13 Apr Bike Touring The Northern Tier In 2019
In 2019, I was given the opportunity to lead a group across the country on one of bicycle touring’s highly coveted routes across the United States, the Northern Tier.
With the many opportunities to lead with Adventure Cycling since 2015, I finally had the opportunity to go from start to finish on an epic journey for the first time. Yes, I did help lead the Trans Am (2016) and Route 66 in 2018 (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3) but I only did half of the Trans Am from Pueblo, Colorado to Florence, Oregon and Route 66 is actually 2/3 of the country from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California.
Why the Northern Tier?
At the time, this was my dream tour. Through the years of leading tours, I always ask other riders one question:
What has been your favorite tour?
Over and over, people who have crossed the country multiple times have said the Northern Tier is the best cross country tour the United States has to offer.
Naturally, I slowly moved this trip up on my bucket list until I was assigned to lead it in 2019.
Not only was I given the opportunity to lead it, I was going to be the experienced leader helping to coach a new leader.
Summer to Fall
The timeframe for this tour was from June 15, 2019 to September 9, 2019, a total of 87 days, which included about 11 layover days for folks to rest their legs and sight-see.
It broke down to roughly 45 miles a day of riding (average includes non-riding days). The longest day was over 90 miles, but it never exceeded 100 miles. The shortest day was less than 40 miles.
Our layover days usually coincided with towns to maximize the touring aspects of the trip, as well as allowed folks to do their laundry and run errands.
However, many times finding these accommodations proved to be challenging.
We would cross 11 states and 1 Canadian province from the East to the West.
- New Hampshire
- New York
- Ontario (Canada)
- North Dakota
Not Exactly the Northern Tier
You might be saying, “But Johnny, this is not the original Northern Tier route that Adventure Cycling mapped out.”
You are correct! We did not follow the exact Northern Tier route. The reason for that is this tour has been led by several leaders in the past and through the aggregate information from each trip, we have altered it to maximize on better sights to see.
The original route takes you into Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (Northern Tier Sections 7-9), but much of that is through farmlands and some other typical small town settings. Not that we didn’t get to go through small towns and farmland when we rode through Michigan and Ontario, but I can see the appeal of riding into and out of Canada and through Michigan.
If you want to follow or recreate this route, use the following map sets.
- Northern Tier Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, and 11
- North Lakes Sections 1-3
- Lake Erie Connector Section 1
There were several highlights on this route.
- Acadia National Park
- White Mountain National Forest / Kankamangus Pass
- Ticonderoga Fort
- Adirondack Mountains
- Old Forge
- Erie Canal
- Lake Ontario
- Niagara Falls
- Lake Erie
- Frankenmuth, Michigan
- Lake Huron
- Lake Michigan
- Makinaw Bridge
- Fargo, North Dakota
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park / Medora, North Dakota
- Glacier National Park
- Whitefish, Montana
- Kootenai National Forest
- Sandpoint, Idaho
- 5 Cascade Mountain Pass
- Winthrop, Washington
- North Cascades National Park
I personally liked the fact that on both coasts, we had a lot of things to look forward to. Whether it was Niagara Falls in Ontario or Glacier National Park in Montana. From a highlight standpoint, both directions had something people can look forward to.
The Wrong Direction
When I talked to many people before the tour, and even travelers going in the opposite direction during the tour from West to East, they’d say that we were going the wrong way.
They commonly cited the prevailing winds and how they blow from West to East, so we’d be riding in headwinds the entire time.
In our experience, that wasn’t the case. We had days of headwinds and days of tailwinds. The section between Fargo, North Dakota to Glacier National Park was probably where we encountered the most wind and weather.
Maine to Canada
Because this trip is not offered every year, it easily fills up for those who want to ride it. For this year, it wasn’t any different. All 13 spots were taken at the beginning of the tour.
As usual, I made plans to travel to Portland, Maine to pick up the van from the airport and then drove it into Bar Harbor, Maine. I was to pick up my partner, Ryan, who was arriving at Bangor a few days after my arrival. He was traveling from Rochester by way of Boston, Massachusetts.
