Exploring Helena's mountain-biking scene.
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. 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.
Helena’s mountain-bike scene is mostly split between two trail systems close to town: the primitive Scratchgravel Hills, and the more developed South Hills. 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 planes and sparsely treed slopes. And, because of its sun and wind exposure, these trails also hold minimal snow coverage throughout the year. That means they dry out quickly, for good shoulder-season riding—and with the right conditions and a little luck, you might even have the option to spin a mid-winter lap. You’ll be hard-pressed to believe that it can get any better than this, but believe me when I say that there’s a lot more to come.
When the conditions are right and everything is drying up, typically around May, it’s time to move on to the main event: the South Hills. These trails are the town’s pride and joy—thank Prickly Pear Land Trust for that. Since 1997, 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 while riding to ensure a safe and fun experience for everyone.
The South Hills system can be further 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 slightly more natural experience with incredible views. Over on the Mount Ascension side, the 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 system has been developed specifically for bikes, all the trails are multi-use and should be treated accordingly. Also keep in mind that the many of trails are located on, or accessed via, easements—respect for private land is paramount.
A campground for the like-minded
Now with so many options, deciding what to squeeze into a day is a challenging prospect. Fortunately, when spring rolls around and you’re itching to hop back on your trusty two-wheeled steed, you can follow this one-day itinerary to make the most of a jaunt to Helena. Start the day on the Scratchgravel trails. This will give you a good gauge for how the rest of the trails might be riding. If there’s still a bit of snow and mud around, then there will surely be more on the south side. Either way, it’ll feel good to be in the saddle again. If you’re feeling like a mellow day, or things aren’t quite dry yet, it’s easy to make a day of loops and laps in this part of town. However, if you’re itching for more, there’s plenty to be had, conditions permitting.
Cruise over to 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. 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 save a little grip strength, though, when white-knuckling all afternoon, so you can still hold a local brew at Blackfoot River Brewing. You’ll likely see some of the trail-users you passed earlier, and almost certainly a mountain-bike hipster or two.
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 they have up-to-date contact information on local shuttle options for mountain bikers. So hop on the saddle or grab a seat on a shuttle, as Helena and its trails—the mountain-bike capital of Montana—await.