The First Bikes in Yellowstone

Photo Source: American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Imagine biking through Yellowstone in the 1880s. With no automobiles or long lines, and only the occasional stagecoach, it feels like you have the park to yourself. As serene as this seems, you probably picture yourself rolling along paved roads on a modern-day bicycle with all of its splendid comforts (save for the seat, which still cannot be described as a “comfort”). Instead, picture an early-model safety bike or, even worse, a penny-farthing with a five-foot front wheel and an eighteen inch rear wheel. Early bikes did not have pneumatic tires, clipless pedals, carbon-fiber frames, or multiple gears. As someone who stands about as tall as its front wheel, mounting a penny-farthing seems like an incredible feat, let alone riding one through mountainous terrain.

The self-proclaimed “first bicycle tourists of Yellowstone Park,” which they carved into Fountain Geyser, hailed from the Laramie Bicycle Club. Charles Greenbaum, Walter Sinclair, and William Owen made their way to Yellowstone in 1883 with the hopes of conquering the park on two wheels and, in doing so, proving many of their peers wrong.

Their journey started on the Union Pacific line, which dropped them and their penny-farthings off in Beaver Canyon, Idaho, an 85-mile bike ride from the park. There they met their guide who carried supplies in a wagon. The men biked towards the west entrance, spending a night near the Idaho-Montana border. The next morning, their excitement got the best of them, which led to a three-way race to receive the title of “first cyclist in Yellowstone.” Unfortunately for Sinclair, this resulted in a “stunning header” over his handlebars. One would think toppling off such a tall bike would result in gruesome road rash, but according to Owen, Sinclair’s faithful cycling companion who sped ahead without him, Sinclair looked “very well, everything considered.”

Once in the park, the men had quite an adventure. They experienced great excitement during an encounter with Native Americans. Not knowing whether or not the Natives were friendly, they decided to speed by the group quickly to create confusion. Assuming the Natives had never seen a bicycle before, it was undoubtedly a bewildering event, and the cyclists made it through unscathed.

While preparing dinner at camp one evening, a member of the group had an ingenious idea. Rather than brewing tea in ordinary water which had to be brought to a boil, they could use scalding-hot water from a nearby geyser. Owen, in particular, was tickled by this idea and downed several cups. The geyser tea came along with unanticipated symptoms: “seasickness”, “violent retching”, a “blinding headache”, and “vertigo.” Luckily, all three cyclists recovered and were back to biking the next day.

Mostly, the men sang praises of road conditions in Yellowstone, but there were a few occasions when they were underwhelmed. The most difficult portion of cycling took place on a mountain near the Madison River. The men found the climb to be impassable on bike and had to push their bikes up the three steepest miles.

NPS Photo by Jim Peaco

On their way to Mammoth Hot Springs, they were again forced to dismount their bicycles and walk. The roads, comprised of sand, were described by Owen as “the vilest roads bicycler ever did set eyes on.”

Overall, the men enjoyed their tour through Yellowstone, saying “It would be difficult to arrange a trip of equal interest…” While the park has undergone many changes since 1883, Yellowstone remains a great destination for cyclists. Today’s cyclist can take comfort not only on their modern bicycles rolling along smoother roads, but also knowing the necessary precautions to take in the park. For a brief period before and after each motorized-vehicle season, the park opens to cyclists, allowing them to explore Yellowstone without worrying about automobiles, just as the men from Laramie did 134 years ago.

[As seen in the West Yellowstone Star July 13th, 2017. Written by Ellen Butler.]