Forbidden; a Montana Roadtrip. Part 2 – Continental Divide Trail and the Lionhead

We took our sweet time getting from Hamilton to the Lionhead area driving due E over Skalkaho Pass from Hamilton then made our way to the area I’ll euphemistically call “West Yellowstone”.

Eventually we found the highly recommended Cliff Point Campground. Its blue cold waters, refreshing lack of cell service, incredible night skies and silent nights would become our base camp for the area.

And what an area! The high plateaus of Montana stretch flat, allowing limitless views from Butte to Ennis.  This plateau is at 2100m elevation at which elevation our Canadian mountains are typically glaciated. From these 2100m elevations the Lionhead (Henry’s Lake Range) peaks and passes are another vertical 1000m higher. Definitely an oxygen shortage issue for sea-dwelling Canadians.

General location of the Lionheads.

Cliff Lake at Cliff Point

CDT Targhee to Mile Creek

There are too many classic rides to count in the Lionhead area. One thing they have in common is their backcountry nature –  committing with a distinct lack of bailout options. You must be prepared to be self-supported; you should be able to deal with grizzly bears (hopefully by avoiding them); you should be a competent rider (trails are in good shape but they’re long and out there so expect the unexpected).

It was a challenge to figure out routes from contour lines and maps. We had limited time to get a good sample of the terrain. So many of the trails can be ridden bi-directionally and in different combinations. Fortunately we were joined by Teton valley locals Lynne and Dan.  I also had the benefit of advice from local trail-guru Corey Biggers (who unfortunately couldn’t split mid-week to join us).

Continental Divide Trail – Targhee to Mile Creek

In the end we rode the portion of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that starts from Targhee Pass and travels north, passing the classic Watkins/Sheep Creek junctions. We then split the group; Shar and Kevin went down Targhee Creek. Lynne, Dan, Lucky the wonder dog and I continued on the alpine goodness north and then west crossing the Targhee Peak divide and then descending to Mile Creek.

CDT Targhee Pass – Reas Pass trailhead

Clear signage closer to trailheads

Air gets a bit thin on the ridgelines approaching Lionhead Mountain

Lynne and Dan on the climb

Rounding the ridgeline surrounding Lionhead Mountain

Lynne on the descent towards Watkins Creek turnoff. Hebgen Lake to the NE

Kevin on the Watkins Creek descent. A SWMMBA work party came through earlier in the month to brush and clear the trail

Watkins Creek. From here you can undertake the entire Lionhead Loop adding a couple of monster climbs and descents or just do one monster climb and descent. We elected for just the one

The CDT is a study in the schizophrenic contrasts and ludicrousness that is US Forest Service land policy.  While one federal FS Region on the Idaho side built singletrack winding its way from treeline to alpine; another federal FS Region on the Montana side places existing singletrack into the pariah-status of Wilderness Study Areas. Cross a state boundary and suddenly biking becomes impure; thrillcraft wreckreating in the sacrosanct hallowed Wilderness.

Nevertheless the CDT particularly from Watkins to Targhee Peak Divide then to Mile Creek’s junction is a tremendous high-alpine biking experience replete with outstanding views, sublime singletrack, lactic-acid climbs and terrain that goes on forever. Even to Lynne and Dan it was something new as they’d not done that combo in that direction. We rode our bikes. Had fun. Might even have made some whoops of joy. Sorry!!!

Shar and Kevin bombed down Targhee Creek then rode a short distance back to the vehicle

Targhee Creek

780m of rowdy fun fast descending on Targhee Creek

We continued on. Behind Dan is the ridgeline which we descended from the Lionhead (picture right) to Watkins Creek (picture left)

Alpine flowers in full force

Sedimentary deposits typical of Rocky Mountain old seabed floors in the section of climb to Targhee Peak dubbed “Candyland”

No shame in walking the steep loose chunder of Candyland and time to take in more views

At Targhee (Peak) Divide preparing to drop to the Mile Creek junction

The descent to Mile Creek

It’s all downhill now. Mile Creek is 790m in 9.5km – acceptable!

Lucky leading out the downhill

Such a good dog!

Dan leading me out

Lynne on the chase. Mile Creek delivered


CDT Targhee to Mile Creek

Targhee Creek

Reas Pass aka CDT Two Top

This is a rarity in the Lionhead and is also known as CDT Two Top. We did it as a relatively mellow 18km out and back trail with only 473m of elevation. It’s a pleasant ramble mainly in the trees for a rest day. Bonus is that the downhills (and uphills) are of the manicured fast variety.

