If I’m being honest, I never saw myself as a “mountain biker.”
Long, exhausting workouts were never something I particularly looked forward to. I would take a climate-controlled Netflix binge over a sweaty, dirty workout any day.
Then I moved to Helena, MT, and all that changed. I had recently swapped an 8-to-5 corporate job for full-time freelance photography, and ended up being invited to shoot some local enduro races. And that’s when the transition happened: These people were some of the kindest in town, and if I wanted to shoot or hang out with them, I had to be there. And “being there” required being on a bike.
Those first few months were filled with “this-sucks-I-want-to-die” moments, but the thought of what was ahead kept me going—the next summit and the downhill that followed, the flowy singletrack into tacky berms. I wanted it. I craved it. I was hooked.
I’m not the only one who has made such a transition. As a Silver Level IMBA Ride Center surrounded by nearly 500 miles of trails, Helena has become one of Montana’s definitive biking destinations. Largely thanks to the elevation and dry climate, trail access in Helena stretches from spring until fall, and with the vast majority of trails ending a few-minute pedal from celebratory beers and burritos—well, it’s easy to be converted.
The closest Helena classics are part of South Hills, a trail network winding through the 100-year-old Mount Helena City Park. Despite abutting the town’s southern edge, it is surprisingly extensive and varied, with 80 miles of trail encompassing everything from XC loops to ripping flow lines. The centerpiece is the Mount Helena Ridge trail, which starts with a moderate, switchback-filled climb that helps justify a few post-ride beers. The 360-degree view from the top is almost as enjoyable as the descent, a mix of flow and white-knuckle steeps that ends a short coast from downtown.
Entertainment is another South Hills gem, one that lives up to its name with a mix of high-speed, flowy, rocky tech and tricky switchbacks that drop you onto a road not far from Blackfoot River Brewing Co. Entertainment (and the Ridge Trail) is a stop for the Trail Rider shuttle, possibly one of the more unique riding options in Helena. Supported by local businesses, the Trail Rider picks up bikers, hikers and trail runners from downtown, and brings them to trailheads throughout the Helena area. It’s also completely free.
My personal favorite—and the Trail Rider’s Sunday stop—is the Continental Divide trail from MacDonald Pass, one of the area’s many alpine epics. With an overall descent of nearly 2,300 feet, Mac Pass is the quintessential “enduro trail:” The climb to the route’s high point is a mix of beautiful forest pedaling, rocky hike-a-bikes and steep, punchy climbs. The effort, however, is well rewarded, with a descent full of flowy singletrack, techy rock gardens and spiderwebs of roots that will challenge any rider. I recommend catching this ride at sunrise; riding through a Montana forest with warm, golden light at your back and the trail ahead is quite an experience.
A trail resume as impressive as Helena’s doesn’t come about by accident, and much of that reputation is thanks to the work of two nonprofits, the Montana Bicycle Guild and Prickly Pear Land Trust. Montana Bicycle Guild is the local advocacy organization, a collection of riders who represent mountain bikers as a user group, and PPLT partners with the city, the USFS and private landowners to acquire and preserve open spaces around Helena and the surrounding counties. Thanks to the two groups’ efforts, Helena’s reputation and riding will only improve in decades to come.
I’ve been in Helena for a number of years, and I’m shooting mountain biking more than ever. While I still haven’t given up my Netflix binges, I’m no longer surprised by my transition to mountain bike nut. In a town with a lineup of trails rivaled only by its incredible community, it’s almost impossible not to ride.
Freehub Magazine Issue 8.3, the Montana Photo Book, is a visual guide to the trails of the Treasure State. We selected four local photographers, Reid Morth, Jason O'Neil, Tom Robertson and Nick VanHorn, to document their respective hometowns of Big Sky, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish and capture the experience and vibe that fill the mountains of the Montana high country. Be sure to check out all the other articles!