By Bob Sutton
Editor’s note: Bob is an adventure rider in the purest sense of the word. He does the trips that most of us plan and few execute. He just returned from a gigantic loop of the western half of the U.S. that included the Great Divide from south to north, almost all on dirt. The ride took a year to plan. Here’s how he did it.
The Great Divide route, for the uninitiated, has been mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association, a bicycle group based in Missoula, Montana. Through the years, they’ve mapped routes down the West Coast and several routes across the U.S. for road bicyclists. Then they went to work, laying out a fantastic touring route for mountain bikers. What they came up with was a route that snakes from Antelope Wells, New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana to Banff, Canada. It works out to about 2700 miles and follows the Continental Divide as closely as possible (we crossed the divide over 30 times). About 90 percent of the roads are either dirt or gravel. During our trip, we encountered more bicyclists than motorcycle riders and enjoyed talking to them about not only their unbelievable journey, but also the superhuman energy they were expending while on the trip. One rider told us he estimated his elevation gain to be over 200,000 feet! Unbelievable! The backpackers we met along the way told us they expected their hike to take about five months to complete.
Once the official route was mapped, it didn’t take long for motorcyclists to start riding as much of it as possible, bypassing the sections that are off-limits to motorized vehicles. The remote locations, high elevation, sparse population, frequent storms and reoccurring forest fires result in many revisions, detours and re-routes. But, for the most part, the ACA route follows really nice gravel roads. Having said that, if it rains, expect to set up camp and wait until the roads dry out. The mud, particularly in New Mexico, is unrideable on a fully loaded adventure bike. Nothing ruins your ride like burying a 500-pound bike in mud up to the cases!
There were three of us for most of the ride, all mounted on Kawasaki KLR650s of various ages. Due to the distances and lack of services, Tom fitted an IMS gas tank on his 2004 KLR650 that held nearly 7 gallons of gas. He became the default “mother ship” of the group. I carried a siphon tube and stayed close to him when distances between gas stations lengthened.
Ross’ 2007 KLR was pumped up to a 685 at its last rebuild, but despite this, his gas mileage was still good enough to get him out about 300 miles before he began worrying.
My ’99 KLR is capable of getting up to 63 mpg, so I kept the stock tank. I wanted a steering stabilizer on my bike, not only for the customary stability on dirt, but to help the bike’s manners in strong crosswinds on the highway. Since I was unable to find one made for the KLR, I enlisted Tim Morrissey at West Tek in Topeka, Kansas, to install a WER stabilizer on the KLR. He also built the custom racks for my bike.
We all kept the stock mufflers and spark arresters on our bikes in the interest of keeping them quiet and being able to run stock jetting. About all we had to do was turn our pilot fuel screw in about a quarter turn or less when we rode above 9000 feet.
Tom and I rode highways to the starting point in New Mexico, making the whole trip close to 5500 miles—about 40 percent dirt and 60 percent pavement. We wanted a compromise tire with a dirt design that worked well in both environments and would last long enough to do the job. We chose Continental TKC 80s. These tires hold up well and work well in all environments. We knew we could easily get about 7000 miles from a front and expected to get about 4000 miles from the rear, which is lower than normal because of the many miles of hot blacktop we rode. After about 2000 miles of riding, we mounted new rears in Colorado, where we had a shop with tools and a compressor. This was preferable to trying to find tires later in Montana when the original tires would be worn out. The tires we removed still had about half of their life, so we will use them on future trips.
Ross’ mileage would be less than ours, so he opted for increased dirt stability and used Dunlop 606s front and rear. They held up well for his northern half of the ride.
We all used heavy-duty tubes and carried lightweight front and rear tubes for backup. I went a step further by using a latex product called Stan’s NoTubes that is designed to convert tube-type mountain bike tires to tubeless. It works best in thick tubes that help resist burping air out through small punctures. The beauty of the stuff is that it tends to form a latex plug when it hits the air. I hate flats!
We didn’t want our trip to be dictated by motel locations, so we all packed camping gear and used it about half of the nights we were on the Divide. We used motels when the timing was such that they were available at the end of the day.
Several of the mountain bikers we met would laughingly ask why we had so much stuff. We enjoyed their good-natured kidding about all of the gear we were carrying compared to their meager possessions. But, their questions resonated in my mind as I packed and unpacked all of my gear every day. It really was too much stuff! Learning from them, when we reached Tom’s house 2000 miles into the trip, I reassessed every single item and decided whether it was a need or a want. Then I left about 29 pounds of junk in Ross’ car so he could haul it back to California for me.
