Long before iPhones, GPS devices, and technological advancements in mapping and terrain, Michael “Mac” McCoy had an idea to build a mountain biking trail.
A long trail.
One that would use roads, trail, and any other passable surface connecting Canada to Mexico while traversing the continental divide of the U.S.
McCoy says inspiration began early in the 80s when he and his wife were working in the northwest corner of Montana.
“I worked seasonally for the Kootenai National Forest in the wildlife department. The only thing I did all summer was drive a pickup truck around with a Honda 90cc motorcycle in the back. When the road wouldn’t allow me to drive the truck any further, I’d pull the Honda out of the truck and ride over the old logging roads to analyze and document watershed/erosion problems on a map,” said McCoy.
There were so many roads in just that one district of the national forest that even then, the gears started turning. In his mind and while riding his bike.
“I started mountain biking right after that summer in ‘82-’83. Looking back on it, I thought, if there’s that many roads in one district of national forest, there must be a ton of good roads out there for bicycling,” said McCoy.
Initially, there was a lack of interest and no money to back the idea.
“Early 1990s, when I worked for the Adventure Cycling Association, we did a lot of road-route mapping. We began talking about combining touring and mountain biking, but couldn’t really fund our idea or find enough staff,” said McCoy. “Gary McFadden, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association and I came up with the idea. We knew that people liked to bicycle tour on pavement and also go out on day rides with mountain bikes.”
McCoy and McFadden had a history of planning, mapping, and riding routes, including the Transamerica Bicycle Trail, the famous 4,228-mile cross-country route from Oregon to Virginia. Combining touring and mountain biking was an experiment to see if people were interested in touring on gravel and trails. It worked.
“I had convinced McFadden it was a good idea to try it. Now he had to convince the board of directors of the nonprofit organization it was a good idea,” said McCoy.
While living in Missoula, the two worked on the 700-mile stretch of Montana trail as a testing ground. If it worked there, they were convinced it would work going further south since there’s plenty of public land in the western states.
“I’d say what really validated it was after we finished the trail in Montana,” said McCoy.
Validation for the route came in the form of $40,000 from REI. From there, more money began rolling in. Many of the 30,000 members of Adventure Cycling joined the effort by donating money to “purchase” miles of the route, so their names would appear on the map.
Coincidentally, the regional headquarters for the northern region of the Forest Service was kitty-corner to the Adventure Cycling offices in Missoula.
US Forest Service officials liked the idea and contacted their district rangers throughout that specific stretch of Montana asking if they’d want to work on a neat project. USFS was attracted to the idea because it made use of old logging roads that were not being used much, and saw the project as a way to turn those routes into recreational byways.
Rather than doing things “cowboy style” and building their own trails, McCoy and company learned working with the Forest Service, local bike clubs, and people in bike shops along the route was the way to go.
As with any project of this magnitude a trial and error approach was needed. Mapping around the Rocky Mountian Front in northern Montana was particularily erroneous.
“After a couple of research trips over there, we ran into a lot of private property issues. We were pretty sure we wouldn’t have the same challenges if we went over to the western side of the divide where you can stay on Forest Service and BLM land. So that was one thing we learned,” said McCoy.
Opting to stay as close to public lands or right of way, this proved to be an intelligent move because it didn’t require building any new trails or obtaining access. The route would use public roads all the way to New Mexico.
Once the Forest Service was on board and the trail started to become a reality throughout Montana, others wanted to help.
“I wouldn’t say it was surprising that we got help, but gratifying. It was kind of expected. Once we had proven ourselves in Montana and received positive vibes from land managers, bike shops, and bikers, we kind of expected that the rest of the way as we worked south. It was really heartwarming and fun to know people wanted to work with us,” said McCoy.
Accessing parts of the trails and roads was challenging. McCoy admits he split time exploring and researching using both a Jeep and his bike.
“The Jeep was brand new. It had zero miles on it when I picked it up at the dealership in Missoula. I had it for three years. I did a ton of research in the Jeep. There was a lot of process of elimination involved and if I tried to do everything on the bike, I’d probably still be out there,” said McCoy.
The bike McCoy pedaled was a 1992 Fisher Paragon. It wasn’t much of a mountain bike compared to today’s standards, but nice for its time.
“I don’t have it any longer. I wish I did. I would turn it into a cruiser of some sort. Seeing pictures of it brings back a lot of great memories. That bike performed very well for me. I could climb hills better back then. I don’t even want to think about riding that bike uphill again,” said McCoy with a chuckle.
Time and technology advanced the bikes, gear, and also the ways in which people pack everything needed for long bike excursions.
