Carving out the 10 best of anything in Montana is a daunting task, for Montana is home to it all. Whether spinning through a splatter-painted meadow on a twisted alpine ascent or along lonely sinuous roads that dissolve into the distant horizon, cycling here can be as varied and challenging as the weather. The reward for meeting that challenge are fleeting moments when you crest a climb and the unfolding view of snowcapped peaks and verdant prairie below is permanently etched into your soul. The following is just a sampling of rides that no cyclist should miss in the Last Best Place.
1. Mountain: Zimmerman Park has several miles of single track on the rim above Billings, perfect for the timid first-timer through the advanced enthusiast. Park in the lot off HWY 3 about 400 yards past Zimmerman Trail Road, just west of the Airport. Trails near the trailhead are wider and suited to spinning along at a leisurely pace. Closer to the rim, they become increasingly difficult, with technical sandstone climbs and cliff-side exposure reminiscent of southern Utah. The loamy soil dries quickly and the forests within the park are a real treat. Beyond the rim, views of Billings and the surrounding landscape offer a whole different perspective of Yellowstone County.
2. Road: On Saturday mornings the Prairie Wind Café in Molt, MT, caters to cyclists, locals and tourists alike with live music, good eats, and a down home Montana experience you won’t soon forget. Group rides from Billings to Molt follow State Road 302 along a 45-mile route and include a stop at the café for breakfast or pie or both; it’s 45 miles after all.
Drop by Montana Cycling and Ski or visit www.montanacycling.com for extensive information on biking: a guide to the right bike for you, helmets, comfort level, fitness, the electric bike, and much more. Also, learn about the many rides for nonprofits and the latest group to form, Montana Women on Wheels.
Bozeman/ Gallatin Valley
3. Mountain: The Bangtail Divide loop is a 32-mile (including seven miles on Bridger Canyon Road) jaunt across the Bangtail Range just north of Bozeman. Rob at Bangtail Bikes “especially like[s] the holistic nature of this ride. You get a little bit of everything—steep but ride-able climbing, open meadows, views of six different mountain ranges, and fast, fun descents.” Options for shorter out and back rides via Stone Creek and Grassy Mountain are available, but to ride as a loop, park at the “Brackett Creek Y” (or Grassy Mountain) Trailhead, ride the road back to Stone Creek, then grind up to the Divide Trail, across the range and down Grassy Mountain. All in all about 4 1/2 hours if you’re in good shape. Erica, manager of the Roundhouse, says, “Learning to ride the rugged terrain around the Bozeman area will shape you into a more solid rider for anywhere else.”
4. Roads in Yellowstone National Park: The guys at Summit Bikes insist any visit to Southwest Montana must include a trip to America’s first National Park. What better way to experience the wild grandeur than from the saddle of your bicycle? Early spring and late autumn are the best times to ride the park roads as they are closed to motorized traffic, but really, any time is great for a bicycle tour in Yellowstone. The Upper Loop is 70 miles and takes you from the Mammoth Terraces over Dunraven Pass to Canyon and back through Norris Geyser Basin. Plenty of camping along the way to prolong your Yellowstone visit.
5. Mountain: The Wapiti Loops in the Taylor Fork have several riding options depending on how much time you have. Park at the Wapiti Cabin about six miles up the Taylor Fork Drainage on Little Wapiti Rd. Start up the “Oil Well Road” until it intersects the Slide Creek trail. Say right and follow the ridge; don’t forget to take in the views of Skyline Ridge and the Taylor-Hilgard Wilderness Unit. At the Little Wapiti Trail junction you can descend through the forest and out Little Wapiti Creek for a total distance of 14 miles, or if you’re the more adventurous type, you can continue along the ridge to Pika Point or Carrot Basin. The terrain gets increasingly wild the further you go. Bring bear spray, as this is serious grizzly country.
Tom Owen, owner of Gallatin Alpine Sports, recommends that tourists try the old logging roads first to test their ability. The store has maps and runs full day and half-day tours. Owen says that people from cities are used to designated trails but that when riding in the mountains, you get the pleasures of seeing meadow flowers, solitude, and satisfying exercise.
6. Road: RATPOD – Hands down one of the best road rides in Montana! The 130-mile Ride-Around-the-Pioneers-In-One-Day fundraiser for Camp Mak-A-Dream takes you through the heart of the Pioneer Mountains. “We are celebrating our 10th Anniversary this year and hope to raise $2million to fund cost-free camp experiences for young people with cancer,” says Jennifer Benton, Event Director. “Every year people come back to enjoy the incredible views and communities along the way.” Riders travel through open rangeland, towering pine forests, and along the Big Hole River. The event is capped at 650 riders and usually fills on the first day of registration. For the cyclist seeking a real, self-supported adventure – outside of the official RATPOD event – campgrounds in the Pioneers offer opportunity for a multi-day tour once the road opens. Detailed directions and event information can be found at www.ratpod.org.
7. Mountain: The Warm Springs Ridge ride begins at Lost Trail Ski area and runs 25 miles up the service road, across Warm Springs Ridge and Porcupine Saddle, out Warm Springs Creek and back on Hwy 93. Suitable for novice to expert, it has several places along the way to shorten the loop and “escape” if the weather gets bad or you’re feeling the previous night’s festivities a little more than you thought. “Best single track in the area,” according to the kind folks at Valley Bikes in Hamilton, “high elevation, alpine views, smooth meadows, sections of tight technical switchbacks and fast, fun descents.” Stop into Valley Bikes or Red Barn Bicycles and they’ll show you where to go.
8. Road: 1st annual Ride de Root spins off on Saturday July 9th. This 100-mile, fully supported road ride follows the lonesome back roads of the Bitterroot Valley. Registration is $45 and includes a t-shirt, support, and entry to the post-ride wine tasting. Proceeds will benefit the City of Darby Parks and Recreation Department; see www.darbymt.net for info and registration.
9. Road: Out of Missoula take HWY 200 along the Blackfoot River to Clearwater Jct. About half way you can take the spur road to Garnet Ghost Town if you have stout tires. The ride is 80 miles round trip to Clearwater Junction and back with sweeping views of the Jocko Range, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the Seeley – Swan ranges. Alex at Missoula Bicycle Works likes this ride, because “It takes you through the Potomac Valley, an active ranching community, and is dotted with farm houses and long standing family ranches.” When you get to “The Cow” in Clearwater – don’t worry, you’ll know it when you get there – it’s time to turn around and head for home.
10. Mountain: Sheep Mountain Loop in the Rattlesnake Valley north of Missoula is a five-hour high alpine assault of the best Missoula has to offer and recommended by Missoula Bike Works for intermediate to advanced riders. It is a technical, heart-thumping ascent, a roller coaster downhill, with a saunter up Sheep Mountain in between. From the parking area at the base of Mount Jumbo Saddle, ride north to the Blue Point/Sheep Mountain Trail #513. Ascend Blue Point and then Sheep Mountain for a 360-degree panorama of wild Montana at its finest. Take a break and eat some lunch, but don’t lose it screaming down Sheep Mountain. Keep an eye out for the turn that brings you out Rattlesnake Creek or you’ll be riding to your car on HWY 200 instead of single track.
Ben Donatelle tells us: I got my first Huffy Dirt Bike on my fifth birthday and from then on spent my days terrorizing the neighborhood and riding the roads and trails of the Midwest. For the past nine years I have lived, worked, and played around Bozeman, MT. I like to ride bicycles, wrench on mechanical contraptions, ski, snowboard, garden, and arrange words to create somewhat meaningful ideas.