After the pick-up, we quickly got acquainted and did what we normally do to get ready for a van supported bicycle tour. This means cleaning the van and trailer, going through pretour inventory, and purchasing what was needed.
We met our participants on June 15th at a local motel in Bar Harbor. We conducted our orientation meeting at 4PM and introduced ourselves to one another.
The next day, we gave them directions to a boat launch area in town to dip their rear tires in the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to make it out there as I was cleaning up after breakfast and lunch. Ryan was able to join the group and take pictures of the beginning.
My first opportunity to ride came in East Orland, Maine. I was to ride over to Camden Hills State Park. I have to say I may have been ill-prepared for the ride initially as I struggled this first day.
As with most bike tours, I was running around getting things all situated, and I forgot to take care of myself. This means I don’t hydrate well, and I don’t really do any training rides. Which then results in me suffering for the first few weeks and needing to build up my stamina as we go. I know this works now, but as I get older, I have to be better about this.
The tour went smoothly for the most part. We were on schedule and on budget until we made it into Conway, New Hampshire.
It was the first day into New Hampshire, and we were greeted with a once-in-a-decade torrential rain storm. We were at a campground called “The Beach Camping Area“. This was located next to the Saco River with various sites along the river.
As the non-stop deluge of rain continued to fall, our campground started to get saturated at first and then flooding eventually happened.
By instinct, I moved the van and trailer out just at the nick of time before it got real bad. That was when our group decided that we needed to move everyone’s tents out of the campground and into a pavilion.
So through mud and water, we all banded together to get everyone’s equipment out of the danger zone and into coverage. The campground host offered to help by providing a truck to help us load and unload our gear. Her truck almost got stuck in the mud at one point, but luckily, that didn’t happen.
As a tour leader, you hear from other tour leaders stories like this, but when it comes time to execute, it seems a bit surreal. Instincts took over as Ryan and I executed on contingency plans. We found the White Mountains Hostel down the road which had space available for our entire group.
Then we had one of our participants take charge in ordering pizza. He gathered up people’s preferences and placed the order as we were loading into the hostel.
Ryan and I went to pick up the pizza as our participants dried off indoors. In a matter of 2 hours, people were happily fed and dried off. Ryan and I finally had the chance to assess the situation and rest.
The next day, I got to ride over the Kankamangus Pass into Lincoln and eventually into North Woodstock. This was the first mountain pass of the trip and after the crazy day we had before, I was surprised to feel okay riding up. Most of our riders were also doing well.
The downhill from Kankamangus Pass was long and rewarding. Pretty much glided all the way into Lincoln, New Hampshire. Lincoln was a bustling hot spot for local vacationers. Crowds were walking the street and shopping at various shops.
I was pleasantly surprised by the activity and the crowd. They were intrigued by all of our riders passing through town.
Our First Layover
In North Woodstock, we stayed at The Notch Hostel. Both The Notch Hostel and White Mountains Hostel are popular destinations for hikers who are crossing the Appalachian Trail. We met so many people who were on this pilgrimage.
Many people rode their bikes and walked into town for repairs and meals, while Ryan and I tried to find a mechanic to address the loud noise our van was making (more on this later). We were unsuccessful in finding one and decided to find a local brewery (don’t worry, the driver didn’t drink) to complete our budget and reservation for the coming weeks.
Basically between North Woodstock to Old Forge, we had many days of riding up and down the chain of the Appalachian Mountains highlighted by riding through the Adirondacks in New York.
First Rider Down
On the day we were to ride into Old Forge, our second layover day, we had another incident. This time, one of our riders took a spill and had injured his hip. I was riding that day and caught up to the scene just when Ryan showed up with the van to pick him up and drive him to the local hospital.
Unfortunately, the local hospital couldn’t do much in terms of getting x-rays and told Ryan to drive to Ithaca, New York for a major hospital. That was about a 3-hour round trip.
To top it off, we were staying at an Airbnb location in Old Forge and none of the trash was taken out. We had to call the host and have people come to take the trash out. Whoever they sent was super rude to us and stormed off saying that we had left them trash to take out.
Ryan made it back just in time with the van to drive the group into town for dinner. We all enjoyed a much needed Italian dinner before returning to our home for a restful day off.