I would suggest starting your planning with the wonderful maps produced by the ACA, and then carefully transferring their routes onto Benchmark maps. Benchmark maps will prove invaluable when it comes time to figure out reroutes and detours. They are also invaluable when looking for an overview of where you are and where you are headed. Additionally, build a track of the route on Garmin BaseCamp and load it onto your GPS to use for most of your riding. It’s much easier to glance at the GPS than to unfold maps at every crossroad. Ross and I used Garmin Montana GPS units and loved them. They have a huge track memory rather than the limited 20-track memories of the GPS 60s and others.
For safety’s sake, and so my wife could tell if I was still moving, I brought along a DeLorme inReach SE satellite communicator. These not only have the ability to send an SOS, but they allow texts to be sent and received from pretty much anywhere on earth, though I was only interested in the western U.S. They can also leave a breadcrumb trail as you travel, and the intervals can be tailored to your needs. I set mine to drop a breadcrumb every 10 minutes so my wife and friends could check our progress online. I also used the device to send my wife texts since cell service was virtually non-existent for most of the route.
Logistics for a ride of this length became the priority in our conversations from the moment we agreed to do it. Things were complicated by the fact that Tom and I live in different states, so we decided to meet at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on July 3rd. Though Ross lives near me, he loves work too much to retire (poor devil) and decided to trailer his bike to Colorado and meet us there when we rode in from the south, then ride back with Tom after we reached Canada.
After a sleepless night in late June, I saddled up my KLR, hugged my wife and kissed my cat goodbye, then started out on what would become the most beautiful ride of my life.
My Garmin Montana GPS had been given strict instructions to avoid toll roads, freeways and U-turns, so it picked the hottest, most indirect route to Bisbee, Arizona, one could imagine. Victorville was a balmy 102 degrees as I rode its surface streets and marveled at the length of time the traffic lights took before they turned green. Twentynine Palms was only a few degrees higher, but Parker, Arizona, was hitting about 106 when I cruised through. Yuma was 110, and Tucson was 115; I began to roast! Anything metal that I touched was hot enough to fry an egg. My motel requirements those nights were simple. The AC had to work, and work well. Also, the ice machine had to be in close proximity!
I brought my passport because I wanted to arrive in Antelope Wells from Mexico to meet Tom, so I crossed the Mexican border at Douglas, Arizona, and worked my way through Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, to Mexico’s Highway 2, which roughly parallels the U.S. border and heads east through country that Geronimo used to frequent. About 90 miles east (after crossing the Continental Divide for the first time), I turned north on a dirt road that led to the U.S. border at El Berrendo, Mexico, and met Tom in Antelope Wells.
Tom rode from Colorado bathed in cool breezes (I imagined) and was smiling on the other side of the border fence when I crossed back into the U.S. This was after an interesting little 100-mile side trip through northern Mexico and a rather thorough search by the Mexican border officials. We joined forces and headed north.
We’d heard plenty of warnings about the mud that could swallow an unsuspecting KLR without so much as a burp, but luckily we didn’t get our first-hard rain until we hit the rocky forest service roads north of Silver City, and that didn’t last for long. Actually, we saw very little rain on the entire trip!
Tom had said that if we started at the Mexican border near the first of July and head north, the likelihood of parts of our route being blocked by snow would be nil. He also said that we would be well into the wildflower season and the flowers would be more profuse as we continued north. He was right on both counts. The wildflowers were beyond belief! Not just a couple here and there, but miles and miles of them. And as we moved north, we saw more varieties than I would have guessed existed. We took as many photos of them as we could but couldn’t capture their grandeur in its entirety.
We also were surprised how far and few between the houses and towns were. It was as if we were traveling through the various areas before civilization moved in. Wyoming and Montana, in particular, had such vast expanses of grassy valleys and distant mountains, we couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like a couple of hundred years ago when buffalo herds roamed these areas. Though the buffalo are gone, we did spot coyotes, foxes, deer and their fawns, elk, moose and calves, yaks (at least that was our best guess), antelope, wild horses, vultures, osprey, golden eagles and more. Ross and Tom spotted a bear, and I was a little upset that I missed him—though if one had visited me while I was in my tent, I would have been even more upset.
We came upon numerous ghost towns, abandoned log homes and outbuildings, deserted ranches and mines, many with crumbling bunkhouses and other buildings. When we did find folks living along the route, they were very welcoming and would wave to us, or take the time to tell us about the area and help us with directions.
Our ride took us through the Red Rock mesas, canyons and forests of New Mexico on roads through the high mountains up to and above timberline in Colorado. We also crossed the vast prairies and grasslands of southern Wyoming and rode along the Wind River Range. Idaho surprised me with its prosperous green fields of crops, and Montana’s scale was huge. We stopped and took dozens of photos of its valleys and mountains, lest we forget what it looked like. Of course, there’s no way photographs do a trip like this justice.
When we finished the ride at the closed border crossing at Canada (we crossed anyway), we sadly split up and rode back to our individual homes.
Sound good? It was!