Looking for a way to capitalize on downtown's proximity to the extensive trail network in the South Hills, and hoping to drum up a little extra weekend traffic, a number of downtown businesses have joined forces to fund "Trolley to Trails" - a free Saturday morning shuttle that will take hikers from downtown to the Mount Helena Ridge Trail trailhead in Park City.

Backers see the shuttle as a way to put the trolley to additional use, and to draw outdoors types to Last Chance Gulch.

"I saw it as a way to provide a service from the downtown merchants to the people who keep us in business," said Ken Saunders, owner of Saunders Jewelry design, who hatched the idea some three weeks ago. "It's a way we can do something extra with the trolley, which is already here, and provide some spark to the idea of recreational tourism."

The trolley is slated to begin its Saturday hiker shuttles on May 1. The shuttle will depart from the Women's Mural at Last Chance and Broadway at 9 a.m., and organizers are studying whether a second trip at 9:45 is feasible.

Saunders took the idea to Downtown Business Improvement District director Hal Fossum, who gave the green light, as long as enough businesses could be found to pay for the trolley for the summer.

"It's a perfect way to enjoy Helena's open spaces and downtown at the same time," Fossum said.

Saunders' fund-raising proved simple - in two lunch hours, he had 30 businesses signed up at $100 apiece, and a summer's worth of Saturday rides was covered.

"People can start downtown, leave their cars here and not have to ditch a car at the trailhead," Fossum said. "They can hike back to downtown, and we hope they'll enjoy lunch or a beverage when they get here."

The debut of the trolley will coincide with a weekend of celebration of the city's open space, including a trail run, coordinated by the Prickly Pear Land Trust.

"We encourage dispersing people onto the trail system we have, and we especially encourage use outside of the Mount Helena area, which gets used quite heavily," said Norane Freistadt, development director for the Prickly Pear Land Trust.

The Ridge Trail, one of the more popular hikes among the 75 miles of trails in the South Hills, runs about seven miles north from Park City to Mount Helena City Park. The trail lies mostly within the Helena National Forest, with a small passage through private property before entering city land.

Traditionally, hikers left a vehicle at the trailhead, walked to town then drove back for the car. The Saturday trolley will make it easier logistically.

"For a local hike, it's one that takes more coordination than most," Freistadt said.

The shuttle will likely accommodate limited mountain bikers, since the trolley isn't equiped with bike racks. Fossum said the city's transit staff can remove some wheelchair equipment from the trolley to make room for bikes, and racks and a bike trailer are possibilities down the road. Regulations prohibit the transport of dogs (except seeing-eye dogs) on the trolley, so pets will have to stay home.

Saunders envisions outdoor enthusiasts vacationing in Helena, staying in downtown lodging and not driving their cars the entire time they're here.

"This gives the flavor that downtown merchants are appreciative of Helena and are willing to give something back," he said.

John Harrington can be reached at 447-4080 or john.harrington@helenair.com.

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