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Working off the top half of your tank

So, you’re planning on riding to Montana for the BMW MOA Rally in June––excellent! My riding buddies and I ride to MOA Rallies and Getaways to join up with old friends, meet new ones and hang out with fellow BMW riders at the beer garden and embellish stories about our adventures. We attend seminars to learn new riding skills or marvel at other riders’ adventures and visit vendor booths looking for cool things to buy. However, a big part of a rally is the ride there and back. If you’re heading to Montana, your ride will include mountains.

I live in Montana and am a geologist and a midlife-crisis BMW motorcycle rider aboard my R 1200 GS Adventure. I like showing off Wyoming and Montana to family and friends who come to visit, and while I don’t ride my bike to work or through town, I like riding adventures that only occur on long backroad trips. Together with my wife, I have ridden through Europe, Africa, Canada, Alaska and many of the lower 48. However, my favorite rides are in Wyoming and Montana.

Those of you who live in the western U.S. probably already know what route you’ll take to Great Falls, Montana, to maximize your mountain riding experience. I want to help those riders coming from the east who may have never ridden west and do not have the advantage of a local rider’s knowledge.

This is not a road log of the best places to eat or stay; you will discover those on your own. I am not a fan of interstate riding, and as most of you know, the two-lane is where you want to ride. I understand that, in the interest of time, you may choose interstate travel to get west, but once here, the two-lane highways are wide open with light traffic.

Riding from the east, your mountain experience will start in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  If you can plan your trip through the Sand Hill country of middle Nebraska along State Highway 2, you’ll find it to be worth the ride and a nice, pleasant stretch up and down the sand dunes. You might be amazed at the number and size of coal trains that go through there. Then, when you get to Alliance, Nebraska, take US 385 north to the Black Hills. The Black Hills are where interstate travelers can join this route.

Custer State Park is located on the southwest corner of the Black Hills, and the area east of Custer City, South Dakota, is worth a ride. There is a section of the park road called The Pigs-Tail which is an interesting, vertically-coiled road with one-way tunnels framing Mount Rushmore. While in the area, Custer City is a nice place to stay and has a decent brewery.

From Custer City, head west on US 16 toward Newcastle, Wyoming, and on to Interstate 90. Here is where the rest of the I-90 riders will join this route. To maximize your mountain riding experience, I highly recommend the following route: I-90 to the Ranchester/Dayton exit 17 miles north of Sheridan, Wyoming. There, you’ll pick up US 14, which heads west up and over the Big Horn Mountains, one of my favorite mountain ranges. At the top, you will come to Burgess Junction where US 14A veers right toward Lovell, Wyoming, or left on US14 toward Greybull, Wyoming. I recommend US 14 toward Greybull because I like the exposed geology. From there, continue on US 14 toward Cody, Wyoming, through the Big Horn Basin.

At Cody, pick up WY 120 and head north for 17 miles before heading west on WY 296.  This is the Chief Joseph Highway, taking you up and over the Absaroka Mountains into the Sunlight Basin, a favorite hunting location for Buffalo Bill Cody and President Teddy Roosevelt.

After 37 miles, you will intersect US 212. At that intersection, to your left is Yellowstone National Park and to your right is the Beartooth Pass. I am sure you have heard about the Beartooth Pass or may have ridden over it, and it’s certainly on many riders’ bucket lists. On the north side of the pass is Red Lodge, Montana, where you’ll take MT 78 toward Absarokee and Columbus, Montana. At Columbus, take I-90 west to US 89 just east of Livingston, Montana, where you’ll head north toward White Sulphur Springs, Montana. The Beartooth Mountains will be south of I-90, and the Crazy Mountains will be on your left while riding north on US 89. Once you’re north of White Sulphur Springs, US 89 will take you up and over the Little Belt Mountains where you will intersect with US 87. Once there, turn left for a 23-mile ride to Great Falls, Montana, and the MOA rally location.

From Great Falls, Glacier National Park, with its Going-to-the-Sun road, is approximately two hours north, and if you’re riding there, I recommend mapping a route through Choteau, Montana, on US 89.

OK, why the title “Work off the top half of your tank?” Well, in the Midwest and farther east, there are gas stations everywhere. In the western plains, gas stations can be 100-plus miles apart, and just because a town has a name on the map doesn’t mean it has a gas station, so be sure to fill up when you can.

I hope to meet you at the MOA rally in Great Falls this June. If you use my route suggestions, I will guarantee that you will have maximized your western mountain riding experience.

6 thoughts on “Working off the top half of your tank

  • Thanks David, great article in our area looking forward to meeting you at Rally.

  • Great article – thanks very much – and beautiful photography. I’ve ridden Beartooth a couple of dozen times, and once it didn’t snow on me up towards the top (the other time I got stopped for 1/2 hour at a construction zone and got swarmed by mosquitos!) Be prepared!
    Looking forward to the gathering of the clan – it’s been too long!

  • On my wife’s bucket list is to ride her Motorcycle over Bear Tooth Pass. We missed it and Glacier on our last trip to B.C. (Mid June) because of snow closures. I missed the ride from Banff to Jasper because of Harley ills ………….. cured by Goldwing ………… and now by R1200 GS. We plan to repeat those rides, probably after the MOA, (hoping for a weather break.)

  • Great article David. I too ride a BMW all around Montana out of Butte. But mine is a 1200RT. I am a retired engineer and since we engineer’s have a reputation for being anal about accuracy I have to point out that while riding north on 89 out of Livingston the Crazies are on the right and the Bridger range and the Big Belts Mountains are on the left. After becoming familiar with all the mountain ranges in western Montana you can pretty much throw away your map knowing exactly where you are by what particular mountain vista you are seeing. It’s a great idea to offer some suggested routes for those not familiar with Montana so they can enjoy the best mountain scenery Montana has to offer. That’s what makes riding out here so special. Thanks for a great article.

  • Hi, what will conditions on Going to the Sun likely be right after the Rally. Even if open, will it be snow covered , wet or bare ?


    • That time of year is always a toss up. Typically the road is open by the end of June though. If it is closed, the trip around the south end of the park is gorgeous. It’s almost like you can’t lose.

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