Other options are to do this as a one way all the way to the Big Springs road which would make it a slightly longer approximately 26km ride but require a car shuttle unless one wanted to road-ride about 40kms into a headwind to retrieve. Count me as a no on that.

One option which did not materialize was for us to ride with local Lionhead guru Corey Biggers. Corey is a business owner in the area and reknowned local horseback and mtb rider who’s singlehandedly done wonders for rapproachment and communication between the communities.

He’s also a tireless trail maintenance volunteer as well as the go-to person for the obscure and undocumented Centennials Range traverse; which he’s kept clear for riding. I promise to come back for this Corey!

Corey Biggers in his natural environment

The approximate Centennial Range traverse

CDT Two Top aka Reas Pass

Wilderness and the Lionhead.

Not all is perfect in the Lionhead. In a stunning (but unsurprising) display of crass capriciousness a district of US Forest Service Region 1 (what a surprise!) has proposed closing the Sheep Creek and Coffin Creek areas of the Lionhead trails. This particular forest district (the Custer-Gallatin district) has already closed the classic Gallatin Crest in 2012 buckling under to Wilderness movement litigation. This litigation coincided with the US Forest Service’s pre-existing anti-bike propensity so perfectly suited the USFS’s overwhelming policy inclination..

How did the US Forest Service’s land management policies (particularly Region 1 of Montana) become so anti-bike? This article explains that it started from pretensions of objectivity but became entrenched in subjective attitudes of hierarchy and superiority. Simply put the USFS is tasked with administering some lands as “Wilderness” – in the legal sense of the US federal Wilderness Act. However, there is a a strong Wilderness movement in the US with attitudes that are problematic when it comes to sharing public recreational lands with other users. The Wilderness movement is comprised of people who mythologize their own purity while demonizing any and every other activity that doesn’t fit their own vision (article about how packrafting, bright colours, or white water paddling was impure). In short, hiking, horseback riding and skiing are pure. To Wilderness advocates, mountain-bikers are SATAN.

A cold Lionhead morning

US Forest Service capture and policy perversion

Unfortunately US Forest Service Region 1 has become captured by the contagion of the Wilderness movement’s strident intolerance. This happened in two ways. The first was that policy documents written to help government bureaucratic automaton make decisions morphed from discretionary documents to binding policy documents. This happened over time as USFS bureaucrats who just happened to be Wilderness advocates became senior bureaucrats thus embedding the contagion of intolerance into the USFS. Anti-bike (or to be more correct anti-everything that was impure) guidance policy diktak became USFS Region 1 official binding policy.

The second way this happened is the classic American way; Lawyers. US Forest Service legal and consultation processes are geared towards adding more Wilderness (by definition excluding bikes). There is an absence of a process to set aside or reserve land for high-value recreation. Therefore the bent for the Wilderness movement is to litigate for more Wilderness. And litigate they do. Accordingly US Forest Region 1 (which means Montana) acts in ways so as to not get sued by Wilderness advocates. Suing the US Forest Service is so lucrative (costs get awared to lawyers on contingency when they win) that there is a Bozeman MT law firm on retainer whose primary business is suing the Forest Service.

How much money are we talking about? As recently as 2012 the legal bill for Gallatin Crest closures (for the US Forest Service toadies in the Custer-Gallatin District of USFS Region 1 was $ 170,000. This was 15% of their 2012 Recreation budget and only one of the many lawsuits filed against USFS Region 1 by the Wilderness movement in Montana for just 2012 (academic study of USFS Region 1 litigation expense confirms the trend remains consistent over time). Suing the US Forest Service particularly Region 1 is lucrative indeed!

Cliff Point Campground. The USFS maintains nice campgrounds; will grant them that.

Wilderness and its technical legal meaning

How does the US Forest Service’s Region 1 supplication to Wilderness advocates manifest itself? This DOJ article describes the technical legal meaning of Wilderness as it’s currently interpreted. Capital W Wilderness are lands preserving “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The law specified that “there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road” in Wilderness. Also forbidden were “temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment, or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation“. Subsequent court interpretations confirmed that Wilderness lands are closed to mountain-bikes.

There are movements by the Sustainable Trails Coalition to mitigate the wholesale prohibition of bikes from any area designated as Wilderness but, as it stands Wilderness means no bikes. Let’s delve into the alphabet soup of Wilderness land management jargon to see just how badly the process is perverted so that even areas not designated as “Wilderness” are slapped with mountain-bike prohibitions..

At the outset, we start with the proposition that the Wilderness movement is geared towards adding more Wilderness. Donors want their names on Wilderness. Staff payments are bonused for Wilderness. However it isn’t that easy to get new Wilderness lands designated. This requires an Act of the US Congress; an institution of recent times not known for its expedient decision-making and/or decisiveness.

