Notes for Potential Cyclists
The GDMBR was the world’s first well documented long dirt-road bicycle route. We were attracted to it because we love riding bikes but dislike riding around motor vehicles. We have neither the technical skills nor interest in single-track cycling, so a dirt-road route perfectly met our needs. We do not have a particular preference for dirt versus paved roads, but in reality the dirt roads we rode had far less traffic than any of the paved roads in the western U.S.
In addition to route information, the ACA maps include all the information one needs about towns and services. The quality of the route and the detailed information on the maps make this a “plug-and-play” trip. It truly is possible to show up with a suitable bike and gear and just start riding.
For the past decade there has been a somewhat informal but increasingly popular race on the route. One variant of the race was called the Great Divide Race; the current iteration is called the TourDivide. If you poke around the internet you’ll find many reports from racers on the TourDivide. Don’t confuse the race with the route!
Roughly 80% of the GDMBR is on graded county, Forest Service (USFS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dirt and gravel roads. The remainder is made up of four-wheel-drive tracks and singletrack trails (10%), and paved roads (10%). The ACA has an ongoing effort to improve the route, and there have been numerous minor and a few major changes since 2007 when we rode it. Therefore, the route shown on our CalTopo map is now obsolete. We have no navigational information about the route that is not thoroughly covered in the ACA data. The highest point of the route is Indiana Pass in Colorado: 11,910 feet (3630 meters).
The ACA maps are excellent, and we were easily able to navigate with those maps, an accurate odometer, and a compass. Supplemental USFS or BLM maps are not necessary. There are also gpx tracks available for use with a GPS device, but we did not have one on this trip.
We were somewhat nervous in advance of the trip because neither one of us had any experience riding mountain bikes and we were worried about whether we would have the technical skills to pull it off. We were fine. There are some rough stretches in Canada, a couple short rough stretches in Montana, and quite bit of rough riding in New Mexico. But those tough places early in the trip are short enough you can just walk your bike if need be. Starting on the south side of the summit of Indiana Pass in southern Colorado, the road quality was inconsistent, and sometimes included long stretches of poor road. But this didn’t start until we’d had a lot of miles to practice, and by the time we got there we were able to cope quite easily. Anybody who can ride a bike and sleep in a tent can succeed on this route.
USFS and BLM policy permits camping anywhere on their lands, and the vast majority of the route is on land managed by these two agencies. This makes it very easy to ride all day and set up camp wherever you happen to run out of steam or out of daylight. Our favorite mapping app Gaia GPS offers a Public Lands overlay, making it very easy to avoid camping on private property.
The ACA offers guided group trips on the GDMBR for those who prefer to travel that way.
Transit to and from
The ACA has current information about shuttle logistics.
To start our trip, we drove to Banff and met a friend who drove our car home for us.
The only significant logistical problem with the GDMBR is the southern terminus. Antelope Wells is an international border crossing that has very little traffic and no services whatsoever. The nearest place to buy anything is Lordsburg, NM, which is 95 miles away and in the middle of nowhere. There were no public transportation options available when we completed our ride. Some riders backtrack north and then ride east to El Paso to get transportation home. Others arrange to be met by friends or family at Antelope Wells.
We elected to continue our ride on to Tucson, Arizona on as many back roads as we could. In Tucson, it was easy to get a one-way car rental to drive home to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was less expensive to rent the car and pay for gas than to buy two airline tickets, and we did not have the hassle of boxing the bikes or run the risk of having the airline or a shipping company damage the bikes.
Our route to Tucson was quite scenic and went through habitat we had not visited while on the GDMBR. Overall, it was a bit over 280 miles from Antelope Wells to the Tucson airport. Most of the ride was on nice quiet roads. The final 10 miles into the Tucson airport was urban sprawl, but there was a good shoulder to ride on. Our route is included in the CalTopo files.
We crossed the Chiricahua Mountains on our way to Tucson, a major island mountain range in southeast Arizona where there is excellent birding. The Chiricahuas were Amy’s favorite place on the entire trip. We also visited Tombstone, Arizona, which is mostly a tourist trap, but we were able to have a fine celebratory meal at the Lamplight Room. Along the way, north of Greaterville, we crossed and actually camped on the Arizona Trail; 10 years later we would pass that campsite while doing a thru-hike of that trail. As on the GDMBR, finding places to camp was not a problem. There were enough towns that getting meals and groceries was easy as well.
We were quite pleased with our route and felt it was a fine way to finish off the GDMBR.
