Riding off the top half of your tank

Riding 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.

For more information about Great Falls and the surrounding area, download these PDFs (PDF reader required):


  1. John Langdell

    I live in the Black Hills. I’d suggest staying off of I-90 leaving the Black Hills.
    From Spearfish take US 85 North to Belle Fourche SD, turn left at the first stop sign on SD 34, and head west into Wyoming. SD34 turns into WY 24 and will lead you to Hullett WY, great photo opp at the Golf Course on the left as you enter town. As you ride through Hulett (Population 600) think about the 150,000 visitors that will be here on Wednesday for the Ham & Jam during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. From Hulett WY head South past Devils Tower NM, a great stop. From Devils Tower continue South to US 14 and turn West, stay on US 14 to Moorcroft WY and then on to Gillette WY a good place to top off your tank and your stomach.
    From Gillette take US 14/16 out of town and head for Spotted Horse WY, a place to stop for a drink and a burger. Continue on US 14/16 to UCross and then head to Buffalo WY. Fuel at Buffalo before heading over the Bighorns via the Cloud Peak Skyway (US-16) and the Ten Sleep Canyon to Ten Sleep WY.
    From Ten Sleep head Northwest on the Ten Sleep – Hyattville Road along the Nowood River, at Hyattville turn left towards Manderson. As you enter Manderson slow down to the speed limit, there is almost always a city cop running radar. From Manderson head North on US 20 to Greybull WY.
    At Greybull turn right (East) onto US 14 and experience the joy of the Shell Canyon. Continue on to Burgess Junction and pick up David’s route for the rest of the ride to Great Falls. If you stay in Red Lodge MT check out the very motorcycle-friendly Alpine Lodge at the North end of town within easy crawling distance of the Red Lodge Brewery. Larry, the owner of the Alpine cooks a mean breakfast to order in the morning. See you in Great Falls or along this route or at the Alpine on Tuesday, June 22nd.

    1. TOM SCOTT


      I just booked a room a the Alpine Lodge for June 22.

      Planning on spending 6/21 in or around Deadwood

      Will be meeting a client in Sioux City on 19th

      Departing Richmond on or about 6/15.

      Riding a 2009 Black LT.

      1. John Langdell

        Tom – I was planning on staying at the Alpine but some friends invited me to stay at their home in Billings that evening so I will be there. I’ll be. looking for you on the road.

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