Montana has a bit of an identity crisis. Most people know it by its unofficial nickname, “Big Sky Country.” However, its official nickname is “The Treasure State.” While different, these competing nicknames are actually complimentary, and Montana beautifully reflects both nicknames. Montana is indeed big. Even better, our fourth largest state has our seventh smallest population, making for plenty of solitude. While big, Montana is also chock full of treasures, many of which are of the singletrack variety. The total amount of tight and twisty in Montana is truly staggering.
Unfortunately, Montana has seen the loss of hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails to actual and recommended Wilderness designation, but fortunately, this huge state still holds opportunities for the adventurous rider. Like other large mountain states, limiting Montana to a mere five choices is an impossible task to execute with authority; here is a short list which may not be definitive, but is representative of the best of the Big Sky state.
Bangtail Divide (Bozeman)
Like any Montana trail, the Bangtail Divide serves up miles upon miles of fantastic scenery. This doesn’t come easy as there’s over 3,000 vertical feet of climbing, but once upon the ridge, there are 360-degree views of a dozen surrounding ranges, from gentle rounded ones, to jagged rocky ones, to snow capped above tree line ones. The trail is 22 miles and can be done as a point to point shuttle, or completed with another eight miles of relatively easy pavement. For those not up for the full route, a partial version known as the Grassy Mountain Loop is available. No matter how you do it, you’ll remember it vividly. But you’ll still want to bring your camera!
“Starting at stone creek and climbing like crazy is recommended. This sets you up for some great flowy downhill sections midway through the ride as well as some of my favorite steep, loose, rocky climbs. Scenery is amazing throughout, with views of the north Bridgers, Spanish Peaks, Battle Ridge, and so much more, while pedaling through terrain that ranges from extremely dry and dusty to cool and shaded, through thick forest with huge grassy sections in between. The full ride is varied in terrain and technicality, without any extreme downhill.” -brday10
Big Snowy Mountains Loop (Lewistown)
One of Montana’s “island ranges” (mountain ranges that pop up at seemingly random points out of the prairie), the Big Snowys harbor one of my all time favorites, generally called the Big Snowy Loop. Although totally unknown outside the local area, this gem combines a sequence of trails for the most epic 12 miles you will ever find. 2,500 feet of vertical climb up a dozen switchbacks takes you to the top of the world, by a year-round ice cave, and finishes with a positively bomber descent. The current Lewis & Clark National Forest brochure still lists this area as open to mountain biking, but it has been recommended for consideration as Wilderness, so hurry up and get it while you can!
“One of the finest descents on the planet” Double thumbs up to that! Love that trail!” -rayray74
Line Creek Plateau (Red Lodge)
You want five star scenery? How about total solitude? Big adventure with route finding and unpredictable weather? All that can be found in spades on the Line Creek Plateau. What’s more, you get to complete the ride with a screaming 3,200 vertical-foot descent in just 4.5 miles! It’s hard to imagine a ride that embodies the spirit of mountain biking any better than this one. Then there’s the very cool town of Red Lodge waiting at the bottom with a cold brew and one of the best-stocked candy stores in the country.
“This trail is an adventure… pure and simple. Start early, take lots of water. Topo Map and compass/GPS strongly recommended. This trail has miles of bushwhacking across the Beartooth plateau followed by 5 miles of incredible downhill. The is not a ride for the casual mountain biker.” -ctcarson24
Reid Divide (Whitefish)
Moving to far northwestern Montana, we arrive in the resort town of Whitefish, flanked by the absolutely stunning Glacier National Park on one side and miles of top quality singletrack on the other. The most famous of this singletrack is Reid Divide, generally ridden as a 21-mile loop from Tally Lake southwest of town. Starting with 10 miles of dirt road climbing over 3,000 vertical feet isn’t everybody’s idea of a must ride, but the payoff is so high, the inauspicious start is soon forgotten. For those looking for even more adventure, Reid Divide can be combined with other area trails starting at Ashley Mountain in a point-to-point shuttle covering 25 miles of continuously gorgeous deep forest singletrack.
“This is an amazing trail! It’s a brutal climb up the gravel road, but busting down that sweet, sweet singletrack is so worth it! The trail just swoops and flows all the way down, and then it gets steep and throws a few jumps in the mix. This trail is a must-ride!” – Greg Heil
Warm Springs (Sula)
Another remote gem unknown outside the immediate area, Warm Springs is also another big adventure. While generally ridden as the Warm Springs Ridge shuttle, the full network also has options for those with the ambition and ability to earn their turns. Much of the downhill, covering almost 4,000 vertical feet, is wide open, inviting speed while the expansive views inspire gawking. Choose one at a time; you can’t do both! The rest is twisty and rocky, but still insanely entertaining.
“One of the best kept secrets in the Northern Rockies. High octane fun with a bit of everything in this backcountry ride, and a insanely awesome downhill to finish. Access it from Lost Trail Pass Ski Area and ride north, coming out down the road from Sula. Shuttle is best option. Big one!” -ridethetetons
Big Sky Country is just that–big… really big! With all that terrain, it’d be a disservice to just mention five trails, so here’s another five excellent examples of northern Rocky Mountain riding worth seeking out:
- South Hills Trail System, Helena: massive network with something for everyone in the mountains adjacent to the state capital.
- Emerald Lake, Bozeman: Solid but doable climb to a stunning alpine lake.
- Windy Mountain, Great Falls: Another “island range” classic, this time serving up big, isolated terrain in the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls.
- Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, Missoula: Another large, entertaining network adjacent to Montana’s second largest city, Missoula (pop. 70,000!).
- Toll Canyon and Beaver Ponds, Butte: Each of these is a nice loop which can be combined into a delightful figure 8 with the perfect combo of XC singletrack and superb scenery.