Bagging Big Sky Country
Ever since I was exiled from Montana in 2008, I’ve vowed to return. But taking any vacation, let alone a bike vacation, can be tough. So when my eldest told me she wanted to attend Montana State University, I suddenly had a built-in excuse to visit my beloved Big Sky Country. Taking her to college put me there; all I had to do was bring the bike along and . . . ta daaah—instant mountain bike vacation among one of the greatest concentrations of stunning singletrack on the planet!
Day 1: Guernsey State Park, Wyoming
Midway through day one of my drive from Colorado Springs to Bozeman, I made a little detour off I-25 to check out a little-known trail system so I could add it to the Singletracks database. Guernsey Reservoir is well known among water sports enthusiasts, but the trails that line the limestone cliffs above the reservoir are relatively untraveled. The area was recently burned, so the combination of limestone shelves and blackened trees gave the area a forbidding appearance, but the singletrack, while somewhat limited, was sweet. There are two loops: the south loop is fairly short, but full of switchbacks and technical lines while the northern trail loop is more smooth. As a unique feature, the starting point is the high point above the reservoir and the trail goes downhill either way—meaning you have a stiff climb to finish. I probably wouldn’t go too far out of my way to hit this one, but it was unique, interesting, and beat the heck out of going all day without riding!
Day 2: Line Creek Plateau, Red Lodge, Montana
Let me cut to the chase on this one—Line Creek Plateau is a must for any adventurous rider’s bucket list. Here you’ll find about 10 miles of riding across a broad, high alpine plateau followed by an all out plummet of 3,200 verts in about 4.5 miles. Two things made this a most excellent day—first, I met up with an old colleague in Billings who was able to break free to accompany me on the ride; second, since my daughter is a non-rider, I had a ready-made shuttle driver to take us to the top!
The entry into the plateau requires a drop across a deep drainage passing by a couple alpine lakes. Once on top of the plateau, we lost the trail many times as rock cairns were few and far between. Even when there were visible cairns, they seemed to mislead us half the time. Even though the trail traverses a plateau, that doesn’t mean it’s flat—you will gain and lose significant chunks of altitude many times and the tundra surface will wear on your legs. While this was a shuttle ride for us, it still wasn’t a cake walk. Many times, we thought we were coming to the end of the plateau, but we weren’t—there always seemed to be yet another climb across the next knoll.
When we finally reached the end of the plateau and started the downhill, we were so ready for it—and boy, was it worth it. The only parts of me that got tired for the next 5 miles were my middle fingers from squeezing the brakes.
The scenery throughout was spectacular, especially up top, where there were million mile views into both Montana and Wyoming. Unfortunately, they were generally obscured by the smoke drifting in from wildfires in Idaho. Smoke notwithstanding, this was one of my all-time best days on knobbies—highly recommended if you’re an experienced biker and get the chance to ride it.
I spent days 3 and 4 participating in Parent Orientation at MSU, which was great fun, but left zero time for riding. So, on day 5 I caught up by hitting two of Bozeman’s local favorites.
The Leverich Trail is a purpose-built MTB trail–a lollipop that is mostly pop with a short stick. It does, however, climb quite rapidly, gaining 1,400 verts in only about three miles. The subsequent downhill was built for maximum flow with wonderfully bermed corners. This is the type of trail that invites just about anybody willing to earn their turns—I saw spandex-clad aerobic junkies along with armored-up kids who pushed their heavy rigs up much of the climb. This trail is also a great success story for the locals. Built through the sweat equity of a dedicated band of locals, it replaced some bad, unsustainable and quite possibly illegal trails and did so within the good graces of the private landowner. Hooray for partnership!
South Cottonwood is a creek that creates a lush drainage just south of Bozeman, a couple canyons to the west of Leverich. This is a local favorite for all trail users as it is relatively easy (up to a point), densely wooded, and just plain pleasant in every respect. After a stiff switchback climb from the trailhead, the grade mellows for the next four miles, save for an occasional foray up and away from the creek. There are a number of loop options from this canyon, all of which require serious commitment, lungs, and legs. Having already partially fried my quads on Leverich, I opted for a simple out-and-back totaling about 13 miles.
Later I learned the trail had been cleared of major deadfall only two days before my ride. As it turns out, the local MTBers had teamed up with an equestrian group to clear the trail. The horses carried in the chainsaws and the MTBers used them to cut through all the blockage. Hooray for teamwork and harmonious relationships among trail users!
This is a great place to bring a newb or improving rider as it gets more technical in stages—anybody can choose their personal level of pleasure and/or pain.
With four days to go on my trip there was still plenty of singletrack left to explore. Stay tuned for the continuation as I hit Chestnut and Buck Ridge and get a chance to help some of the locals with trail maintenance.