McCoy reminisced that “My first ride with Nancy, (McCoys wife) was in 1985. We rode Cannondale mountain-bikes from Montana to southwest Wyoming on gravel roads. Front and rear panniers overpacked with heavy gear covered our bikes — you know, the gear you would go car-camping or backpack with.”
The great divide trail inspired bicycle manufacturers to design/develop new kinds of bikes. The Salsa Cutthroat is a perfect example. Not coincidentally, it has decals on the bottom of the frame down tube with the mapped great divide route from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
While some people still use the paper maps like McCoy used, most people now download the GPX files (referring to the digital mapping they’ve done over the years) and follow the trail on their phones/GPS devices.
The new bicycle designs inspired people to look differently at new or unmapped terrain and begin riding in new areas they didn’t think about riding previously.
“I think it’s opened a lot of eyes to what’s possible out there. Many people ride bikes on gravel roads and find places to set up camp for a night, or in some cases, the rest of their lives,” shared McCoy.
McCoy explained how the trail he helped design impacted others, both nationally and internationally.
“As years have gone by, there are new bike routes that have been inspired by the Great Divide. The Baja Divide and The Euro Divide. There’s even one route in the works that involves all the continents except Antarctica. Still, other examples exist where foreigners were inspired after riding the Great Divide, only to return to their home country and build something similar in their part of the world,” said McCoy.
As if he were right back in the saddle riding some of his favorite parts of the trail, McCoy shared sections of the great divide trail that stand out above the others.
“One of the rides most memorable to me was the drop from the Routt National Forest in Colorado, near Gore pass, down to Radium, Colorado, which is a little whistle stop on the Amtrak line on the Colorado River. The descent must be 3000 feet. It’s just an amazing downhill,” said McCoy.
Riding long downhills is fun, but usually means you’ll pay for it on the ascent.
“The climb over solidified lava ash up and over Pulvedere Mesa in New Mexico is incredible,” said McCoy.
The 20-mile, 4% uphill grade into the desert has tested the legs of many.
Another of McCoy’s favorites was a section through the famous Georgia O’Keeffe country up into the Timber National Forest where he saw black bears, elk, and other wildlife.
The great divide route may never have come to be had it not been for meeting his wife Nancy back in the 70s when the two were chasing snow at Grand Targhee Resort.
In those early years the wheels started turning both on a bike and in his mind.
“We were getting tired of snow. I remember thumbing through an REI catalog and seeing a photo of some people bicycle touring,” said McCoy.
The two agreed to give it a go and purchased two Peugot U-08 ten-speed bicycles. They would ride from Seattle to northeast Wisconsin that summer.
It was a decision that would shape their lives.
The Great Divide trail is ultimately what made it possible for the McCoy’s to return to Teton Valley in ‘94.
“I was the assistant director of the organization (Adventure Cycling). I wasn’t good at managing people and wasn’t interested either. I was always more of a project person, so I told my boss we’re going to move down to Teton Valley, Idaho, where we owned land. We bought land here in ‘93 and I liked the idea of being farther south near the divide route. It’s not how we discovered Teton valley, but that’s what brought us here full-time,” said McCoy.
Though the divide trail doesn’t go directly through Teton Valley, it gets close.
“It goes through Island Park on the old rail trail down to warm river campground. Then it turns east and goes over into Jackson Hole. By necessity, it follows some paved roads through Grand Teton Park or where there are no legal roads to ride, then goes up Togwotee pass and Union pass down into Pinedale through the upper Green River,” described, McCoy.
The divide trail may not have brought the McCoy’s to Teton Valley, but the sense of adventure and community the valley offers did.
“All the outdoor opportunities the valley offers drew us here; bicycling, running, downhill and cross-country skiing, and more. We wanted to move from Missoula because the snow there is pretty undependable, I knew it snowed in Teton valley. There are so many people here that are into adventurous things,” said McCoy.
“The generosity, kindness, and sense of community were attractive to Nancy and me. The philanthropic aspect of this area is amazing. The amount of money the Tin Cup challenge raises every year for so many different nonprofits is great. I really like the mix of people — outdoor fanatics, farmers, agriculture, and forestry. You know, I can’t forget to mention all the breweries we have now,” said McCoy with a laugh.
Teton Valley still offers the McCoys the options they desire in life, including (but not limited to) adventure.
“I enjoy the isolation or the absence of human-made things. I mean, you have to make your own entertainment here in the valley. Because adventure is so popular and it’s such a good place for outdoor pursuits, it becomes a large part of said entertainment, unlike in the city where you have all the restaurants, bars, museums and things to occupy your time as diversions. It’s just going outdoors and doing things you love,” said McCoy.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.