Our alternative Great Divide Route
Some said we were crazy, others brave. "We're going to cycle the Great Divide!", we announced a while ago. "Isn't that a mountain bike route?", people asked. Indeed, the GDMBR is a very challenging cycling route, especially with fully loaded bikes. We can already give a hint, we did not finish the GDMBR cycling route and regularly adjusted the schedule. When you're lugging around equipment for four seasons, it's just not always as fun to be cycling off-road, so we created our own bike route for the GDMBR. With our tips and alternatives you can put together a nice combination of an off-road cycling route with a lot of diverse additions or alternatives.
What is the Great Divide Mountain Bike route?
First things first, a word about this long-distance cycling route. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is probably the most famous off-road cycling route in the USA, maybe even in the world. It hosts an annual race, the Tour Divide, which attracts people from all over the world. You start in Jasper (Canada) and cycle all the way to Mexico, the route is 4,339km long with about 45,000 altimeters, 90% of the time you cycle unpaved. The record for this Tour Divide is held by one Mike Hall with 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes, unreel!
On the Bikepacking.com website you can find a nice summary of the Great Divide. According to them, the difficulty rating gets only 5.5/10. This may be true for experienced cyclists who tour very lightly, but seen from our point of view (heavier loaded bike an no real experience with MTB), we have a different opinion about the difficulty with a score of 7.5/10. Especially the rideable time (how much of the route you can actually be cycling) we estimate for most cyclists at 80 to 85% instead of the 100% they state on their website. We regularly had to push our heavy bikes uphill or navigate between thick rocks, our patience got tested to a new level.
If you want the GPX of the full Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, you can check out several options at this link. We chose to follow version 2 of the Tour Divide. This one is the most up to date regarding route modifications and easier supply places. We always recommend, if you want to bike the Great Divide, to stay up to date on possible Road Closures via this website.
Which bicycle do you need to cycle the GDMBR?
For three years now we have been using our beloved Surly Bridge Clubs, and we stayed true to our bikes for this part of our world trip by bike as well. During the last few months we had already been playing around with our setup, so this review of the Surly Bridge Club is not updated anymore, but it does give an idea what kind of bike we use. .
We met only a few other cyclists along the way who were on the road for a longer period of time like us. 90% of the cyclists on the Great Divide are bikepackers who "only" want to complete this route. The big difference in this is the weight of their bike, they do not need equipment and clothing for several seasons. So the choice in a bike also depends entirely on your goals and length of the trip.
The lighter you can go and the more focused on bikepacking, the better in our eyes. Think fork packs, frame bags, handlebar bags etc. We would not advise the more standard touring setup because it's harder to control the bike on more technical parts. We have chosen a setup like in the picture below, staying true tour our love for long distance touring but we also added some bikepacking gear.
Our bikes were still too heavy (about 35-40kg per bike, all weight included), but lighter than it looks on the picture. Distributing the material well and not stuffing each pannier completely full is very important in this. Taking into account that our bikes serve primarily as touring bikes, these come pretty close to being the perfect bike to incorporate off-road stretches like the GDMBR into your trip. Just don't get discouraged by the number of faster cyclists that will pass you all too easily.
Best travel period for the GDMBR
We can be fairly brief about this, but basically a start between late June and mid-August is possible if you cycle north to south, depending on pace. Most riders estimate to need 6 to 10 weeks for the entire route all the way to Mexico. Starting during this time a year gives the best chance of still having nice weather in Canada and the northern USA, as well as avoiding the snow in Colorado. However, you are constantly near or in the Rockies, so don't be surprised if you experience snow showers at altitude.
We left Jasper in early August and had freezing temperatures, lots of rain and very warm days up to 38 degrees Celsius. There was already quite a bit of snow on the side of the roads in Canada, although it was never bothersome. The contrast between night and day is big and sufficient layers of clothing are important (check our packing list!).
Our alternative Great Divide Route!
As mentioned, we met many cyclists with one goal in mind: To bike the entire Great Divide Mountain Bike route. Our respect for them is immense, they have a goal in mind and will not deviate to achieve it. They often have a few weeks or months to achieve this amazing goal after which they return to their job or a new phase in life. In other words, a tremendous physical and mental effort and we loved hearing people spend their well-deserved vacation on this.
However, our goal is different, which is to go on a cycling trip for an unlimited amount of time and enjoy it for as long as possible. At times the GDMBR started testing our limits a bit too much and we began to ask ourselves: "Why are we actually sticking to this route?" We could think of no other answer to this than "Because this is the route...". Listening to our feelings became more important than ever and we realized that we were suffering more than we were enjoying the route. We decided to alternate the route itself to our liking and avoid some of the extreme sections, but also to add some extra sections that the GDMBR skips. Places like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are so iconic and, for us, not to be missed.
In this blog, we'll explain to you stage by stage how to easily find alternatives to biking the Great Divide. Our route went from Jasper, Canada, all the way to Estes Park, Colorado.
Part 1: Cycling in Canada
Jasper - Banff
The official GDMBR route starts in Jasper since several years. A few years ago the route still started in Banff but an extra stretch was added. We meet many cyclists who followed the GDMBR from Jasper to Banff but found this absolutely no added value and a poorly developed part of the route (their words, not ours). We did not cycle this stretch and chose to cycle the Icefields Parkway (read our blog here) instead. Which is, till this day, still one of our favourite parts of the world trip by bike. Biking The Icefields Parkway is magnificent and a very good warm-up for all that is to come. Along the way you'll find great hiker-biker campsites for as little as CAD5.25 per person! Lake Louise we found a bit too touristy, but a convenient stop because there is a good grocery store as well as a bike shop. At times it was busy, but the shoulder is wide and traffic adapted accordingly, big thumbs up for the drivers.
