During my 2021 tour of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, one question kept popping up: what are all these alternate routes, and why would I want to take them?
If you’re using the ACA paper maps or Bicycle Navigator app, you can easily see the alternates on the map and make your choice. But it’s still hard to know what the terrain will be like. And if, like me, you imported the ACA GPX data into RideWithGPS or another app, you’ll need to import each alternate track separately from the main map. So which ones should you care about?
The Great Divide route is very well documented, so I was surprised to find so little information about the alternates. I decided to put together my own little guide to help future riders. Using information from my own ride, chats with other cyclists, Facebook groups, and a few books and online writeups, I’ll explain where each alternate is and why you might want to take it (or not).
The GDMBR alternates below are listed in order from north to south.
Be sure to also check out my detailed GDMBR planning guide, which answers all the most common questions about the route (and a few less common ones too).
Jasper Icefields Parkway
This isn’t an official ACA alternate, but it’s still a popular choice for those who ride the newest section of the GDMBR between Jasper and Banff.
Location: South of Jasper, between Banff and Canmore
Length: 227 miles (94 miles shorter)
Pros: Very scenic, paved, avoids potentially heavy logging traffic on the Forestry Trunk Road (main route)
Cons: Potentially heavy traffic, though with decent shoulder; paved and less remote
Why take this alternate: You don’t mind riding pavement and want to see some world-class scenery; logging traffic is currently heavy on the Forestry Trunk Road; you’re in a hurry.
My choice: I stopped my northbound ride in Banff so didn’t cover this section, but had I continued, I think I would have chosen the Icefields Parkway because of the scenery.
Location: Canada between Sparwood, BC and Rooseville, MT (the US border crossing)
Length: 112 miles (30 miles longer)
Pros: Wild and rugged, scenic, high chance of wildlife sightings (they don’t call it Grizzly Bear Highway for nothing)
Cons: Skips nice town of Fernie, high grizzly bear concentration, no resupply, more elevation change, includes some difficult and wet hike-a-bike.
Why take this alternate: You’re in the mood for more wild, rugged, and challenging riding.
Note: The main route near Fernie follows plenty of singletrack, so it’s not all easy roads. But the area is decidedly more populated than the Flathead valley.
My choice: I took the main route through Fernie. As a northbound rider, I was nearing the finish line and had already experienced lots of beautiful, rugged wilderness. I was in the mood for pizza and beer by then!
Rimini Alternate (Helena Bypass)
Location: south of Helena, MT
Length: 12 miles (16 miles shorter)
Pros: Bypass Helena if you’ve had enough of civilization
Cons: Limited resupply by skipping Helena; Helena is a nice spot for a rest day and slightly less expensive than nearby Butte (and more pleasant in my opinion)
Why take this alternate: You don’t want to go through both Helena and Butte, two large towns close together.
My choice: I took the main route and a rest day in Helena. In hindsight, it might have been better to take a rest day at Llama Ranch instead, in which case this alternate would have made more sense.
Fish Creek Alternate
Location: south of Macks Inn, ID
Length: 43 miles (6 miles longer)
Pros: Slightly more scenic, avoids soft sandy soil of the Yellowstone Branch Line Trail (which is actually better if it’s rained recently)
Cons: No water, skips a unique section of the route
Why take this alternate: You have narrower tires, it hasn’t rained recently, and you’re not in the mood for soft sand
My choice: I took the main route, and the soil actually wasn’t too soft since it had recently rained.
Location: south of Helena, MT and north of Basin, MT
Length: 33 miles (6 miles longer)
Pros: Avoids Lava Mountain Trail, several miles of rocky and rooty singletrack that will have most riders hiking their bikes.
Cons: Skips Lava Mountain Trail, which is challenging but also very scenic and unique; includes 11 miles of interstate shoulder.
Why take this alternate: You’re heavily loaded with panniers and not in the mood to hike your bike on rough trail.
My choice: I took the main route and thought the Lava Mountain section was beautiful and fun. If you’re heading northbound, it’s mostly downhill and a fun challenge.
Location: north of Butte, MT
Length: 25 miles (9 miles shorter)
Pros: Shorter, easier, more pavement
Cons: Includes 6 miles of riding on interstate shoulder, including a significant climb if headed northbound.
Why take this alternate: If you really want some easier paved riding.
My choice: I took the main route and honestly don’t remember this section very well – I don’t think it was particularly hard. I don’t really see the point of this alternate.
Location: south of Butte MT, north of Wise River MT
Length: 18 miles (2 miles shorter)
Pros: Avoids Fleecer Ridge, a notoriously steep section of hike-a-bike.