We started in Banff on August 5 and reached Antelope Wells on September 27. If we took this trip again we would likely start in Banff a little later, probably between August 10 and 15. Amy did a fair bit of research on historical rain patterns and decided that there wasn’t a reliable enough pattern to pick our dates in order to avoid rain.
It is not viable to start a southbound trip before mid to late June due to winter snowpack on the high passes; the actual date the passes open varies by year. It is also risky to plan to be north of Abiquiu NM after about October 1 due to the possibility of a storm that could drop more than a couple inches of snow.
Mosquitoes can be a serious problem; they are worst in June and July. We have very low tolerance for mosquitoes so we chose to go later in the year to try to avoid them. We were successful as we didn’t have any significant mosquito problems until we got into NM. A possible reason that the mosquitoes were gone is that night-time temperatures had dropped far enough below freezing to kill them. We didn’t keep notes on this, but we probably had eight to ten mornings with frost in our first 20 days of riding, with night-time low temps during those first few weeks generally between 25 and 30 degrees. We don’t mind cold mornings in exchange for avoiding mosquitoes.
It is particularly hot in NM during June, July, and August and we wanted to avoid this. NM gets most of its rain during the monsoon season in July and August and the rains turn many of the dirt roads into unrideable sticky mud. The wildflowers bloom after the rains and we had some fantastic displays. We had relatively pleasant weather in NM, about 85 degrees, but we do not know if that is typical for late September or if we were just lucky.
The last timing factor was estimating how long our trip would take. We guessed it would take 70 days based on data from the GDR guidebook, but it took only 54 days so we were in CO earlier than we expected and possibly why we missed the aspen colors. In autumn the Aspens turn golden, particularly in CO, and we considered this factor in choosing a start date. We were hoping to be there when the trees were in their glory, but we were too early. A slightly later start might have served us better.
Another factor to consider is whether you want to be out in the hunting season. The benefit is that you do not need to worry about being stranded on a remote road without access to help, the downside is that there may be more traffic than in the non-hunting season; we guess 40% to 70% of the traffic we saw on most USFS roads were hunters. We found that the hunters we talked to were kind and generous and typically were polite drivers, but it does reduce the sense that you are “out there” in a remote place.
We recommend having an open-ended finish date. The people we met on the trail who had to arrive at Antelope Wells by a particular date were driven by that and could not freely choose when to stop and when to have rest days. That may have added some stress to their experience that we never had.
Most people ride the GDMBR southbound, but it has been successfully done in the other direction many times. Timing issues are different if you ride northbound due to hot weather in New Mexico and the possibility of early snowfall in the northern mountains. We have no regrets about riding the way we did and arriving at a definitive border was a better finish psychologically than completing the route at the northern terminus, a random hotel in Banff.
Do not take this trip if you want to eat well; go for a ride in France instead. You can get the calories you need, but this trip is not about good food. This is not a complaint, it is just the nature of the route. Also, do not underestimate the amount of calories you will need. We ate constantly and both of us lost weight even though we are both light-weights to begin with.
Bigger towns (>1000 people) usually had a reasonable grocery store. Smaller towns have limited, sometimes very limited stores, often in the form of gas-station convenience shops selling mostly sugar, salt and trans fats. The most frustrating thing about the food selection was produce; frequently only carrots, apples and bananas were on offer in the small shops. We ate several memorably good restaurant meals, but most restaurant/cafe meals were of the steak or hamburger and fries variety.
We did not carry a stove, which served us very well. We ate a variation of our standard no-cook food plan. Our staples were as follows:
- breakfast: yogurt (available at 80% of stores), dry and fresh fruit, bars and/or muffins/donuts, sometimes juice.
- snacks: bars (Clif/Luna/Balance/Power/etc). We were nearly always able to get some brand of bars that had protein. On two or three occasions during the entire trip the only bars available were Quaker Granola bars, which have no protein and which we avoided when possible.
- lunch and dinner: crackers, cheese, beef jerky, canned tuna or chicken, fried chicken (available as take-out from mid-sized grocery stores and from cafes), carrots, nuts, dry and fresh fruit, chocolate, potato and corn chips, cookies, salsa, and hummus (available only in larger towns).
Some GDMBR riders mail themselves food parcels so they can eat what they want. We enjoyed the freedom of not worrying about what time and day we arrived at a particular town to get to an open post office. If you decide to mail yourself packages, then seriously consider arranging with RV parks or motels so that you can pick up your packages whenever you arrive. That requires more work up front to call in advance, but you can then have confidence in your ability to retrieve your package on, say, a Sunday. If you arrive at an RV park mid day and do not want to spend the night, you can still retrieve your package, do your laundry, and pay for a shower before moving on.