Last Divide crossing? Sula, MT

Saturday July 18, 2009, 58 miles (93 km) – Total so far: 3,376 miles (5,433 km)

Yesterday afternoon turned out to be almost a bust as far as rest went.  True, we weren’t riding, but on the other hand, it was so hot, and there was no place to cool off, that we sweated the day away in the shade.  It got over 90 degrees, at least.  This morning, the temperature had dropped to 45, and you’d have thought there was three inches of snow on the ground from listening to people wake up.  Virginia and I slept warmly in our bags, and it was a brief shock to get up.  Nothing open for breakfast, so we had some Poptarts and hit the road.

Easy riding going north down the Big Hole valley until, at last, after all these years, I reached Wisdom.


A second breakfast after the first 18 miles was just fine.  (Only one restaurant open at this hour in Wisdom, so I was glad it made good blueberry pancakes!)  That fueled us up for the rest of the ride.  There was a lot of these flowers on the first part of the ride; these may be flax flowers (although my credentials as a botanist are highly suspect!).

Possible flax flowers

We turned west and crossed the Big Hole River, which I mistook for an irrigation canal, it was so small.  While I don’t want to shut down all the ranches in the state, the Madison River spoiled me; what would the rest of these rivers look like if their waters hadn’t been sucked almost dry?  Right across it was a power pole with another pole right next to it.  On the second pole was a nest with what I think was a goshawk and her nestling in it.  (Update: probably an osprey.)  Mama flew in with something long and trailing – I told Virginia it was either a big stick or something with guts hanging out the back.  Junior, who looks like s/he’s almost ready to fly, seemed satisfied.

Nest with goshawk?

We had a long valley crossing and started to climb.  I saw something big and white from a good five miles away, and we discussed for a mile whether it was a billboard or an RV.  Turns out it was part of the visitor center for the Big Hole Battlefield Monument.  This is where a unit of the U.S. Army bravely attacked a sleeping village of Nez Perce Indians who had left their reservation in 1877.  The Nez Perce counterattacked, surrounded the soldiers, and held them under siege until the soldiers were reinforced.  The Indians also captured and disabled the howitzer the soldiers had brought, captured the supply train, and carried off all the ammunition they could carry.  Reportedly there were only 12 Indians with rifles at this battle.

Big Hole Battlefield Monument visitor center

We continued up the hill.  It was a pretty easy grade following the creek, and looked like a park with the trees and vegetation underneath.  Further up was a half mile or so just littered with these white flowers.  They looked like somebody had decorated the forest for a party.

Party favor flowers

Close-up of white flowers

There was a mile or two up near the top where I had to drop down to second gear.  Part of that may have been I needed a bit more fuel after 19 miles from breakfast, but it wasn’t really too bad.  We made it without incident (except from flies) to the top of Chief Joseph Pass, and 7,241 feet our 9th (and final?) crossing of the Continental Divide.

Chief Joseph Pass and Continental Divide crossing #9

Rolled west a couple hundred yards and we thought we were falling off the mountain!  It was almost straight down.  I looked to the left and could see U.S. 93 going south, probably 500 feet down, and felt like I could spit and hit the other road.  We dropped down to Lost Trail Pass at 7,014 feet and met U.S. 93.  We were awfully close to Idaho, if we didn’t actually enter it.  There was a ‘Welcome to Montana’ sign to our right, and a ‘Welcome to Idaho’ sign to our left, as we turned right, to the north.  The change in pavement was to the left, so I don’t think we entered Idaho, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

There was a dramatic change in scenery.  We had been seeing lots of green; trees, grass, the results of flattish terrain and plenty of water.  On the west side, there was steep rock and lots of bare spots.  Some of that looked like the results of fires, some of it I couldn’t tell if it had been logged.  Without knowing for sure, some of the fires may have been several years old.  This part of the world looks much drier than one valley over to the east.  There’s certainly no irrigation to speak of at the top of the Bitterroot valley!

At the top was a sign, “6% Grade, 7 Miles.”  We’ve seen signs like this before.  It usually means there’s a 6% drop for half a mile, then it levels out to 3% for 2 miles, and maybe gets steep again for a while, and so forth.  Well, not here.  It was point your nose down and stay like that for the next 7 miles.  We were only passed by three cars or trucks on the way down, and both of us were braking freely.  It’s sort of hard to get up too much speed when there’s a stiff cross wind around one 30 mph bend in the road, no wind for a bit, then you go around another 20 mph corner and get hit with a headwind.  All of us who stopped down the road were glad we’re west-bound; we’d hate to have to climb that!  I decided to take a picture half-way down, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d get the bike stopped.

View below Lost Trail Pass

And then, just past mile marker 7, the road flattened out to 2-3%.  We cruised on down to Sula, where we’re camping (in a cabin, to help keep the bugs out) for the night.  It’s warm again, but we have cold water tonight, and we don’t need to hurry to Missoula.

Sula is a settlement consisting mostly of a gas station with store and restaurant attached, with a KOA campground (including a few cabins). The store, etc., closes at 6:00 p.m., but there is music from the Bitterroot all the time. Upstream there’s a ranger station, with a very few houses scattered here and there. To make up for it, the bushes around the river harbor a plethora of bloodsucking mosquitoes; shake a branch and it looks like you’ve disturbed a big nest of tiny little yellow jackets — they come out looking for who did it?

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