The Great Lakes & Erie Canal
The next highlight of the trip came when we got to see the first Great Lakes. Lake Ontario is the biggest of them all. If you blindfolded someone and dropped that person on the edge of the lake, they can easily mistaken this for an ocean.
You couldn’t see the other side of the lake, which is Canada . What we could see were amazing sunsets when we were in Sodus Point, New York.
Eventually, we found ourselves on the famous Erie Canal from the town of Palmyra. What was once a main commercial boat route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes is now a recreational bike and pedestrian path.
We spent about 3 days riding on the Erie Canal, including a humble 4th of July in Brockport. I say humble because we stayed in a picnic area outside of the Brockport Welcome Center. We had access to bathrooms without any showers. It was an evening of sweltering heat which made for a very uncomfortable night of sleeping under glaring lights. We shared this space with a family that was docked there with their boat.
We made the best of it and celebrated the holiday with sparklers and a traditional hamburger and hotdog dinner complete with potato chips and root beer floats. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see fireworks, but some got to see a parade or two through Rochester.
Riding the Erie Canal was not as great as I anticipated. Many of the trails had loose dirt, therefore making it a very challenging ride. It took every effort to spin through on my front-loaded bike.
We said good-bye to the Erie Canal at the town of Lockport and navigated into Canada. It was my first experience crossing from a US border into foreign land (little victories). It was odd being able to ride across a bridge into Canada. We all paid our toll to enter Canada and easily found our way to a layover at another hostel a few miles north of the Niagara Falls.
Ryan and I spent our day off replacing a bald trailer tire with our spare tire, which I had caught during one of our daily vehicle inspections. We then did some cleaning and shopping for the next day. I didn’t get to see the falls this time, but I was lucky enough to see it a couple years ago.
Canada to North Dakota
Riding through Ontario was surprisingly easy. The only thing we had to keep in mind was the change from miles to kilometers in our map meetings and the currency exchange when we went shopping.
Most campgrounds we went to were pretty crowded as this was the middle of the summer travel season. We rode through lots of small towns that dotted along the north side of Lake Erie.
I forgot to mention that most of the Great Lakes was impacted by a very stormy winter season and thus experienced rising water conditions. Many towns back in New York were having issues with extremely high water levels. This spilled over to the St Clair River as both sides of the border were submerged in about a foot of water as we got on the ferries across.
Getting back into the United States was easy for me since I was the last in our group so the border patrol was expecting me. They even told me that a few of our riders were enjoying ice cream down the road. A very pleasant experience really.
Michigan In Phases
I would say riding through Michigan felt like 3 phases of riding. The first part from Algonac to Bay City had us riding the bottom thumb up towards Lake Huron. We first encountered trucks with trailers that had nothing less than 48 wheels. Apparently, the state allows trailers with that many wheels to be on narrow highways. It was frightening for us as these behemoths passed us.
The highlight of this section was Frankenmuth, Michigan. This surprisingly touristy Bavarian-themed town served almost like a real-life mirage in the middle of the midwest. It felt out of place, but it deserved a few hours of exploring. I spent some time going through what I can describe as a glorified outdoor mall.
Bay City was a tricky town to navigate through. Official bike lanes in town eventually had us riding on narrow sidewalks and crossing flooded underpasses. We had to take several detours around a boat race event that was happening that day.
Major Mechanical Setback
From Bay City started the second phase of Michigan where we pointed our compass northwest towards Lake Michigan into the town of Manistee. It was here where I finally had the chance to take our van in for service to find out what was making the loud noise we were hearing. Remember back in New Hampshire, we attempted to do this, but was unsuccessful. Well, the sound got louder and louder.
Once again, we were dealt another major problem. Our van had to remain at the dealer to fix a potential catastrophic issue with the transmission. We had no choice than to leave the van behind, rent a box truck from a local U-haul dealer, and tow the trailer along for another few days while the mechanic fixed the van.
Through some coordination with the Adventure Cycling office, they helped us locate a tour leader that lived relatively close by. She picked up the U-haul truck at Petoskey and drove it back to Manistee to return the truck, picked up the van from the dealer, and drove the van back up to Petoskey to drop it off. It took the entire day to make this happen and we were so grateful to have her do this for us!
