Helena, Montana Shuttles Riders to the Best Trails, 5 Days a Week, For Free

This near-mythical arrangement has been dubbed the “Trail Rider Shuttle,” and as you’d expect, it’s pretty friggin’ awesome! Most months during the summer it runs 5 days a week, with different trail drop-offs depending on the day. Generally speaking, you can do one lap on the Trail Rider most days, but I decided to visit Helena for a very special event: Shuttle Fest.

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Photo: Greg Heil

Essentially, Shuttle Fest capitalizes on a good thing that Helena already has going. As Pat Doyle of Bike Helena said, “This is an event that we already do, make it an all-day thing, and add a big brewfest in… why reinvent the wheel?”

Why, indeed. Three days of all-you-can ride shuttles, combined with a rendezvous with 29 of the best breweries in the state of Montana, and you have the makings for a pretty epic weekend!

The History of the Trail Rider

For the last 10 years, Helena ran a program called “Trolley to Trails” that would shuttle locals to one trailhead (Mount Helena Ridge), one day per week. This was an old school trolley on wheels like you’d see in San Francisco, and it could hold about 15 bikes. Pat Doyle started the Bike Helena brand as a branch of the Visit Helena tourism department, and after spending a year taking input from the local community, they decided to drastically expand the shuttle operation.

In order to get this new operation off the ground, they approached the Helena Area Transit Service. The transit service had a bus that had almost passed its usable life as a regular transit bus by federal law, but was still in great shape for shuttling rowdy mountain bikers up the mountain side. They donated it to the cause, Bike Helena bought a trailer, and some of the guys from the transit service fabricated a bike mounting system on the trailer. The trailer can now carry many more bikes than there are seats in the bus.

Riding on Mt. Ascension. Photo: BobAllenImages.com
Riding on Mt. Ascension. Photo: BobAllenImages.com

But if this thing runs five days per week, who pays for it? The short answer is that it’s free for locals and out of towners to use, and it’s funded by the city of Helena.

The long answer is that Bike Helena is funded by a bed tax that is levied by the city. So every time you spend money on a hotel room for a night, a little bit of that goes to Bike Helena. Then, Bike Helena pays a flat fee out of their budget to the Helena Area Transit Service, and that organization hires the drivers, maintains the bus, and keeps the whole program running.

Presto! You have a free mountain bike shuttle service!

But how does this make fiscal sense for the community? Consider this: as of 2014, mountain biking’s economic impact in Helena was conservatively calculated at $3 million per year–and that number is only going up, as more and more riders flock to Helena to shred.

The Now

Trail Rider drop off at MacDonald Pass. Photo: BobAllenImages.com
Trail Rider drop off at MacDonald Pass. Photo: BobAllenImages.com

Nowadays, the shuttle service runs regularly through the spring, summer, and fall, with Shuttle Fest happening once per year. Last year, in 2014, Shuttle Fest attracted 350 people, and the brewfest garnered 1,700 attendees. Based on my experience on the packed-out busses this year, Bike Helena is going to have to figure out a way to get more than one shuttle running for the 2016 event, because the word is out! Even the non-Shuttle Fest crowd continues to grow. This year, the the Trail Rider shuttle transported 1,700 people (excluding the Shuttle Fest attendees), June-September, with August being the busiest month with 759 riders.

Shuttle Fest is the main event, but even if you show up at any other point during June, July, August, or September, you can still ride the Trail Rider. And the beauty of it is, if you’re an out of town visitor, it takes all the guess work out of finding a trail to ride. While I’d argue that the Singletracks trail database already does that, I can’t deny the incredible convenience of the Trail Rider. I stayed at the Holiday Inn in downtown, and for two out of three days of the shuttlefest, the pickup point was literally on the other side of the parking lot from the hotel. I’d wake up, eat a leisurely breakfast, pull my bike out of the back of my truck, hop on the shuttle, and I was off!

As Pat Doyle said, if you’re a tourist, “you don’t necessarily need to be in ‘the know.’ It takes all the guess work out of it, it takes having to find a trailhead out of it. It takes ‘where do I park?’ out of it.” Yeah, Helena is making it as easy as possible for you to cruise into town and then log some absolutely excellent miles on your mountain bike.

Photo: BobAllenImages.com
Photo: BobAllenImages.com

The other convenience factor is the proximity of the main trail system to town. While there are hundreds of miles of backcountry trails in the mountains all around Helena, the South Hills Trail System is the main affair. Helena likes to say that they have “singletrack at the end of every street,” and as far as I can tell, that’s true. The South Hills boasts a total of 75 miles of singletrack south of town, with 8 trailheads with parking lots in town, and about another 20 access points to the trails at the end of streets. So, with at least 28 streets that dead end and turn to singletrack, Helena’s claim seems more than justified!

Click here to keep reading about the riding in the South Hills!

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