Dry Spell

Mountain biking dicsovery bike park

Early-season mountain-biking destinations.

Spring mountain biking can be a gamble. Some years, things dry out early, and the riding is superb for months leading into summer. Other years, it rains or snows every Friday afternoon, foiling weekend plans time and again. But with so many options nearby, there’s sure to be something that’s rideable, no matter the weather. Here’s a roundup of top regional destinations. Make a full weekend trip, or ride them as one-day outings—these five locales won’t disappoint.

by Tony Janacaro

While the hills of Bozeman are still mud-laden from snowmelt and spring moisture, Pipestone offers some of the best biking around. Lying beneath a rain shadow on the east side of the Continental Divide, Pipestone’s winding hills receive far less precipitation than the surrounding areas, creating a desert-like refuge for great spring riding. Trails start to open up around mid-March, and can dry up as early as late February during a mild winter.

I tend to choose one of two options to get my winter legs back in shape: an 11-miler with plenty of climbing, and a five-mile half-loop that skips the climbing but still offers the same fun downhill section as the longer loop. Both begin with a continuous two-mile climb up an access road toward Delmoe Lake. This brings you to the “Four Corners” intersection, featuring bathrooms and parking for motor enthusiasts. The longer loop then continues along the access road for another mile and a half, where you take a right into the trees. The turn is marked by a small boulder at the bottom of a gully (a stream flows under the road here). The trail then starts climbing east, continuing until it finally ends in a flat section that joins with another access road heading to the Four Corners intersection. This is where the longer loop meets back up with the shorter loop for a fast downhill.

The shorter loop takes a right at Four Corners, then another right just before the cattle guard leading to the downhill section. There are plenty of trails that intersect with the downhill part of the loop, but stay on the main trail and you’ll return to the parking area. If your quads have atrophied entirely over the long winter, it’s even possible to shuttle the two-mile downhill stretch.

Mountain biking Pipestone

by the editors

The main appeal of the Butte mountain-biking scene is the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Just ten minutes outside of town, this trail is gaining popularity amongst mountain bikers, in part thanks to the Butte 100 MTB race. But competition aside, Butte deserves mention as a worthy early-season destination. A classic ride is Homestake Pass to Pipestone Pass. Start by parking on the south side of I-90 on top of Homestake. Then climb a singletrack, gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation over five miles, before bombing another four miles down to Pipestone Pass. Ride back the way you came, or coordinate a shuttle to Pipestone Pass, accessible off Hwy. 2.

Another option is the CDT “East Ridge,” which is a challenging 26-mile ride, commonly ridden from north to south. The trail starts with a grueling climb, but once up high is decently flowy. Stop along the way to pay homage to the iconic “Our Lady of the Rockies” statue overlooking Butte. The end point is the parking on top of Homestake pass off I-90. If you’re feeling really ambitious, keep going all the way to Pipestone. Otherwise, call your shuttle for a pickup.

If testing your early-season mettle on the CDT isn’t in the cards, fear not—there are some shorter, easier options in the Butte area. Check out the Whiskey Gulch Skills Park just a few minutes from downtown. The trails are built on 30 acres owned by Montana Tech, and offer a couple miles of good biking and a small pump track to hone your skills. There are enough playful options to keep you entertained for an entire day before you hit the road to the next destination.

by Adam Brown

Everyone knows that Helena is the legislative capital of Montana, but its mountain biking is rapidly earning it a similar status. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has even bestowed the city with a Silver Level Ride Center designation, and for good reason. Along with bomber singletrack, there are fantastic shops, cafes, and other services tucked away in Helena’s lively downtown, all of which are located within a short ride of the trails. To avoid getting overwhelmed, here are a couple classic rides to hit.

If you want a remote, “off the beaten path” experience, the Scratchgravel Trails on the northeast side of town are a good option. This area provides a properly rugged, Montana-style biking experience. It’s got everything from open roads to doubletrack and singletrack trails bisecting grassy plains and sparsely treed slopes. And, because of its sun and wind exposure, these trails also hold minimal snow coverage in the spring.

The South Hills trails are the town’s pride and joy—thank Prickly Pear Land Trust for that. Since 1996, this group has been behind the wheel, and oftentimes the shovel, when it comes to acquiring and developing local trails. Though no secret anymore, these trails are beautiful, popular, and enjoyed by a wide range of recreationists. As such, an above-average level of caution and etiquette is encouraged to ensure a safe and fun experience for everyone. Shuttle services have been off and on over the last few years. When they’re going, it can really enhance the riding experience and makes it almost feel like a proper bike park.