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the “U”.”P”. as locals would call it, starts after you cross the Mackinaw Bridge into the town of St. Ignace. Bicycles are not allowed to cross this bridge. For those riding this without a van support, you would have to go to Mackinac Island by ferry in between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace or you can call the local authorities to have them come pick you up by truck and drive you across.
For us, with the exception of Ryan and 2 other riders, we loaded everyone’s bike up and drove over the bridge. The other 3 called the local authorities, got picked up and dropped off, so they rode into camp.
The 3rd phase of Michigan was once again an uncomfortable ride between St. Ignace to Escanaba as it had us sharing the narrow roads with large RVs.
Second Rider Departure
Right before we left Michigan, another one of our riders decided to take himself off the tour. This time it was my turn to drive the participant to the nearest airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It was my first time there so I was glad to be able to see Green Bay in person. I also caught up with my friend, Claire, before driving back to meet up with the group.
Later on, our departing participant caught up with us right before we entered Minnesota (by car) and brought us an incredible meal for the group before he officially announced that he was dropping out of the tour. It was sad to have someone travel this far with us and leave this abruptly.
The rest of the ride through Wisconsin had us riding on quiet roads marked with letters and numbers. This was probably one of the most ideal states for bicycle riders as the traffic was sparse through the country roads.
There was a close call when we were in the town of Hayward. It was that day where we were racing towards our destination to stay ahead of a few thunderstorms coming into our area. When I made it that day, the sky had turned greenish.
Given the fact that I’ve never seen or experienced any weather like this in California, I was caught off guard when our phones alerted us that we may see funnel clouds forming in our area – meaning that we may be in for some wild tornado weather!
Luckily, we came out unscathed as we spent the night at a motel drying out. What we later found out was that a tornado had touched down on a few towns ahead of us. We saw many trees uprooted. Wisconsin called a state emergency which had national guards come out and help repair electric grids and cut down fallen trees.
We counted our blessings as we were so fortunate to have avoided being around the area at that time.
An Amazing Host
The day we entered Minnesota, we had a stop at a location in Dalbo. There was really nothing here in Dalbo except for one of the best hosting experiences on our tour. A farmer by the name of Donn Olson transformed one of his barns into a bunk house for bicycle tourists to stay.
He was able to accomodate everyone with a place to sleep, eat and get cleaned up. He enjoyed the conversations we had with him and showed off all the visitors who had come through the years. We even saw previous tour groups, including a few Adventure Cycling groups, who he proudly displayed on the walls of one of his empty grain silos.
It was tough to leave Dalbo with such great accommodations, but we did the next day and began our ride up towards Fargo.
Between the time we left St. Ignace, Michigan and headed to Fargo, North Dakota, we did not have any layover days. This translated to 13 days straight of riding. As the days went on, the wariness of people grew and their patience ran thin.
It was in Minnesota where we had to ride a few of those long days. To balance out the challenging situation, Ryan and I had to find more indoor opportunities to help improve the group’s tired mood.
By the time we reached Fargo, North Dakota, it felt like everyone could finally exhale. Fargo was the destination where many had their significant others meet them. For others, it was the opportunity to tune their bikes, swap their tires, and just shop for new bike jerseys to put into their wardrobe rotation.
Happy Birthday to Me!
While we had our rest day in Fargo, I celebrated my 43rd birthday. I purposely didn’t tell anyone except Ryan. The reasoning is that I didn’t want this trip to be about me, so I chose not to let folks know. We enjoyed our time there and recharged our proverbial batteries before the final stretch of our trip.
Fargo to Washington
Riding from Fargo through North Dakota and Eastern Montana turned out to be one of the toughest sections of this trip. Between constant headwinds, hot days, gnarly thunderstorms and terrible traffic, we couldn’t catch a break.
North Dakota’s Badlands
In the middle of these challenging conditions was one amazing oasis: The Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We had a much needed layover day there in the nearby Medora Campground.
