Friday, June 16, 2017

Mountain Biking Helena, Montana: Mt Helena Ridge and South Hills Tails

During my time in Montana, I was planning on spending two days in Bozeman.  I originally planned on riding one of Montana's premier mountain bike rides, the Bangtail Divide, one of my days.  The area usually holds snow fairly late in the season however making a late May ride tricky.  About 2 weeks before my trip, the mountains of the area received up to 2 feet of snow.  This included the terrain along the Bangtail Divide.

With my prospects of riding the Bangtail Divide looking bleak, I changed my plans and headed to Helena.  From what I gathered, the Helena area has one of the better trail systems for mountain biking in Montana.  Groups dedicated to mountain biking have been working hard to turn the existing trails in the Helena National Forest and Mount Helena City Park into a mountain biking destination.  The trails are all also below 6000' in elevation and snowy trails aren't really an issue in late May.

The trail system starts right from the southern edge of town in Mount Helena City Park and continues into Helena National Forest.  The trails seem fairly widespread.  Before riding I stopped at a bike shop for the local trail map.  The shop I chose was currently out of maps.  The bike shop worker ensured me the trails are easy to follow and the trailheads had signs and kiosks with maps.  The signature trail in the area is the Mt Helena Ridge Trail.  The bike shop suggest routes in the area and gave me directions to the Dump Gulch Trailhead and sure enough there was a kiosk with a map at the trailhead.

Despite the maps at trailhead, not all the trails are marked
and trails seem to have been added since the maps
were put up.

I studied the map and tried to pick out a route that involved riding the length of the Mt Helena Ridge Trail.  The trailhead is at the end of Grizzly Gulch.  I almost immediately missed an unmarked turn I intended to follow to reach a singletrack climb.  This of course put me off my planned ride.  I passed another marked junction that I didn't recognize since I wasn't on my intended course.  Nonetheless, Grizzly Gulch Road meanders uphill for 4 or so miles to the upper trailhead of the Mt Helena Ridge Trail with signs pointing the way.

After 4 miles of dirt road, I reached the start of the Mt Helena Ridge Trail and singletrack riding.  The trailhead had another kiosk with a map.  From the start, the Mt Helena Ridge Trail starts out with a fairly steep climb gaining 600 feet in about a mile and a half.  The trail is nice singletrack much of the way and the climbing is manageable despite being relatively steep.

Near the start of Mt Helena Ridge
Riding early on Mt Helena Ridge

Wide open meadow

The trail travels through a large meadow for a majority of the climb.  There are some nice views of the surrounding terrain, particularly looking back to the low mountains to the south.  What really made me enjoy the meadow was the wildflowers.

Rolling hills to the south

Riding south after a switchback

I must have hit the area right at the prime time for the wild sunflowers (I later found out these are arrowleaf balsamroot- a member of the sunflower tribe in the aster family).  It seemed like the sunflowers lined the trail much of this way through the meadow. A few other flowers bloomed along the trail but the others were mostly hidden by the vast blooms of sunflowers.

Trailside view of sunflowers

Making my way through sunflowers

Another trail view look at the sunflowers

Nearly endless sunflowers on the left side of the trail

The sunflowers never end

The trail switchbacks its way across the meadow to the highpoint of the ride around 5800' in elevation.  From the starting trailhead, I climbed around 1500' nearly continuously for the past 6 miles.  As the trail reaches the highpoint it occasionally passes through sections of coniferous forest.  From the high point of the ride, it's worthwhile riding a few feet across the grass to a decent lookout to the south.

Looking across the meadow
Smooth singletrack

The trail was a little looser here

Nearing the trees

From the high point, the sky was beginning to darken.  It looked like a shower or even a thunderstorm was possible.  I could only go downhill at this point so I figured I could always cut the ride short if necessary.
Looking south into increasing clouds

Leaving the high point, the trail begins a fun descent.  The trail travels through fairly tight coniferous forest at times, quite steeplywith  tight turns.  The trail is usually quite smooth.  Occasionally the  forest opens up passing through meadows along the trees.  At other times the trail leaves the forest all together and travels through wide open meadows.  In the meadows, the views always open up, including a few places where you can look into Helena.

Dropping into the forest

Starting downhill

Skies are looking more threatening

Lush forest
Helena airport at the base of the mountain in the valley

Looking over parts of Helena

Generally the trail travels downhill, although there are occasional brief climbs.  The wild sunflowers are abundant in nearly every meadow and even in some sections of the forest.  There seemed to a fair number of lupines as well at spots.

Dropping back into a meadow

Rain in the distance

The nice singletrack continues

The trail through the meadows made for nice riding

I saw an interesting sight in one meadow crossing.  As I pedaled around a bend, a large redtail hawk took flight.  The hawk was carrying a decent size snake it its talons as it flew away.

A carpet of sunflowers

Lupine's view of the trail


Since the weather was still dry, I decided to continue onto the Mt Helena City Park Trails.  Often if I'm in a new place, I like to ride the perimeters of a trail system to put on some distance on a cross country type ride.  My plan was to drop off the Mt Helena Ridge Trail, connect to Andy's Trail via a short connector, join Ambrose, and finally to the Dump Out Trail; which would bring me a short distance to my starting trailhead.

