Exploring Helena's mountain-biking scene.
Everyone knows that Helena is the legislative capital of Montana, but its mountain biking is rapidly earning a similar designation. The quaint city has even been designated a Silver Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), 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. However, as one of Montana’s largest and fastest-growing cities, Helena is seeing massive development, in terms of both the town and the trails. To avoid getting overwhelmed, follow this guide—put together from local insight along with our own experience—so you can maximize your day on and off the trails.
In Helena, there’s no shortage of trail to go around, but the South Hills are certainly the town’s pride and joy. Thank Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) for that. Since 1997, they've been behind the wheel, and oftentimes the shovel, when it comes to acquiring and developing local trails. While no secret anymore, these well-developed trails are beautiful, popular, and enjoyed by a wide range of recreationists. An above-average level of caution and etiquette is encouraged while riding, to ensure a safe and fun experience for everyone. Furthermore, some of the trails and access points are owned via easement —respect for the land is paramount.
"Mount Ascension trails are bike-specific. Here you will find all kinds of manmade features, from sweeping wood berms to rock drops to dirt double jumps."
The South Hills can be broken up into a couple different areas: the Mount Helena loop and Mount Ascension loop. Mount Helena is known for its rolling and flowy trails that offer a natural experience with incredible views. Mount Ascension trails are more bike-specific. Here you will find all kinds of manmade features, from sweeping wood berms to rock drops to dirt double jumps. Though the latter has been developed specifically for bikes, all the trails are multi-use and should be treated accordingly. If you want a more “off-the-beaten-path” experience, the Scratchgravel Hills trails on the northeast side of town are a good option. While less popular, this area provides a properly rugged, more Montana-style biking experience.
We can’t mention trails without bringing up the access. We’ve all heard of ski-in-ski-out. Well, Helena is bike-in-bike-out, especially if you're staying in town. For supreme accommodations, check out Vigilante Tours. They offer a variety of shuttle options (we recommend one of the packages that includes beer). For a convenient stay, MTB City is where birds of a feather flock together. This bikers-only campground fosters a community of mountain-bike lovers and also provides easy access to both town and the trails. Cook a quick breakfast at the campsite, then stop by Montago Coffee for your morning pick-me-up. Just look for the ‘58 Shasta camper, and keep an eye out for the brick-and-mortar location coming soon. Once you’re properly caffeinated, stop by Big Sky Cycling for some beta or a tune-up, then hit the trails.
A campground for the like-minded
We recommend getting started on Mount Helena, warming up the legs with a little pedaling and gradually working up to the more technical features. It won’t take long to work up an appetite, and when you do, Saigon Alley is a stone’s-throw away. Enjoy their Asian-inspired cuisine in an outdoor setting or take some grub to go for the afternoon ride. Mount Ascension will test your downhill skills, so make sure to save a little grip strength when white-knuckling all afternoon, so that you can still grasp a local pint at Blackfoot River Brewing. You'll likely see many of the folks you shared the trail with that day, and there will surely be a mountain-bike hipster or two. If you just can't quit riding till dusk (a strong possibility), Helena has no shortage of late-night eateries to check out, but only one of them lets you soak those sore muscles: Broadwater Hot Springs. They also have a taphouse and grill for you to eat and drink to your delight.
"Helena's history is as rich as the outdoor access it offers."
A biking community does not appear out of nowhere, and Helena is no exception. This project has been the passion of many organizations and individuals for a long time and the hard work isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Moreover, this town’s history is as rich as the outdoor access it offers. To learn more or for assistance in planning your own trip, Visit Helena is a great resource, and one that operates a no-fee shuttle for bikers and hikers. So hop on the saddle or grab a seat on a shuttle, Helena and its trails are waiting—the mountain-bike capital of Montana.