The night before had us battling a huge thunderstorm that destroyed a participant’s tent. We were very close to getting people in the bathroom as the wind got so bad, but luckily, the storm blew away as fast as it came in.
The next day, we decided to drive people into the park for some sightseeing. Everyonethoroughly enjoyed our activity as we saw a glimpse of a few bisons from a distance.
After our field trip, our group disbanded and went out to eat dinner with each respective clique.
Tough Eastern Montana
We finally rode into Montana the next day. Again, wind became an issue as we faced headwinds for about a week or so. When we were in Circle, Montana we had endured 2 storm cells that lit up the skies and shook the ground with each thunder clap.
We rode through and stayed in some really rough areas which many locals were surprised about when we told them. Places like Wolf Point, Cut Bank, and Browning are in sections of some of the most impoverished Native American lands of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Glacier National Park
We finally made it into St Mary, which is the eastern side of Glacier National Park on August 25th. The ride into the park had many of the riders take shuttles in from construction workers right outside of the park.
The screaming downhill was a much deserved treat that everybody relished in as they entered the park. When we got into the campground of St. Mary, the rangers told us to be hypersensitive with leaving food around as they spotted bears roaming through the area the day before.
In fact, the day after we left St Mary, they banned soft-sided shelter (tents) as one of the bears ripped through a tent in another part of the park!
Going To The Sun Road
I got to ride a section of Glacier National Park that every cyclist would love to cross off their bucket list: Going to the Sun Road.
Going Eastbound, you couldn’t ride up until after 4PM. I would imagine it’ll be challenging to get over to St Mary if you were to go that direction.
I caught up with all of our riders at the top of Logan Pass in the visitors’ center. We stayed up there for a few hours waiting until the last minute to traverse over the other side into Lake McDonald.
The 10 miles downhill from Logan Pass was exciting as we were speeding pass cars who were precariously focused on the beautiful landscape that was laid out on one side of the road.
It was an exhilarating ride until we reached the valley floor near Lake McDonald when all of us endured some form of harassment by shuttle drivers – of all people! One honking and forcing me off the shoulder of the road while trying to do the same to some of the other riders.
I logged in a complaint to the National Park Visitor Center headquarters but have not heard back from them. This is rather disappointing to respond to a great place to visit.
I’ll Be Back to Glacier Later
Ryan and I spent our layover day taking the same shuttle service up to Lake McDonald Lodge and back to duck away from the stormy day. We had lunch there and enjoyed a roaring fire that was blazing in the entrance area of the lodge.
We spent the rest of our time in the Apgar Village and in the little West Glacier area for shopping and time away from our riders.
A one layover day was just not enough time to explore the many hiking trails that the park had to offer. I would love to come back and see this park some other time.
Don’t Forget Whitefish, Montana
Leaving Glacier, we ended up going into the busy little town of Whitefish, Montana. People who visit are active all year round for skiing and snowboarding during the winter to lots of mountain biking when the snow melts.
Mountain bike and gravel bike riding are so popular here that there’s a Whitefish Bike Retreat located just west of town from where we stayed. The owner, Cricket, is a very well-known local celebrity who rents out campgrounds and lodging for various groups to come out and have workshops on bikepacking or mountain biking. Some of our other Adventure Cycling bikepacking tours have started and ended here in the past.
Be sure you visit and bring your mountain bike. Lots of great man-made trails with a few pump tracks to try out.
The Best Part of Montana
The rest of the ride up to Eureka and through to Libby, Montana was spectacular. Our route eventually had us take quiet backroads away from traffic and jettisoned us next to Lake Koocanusa which provided a beautiful backdrop for ospreys to play in the wind.
We must have counted about 10 different birds of prey gliding next to us along the river.
The option was either stay on highway 37 or take the western side. It is highly recommend
by all our riders to take the western side. Very few vehicle traffic and lots of turnouts to take breaks and take in the beauty of the area.
Lost and Found
By the time Ryan got in to Libby from the ride that day, we were missing one rider who should have been part of the middle of the pack. It was unlike him to not arrive at camp since it was his night to cook, so I quickly dropped the trailer and took the van out to search for him.
