Prairie Smoke & Bear Patrol

A Red Lodge trail pays dividends. 

Ready for that weekend road-trip? The one that involves a little exploring, a little adrenaline, killer views, and perhaps some taproom time? There’s a trail out of Red Lodge that’s worth the trip, made even more so because of the efforts of the folks that made it happen.

The Ride
The Palisades trail has quickly become a local favorite, in part because of the proximity to town, but also because of the different personalities the trail offers riders on a morning or evening ride. This is a trail that invites you to focus on the quiet, as you absorb the shift in vegetation from ponderosa to lodgepole then aspen, and stop to take in the view out toward the Pryors and the prairies in between. If you ride from town, the transition from the road to singletrack at Palisades Campground may leave you thinking about the moose you just saw, but don’t forget to be on the lookout for bears; both black and grizzly bears use this area at different times of the year. You’ll find yourself giggling as you roll through a series of downhills and switchbacks and over matted aspen leaves, remembering why you took up biking in the first place. As if all that weren’t enough, the trail pops out into a sagebrush meadow, often exploding with some wildflower event, such as Balsamroot or Prairie Smoke. Don’t forget to look back at the Palisades; they’re just as gorgeous from this angle as the view the skiers get from Red Lodge Mountain in the winter.

The History
This trail grew out of the Forest Service travel-planning process, when the community outlined its desire for connectivity with town trails. The Forest Service was looking for trails to extend the hiking season beyond the very short summer months when the alpine country is open, and they wanted to spread users out a bit. With budget restrictions, especially for recreation, the general attitude was “no net growth” in the amount of trail-miles to be maintained. In addition, the Palisades trail is located in a wildlife-emphasis area. By funding trail-construction hitches for the Montana Conservation Corps, local trail groups such as the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association (BRTA) and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation assured minimal investment by the Forest Service. “In the summer and fall of 2008, I had been scouting both ends of that possible trail,” says BRTA’s Grant Barnard. My wife and I were out there one day and lo and behold, we ran into the Forest Service doing the same thing! It was exciting to know how much the Ranger District wanted to make this trail happen.”

Biologists with the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks developed measures to minimize impacts to wildlife, including restrictions on when dogs are allowed on the trail. It’s worth noting that the wildlife concerns remain, and how we use this trail will determine whether the state’s wildlife managers provide future support for longer trail connections along the Beartooth Face.

The Benefit
Over the course of two summers, volunteers, the Forest Service, and Montana Conservation Corps completed construction of the 3.5-mile trail, finishing in the summer of 2014. The focus has now shifted to constructing the adjacent Nichols trail using the same model for construction and maintenance. 

Although the Palisades trail is just one very short piece in the system of trails across the Beartooth Mountains, it represents so much more in Red Lodge, particularly given the amount of sweat equity invested. As Grant Barnard says of the project, “A lot of locals have been involved with the trail building and planning, from securing MCC crews, feeding them, volunteering on the trail, to following up with some bike-friendly changes. Being this close to town and connecting both ends with county roads makes it feel like a valuable trail asset for the community.”

Biker Asano Otsu, who originally came to Red Lodge with Outward Bound, says that what makes this trail special is the concept. “You can ride from home, with no shuttles. It’s out the back door.” She goes on to say she’s glad to see the community embracing bike-friendly trails. “It’s nice to see more mountain bikers involved in the trail-building and to see all the different users co-existing with each other. That’s a huge change from ten years ago.”

Traute Parrie was a district ranger for the Forest Service and signed the NEPA decision to build the Palisades trail.