Building a Better Bozeman

Thirty years in the making, Bozeman’s Main Street to the Mountains trail system is a recreation success story—and it’s just one part of GVLT’s mission to make the Gallatin Valley a better place, right now and for generations to come.

Speeding along the freshly paved path between Story Mill Park and the M, Melissa Davis ran away from town and toward the foothills of the Bridger Mountains to clear her head. Dodging families, dogs, hikers, and bikers, she accelerated towards the balsam root- and lupine-lined trails that rise out of the valley. 

The recently completed trail is the culmination of 30 years of persistent work by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT), which has connected Bozeman’s neighborhoods to public lands in both the Gallatin and Bridger ranges. “Having quick and easy access to the trails is a lifesaver,” says Melissa, a mother of three, for whom the in-town trails allow quick workouts between life’s commitments.

Main Street to the Mountains Trail Marker

Since 1990, GVLT has built an ever-expanding network of trails throughout the valley. But they haven’t done it alone—the local community has supported their efforts by volunteering, turning out for events, conserving their private lands, and writing checks. Bozeman residents do all this because they believe in GVLT’s mission: to connect people, communities, and open lands through conservation of working farms and ranches, healthy rivers, and wildlife habitat, and the creation of trails in the Montana headwaters of the Missouri and upper Yellowstone rivers. 

That’s an ambitious assignment, to be sure, but one that’s clearly working—GVLT has already preserved thousands of acres of productive agricultural land, protected scenic views, and secured important wildlife habitat throughout the region. Not to mention the 80-some miles of trails weaving through Bozeman proper, connecting each part of town with every other and with the area’s open land, on which Melissa and thousands like her find solace and rejuvenation every day.

Chris Boyd founded GVLT 30 years ago. His passion and love for the Gallatin Valley were instrumental in organizing a dedicated group of volunteers, board members, staff, and supporters. After moving to Bozeman from Missoula, Boyd foresaw the development that was coming to the valley and, as the city grew, he steered the community to preserve open space and set aside pathways to the nearby public land.

One of GVLT’s first successes was working with the City of Bozeman and the Burke family to secure the open space of Peets Hill, and to develop trails on this iconic plateau above town. But the much-loved park was only a fraction of Boyd’s vision. Way before anyone even imagined that Bozeman would grow from a cow-town into a bustling micro-metropolis, he had the idea of connecting the wooded Gallatin Range in the south to the imposing ridgeline of the Bridgers in the north by trail, through the various neighborhoods, subdivisions, and open fields along the way.

Dubbing it “Main Street to the Mountains,” Boyd and GVLT worked tirelessly to establish connectivity from north to south and everywhere in between. “Just as Rome was not built in a day,” wrote Boyd in an early newsletter for the budding organization, “trail projects like Main Street to the Mountains are often completed piece by piece.” After Peets Hill, other pieces began to fit together: the arterial Gallagator, the southside trails spilling out to Goldenstein, the labyrinthine network around the East Gallatin Recreation Area, and the many neighborhood trails on the west side of town, among others. But making those final, vital connections—to the Bridger and Gallatin ranges—proved elusive.

GVLT Founder Chris Boyd and early patron Gertrude Baker

In the mid-’90s, GVLT helped facilitate the creation of the Triple Tree Trail, with help from Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and adjacent private landowners. Shortly thereafter, the Hyalite View and Painted Hills subdivisions incorporated sections of trail into their neighborhoods, in a partnership between the developers and GVLT. These all took time, however, and Boyd passed away before seeing through his vision.  

After Boyd’s death, work continued at GVLT and in 2006, during the construction of the Bozeman Public Library, a trail was built from Main Street to Burke Park that tied into the Gallagator and the Highland Glen complex. Many more segments were completed, and in 2018, after tremendous effort (and patience), GVLT secured the final easement in the Painted Hills and built a connector trail to Triple Tree. The first complete linkage of the Main Street to the Mountains network—tying the town trails to the Gallatin Range—was complete.

With Boyd’s vision tantalizingly close, it was time to focus on the last major piece of the puzzle: a trail connecting the north side of town with the M and Drinking Horse Mountain. Efforts had begun years before, and approval had been obtained; now it was time to get to work. To get funding for the trail, GVLT partnered with the Federal Highway Administration, the City of Bozeman, and the U.S. Forest Service. Construction began in April of last year and was completed in October. Boyd’s dream had come to fruition, and as if to commemorate the man and his efforts, people immediately turned out en masse—runners, bikers, families, and dog-walkers all swarmed to this much-needed community asset. 

