Nicknamed the “Big Sky State,” Montana is one of the largest and most breathtaking states in the U.S., and a great locale for those looking for technical, challenging and scenically beautiful trails designed for the sport of mountain biking.
Located in the northwestern region of the United States, Montana is the fourth-largest state in the union by total area, but only the 44th-most populous, ranking it 48th out of 50 in terms of population density. This proliferation of land, mostly prairies and mountainous terrain, and the absence of population, makes it the perfect destination for those looking to tackle some of the most difficult and awe-inspiring courses in the world
Some 77 percent of Montana is prairie land, as the state is part of the Great Plains region. However, the western third of Montana also contains numerous mountain ranges, including the Northern Rockies. Smaller mountain ranges belonging to this chain are found throughout the state, including the Absaroka, Beartooth, Bitterroot, and Cabinet mountain ranges. In total, there are 77 named ranges that are technically part of the Rocky Mountains, giving riders a virtually unlimited landscape to explore by bike. Other major mountain ranges that lie west of the Great Divide include the Anaconda Range, the Missions, the Garnet Range, Sapphire Mountains, and the Flint Creek Range.
In the following article we will introduce you to five of the most popular mountain biking trails in the state of Montana, and provide a brief description highlighting the various characteristics of each trail.
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Line Creek Plateau
Located in the small town of Red Lodge, Montana, the Line Creek Plateau trail is one of the most popular trails in the state, and also one of the most difficult given the many technical challenges it presents. An expert-rated, black-diamond course, the trail measures 16 miles in length and features a 1,600 foot climb and a whopping 5,800 foot descent that is absolutely littered with a wide array of exciting obstacles.
Upon reaching the apex of the Line Creek Plateau Trail, high upon the ridgeline, riders will be exposed to some of the most amazing views the Big Sky State has to offer. Once riders rest and take in the majesty of this scenic point, they will then embark on a rapid descent, one that drops an incredible 3,500 feet in the first four miles. So fast is this downhill section that riders may need to take a break to rest their braking hand/fingers before proceeding with the rest of the course.
In the same area in which the Line Creek Plateau is located, inclement weather has a tendency to roll in quickly, including some fairly powerful thunder and lightning storms during the summertime months. Because of this, cyclists are urged to keep a close eye on the clouds during their ride, and to head for shelter at the first sign of thunder and lightning.
Grassy Mountain Loop
The Grassy Mountain Loop is a 16-mile course situated in the great city of Bozeman, Montana. Rated as intermediate in terms of its difficulty level, the track rises and falls an average of 2,700 feet and is designed to be ridden in a counter-clockwise direction.
The Grassy Mountain Loop commences with a rather lengthy ascent up a fire road, ultimately leading to a large grass meadow that is literally beaming with the colors of the local flora during the spring and summer months. From here, the trail descends slightly until it links up with the single track road—an old four wheel drive track that includes a wide array of bumps and natural jumps and drop-offs. Cyclists follow this single track road to the top of the climb, from where they are rewarded with a very rapid and ultra-fun descent.
Along the Grassy Mountain Loop, riders will need to negotiate a massive assortment of obstacles, including some rather steep, rocky and root laden drops near the top of the course, followed by several bermed and banked turns. The descent concludes, following a series of tight and twisty switchbacks, at the sparkling waters of Brackett Creek.
Not only is the Grass Mountain Loop one of the most popular, well ridden and challenging courses in the Bozeman area of Montana, it is also one of the most breathtaking settings for a relaxing nature ride.
Mt. Helena Ridge Trail
Situated in the city of Helena—the capital of Montana—the Mt. Helena Ridge Trail is part of the South Hills Trail system, one of the most loved recreational spots in the entire state. Measuring approximately 5.5 miles in total length—11 miles when ridden as a counter-clockwise loop—this intermediate rated course, which sits at over 5,000 feet above sea level, includes a 737 foot ascent and 900 foot drop.
The Mt. Helena Ridge Trail, which is accessed by the trailhead of the same name on Prospector Gulch Road, is considered the hub for many different exciting courses also available in this trail system.
From the trailhead, the course begins a steady climb, ultimately bringing riders into a relatively flat, steady-pedaling portion of the track that skirts the slopes and gives cyclists their first taste of the amazing and majestic ridgeline. Then, after a bumpy and loose gravelly climb to the peak of the course, the route transforms into a very fast descent characterized by switchbacks and a number of natural obstacles: roots, rocks, berms and drop-offs, which collectively test the riders’ fitness levels and bike handling skills.
The Mt. Helena Ridge Trail offers awesome scenery through some of the most gorgeous hardwood forests in the nation. Riders may also encounter some of the local wildlife in the area, as sightings of deer munching on the nearby vegetation are very common.
Woods Gulch Trail
Located in the famed town of Missoula, Montana, the trail system at Woods Gulch features a 6-mile, intermediate-rated course that is rapidly gaining popularity for its unique set of challenges.
The Woods Gulch Trail is a loop course that starts and ends at the Rattlesnake Recreation Area trailhead—a mostly single track course that includes a cumulative elevation gain of 1,780 feet and takes an average of 1.5 hours to ride.
The Woods Gulch Trail loop links to a variety of other trails in Missoula, while offering high and amazing views from the saddle of Mount Jumbo, and a superbly challenging downhill through the heart of Woods Gulch—a trip that can be very tricky to negotiate at times.
In addition to some fairly grueling climbs and the very rapid and technically-challenging descent, the Woods Gulch Trail also includes a number of patience-testing obstacles, ranging from jutting roots and rock gardens, to jumps and berms on some very unsteady track.
The Woods Gulch Trail is closed for a portion of every year to help conserve the elk population that winters on the mountain, but from May until late October, the course is always open, 7 days a week, treating riders to a great mountain biking adventure and an even better natural sightseeing outing.
Beaver Ponds Trail
The Beaver Ponds Trail is a six-mile route that is rated intermediate in terms of its difficulty level. The course is located in the great town of Butte, Montana, considered one of the most beautiful areas in the entire state.
Situated at just over 6,000 feet in elevation, the mountain-based Beaver Ponds Trail commences with a paved highway climb leading to the main trailhead. This initial climb can only be described as “brutal,” but once riders reach the top, the course morphs into a sweet single track ride that is as challenging as it is entertaining. The often twisty and flowing route is followed by a fast and very scenic descent which forces riders to cross some difficult marshy land that is guaranteed to muddy even the most careful riders.
Overall, the Beaver Ponds Trail system is nothing short of amazing, and showcases all of the natural glory Southwestern Montana has to offer. With 80 percent single track and 20 percent wider double track, the course is perfect for every level of rider, including those relatively new to the sport of mountain biking looking to perfect some important bike handling skills.
Traversing through lodge-pole pines and aspen trees, the Beaver Ponds Trail is definitely a treat for all who opt to ride it. Additionally, the Beaver Ponds Trail is one of the better known courses in the Butte region, and it has recently seen some revisions designed to make the trail a bit more rider friendly. This includes a nearly-completed plan to add a detour around some of the marshes and muddier portions of the course.
image credit:Flickr/Nathaniel Homier