Fall's featured mountain-bike ride.
The Tobacco Root Mountains have a lot to offer mountain bikers, but most of us head right to the Curly Highline epic. The “Pony Loop,” however, is a lot closer, and has a classic Montana bar near the trailhead. Win, win.
Take Norris Rd. to the junction with Hwy. 287. Head north for ten miles to the small town of Harrison. In the middle of town is a signed left turn for Pony. It’s another 6.3 miles to the old mining town. Note the Pony Bar on your left as you pass through town. Don’t miss this on your way back. A few miles past Pony, there’s a Y-intersection; bear left. A couple more miles and the road dead ends at the trailhead.
Vitals: 10-mile loop, 2,300 elevation gain
The North Willow Creek trail starts at the north end of the parking lot as a loose and technical ATV trail. It’s not very steep, but involves lots of little problems to keep you focused. After about 1.5 miles, you come to a junction where the ATV trail crosses a bridge on your left. Take a right and start climbing singletrack. This section starts off easy, but has some steep sections. Stick with it for 1.75 miles to another intersection.
Now there are options. To the right is the one-mile rock garden up to Hollowtop Lake. It’s ridiculously technical, but rideable for strong bikers. The rocks are huge, but not loose. It’s worth the view to just stash your steed and walk it.
Back at the intersection, the left turn (trail #6365) does a short tease of a drop into a marshy meadow. Early in the season this bog eats the trail, so it might be faint come fall. Continue on your course and you’ll find it again soon. Then there’s a tough five-minute push up a rocky hill that tops out on a forested ridge. After all that climbing, you’ll be rewarded with a fun, one-mile downhill to the next intersection.
Now you should be back on the same ATV trail (Albro Lake trail) that you started on. You can take a right and head up to Albro Lake, which is just under 1.5 miles above you, or you can head left and get your downhill on. This stretch is twisty and fun, and be sure to watch for moose. At almost 1.5 miles from the last intersection, drop through a meadow to a saddle with a great view. This is the final (whew) intersection. You’ll see a rutted trail heading straight up a hill in front of you. Charge it hard. It’s tough, but short. When you get to the top, look for a trail post to your left. There’s no trail for a couple of minutes, but just stick with the posts. Then, a beautiful singletrack appears in front of you dropping into open meadows with promises of incredible velocity and ear-to-ear grins. This is Park trail #302, and it’s worth all the sweat it took to get here.
One last CRITICAL move: after one mile of ridiculous fun, there’s an ambiguous left turn. The bovine trail users have created a spur heading forward, but watch for a post on a ridge to the left. Once you have located this, it’s a straightforward rip for a few miles. When you finally get to a beautiful saddle that looks down onto the trailhead, bear left and enjoy one last mile of bliss. Watch for a post at the creek near the bottom that indicates a crossing. The cows have created another junction here. Go left across the creek. Next stop: Pony Bar.
Keep in Mind
The ‘Roots are full of griz these days, and I have seen them on this ride. Pack your spray and be noisy. There are also plenty of wolves around here, so keep an eye on your canine partners. This range is renowned for its world-class mosquitoes as well, so bring full-strength repellent or suffer. For a detailed map of the area, including trail numbers, pick up a Tobacco Roots map from Beartooth Publishing, available around town and at beartoothpublishing.com.
Tim Hawke is a native of the 406 and a board member of the Dirt Concern of the Gallatin Valley bicycle club (thedirtconcern.com) and fully admits to his obsession with Montana’s nooks and crannies. He can be reached at [email protected]