Biking Johnson Canyon.
For many Bozemanites, fall is hunting season. For others, it’s obsessively-check-the-weather-to-see-if-it-will-snow season. For but a select few, fall is still biking season—at least until the snow flies in earnest. With conditions changing day to day, dry trail is hardly a guarantee, but one safe bet is the new(ish) Johnson Canyon trail that starts at the Johnson Canyon trailhead and dead-ends at North Cottonwood on the west side of the Bridgers.
Johnson Canyon to North Cottonwood is a must-ride in the coming weeks, as the autumn colors are fantastic along this route. The Forest Service employed the same design standards as it did on Corby Gulch, so this route is suitable for intermediate riders. Evidence of recent machine work is still visible, although the finishing work is superb, rendering every inch of trail enjoyably navigable. The trail begins at forest-service road 2512 and climbs and descends between contour lines past Mill Creek to North Cottonwood. A beautiful new bridge was also installed over the robust Mill Creek. The trail weaves in and out of moist, shady drainages ablaze with aspen and mountain ash, and the perfectly designed switchbacks are ego-improving. Once you’re out of the woods and have gained some elevation, the views of the Gallatin Valley are spectacular. The trail contours along open, south-facing slopes before descending several rocky switchbacks to North Cottonwood Creek. This is the most challenging part of the ride and can be avoided by turning around before the ride descends into the North Cottonwood drainage. From Johnson Canyon to North Cottonwood and back, the ride is about nine miles.
Looking at a map, it seems that the route can be ridden as a shuttle or loop, but the best option is an out-and-back. The connector from North Cottonwood is not open to bikers, as it is an easement through a private cattle ranch and the landowners ask that we respect their livestock. The left fork at the bridge over North Cottonwood can be biked but was designed for and is popular with hikers, so ride this section only in non-peak times and be very cautious—it gets very technical. Be aware that Johnson Canyon is popular for shooting, so wear bright colors and respect other users. This is also popular bird-hunting terrain, so keep that in mind when choosing when to ride.
From Bozeman, head north on Springhill past the Reese Creek Community and onto the dirt road that turns into Rocky Mountain Rd. Several miles north of Reese Creek, the North Cottonwood trailhead is on the east side of the road; keep going. Several miles past North Cottonwood is the turn off onto FSR 2512, a rough road to Johnson Canyon. There is a parking area on the north side of the forest-service road, two miles from the main road—if you get turned around, look for the burned pallets. Just uphill from the parking area, the trail begins heading southwest.
For more information about area rides, local advocacy, and trail-building, check out southwestmontanamtb.org.