“The best mountain bike trail along the North Fork on the way to Yellowstone National Park.
— John Gallagher
The Blackwater Fire Memorial Trail is the finest mountain bike trail on the Northfork of the Shoshone River west of Cody, Wyoming and near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
This out and back trail is a steady uphill grind that becomes steeper the further out you go. It is well worth the effort for the views at the top and the ripping return run. The trail is rarely very technically challenging, but it is very aerobically challenging.
Need to Know
You are in grizzly bear country. Carry and know how to use bear spray, make plenty of noise and travel in groups.
This trail does get used by the local dude ranches for horse rides and also by the occasional hiker. Be courteous, especially when descending as you can go really fast on this trail.
There is no cell phone service anywhere along this trail. You are very remote and could wait for days before anyone comes along to help, especially the higher up you go.
This trail holds snow up high until mid June, or longer on heavy snow years. The summer solstice seems to be a good time to do it. Any earlier than that and the water is high at the creek crossings and the downed trees are probably not yet removed.
The Blackwater Fire Memorial Trail has a major trailhead and is well marked from the highway. Take a look at the memorial along the highway and park in the paved area.
Proceed across the river on the bridge and pass through the Blackwater Ranch. You can either stay on this two-track or watch carefully for the very small bridge and horse crossing across the creek on your right. The small foot bridge is just a few feet past the second bridge on the road, the short one that crosses Blackwater Creek. The singletrack across the small bridge is the preferred route.
You'll continue along very obvious singletrack as you climb and keep the creek on your left. After about 3 miles you'll come to a fork in the trail. This fork is marked and you want to stay left on the Blackwater trail. You want to cross the creek, using the small bridges on your left. This creek crossing is a jumbled mess. You'll proceed up the Blackwater Creek drainage that trends to the south and east. As of 2012, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the fire, small bridges were installed at this crossing, hopefully they are still there when you arrive. After crossing the creek, there are no more trail junctions.
Eventually the trail steepens and the switchbacks begin. You'll be making good use of your granny gear for quite some time. The views open up once you enter the switchbacks.
At about 5 miles you reach a bare ridgeline offering the best views on the trail. After the little push up this ridge the trail flattens as you approach the memorial. One last steep grunt puts you at the memorial. I always wonder what lucky beast of burden carried the very large bronze medallion all the way up here.
There is another mile or so of trail above the memorial, but it is on very loose volcanic rock that is going to require some pushing and is sketchy on the way down. The views get even better up here, but the riding gets worse.
Whenever you choose to turn around, just be aware of hikers and horses as you mach your way down.
History & Background
On August 21, 1937 15 firefighters died near the top of this trail and many others barely escaped with their lives as a cold front swept in and changed the direction of the fire. This trail leads to a memorial in their honor. The memorial is a fine example of CCC workmanship.
This is designated a National Recreation Trail, and as such gets more maintenance attention than most trails in the area.