Helena, MT

After conquering the climb on the Mount helena Ridge Trail, Keenan Cox, Dan Barry and Brian Elliott drop into a mellow flowy descent through the pines. Keep your eyes up, though; a few steep and loose sections await farther down. CANON 1/1000 sec, f/3.2, ISO 1600

Helena, MT In-Town Epics and Alpine Enduro with Jason O’Neil

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.

Beyond owning Great Divide Cyclery and the Garage, Dan Barry is one of Helena's many long-time mountain bike advocates. Barry enjoys the fruits of the community's labors along the South Hill's Ridge Trail. CANON 1/320 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1000
MacDonald Pass is hard to beat at sunrise; the initial descent offers a variety of terrain, a preview of the seven-mile journey to come. Keenan Cox digs in on the CDT. CANON 1/1000 sec, f/7.1, ISO 1600
Navigating the rock gardens on MacDonald Pass requires full focus. Brian Elliott stomps out an aggressive line on an early Sunday morning. CANON 1/2000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800
Pacific Northwest or Montana? Early Summer in the Treasure State can be as lush as just about anywhere. CANON 1/800 sec, f/2.8, ISO 640
After a gauntlet of technical climbs and chunky rock gardens, Dave Dalthorp, Brian Elliott and Dan Barry slow things down to enjoy some of the CDT's bountiful meadows. CANON 1/2500 sec, f/2.8,ISO 250
High speeds and huge smiles. Nick Carroll, Xander Baumeister and Chris Charlton take the Entertainment trail literally. CANON 1/800 sec, f/2.8. ISO 160
In 2015, Helena earned a Silver Level Ride Center designation from IMBA, the only community in Montana to do so. CANON 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2000
While Entertainment winds through plenty of meadows, it also ducks into sections of pine and juniper forests, a variety that's made the trail a local favorite for riders of all skill levels. Tavin Charlton leads his parents, Angie and Chris, through some heavy Montana timber. CANON 1/2000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2000
Entertainment is one of the shorter trails in the South Hills system, but offers some of the fastest flow and is one of the most coveted local Strava "King of the Mountain" titles. Xander Baumeister rips a corner as he tries for first place. CANON 1/1000 sec, f/2.8, ISO 2500

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!