Capitol Singletrack

Early-season mountain biking in Helena.

Right around mid-April, we get that insatiable itch to switch—from two planks to two wheels, from white slopes to chestnut pathways through the forest. Alas, the trails around here are often either snow-covered or mud-clogged. To get our fix, we head up to Helena for some capitol singletrack. 

This is one of a handful of must-do rides in the capitol city. Moderate climbing, sweet singletrack, and amazing views make this a classic. Access the ride at its namesake trailhead on Prospector Gulch Rd., 5.5 miles from downtown. You can either pedal from town or utilize a shuttle system.

Difficulty: Intermediate | Distance: 8 miles | Elevation Gain/Loss: 874’ ascent; 1,706’ descent
Highpoint: 5,821’ | Avg. Grade: 6% | Max Grade: 33% | % Singletrack: 100

From the trailhead, the route climbs straight up initially before settling into steady pedaling across open slopes toward the first taste of the ridge. After a punchy and loose climb to reach the top, the route drops into and across a saddle. From here, Mt. Helena Ridge jumps in and out of pine stands as it starts its first descent. The grade is mellow at first and then transitions to steep and loose. As the grade rolls flat, you’ll pass the intersection for Mini-Ridge and Emmet’s, and then continue through the trees. The route rolls on the contour for a bit, uphill at first before descending. After breaking out into the open briefly, dive back into the trees, down a quick, steep, rocky descent, and across a hidden meadow. It’ll seem like you’re in for another steep grunt up the other side; luckily the route bangs right and takes up contouring again. The next section traverses an open grassy hillside with amazing views all around. Carving left, notice the route below; as the ridge drops, so will you. Before a long open straightaway, pass the junction for Show Me the Horse, a great option for descending the ridge before getting into Mt. Helena City Park. At the end of the flat run, duck left into the trees and then pop out again for yet another high meadow. From here, it’s mostly open and a bit more rocky until the intersection with South Dump Gulch. Stay left here and at the next intersection to connect to West End. Turn right and pedal a moderately technical connector with a few rocky, root-bound challenges. Take another right at Backside to climb steadily around the southwest side of Mt. Helena. The trail is somewhat rocky, but very rideable. At the next junction you’ll be ready for the finale. Stay right to tackle Prospect Shafts, a steep route down Mt. Helena. Very loose and rocky at first, the trail is wide and runs down an open face. The grade eventually decreases and the trail narrows as it traverses to the trailhead.

Coming into Helena from the east, follow Prospect Ave. to N. Montana Ave. and turn left (south). Then turn right (west) onto E. 6th Ave. and continue past the downtown area until turning left onto S. Park Ave. Continue on S. Park Ave. until turning right onto Grizzly Gulch Dr. at a Y-intersection. Finally, turn right after about 4 miles onto Prospector Gulch Rd. The trailhead is half a mile down Prospector Gulch. If you get lost, call the Garage bike shop.

Need to Know
The ridge is high and exposed. Be prepared to descend quickly when weather approaches. There are multiple intersecting trails that provide options for descending, so you can make multiple loops if you’re up for an all-day ride. Since the route is easily accessed from town, be prepared for a variety of other trail users (hikers and trail runners); the heaviest traffic is found from the east end in Mt. Helena City Park. Trail conditions can vary in spring; don’t ride if it’s muddy. Check with the Helena National Forest or local bike shop the Garage before heading out.

This article originally appeared on, a crowd-sourced collaboration by and for the MTB community.