This weekend bicycles are ruling the road in Yellowstone National Park. Most park roads are closed until later this month, but every spring Yellowstone opens about 50 miles of its main thoroughfares to bikes only.
After riding about two miles into the park I pull over for a minute and leave my bike by the side of the road. Walking about 20 yards over to the edge of the river, I can see a herd of bison on the other side of the water. They’re in a brown meadow spiked with rocks and silver sagebrush. There’s some snow on the ground, a backdrop of evergreen trees, and a couple of really huge bull bison.
It’s so quiet, the only sound is the water in the river.
“We think of quietness as a resource here,” says Park Ranger Julie Hannaford. “Silence as a resource.”
Hannaford has worked in Yellowstone for 24 years.
“Those quieter experiences, just to provide an opportunity to have them, we’re pleased to be able to do that,” she says.
But Hannaford also wants to make sure that quiet-seeking visitors know what they’re getting into. Riding a bicycle into Yellowstone this time of year isn’t something to be taken lightly.
“It’s not a zoo,” Hannaford says. “This is a wilderness area that just happens to have a road through it. It’s a wild place where the animals and the weather and the environment are in their natural state, and so you have to be flexible and capable and willing to change your plans at any time, because things will change.”
Flexible and adaptable pretty much describes the Grizzle family, who are enjoying their spring break at the park.
I met them after more than an hour riding without seeing another soul. Randall and Valerie Grizzle and their two children are from Boise, Idaho. They had planned on driving through Yellowstone, but that didn’t work out.
“At first I was like, dang it! But we happened to have our bikes, and so, like, this is one of the most epic days of my life,” says Randall. “Just to be out here, and like this whole park to ourselves is an amazing feeling.”
Both of the Grizzle children, Troy and Sierra said it was an “awesome” experience. The family was able to get up close with some of the wildlife.
“There’s some bison over there we just checked out,” Troy says.
The animals were huge and Valerie says the experience was, “kinda surreal and scary all at the same time.”
And just in case the family got stuck in the park, they brought everything they needed, including bear spray and a gun.
“Yeah, we’re from Idaho, so that’s just kinda normal,” Randall says.
It is legal to have guns in the park, but not to fire them. The park rangers say bear spray, which is a kind of pepper spray, is a lot more effective than guns at deterring grizzlies. Bears are just now starting to emerge from hibernation, and can be a little cranky. But most visitors never see one in Yellowstone.
The Grizzle family said goodbye and got back on their bikes, hoping to complete a 14-mile round trip that day.
As the weather warms up, more cyclists will take advantage of this brief, car-free window in Yellowstone, up to a few hundred a day on weekends. And then, on April 21, the park will throw the gates open to cars again for the summer season.