To make a full day of it, start at the South Hills trails and aim for Mount Helena. It can be easily reached on forest roads without killing your legs too early in the day, or maybe you’re smart and had a shuttle planned. Then, after you’ve broken a sweat, pedal over to the Mount Ascension side to challenge yourself on the more technical features and test your downhill abilities. Make sure to stop for a beer or a snack in town before hitting the road—this is Montana, after all.

by the editors

Lions & tigers & bears—oh my! There may not be tigers, but lions and bears there are plenty of. As a biologist in Missoula once quipped, “If there was a balloon tied to every mountain lion within five miles of town, nobody would use the trails.” Same goes for bears—in fact, the chance of not sighting a black bear on a ride in Missoula is minimal (no, the Missoula locals aren’t paying us to say that). Wildlife aside, Missoula consistently melts out before Bozeman—sometimes by as much as two months. When that’s the case, the I-90 corridor feels like a fast-forward trip through time. Arrowleaf balsamroot fill the hillsides, foreshadowing the dry trails and sunshine to come. Here are a couple classic, close-to-town rides.

Peeling north from downtown, the Rattlesnake is a heavily populated “canyon,” but the upper reaches taper off into city-owned open space and National Forest lands. There are two separate trail networks accessible off the main road. One option is to follow the road until it dead-ends in a parking lot, then hop on your bike and climb up a paved access road for about a mile. From there, singletrack peels off in all directions. Some favorites from our Missoulian bike consultant Deanna DeSon include:

  • Beginner: Fenceline is your trail. For a mellow, low-angle climb, follow Sawmill Gulch. On your way down, you’ll find mellow(ish) flowy trails.
  • Intermediate: Fenceline isn’t enough for you, huh? Head up to Snowbowl Overlook. Coming down, you’ll run into some rooted drops, but nothing too techy for a semi-experienced rider.
  • Expert: Looking for a brag (back in Bozeman, that is)? Go do the gut-wrenching Sheep Mountain loop. Note: please don’t brag to any Missoulians about it at the Kettlehouse; you’ll give them the ick if you do.

Alternatively, bike from town, picking up a separate trail network on the east side of the canyon just after Rattlesnake Drive takes a sharp right dogleg. Take your choice of climbing trails, but the classic descent is Sidewinder—a flowy, downhill trail that was just rerouted and improved two years ago.

The east Rattlesnake trails also tie into Marshall, but these well-maintained paths are better accessed from a separate parking area a few miles from the East Missoula exit on I-90. This ski hill turned bike park is a fun mix of techy trails, like Bjorn Again, to easier downhills like Hello Kitty (but peel off midway down for a sweet jump line). And while there are no chairlift rides up, there is a road for easy climbing. (See a local? Ask ’em show you the Hot Sauce shortcut to remove the road’s gut-wrenching, steep last push to the top.) While you’re enjoying the trails, be sure to give a nod to MTB Missoula, who maintains them with volunteer labor and donations from local bike fanatics.

On the other side of town, en route to Lolo, the Blue Mountain trail network provides enough options to fill an entire afternoon. Take the Blue Mountain Road turnoff from Hwy. 12, and follow it about a half-mile to the parking lot. Trails are not marked in here—it would be worth reaching out to your Missoula-local friend as a tour guide.

by the editors

A spring roundup wouldn’t be complete without some downhill riding. And for that, the Discovery Bike Park outside of Anaconda takes the cake. It might not have the trail numbers or elevation drop of Big Sky, but it has that small-town Montana feel, casual atmosphere, and is a little friendlier on the wallet. The bike park opens May 19, with nine trails accessible off the Silver Chief chairlift. The network is known for its mix of flowy downhill trails, playful sections, and harrowing black diamonds. There are even a handful of built-out wooden features for those seeking more airtime. As a word a caution, if you’re new to downhill riding—heck even if you’re a pro—a full-face helmet, kneepads, and elbow pads are highly recommended. These trails are built for speed and flow, and things can go south mighty quick without the right preparation or attentiveness. But regardless, whether you cruise greens or crush blacks all day, you’re sure to head back to Bozeman primed for summer and ready to explore other early-season options in the area.