The immense popularity is unsurprising. Before the trail existed, runners and cyclists had to brave a busy road with no shoulder, or else drive to the trailhead, where parking has become a serious problem in recent years—not to mention a safety concern. Now, the two-mile section on the north side of Bridger Drive provides a paved, multi-use pathway that allows people to safely travel from their homes to the trailheads, by bicycle or on foot. Once there, they can take a quick hike, climb Mount Baldy, or connect to the Foothills Trail for a longer foray deep into the Bridger Range.

This connector was funded by the Bozeman Trails, Open Space, and Parks bond and the Federal Land Access Program at a cost of four million dollars. When the bond passed, it had over 60% support from voters. “This community is remarkable,” says then-executive director Penelope Pierce, acknowledging the public’s role in bringing the trail to fruition. “They put their money where their mouths are, they work hard, and they’re committed to trails.” So committed, in fact, that after finishing the multi-use path to the M, the in-town trail tally hit a whopping 80 miles. That’s the length of three marathons, all accessible from our front doors.

Now that there are trails from Main Street to the mountains on both sides of town, what’s next for GVLT? Plenty, says trail director Matt Parsons. The trails need maintenance every year and he’s always looking for extra hands. Matt has a long list of projects this summer, and encourages everyone to take part. “Volunteering to build and maintain trails is something people in Bozeman really love,” Matt says. 

Bozeman’s community-supported trail work begins each year with National Trails Day, on the first Saturday of June, when hundreds of locals join GVLT to get the trails in shape for a busy summer season ahead. Volunteers shovel dirt, bag trash, and pull weeds all over town. The commitment and enthusiasm are inspiring, says Parsons, and “it kicks off a summer-long investment in trail work.”

Volunteer work on the Highland Glen complex

It also kicks off GVLT’s main fundraising event of the year—the Summer Trails Challenge—which runs through the month of June. Participants run, hike, bike, and walk their dogs on any of the local trails and log their miles weekly on GVLT’s website. Sponsors from the business community donate a dollar for every mile logged. The event raises upwards of $50k each year.

These funds are vital to the organization’s ongoing efforts, which involve much more than building trails. GVLT has also facilitated the protection of some 50,000 acres of prime agricultural soils, scenic views, and wildlife habitat through conservation easements, which are voluntary legal agreements that permanently limit uses of the land in order to protect conservation values.

With the public’s continued support, GVLT remains in a strong position to prioritize open lands. More projects are being funded by Gallatin County Open Lands Program, which was renewed by voters in June of 2018. Earlier this past May, Bozeman voters further supported parks and trails by approving a new annual fee to help cover the backlog of maintenance for the city’s green spaces. 

Nor is the trail-building complete. With the original goal achieved, and Bozeman still booming, GVLT will shift its focus to the west, where most of the new subdivisions are going in. They’ll work closely with the county and developers to put in more trails as the town continues to grow. That 80-mile tally will keep increasing, and disjointed sections between neighborhoods will be connected. Boyd’s puzzle pieces are still being placed, one at a time. 

Opportunities for recreation right outside your front door

After Melissa squeezed in her warm-up run to the M, her kids joined her for the next part of the day’s adventure: a jaunt along the Bridger Foothills trail, now a continuation of the Main Street to the Mountains system. Although her entire family is getting into hiking and trail running, Melissa’s youngest, at five, has taken to it the most. Ridge raced ahead, burning up energy and finding a brief moment of bliss away from his screen and homework. 

At the end of the day, when Melissa tucked him into bed, Ridge asked if they could plan another trail-running adventure for the following weekend. It was a request that brought a smile to Melissa’s face when she thought of all the possibilities, all the trails out there awaiting them, and how they could start their next outing right from their front door. 

A Parcel for the Public
On the west side of Mount Baldy, a fan of drainages fork together, funneling wind and water downward into a beautiful canyon called Middle Cottonwood. It’s among the most beloved and popular spots in the Bridgers, and in recent months rumors began echoing about development on a section of private land near the trailhead, threatening the future of Middle Cottonwood and the public’s access to it.

Those threats have now been eliminated, thanks to a collaborative effort spearheaded by our friends at GVLT. A 160-acre parcel of land near the mouth of the canyon was purchased in early April of this year, and will remain in the hands and interest of the public. And not only for recreational purposes—the area holds essential habitat for a variety of wildlife, and is mapped as critical winter range for elk and deer. Thanks again, GVLT, for saving another piece of what we all hold dear.
—Corey Hockett

GVLT by the Numbers

~35 Main Street to the Mountains trail miles in 2000

80+ Main Street to the Mountains trail miles in 2020

19 Trail-improvement projects

3 Bridges improved

2 Parking lots added/improved

48 Thousand acres preserved

4 Trails & trail systems added

  • Highland Glen
  • East Gallatin Rec Area
  • Drinking Horse
  • Chestnut Mountain