Cons: You’ll miss Fleecer Ridge! It’s a rite of passage.
Why take this alternate: You’re heavily loaded and don’t want to deal with Fleecer Ridge.
My choice: I took the main route and Fleecer Ridge was indeed a full-body ordeal, but worth experiencing after all the hype. Going northbound it’s uphill; riders with lots of gear may need to remove bags and shuttle them up the steepest part separately. Going southbound it’s downhill but most folks dismount and walk / slide their bikes down.
Wind River Alternate
Location: south of Jackson WY, north of Pinedale WY
Length: 13 miles (4 miles shorter)
Pros: Skips a section of steep little dirt road climbs in a sometimes crowded recreation area; easier pavement riding
Cons: More highway riding (though shoulder is good)
Why take this alternate: If you’d like an easier ride with more pavement and less climbing
My choice: I took the main route, though I didn’t love it. Perhaps it was bad luck, but when I was there it was hot, smoky, and crowded with ATVs. That said, the terrain is consistent with the style of the GDMBR. Nothing crazy here, just steep gravel roads.
Location: north of Steamboat Springs, CO to across the border with Wyoming
Length: 36 miles (4 miles shorter)
Pros: Equally scenic, easier riding, more pavement, avoids big climb and about 5 miles of very rocky 4×4 road
Cons: Potentially dusty road; bypasses legendary Brush Mountain Lodge and some really beautiful riding
Why take this alternate: If you’re tired and want to take it easy; heavily loaded or underbiked and don’t want to navigate lots of rocks; or in a hurry and don’t have time for hike-a-bike.
My choice: I took the main route and really recommend it, even though I hiked my bike for almost 5 miles up the rocky dirt road (heading northbound). This section was beautiful and Brush Mountain Lodge lived up to the hype. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it!
Location: north of Grants NM and south of Cuba NM
Length: 118 miles (6 miles shorter)
Pros: Entirely paved; resupply and camp at friendly Chaco Trade Post; Navajo communities make this a somewhat unique section of the route
Cons: Skips one of the most remote and scenic sections of the GDMBR, has exposure to highway traffic (usually light); a bit tedious especially if headwinds
Why take this alternate: If it’s been raining or rain is in the forecast and you want to avoid impassible Death Mud; you’re in a hurry or just in the mood for something less remote.
My choice: I took this alternate because it had recently rained. Traffic wasn’t bad and I enjoyed all the wide open space. If I could do it in dry weather I would want to take the main route for its remoteness and scenery.
El Malpais Alternate
Location: South of Grants, NM
Length: 38 miles (17.4 miles shorter)
Pros: Entirely paved, still scenic
Cons: Less wild, scenic, and remote than main route. Some traffic to deal with (but decent shoulder)
Why take this alternate: If it’s been raining or rain is in the forecast and you want to avoid impassible Death Mud; if you’re in a hurry.
My choice: I took this alternate because it had recently rained. It was enjoyable, especially heading northbound which was gradually downhill.
Location: North of Silver City, NM
Length: 11 miles (6.7 miles shorter)
Pros: Experience singletrack on the CDT hiking trail; skips some pavement
Cons: Challenging and slower riding; bypasses Lake Roberts store
Why take this alternate: You like riding singletrack, aren’t too heavily loaded (it’s not ideal for a bulky pannier setup), and enjoy a challenge.
My choice: I took the main route. As a northbound rider, I was just getting started and felt no need to add extra challenge. I also usually prefer gravel roads to singletrack.
Location: Mexico border to Hachita NM
Length: 47 miles (2 miles longer)
Pros: Columbus is a small town with lodging and stores and potential transportation, whereas Antelope Wells is a border post in the middle of nowhere. Columbus is also closer to El Paso airport, which some riders fly out of.
Cons: Skips the traditional start/end of the GDMBR.
Why take this alternate: If you can’t or don’t want to pay for the transportation necessary to start or end at Antelope Wells.
My choice: I took the main route; no way I was going to skip the traditional start! I suggest contacting Jeffery Sharp for transport to/from Antelope Wells.
Hopefully this list of Great Divide alternates helps you understand your options. Many of the alternates are all about skipping tough terrain (or mud if raining) and riding more pavement, but a few actually seek out harder riding. You’ll want to know which is which before you choose!
No need to plan all your alternates in advance. I suggest making each choice as it comes based on your mood and schedule.
Don’t be afraid to go for the harder riding! These are some of the most scenic and iconic parts of the whole route. Just pack a little extra food, take your time, and embrace the hike-a-bike.
Have you ridden any of these alternates or the main route instead? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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