Where to go to mountain bike during Montana's mud season.
As spring surfaces and the weather warms up, my mind invariably turns to mountain biking. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good winter season of skiing and snowfall; but at some point, the need for riding some dirt takes over. We have some great early-season hiking trails in our area, but when it comes to biking we're a bit more limited. While waiting for Bozeman-area trails to dry up, you can enjoy some quality spring riding if you look a little farther out of town.
Lewis & Clark Caverns is one of my favorite early-season areas. I like to hit the loop that starts with the East Side Trail and pedal all the way up to the visitor center, then enjoy the fun, fast downhill on the Cave Gulch Trail. Between tight switchbacks, a narrow trail, rock obstacles, and early-season legs, this singletrack is both challenging and fun, and I'm not ashamed to say I walk my bike quite a bit. Pipestone is just a little farther away, and has always been a popular place to ride as long as you don’t mind being out there with the motorheads. There are plenty of trail options: dirt roads, four wheeler tracks, singletrack, and more—but that also means it‘s easy to get lost. Make sure you bring a map, or a friend who knows this area well.
Nearby towns have a lot to offer as well. Helena is a great place to get your singletrack fix—they have a network of trails straight out of downtown that dry out sooner than anything here in the Bozone. The Mount Helena Ridge is one of my favorite rides in this area, and there are plenty more trails to explore and create loops out of. Missoula's series of trails are full of steep climbs and flowy downhills. With Rattlesnake, Pattee Canyon, and Blue Mountain, you have quite a few options to choose from. Don’t forget about the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) portions right off the Interstate or Pipestone Pass—these are often ready to ride earlier than you'd expect.
If you've got the itch for some desert riding—and your schedule allows for it—head south for some truly remarkable trails. Every spring I pack up the car and head down to Fruita, Colorado, which has become well-known for its spectacular riding options. The 18 Road rides, with dry desert ridges, rocks, rollers, and dunes make for some super trails to explore. Riding the berms down Kessel Run is akin to mountain-bike heaven, especially after a long winter and biking hiatus in the Bozone. A little west from Fruita is the start of the Kokopelli Trail system. located above the Colorado River. If you only have time for one ride in this area, make sure to check out Horsethief Bench—a crowd favorite. Heading east into Grand Junction, the Lunch Loop Trails near Colorado National Monument are a whole other beast to ride. Many of them are pretty technical, but don't lack for excitement and fun.
If you're lucky enough to have the time, spending at least a week in the Fruita area is the best way to familiarize yourself with all these different trails and terrain. Once you're down there, it's not too far from Moab, which boasts even more riding options and slickrock trails. Just make sure to bring extra tubes for when you hit a cactus or sharp rock, and pack that sunscreen as you shake off that winter pallor.