America’s national parks are known for many things, but being bike friendly is not necessarily one of them. Did you know that there’s a secret season in Glacier and Yellowstone where two-wheeled vehicles are practically the only ones on park roads? In spring and early summer, you can avoid the crowds while cycling along to ogle the sights of the season, from adorable baby elk to colorful glacier lilies. Though services are admittedly limited, weather can still be cool, and road conditions can fluctuate, well-prepared bicyclists in May and June will be rewarded with a private peek into some of these national parks’ most magical moments.
Glacier National Park
What to See: There’s no doubt about it, the most popular experience in Glacier National Park is cruising Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park from east to west. Early-season bikers can enjoy places like Logan Pass on the Continental Divide and Jackson Glacier Overlook without having to worry about traffic jams from cars and antique "jammer" buses. While Glacier is known for its large population of grizzly bears, there are also mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and countless birds, including golden and bald eagles.
Insider Tip: Glacier’s sister park in Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park, celebrates with the Waterton Wildflower Festival from June 15–24 in 2012. If you’re going to be crossing the border, just don’t forget to bring your passport.
When to Go: The month of May and June typically offers cyclists the most unique experiences, sans the crowds. The summer season truly kicks off when Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely plowed, usually by mid-June; keep an eye on plowing updates. Though this popular route is closed to bicycles from June 15 through Labor Day (from 11am to 4pm), cyclists can still enjoy morning, evening, or even moonlight rides during that time frame. For more details, see the NPS Glacier Bicycling page.
Making it Happen: Fly into Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell and use Whitefish, 25 miles west of Glacier, as your base, with one of our recommended hotels. Rent from Glacier Cyclery or join a cycling tour with Glacier Adventures Guides.
Yellowstone National Park
What to See: Choose a section of the figure-eight-shaped Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park to connect many must-see stops, from hot spots like Old Faithful to stunning Lake Yellowstone to famous Yellowstone Falls viewpoints. Watch for bison and moose along the way, not to mention some 10,000 other geothermal features.
Insider Tip: Before you enter the park, be sure to check out the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center to learn more about these amazing animals and get the basics on animal interactions in the wild. Don’t miss a visit with the orphaned grizzly cubs, Grant and Roosevelt.
When to Go: Winter visits are a wonderland of white, so it’s no surprise that most park roads are closed to motorized travel from mid-March to mid-April for snow plowing. Starting around April 1 (depending on the season’s snowfall), bicycles are allowed from West Yellowstone up to Mammoth. In mid-April, cars join bikes on the roads but traffic is usually light—and remember that having your own support vehicle can make access to the park’s interior easier. May and June can be cool and cloudy, but are definitely before the busy season begins. The route from the North to Northeast Entrance is open to bikers year-round. For details see, the NPS Yellowstone Spring Biking page.
Making it Happen: Fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) and stay in West Yellowstone at the Three Bear Lodge. Rent bikes from Free Heel and Wheel, just outside the West Entrance to Yellowstone.
Thinking of a trip to Montana?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our online Montana Destination Guide.
Photo Credits: Bikers on the Going to the Sun Road courtesy Mike Harrelson, Bull elk in Yellowstone via shutterstock