In and of itself, US law has settled on the precedent that mountain-bikes are prohibited from federal lands that are designated as Wilderness (this article dives into the mess of that particular issue itself) but it’s out of scope for this analysis. Suffice it to say that it’s difficult to create Wildnerness lands. If that was where the cards were dealt it would still be suboptimal for mountain-biking access but not disastrous. Unfortunately the Wilderness movement has found a new legal mechanism to expand Wilderness without going through Congress by using a litigation wedge to obtain Wilderness protection for lands not formally designated by Congress as Wilderness

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National. Definitely not Wilderness

What is sub-Wilderness/quasi-wilderness?

There is a class of lands that aren’t quite Wilderness but perhaps one day could graduate to Wilderness designation. Recall that only Congress can designate Wilderness. However the US Forest Service can designate land that is quasi-Wilderness. This land can one day, grow up to be Wilderness. These lands are

  • Wilderness Study Areas
  • Recommended Wilderness Areas; and
  • Inventoried Roadless Areas.

The key of the Wilderness movement’s litigation strategy is that this trinity of WSA, RWA and IRA can be established at the Forest Service local level. These lands can be created by the decision of the US Forest Service bureaucrats.

It doesn’t quite end here. It used to be the case that different US Forest Service regions and districts administered the quasi-wilderness trinity differently. Some allowed mountain-bikes in WSA, RWA and IRA. Some didn’t. The only thing consistent in FS decisions is inconsistency. This has now changed in large part due to recent court decisions; one of which is the court decision closing the US Forest Service lands in the Bitterroot Valley to mountain-bikes.

The Bitterroot decision

We have already seen how the US Forest Service adopted policy reasons when assesssing land use that ignored objective science-based evidence (ie bikes cause no less erosion than hiking or horsepacking is not relevant; the work bikers do to clear trails is not relevant; bikers disrupt wildlife as much as hikers or horseback riders). This criteria became official US Forest Service policy diktat through the twin phenomena of individual FS bureaucrats adopting Wilderness advocacy cult-like reasoning wholesale and also through Wilderness movement litigation. The outcome is that when deciding whether to make Forest Service land part of the WSA, RWA and IRA quasi-wilderness trinity what is now relevant is how much pressure the Wilderness movement exercises through litigation. Other considerations (including desires of local residents to use public land) are given lip-service. This was settled law before the Bitterroot decision of July 2018.

The court case in the Bitterroot Valley and US Forest Service Region 1’s Reasons of Decision were in respect of the USFS wanting to treat the Sapphire and Blue Joint Wilderness Study Areas as if they were Wilderness. Until recently it wasn’t given that mountain-biking would be prohibited in WSA, RWA and IRA quasi-wilderness. The subsequent banning of mountain-biking in Bitterroot area WSA lands has the potential of setting the precedent that any land which is WSA, RWA and IRA quasi-wilderness will be treated as if it was Wilderness. That means no mountain-biking, no e-biking, no sleds, no moto. This means that the WSA, RWA and IRA quasi-wilderness may as well be Wilderness.

We have already seen how the Wilderness movement uses litigation to compel a prostrate, emasculated captive US Forest Service to comply with their demands. This legal tactic is how the Wilderness movement will obtain Wilderness protection for lands without having to go through the bogged-down federal legislative Act of Congress process. Instead the Wilderness movement will now lobby and sue the US Forest Service at the bureaucrat Region level who will surely turn turtle. This is a big win for the Wilderness movement and a massive kick in the nuts for mountain-biking (and anyone else excluded).

Yellowstone Lake. Not Wilderness as motorized boats and rowboats with oarlocks or kayaks are allowed.

In summary

Whew that was a long boring rant. TL:DR summary for the attention-deprived. Mountain-bikers oppose Wilderness and so therefore they must be crushed. Now Mountain-bikers oppose the holy trinity of WSA, RWA and IRA so must be crushed.

– At best the Wilderness movement doesn’t care about mountain-biking. At worse they hate mountain-biking.
– The Wilderness movement will never bend on allowing mountain-biking in Wilderness.
– The Wilderness movement want the Forest Service to designate land as WSA, RWA and IRA and they want the Forest Service to treat these lands as if they were Wilderness.
– The Wilderness movement will therefore be able to control the process by which lands become about as close to Wilderness as can be (without Act of Congress) by pounding the Forest Service with lawsuits.
– Therefore much more land in Montana is vulnerable to being prohibited for mountain-biking by the stroke of a pen of the Forest Service

“Wilderness” in Yellowstone National Park – but not really Wilderness as people can canoe and fish on it using mechanical contrivances


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