We had a water stop right before a major turn towards Libby, so I knew where I last saw him. Another participant and I went out to look for him, retracing the route for the day. We ended up going further south until we saw another work truck on the road and asked if they saw our missing rider. The guy positively identified our guy, and we quickly turned right and headed west. About 8 miles down the road, we finally spotted him.
Poor guy was exhausted and ran out of water. We got to him just in the nick of time; gave him water and some electrolytes. Put his bike on top of the van and drove him back into camp.
Ryan and another participant helped prepare dinner and we refueled and rehydrated the lost participant.
Kootenai National Forest
The Kootenai National Forest was home to the underrated Kootenai Falls. Everybody stopped to take a quick hike and checked out the landscape.
It was a nice break from the monotony of riding on the highway in the morning. I got the chance to try walking across a suspended bridge for the first time there. I have a slight fear of heights, but the bridge was so well constructed, it put me at ease. However, there was a walking bridge that took us over the railroad tracks which had metal gratings for the stairs and freaked me out a bit.
I was the only one who opted to ride up to see this area. It was beautiful up there, but I don’t think I made it all the way through. Short on time, I turned around the quiet 2-lane road and flew down back to the main highway and into camp in Noxon, Montana.
The Secret Cool Town
Going into Sandpoint, Idaho, I wasn’t expecting much, but I was very surprised how cool this little spot was. There were lots of shops and restaurants to be explored. We stayed indoors at a motel a few miles outside of the main stretch.
We spent our layover day there walking around, enjoying coffee at Evans Brothers Coffee Roasters, and a lunch at Matchwood Brewing Company. This was to be one of the final times to solidify our departure plan for the last week of the trip before riding over the Cascades Mountain Range.
Ryan and I took full advantage of checking the town out before we had to leave the next day. I’d love to visit Sandpoint again, a cool little town that I’ve never heard of.
5 Mountain Passes
The trip from Sandpoint to Concrete included 5 unrelenting mountain passes. If it weren’t for the well-conditioned legs of all of our riders, it would have been a tough ride.
Everybody made it over without any issues. Some took longer than others, but we got over every single one of them. We spent another layover day in the town of Winthrop which had an old west feel to it.
That place was bustling with people visiting for a car show and many biker groups showed up that weekend. We stayed at our last hostel in the middle of town.
Everybody crossed over the last 2 mountain passes the day we left Winthrop and made it into the North Cascades National Park. At the campgrounds , we were given another incredible lightning storm for the night. Apparently, it was one so rare that the local news station reported about it. I’m starting to see a pattern here.
The Home Stretch
We finally made it into Concrete the next day and had our official celebration dinner with all of our riders. It took place at a sports bar, which was our Plan B when the original place we had made reservations said their credit card machine was out of order. Thank goodness for Plan Bs!
The sports bar was located about 10 miles west, so riders got to see a preview of their final day’s route before we spent our last night camping in the Concrete / Grandy Creek KOA Holiday.
Ryan and I decided to treat ourselves by renting out a yurt for the night. It was different and a neat experience. Imagine staying in a round canvas tent with wooden floors.
The next day, I drove into Anacortes and found the boat launch area where we were to meet all of our riders. Everybody trickled in by the afternoon. A sense of relief combined with a sense of accomplishment washed over folks.
Of the 11 riders remaining, 4 of them decided to travel home almost immediately while 7 riders stayed at the motel we had reserved. We all went out for yet another celebratory dinner after we dropped off people’s bikes at the bike shop to be shipped home.
Is It The Best Route?
The hardest part of a long tour like this is saying our goodbyes. As strangers 87 days ago, we all grew together as a traveling family. We learned from our experiences, and whether it was good or bad, we all had to be there every day. There wasn’t any way out of it, but to continue riding and camping across the country.
This was what we all signed up for while both Ryan and I were just stewards to the common goal that everyone had. Even through difficult times, the most important outcome was that everybody made it across the country safe and sound with their own memories of the trip.
About half a year after this trip ended, I can now say this was probably the best route I’ve ever gotten to ride and lead. Without a doubt, I would love to ride this route again as a participant. Maybe not immediately in the next few years, but later on in life, either by myself or as part of a group like this…but definitely not as a leader.