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The Human Powered Road Trip

By Stio Mountain on
 Bike Packing Yellowstone National Park

Field Guide Chapter 5

Words by Jenna Mahaffie
Photography by Sofia Jaramillo

At its finest, bike travel is the epitome of a human-powered road trip. Trade four wheels for two and add in some sweat, helmet hair, an unprecedented craving for ice cream and there you have it: a (slightly) modified method of modern-day exploration. While bike touring may be more logistically difficult than simply hopping in the car, the core experiences remain the same. It's where presence, inside jokes and pure camaraderie can come together to create the essence of what it means to have an adventure.

With Yellowstone National Park literally in Stio HQ's backyard, we saw an opportunity to tour America’s first national park by bike. Yellowstone is frequently traveled by RV’s and road trippers, but bike touring through it is a rarely documented ride. So we gathered up some friends, a few cameras and a bunch of gear and set out for two days to tell a story from the seat of a bicycle.


In the interest of full transparency, we were warned about the dangers and logistical complications that a bike tour through Yellowstone present. There are parts of the park with little to no shoulder, people in RVs looking at the landscape instead of at the road, and unpredictable wildlife scattering the area - sometimes in a too-close-for-comfort proximity.

Armed with this information, we decided to go forth in touring the more improved roads and wider shoulders of the park’s southern loop. This loop includes Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, and the Firehole River - a nourishing taste of the visual buffet that makes Yellowstone so special.


We packed up from HQ and drove to the Western entrance of the park (aptly named West Yellowstone). With its numerous burger joints and gift stores, the town is a roadtrippers’ souvenir paradise - and was a great starting point for a bike tour.

We began Day One well before sunrise to do some extra gear shuffling, eat breakfast, and to ensure we’d be riding with a painted sky next to the banks of the Madison River. As we approached the official entrance to the park, distant howls could be heard in coordination with the encroaching light. A ranger explained that it was actually the captive wolves from the nearby Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center.

“Oh.” A tinge of disappointment set amongst us. But still.

Wolves. Nearby. I mean, come on.

No one’s goosebumps disappeared. This place is still wild, and we were about to go deep into the center of it all.

Despite frigid temps, the first morning took our crew past the Madison and straight to the thermal Firehole River, where a few brave souls took a dip in the water (note: it wasn’t THAT warm). We continued down the western arm of the loop past the legendary Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful until we reached our destination for the night at Bridge Bay Campground. Settling into the evening, we watched a lone bison soak up the remaining hours of sunlight in the field next to our tents. As it does with the change of seasons, the grass had already turned yellow, which turns to gold when the sun hits it at the end of the day.

It’s sometimes hard to feel wild amidst visitors, RVs and areas of infrastructure that make access to this remote national treasure so easy, but then you see things like a backlit bison in the middle of a field as the sun sets amongst the vastness of Yellowstone Lake. And in the same vein of thought as hearing the wolves from the morning, we were reminded of how wild this place once was -- and really still is.

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Like Day One, Day Two began early and cold as we traveled toward the east entrance of the park to the Yellowstone Lake Overlook. Cotton candy colors flashed across the sunrise in unison with the steam from the nearby thermal features, creating an ethereal scene that made the chilly temperatures seem distant and irrelevant. The rest of the day consisted of pedaling up the northern end of the Southern loop along the banks of the Yellowstone River before heading back toward our starting point in West Yellowstone.

As it should be with the end of every great adventure, the promise of burgers and ice cream were major motivators as energy began to fade late in the day. And as any seasoned bike tourist knows, your experience is only as great as the feast you indulge in afterwards.

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We’re lucky enough to have access to public land and two amazing national parks right in our backyard. Despite the stress and warnings about biking in the park, we realized something important: proper adventures aren’t always about executing perfect logistics or traveling through the most beautiful place. Sometimes, the best memories are served simply from a collection of moments, whether that means the bad jokes, the spicy tacos, the fireside whiskey pulls, or the high fives at the top of the climb.

It’s these brief instances in time that only further shape and define what it means to do something really beautiful as a cohesive group.

And in their rawest essence - isn’t that what road trips are all about?

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