For visitors to the Yellowstone National Park region in northwestern Wyoming, one of the primary “non-park” attractions is the rugged Absaroka Mountains.
The Absarokas, which skirt Yellowstone’s eastern boundary, are a recreationist’s paradise.
Alpine lakes teeming with tasty trout, countless miles of hiking trails and breathtaking scenery in all directions make the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain complex a top destination for locals and tourists alike.
On the Morrison Trail, bikers can spin their pedals just outside the beautiful Absaroka-Beartooth mountain complex of Wyoming.
However, if you’ve strapped your two-wheeler atop your car in anticipation of biking the Absaroka’s you might be in for a rude shock. Much of the pristine range is designated wilderness, making the trails off-limits to wheeled vehicles of any kind.
Thankfully, there’s a few great places that a biker can spin the pedals just outside the wilderness areas. One of my favorite of these routes is the Morrison Trail.
From Montana To Wyoming
The Morrison begins at a trailhead adjacent to Highway 212 between Cooke City, Mont., and Red Lodge, Mont. However, the trail is actually in Wyoming because the highway dips south as it winds its way across the Beartooth Mountains (a sub-range of the Absarokas). The turnoff to the trailhead is located south of the road at Long Lake.
To bike the Morrison Trail, you’ll need to arrange a shuttle. The 25-mile route ends in the Clark Fork Canyon, southwest of Clark, Wyo. There’s a parking area at the end of the paved road (Clark Fork Canyon Road or Old Highway 292) where you can drop off a vehicle or make a pick-up.
Shuttle logistics licked, kick back and prepare for one of the most scenic rides of your life. For about the first four miles, the Morrison Trail lures the rider out across the grassy meadows of the Beartooth Plateau. You’ll actually lose a couple hundred feet of elevation from the 9,660-foot trailhead in these first few miles.
At about the four-mile mark, the trail begins a choppy ascent for about three miles before topping out at almost 10,200 feet. Along the summit area, be sure to stop occasionally to enjoy the scenery — and don’t forget your camera. Pilot and Index Peaks, two spectacular landmarks that serve as navigational points to hikers, dominate the western landscape. To the south rise the rugged ramparts of the Absaroka Mountains above Sunlight Creek, one of the major tributaries of the Clark Fork River.
From Pines To Meadows
Beyond the summit, the trail drops steadily for about four miles, taking the rider through stands of pine and across open meadows. From a pedaling perspective, this is one of the easiest stretches of the trail.
But brace yourself. At about the 12-mile mark, the trail begins a tortuous descent. When it’s dry, you won’t really ride down this part of the trail. You’ll slide — through dust and loose gravel.
Last summer some friends and I were navigating this chunk of the Morrison. I was sliding gingerly along when my friend, Dave, came wheeling by. Nearly everyone in the group had spilled it somewhere in the last mile, but I was determined not to crash.
“C’mon, move it,” Dave chided as he pulled in front of me. “No way,” I replied, “I’ve got over a thousand bucks worth of camera gear on my back that doesn’t like rocks.”
My caution proved futile. Moments later I banged into a boulder and took a dive over the handlebars like a cowboy coming off a rodeo bull. The padded bag in my pack protected the camera, but not my elbows or ego. Fortunately, the downhill slide soon came to an end and our group paused for a break and a peek at the lush green valley of the upper Clark Fork River.
The next four miles were close to paradise. Easy downhill riding, expansive views and a respite from the switchbacks made the miles fly by. Soon we were at the brink of the Clark Fork Canyon.
Watching the water pound and swirl over the rocks at what seemed like a mile below, it was hard to believe that we would be at the river in less than one trail mile. After snapping some photos and savoring the view, we plunged down another sinuous run of switchbacks and were soon at the bottom of the canyon. (When I ran an elevation profile on my DeLorme’s mapping software late that night, I found that we’d dropped about 1,500 feet in less than a mile.)
After bottoming out in the canyon, a level, but rock-hopping six miles to the trailhead awaits you. At the end of the ride, you’ll surely want to cool your tired legs in the river. But beware. The water works magic on your mind as well as your muscles. No matter where else your travels take you, the Clark Fork and the Morrison Trail will be a river and a ride to remember.