Late last month, while visiting one of my favorite bike culture blogs, I came across an opportunity. Blackburn, the venerable bike touring accessory manufacturer, hires six "Blackburn Rangers" to ride a bike from Canada to Mexico. Along the way, the Rangers test and report on new gear, and create social media buzz about the trip. A journey like this has always appealed to me, but I want to add a fishy twist...I propose riding the Pacific Coast bike route, from Vancouver, BC to the Mexican border, while hauling rod, reel, waders and boots in order to fly fish for steelhead along the way.
Integral to many of my adventures, is a way to pack a fly rod around by bike. While there are a number of ways to do this, especially using a rear rack, my favorite employs a little creativity.Fly rods come in many lengths and number of pieces that affect they overall packed length. This day in age, 4 piece rods seem to be the norm and their reduced packed length make them a great choice to bike fishing. Simply strapping a rod tube to the rear rack is definitely an option, but I often reserve the rack for panniers filled with waders, camping gear, and food.
The Pryor mountains lie off the beaten in southern Montana. Though small in comparison to other mountain ranges in the area (Bighorns, Beartooths), they are still quite large. I drove past the Pryors this winter on a weekend fly fishing trip to the Bighorn River and knew that they needed to be explored by bike.
I couldn't find much information about biking in the Pryors, so most of my route planning consisted of hours plotting lines on Gaia GPS, and (look for an upcoming post about online route planning). The best information I found came from The Pryor Mountains website. Although this is a hiking focused website, it provided a great explanation of existing trails, roads, history, and issues.
The coolest thing about this ride, and the Pryors in general, is the diversity of the surrounding environment. The mountains rise from the sage brush and prickly pear dense high desert of the Bighorn Basin at 5,000 ft elevation and climb to just under 9,000 ft. During the long pedal up, the sage gives way to juniper and limestone formations that conjure visions of spaghetti western films. The maze like limestone canyons would be a welcome sight for a cattle rustler taking shelter form the lynch mob at his tail. Approaching 6,500 ft, the drainages begin to support bigger plants including douglas fir and quaking aspen. On the plateau of the range, sub alpine environment takes hold, lessening the constant threat of flats from the prickly pear that follow anyone biking in the high desert. The riding gets easier here, since most of the climbing has been done.
For this ride, I grabbed my trusty Surly Krampus. I have a number of overnight bikepacking trips planned on the Krampus this summer, so I wanted to field test a few changes I've made to the bike. Also, the generous 29" x 3" tires would be a good match for the rocky, loose climbs encountered on the marginally maintained forest road. My route started at the mouth of Bear Canyon on the western flank of the range. Forest road 2492 climbs sometime steeply along the west side of the canyon, eventually reaching the plateau. Thankfully, I was able to ride the majority of the road, only resigning to push at a few of the steepest sections. Once on top, the miles ticked away and I found myself wishing I had packed overnight gear, allowing a more thorough exploration of Big Pryor Mountain.
Satellite images showed an unnamed (and unofficial) ATV trail leading from the flank of Red Pryor Mountain along the southern edge of Bear Canyon. The trail down is too steep and rocky to really let loose, and requires almost constant braking. Once the descent levels off a bit, a few cow trails can be linked together to provide a few minutes of fun singletrack. I found a description of a switchbakcing trail down into Bear Canyon on the hiking website mentioned earlier, and I was eager to try some more single track. This is one of the few places that the canyon walls diminish, and it is possible to drop down into Bear Canyon. Using the Gaia GPS app on my phone, I found the remains of the abandoned trail and began the descent into Bear Canyon. The trail would be a fun ride had it not been overgrown with trees. The canyon bottom however, is a jungle; home to deer, bears (witnessed by a steaming pile of you know what) snakes (witnessed by coming to a screaming halt), and mountain lions (not witnessed, just presumed). Some crawling and bike pushing leads way to a faint path that is rideable with a little ducking and finesse. Thankfully, this stretch of bushwhacking is short lived, and quickly leads back to a BLM road that returns to the starting point.