Soon leaving Mt Helena Ridge

Things don't always go according to plan however.  I apologize if this starts to become confusing to read, but the next stretch of ride was confusing to follow.  My first junctions that led to Andy's Trail were marked.  Andy's dropped quite steeply on tight switchbacks toward the city.  Unfortunately, I reached another junction that listed Andy's and Old Chevy (Old Chevy is named such because there is an old abandoned Chevy truck in the woods along the trail), but not Ambrose.  I followed the unmarked trail hoping it was Ambrose.

Riding through the forest on Andy's

My assumption was wrong.  The trail I followed wasn't Ambrose. Not until I was home and writing this post I discovered the trail was called Seven Sisters and is not labeled, on any trailhead sign, or on the official, now outdated map.  I descended steeply down to a road.  To my right was a rail trail type trail heading in my general direction, so I followed it.  I quickly reached a local walking the trail and asked for info.  She told me of two different trails that are unmarked that would put me back toward my desired path.  She showed me her map for reference, noting that neither trail was labeled or on the area map which is now outdated.

Mt Helena

I followed her advice and soon found myself back at the end of Andy's, where I lost my way originally.  I tried another unmarked trail just below this junction.  Once again I found myself back on the rail trail (Le Grande Cannon Walkway I later found out).   I followed the Walkway in my general direction and tried a couple more trails. I finally found Ambrose after reaching a dead end by a residential area. It seemed every wrong way involved a short steep grind that to no avail.  A light rain began falling to make matters more enjoyable.

Riding just above a residential area

I eventually reached the main parking lot for Mt Helena City Park.  I followed what seemed to be the trail in my direction only to dead end a few hundred feet later in a residential area.  Once again I backtracked to the parking lot and asked another person if they knew what trail I wanted and of course she did not.  Another walker was coming from the trail and was equally not helpful but directed me to a trail map at the other end of the parking lot.

After consulting the map, the Dump Out trail was just ahead.  The junction sign begged to differ however.  Apparently the map and trails didn't mix.  Once again I consulted the map.  My best guess was to follow the Contour Trail. This is not on the map, but the trail name on the sign post at the junction that seemed most logical and headed in my direction.  I couldn't find a junction labeled Dump Out.  At least the rain stopped by this point.

So I followed the trail that was labeled Contour at the junction but apparently not even on the map.  Contour traveled in the direction that I needed to go.  It was actually a fairly nice trail.  As its name implies,  it contours the side of the slope.  It featured some fairly technical sections on ledgy rock before descending steeply into a gully.  The gully had an intersection with a sign.  I realized I was on the right path and apparently at some point Contour magically morphed into Dump Out.  A short, fast drop back brought me back to my starting trailhead.


I believe this is looking up Grizzly Gulch

Dump Out gets rocky at spots

At the trailhead, I looked at the map.  The map and actual trails definitely don't 100%  match up in names and majority of the intersections aren't marked on the trails in the city land.  The National Forest trails had much better signage.

Since the original intersection I missed at the start of the ride was only a 1/4 mile or so from the parking lot, I decided to check it out.  I realized the trail I sought out, Wakina Sky, started a short distance up the road.  The road, Wakina Sky Road wasn't marked at its start.  There was a short trail  to practice skills with berms that I followed up and back down before returning to the parking lot.  I wrapped up my ride at just over 20 miles.  I'm sure I could have made it shorter if I had better details on the trails.

Hopefully this blog didn't read too mumbled and confusing.  Unfortunately the trail system was confusing to me.  I usually have a good sense of direction and have years of map reading experience no problems navigating with a map. The map put out locally in bike shops in Helena is a few years old and doesn't contain several newer trails.  The maps at the trailhead kiosks aren't much better.  The best resource I can offer for first timers riding here is a website called click Mt. Helena South Hills for that page.  This was by far the most useful and up to date details on the area.  Unfortunately I didn't reference before my trip.  It would have saved me a lot of hassle.

Despite the difficulties, the trails around Helena were pretty nice and fun to ride.  They have real potential.  I only scratched the surface.  The Mt Helena Ridge Trail is definitely a worthwhile ride if you are in this part of the world.  Mt Helena Ridge is the signature trail of the area.  It was also well signed in the National Forest and easy to follow.  There is also a free shuttle that will transport you to the upper Mt Helena Ridge trailhead, allowing you to ride back to town and skip the climb.  There is a large number of trails east of Grizzly Gulch that I didn't ride.  I don't know if the maps and intersections are more accurate in that part of the trail system. The Mt Helena City Park is certainly not the best signed and map area I've ridden, especially for a place that seems to be making an effort to stand out as a mountain biking destination.  Riding the trail a couple times or riding with a local at least once might help as well.  There are a lot of trails in the area and riding groups in Helena seem to be working hard to make the area "the place" to ride in Montana.  I can't complain about the trails I did ride.  I would definitely ride the area again, but use for navigation.

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