As someone who prioritizes solitude when choosing backcountry destinations, I often find myself skipping over public lands where the spectacular and the popular overlap.

Despite my aversion to crowds, I do recognize that the most-visited front- and backcountry destinations are popular for a reason. That reason is almost always their sheer beauty, or their rareness, or a combination of both of those characteristics. I’ve backpacked in Yellowstone and Glacier and been absolutely awe-struck, with memories of beautiful scenery and sublime campsites much more vivid than the memories of permit office personnel and other hikers. So I don’t totally forego the A-list adventure destinations, I just rarely seek them out.

And it’s not just national parks or life-list wilderness areas that can be too crowded for my tastes. Short hikes to superlative regional natural features or roadside hot springs can be just as packed as Going-to-the-Sun Road, relatively speaking.

The tried-and-true recommendations of going during shoulder season, or during a weekday, or a shoulder-season weekday with some precipitation in the forecast have worked for me in the past, but they aren’t always a guarantee. So, in the spring of 2020 – when travel restrictions prevented me from traveling outside of Montana, I spent some time thinking outside the box to plan uncrowded trips in normally crowded places.

a woman stands in awe of an old growth cedar tree
Photos don’t do the majesty of the old-growth cedars justice. Having the trail all to ourselves made the experience even more special.

An old-growth cedar grove in northwestern Montana had been on my list to visit for a few years. In the summer season, the short nature trail through the grove attracts ample visitation and in winter it would require a four-hour drive, then cross-country skiing in on the closed road for several miles.

All this made an early-season visit seem like the best option. The paved road to the trailhead is gated until May 1, which meant there was an ideal springtime window where cars wouldn’t have access but those willing to bike could arrive there with minimal effort and have a crowd-free experience. While some places – like Yellowstone and Glacier, most notably – have an active and well-known early-season biking window, this spot seemed to have flown well under the radar despite its paved road and beautiful scenery.

a woman rides a bicycle down a paved path while wearing a backpack
A touring bike would’ve been preferable, but using the gear you have can still get the job done.

My girlfriend and I loaded up our bikes and backpacking gear, along with more than a few luxury items to make the most of the easy access, and headed north by northwest on a warm Saturday morning in April. After shouldering our packs and pedaling our bikes around the gate, we enjoyed a solitary stretch of pavement to the empty trailhead. After stashing our gear at a dispersed site, we took a leisurely stroll through the cedars. Snowbanks still dotted the shadiest areas, but trilliums and other spring wildflowers were putting on a show. The huge trees were, of course, the biggest highlights (literally), and walking among them in silent contemplation was the perfect way to wind down the evening before returning to make the feast we had packed in.

a woman stradles a bicycle and reads a trail sign at the trailhead in a peaceful forest
We arrived right as the early evening light made the old-growth forest even more enchanting.

Enthused by that experience, I eagerly awaited the opportunity for the next test of my planning prowess. Rather than a gate serving as a barrier to keep out the crowds, I was relying on lingering snowdrifts to provide me with solitude. I planned to drive my car as far up a winding dirt road as possible until I hit snow and then ride the rest of the way over a pass on my bike, and from there on to (hopefully) crowd-free hot springs. I’d ride where I could, and push it through the snow where I couldn’t.

a bicycle standing up in a snow drift
Trucks were able to make it through this first drift, but a steeper and deeper one around the next bend forced them to turn back. Pushing my bike through was easy enough.

Hoping I’d timed it right, I pulled into a parking spot at a switchback just as a few lifted trucks and all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) were coming down from the pass. The drivers let me know that it was too early to get through in a truck or ATV (the snowbanks are steeply pitched in spots, and rolling off the road would be catastrophic in most places) but that if I was determined enough to get in on my bike, I shouldn’t have any problem. Hot springs are a powerful motivator for me, so I knew determination wouldn’t be a problem.

an empty hot springs
I’ve visited this hot springs a half-dozen time, but this was the first time I’d had it to myself for more than a half-hour or so. An unexpected bonus for May 2020 was that the outhouse in the parking area had toilet paper.
a man floats in a hot springs
Solitary bliss in perfectly hot water.

Things went just as smoothly as I’d planned – although pushing a bike uphill in the snow isn’t something that I exactly savored – and within an hour I was soaking in hot water and drinking a cold beer. Even better was knowing that I had total privacy and that unless someone else had the same plan (extremely unlikely) I’d enjoy the solitary soak for as long as I’d like. My only regret was not packing the gear to stay the night. The thought of biking uphill after soaking for an hour or two was not a relaxing one. The actuality of the experience wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated, but it would’ve been much nicer to have more time to spend in the area after paying the price of admission.

After such auspicious experiences with these trips, I’ve decided to try to make one or both of them annual events when I’m not able to go further afield for early season travels. And I’ve found a useful lens to look through when planning future trips. Now when I’m reading on a National Park Service or the United States Forest Service website and see “gate closed until…” I don’t see a barrier – I see an opportunity for solitude.

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