Banff - Fernie
High Rockies Trail: The first day cycling out of Banff is tough and on some sections you already have to push the bike, but it is a beautiful trail and definitely doable. After Spray Lakes you can easily follow Spray Lakes Trail to avoid the High Rockies Trail, you will be biking on a gravel road. For us this became the "Grizzly road" - in less than 24 hours we saw 4 grizzlies on this stretch.
After Kananaskis Lake you cross Elk Pass, a tough stretch where we had to push our bikes uphill bike by bike. The views are phenomenal and the descent playful, the chances of a bear encounter here are quite high and we ran into a black bear on top of the pass. After this you follow a gravel road towards Elkford. The original route skips Elkford and goes over Koko Claims Pass. Many rightly skip this stretch because of its ridiculous gradients and we can't imagine someone cycling up this part. If you choose our alternate route to Elkford, you can stock up on supplies at a good supermarket and then cycle to Fernie. We followed Elk Valley Highway and later Highway 3 and the shoulder is plenty wide, although you do have big logging trucks in rush hour.
Fernie - Rooseville
Some sections of the route here appeared to have disappeared, literally washed away by flooding. Combined with forest fires in the area, this made us choose to follow Highway 3 and Highway 93 from Fernie to Rooseville. From here you have a very easy border crossing to Eureka in the USA (duty free shopping before the border).
Part 2: Cycling in Montana
Eureka - Ferndale
Eureka to Whitefish - Easy but boring stretch via highway 93 (quiet on weekends). Because of wildfires, our route in Montana looked very different and we opted for the quickest route. If there are no wildfires, we would recommend this stretch on the original GDMBR because we have heard great things about it.
The Great Divide is known for its remote route, which also means skipping a lot of National Parks. If you do have time to pick up some extra highlights, you can bike from Whitefish to Glacier National Park. From Whitefish you continue on the GDMBR towards Ferndale, a very easy stretch and even a bit boring.
Ferndale - Helena
From Ferndale to Lincoln you can cut a large chunk off via Highway 83 and 200 but these are quite busy roads and not recommended. Because the route was still plagued by wildfires we were forced to find a ride on this part of the route. Should you be able to bike this stretch, there is a nice camper for cyclists in Ovando.
From Lincoln to Helena, a very tough section awaits you, Stemple Pass. The beginning of the climb is fun and doable, the last 2.5km of the climb we had to push our bikes up. The reward is great with a beautiful descent and even greater with the Alpaca Farm where a unique (free) overnight stay awaits you. (See our blog here) Don't feel like adding more altimeters after the Alpaca Farm towards Helena? Follow Little Prickly Road to Lincoln West and then Birdseye road, which will take you into downtown Helena. This way you avoid some altimeters and can recover from Stemple Pass.
Helena - Yellowstone
We can't really give much information about this stretch. We ourselves were offered a ride from Helena to Ennis to catch up with some friends. From here we biked toward West Yellowstone. The Great Divide will skip a large part of Yellowstone, which feels too bad. It sometimes feels like Disney World, but it's still an insane place and a beautiful national park, so we would definitely advise adding this to your trip.
Part 3: Cycling in Wyoming
Grand Teton - Pinedale
From Yellowstone, we cycled to Grand Teton National Park. The Great Divide also runs through Colter Bay Village in Grand Teton, where we decided to spend time and relax. From Colter Bay you go to Jenny Lake (which was super beautiful) and then you can follow a bike path alongside the highway to cycle all the way to Jackson. Highway 191 then leads you via a nice climb up to Pinedale, the shoulder is wide and traffic quiet. About 20km before Pinedale, we picked up again on a nice stretch of the Great Divide.
Pinedale - Baggs
From Pinedale to Baggs, we followed the Great Divide back and biked through The Great Basin. For many, this is THE highlight of the Divide, but for us the experience became too challenging because of the weather (check our blog). Still, we would recommend biking through the Basin, but only when the weather forecast is favourable. After the Basin, you'll arrive in Wamsutter from where you can follow the Divide all the way to Baggs, Colorado.
Part 4: Cycling in Colorado
Baggs - Steamboat Springs
The original GDMBR-route runs from Baggs to Steamboat Springs through a beautiful section. Getting supplies here is a bit more difficult, but there is a pizza ranch along the way where you can fill up on energy.
Do you need supplies or want an easier stretch? Then you can bike from Baggs to Craig via the Highway and continue to Steamboat Springs, a very nice ski village! After Steamboat, a tough climb awaits you via Highway 40, Rabbit Ears Pass. You then continue on to Kremmling.
The GDMBR continues south from Kremmling but we decided to add Rocky Mountain National Park. We cycled on "the highest continuous paved road in the States," the Trail Ridge Road, to an elevation of 3714m. Again, if you'd have the time to add a beautiful national park, this one is definitely one to add. From Estes you could quite easily head over to Idaho Springs via a beautiful road and continue towards Salida to pick up on the GDMBR.
This is where our Great Divide Mountainbike Route ends and as you can see, options are plenty. We are taking a short break from cycling in Colorado where we are dogsitting and afterwards we will continue our way towards Baja California in Mexico.