Though not an epic singletrack mecca, the Pryors are a worthy place to explore by bike with amble opportunities for overnight bikepacking. Expect long, rocky climbs, diverse environments, exceptional views, and adventure. Plan to go in spring and fall as high summer could be very hot at lower elevations. I know I'll be back to explore more of the great things they have to offer.
Since arriving in Wyoming, I've been rewarded with a plethora of trout streams to explore. Being new to the area, I listen closely when people talk about a new destination and mentally bookmark place names and descriptions. One creek that was mentioned by a number of people was often accompanied by terms such as: monster browns, pigs, and inaccessible. Naturally, this peaked my interest. Access to the lower stretches of the creek are limited by towering cliffs that only bighorn sheep and falcons can navigate. The upper stretch is accessible by gravel road, but early season snow pack limits this. Being March, I oped to reach the lower portion of the stream where it nears Big Horn Reservoir. After pouring over topos for a week, I identified a side canyon that just might provide a route down to the canyon proper. I asked around town and heard rumors about a rope ladder and a dangerous approach, but no real conclusive beta. I packed the truck with mountain bikes, hiking boots, fishing gear, and headed towards Little Mountain.
I was warned that the road was rough, but I didn't expect to be in 4 low within minutes of turning off the paved highway. Glad I had a reliable truck, capable tires, and a spare, we spent the next hour+ lumbering up and over rocks and ruts before finally reaching the plateau of Little Mountain. Once on top the going got easier and we navigated to our destination. At this point we traded 4 wheels for two. There is a plethora of BLM roads on top of Little Mt, but not all of them allow motorized access. This is where the mountain bikes come in to play. Fishing gear goes in the panniers, hiking gear in the backpack.
A short pedal across sage and juniper flats brought us to our drop-off point. Stashing the bikes behind some juniper, we loaded the waders into backpacks and headed down. Our side drainage started out gradual, winding through age old juniper trees. As we neared the canyon proper, the terrain steepened. This is where rock climbing skills came in handy. Ahead, we could see a definite drop off that could possibly put a quick end to downward progress. This is were we found the first "rope ladder" which turned out to be less of a ladder and more of a rancher's solution to rock climbing. Someone who had similar aspirations hauled in what I can only assume was a huge fan belt to some sort of gigantic farm equipment. The stout rubber belts were probably 10 feet in diameter if laid out in a circle. Three of them were girth hitched together with the top one looped around a rock as an anchor. I inspected the whole system and was confident enough to trust it.
N elected to go first. Using the belt as an aid, she made short work of the 10' drop to the landing of a limestone amphitheater. I followed suit and we continued our way down. The route increased in pitch and we found ourselves down-climbing often and came to two more tractor belt lowers, each increasing in length and steepness. I could tell that were were getting closer to final descent and was excited to lay eyes on the creek. Rounding a corner, we came to the tallest belt lower yet. Up to this point, every belt was solidly anchored to a large rock that felt comfortable trusting. This one...not so much. No appropriate rock being available, the belts were looped around a bush that was half dead, growing out of a crack in the limestone. On top of that, these belts were of a smaller diameter and considerably more weathered. After mulling over the situation during lunch, we decided it wasn't worth the risk. The considerable lower would require the climber to put their entire weight on the system, both during the lower and on the climb back up. Not worth the risk
From the beginning, I half expected not to reach the canyon floor. The lines on the topo map were stacked awfully tight. Many people I asked said the route doesn't exist, or that there is no way down. Although we didn't reach the bottom, its clear that other's have.
I love this type of adventure: a couple of nondescript mentions of a hard to reach creek, no solid beta anywhere to be found, pouring over topo maps and satellite images, using bikes to access hard to reach places, potential rewards of unmolested lunker browns...next time I'll get to the bottom...