's a logistic catch which prevents traditional (and contemporary) mountain bike touring: no road or trail crosses the steep 10000ft divide. So, it's ether go around the Tobacco Roots on pavement. Or, head off-trail through them.

Dave and I chose the latter, heading out from just east of Sheridan, and up the South Fork of Mill Creek on a rough old mining road. We hit snow line, and hike-a-biked until postholing forced our bikes on to our backpacks. The climb was as gentle as it looked on the map, but a 30ft cornice changed our evening destination from South Meadow Creek Lake, to the Mill Gulch Basin.

On top of the 30ft cornice that caused a detour into the upper Mill Gulch Basin.
Heading down a couloir into Mill Gulch Basin.
Beers and brats and a perfect camp spot at 9000ft.
We camped on the seemingly only semi-dry piece of ground in the basin, and in the morning, we shot up a steep talus-y slope. Then, staight down a mash-potato-snow-filled 45 degree couloir. Which, put me a little out of my element, but with Dave laying a great track, I managed to fumble my way down without too many incidents. After a brief stop to fish South Meadow Creek Lake, I was in my element again, descending a techy mining road past the ruins of old gold claims. Norris Hot Springs was a sight for sore eyes, but our eyes just got more sore after too much sun, beer, and hot water. We were both in the tent by 6pm, trying to fight back dehydration.

Tenkara fishing on South Meadow Creek Lake.
Old mining road along South Meadow Creek
The early morning hours at Norris Hot Springs.
In the morning, all was well again. Coffee and laughs at the Norris Gas Station, and we were off. A road that didn't exist lead us away from the town of Pony, up past the Sureshot Lakes, and down to a refreshing little undeveloped hot springs near the old Potosi Hot Spring Resort. Dave tried to fish the creek, but it was still running too high. Then, we made a dash for Bell Lake. And by 'dash', I mean a 3 mile hike-a-bike. The lake provide the best campsite of the trip.

Camp on the Bell Lake Dam.
Heading up the pass above Bell Lake.
After worrying for days about getting corniced-out on our final crossing, the route up in the morning was a breeze. Hard snow down low. Bare ground to the tiny pass. Dave got on his bike and headed off for some high singletrack, and I almost got lost on the descent to the lake. Then, after a 20min dirt road descent, we were back at the car.

Almost there.
On top of the Tobacco Root Divide, looking south towards Branham Lakes.
Back on the bike.
A few days later, Dave's final take on the trip was: "My favorite, most accurate way to measure trip depth is the severity of re-acclimation sickness. This trip was pretty bad for a 3 night, 3 day affair. Just like a good beer, a perfectly balanced adventure is not something to drain away without regret."

I don't think I could've said it better. With a ridiculous amount of variety, the perfect partner-in-crime, and just enough unplanned situations to keep my heart pumping, this was a good one. And, one I don't think I'm going to top anytime soon.


  1. Seems packbiking is bikepacking for those that love a good hike-a-bike. Looks awesome.

  2. Rad trip Casey! Creative in design and execution! Well done!



  3. Thanks guys.

    Ya Matt, designing the trip is half the fun! ;)

  4. Thats what I'm talking about!!! I keep hearing all this chatter about "whats the difference between Bikepacking and insert ride style variation here" and you my friend are the real deal. People need to follow in your footsteps (pun intended) grab some gear and get outside and go anywhere they can. Thank you for posting this.

    Mike R

  5. Very cool read. My grandmother lives at the bottom of South Meadow Creek Rd and I've driven up it twice. I would have never thought to try to bike down it as it is VERY techy. Well done trip!

    1. Thanks, Matt, and you said it, that's not your standard Montana dirt road. It's one of the only ones in the state that has shut me down in my subaru.

    2. Haven't done it since I was 19 or so, drove to the top and swam in that lake once. Still the coldest water I've been it, except *maybe* the river that feeds into Lake McDonald in Glacier NP. Just getting into you blog, so much fun to read! Thanks!

  6. Awesome trip. I've been thinking about it since I read the story a month ago. I'd be interested in additional resources, such as the bike you used, whether you wished for a different bike, how best to pack it on your back etc. Any hints for further reading? Thanks, JimW in Boise