Early Friday morning, while fog still covered the mountaintops and rain muddied the ground, a small group of dedicated mountain bikers waited patiently. It was just before 6 a.m., and the sun was sleepily fighting off the morning’s gray clouds. Finally, down Broadway Street they could see what they had been waiting for: the first shuttle of Bike Helena’s Spring Shuttle Fest.
Shuttle Fest is a three-day event that kicks off Helena’s vibrant trail biking season by driving bikers, hikers and runners up to different trailheads in the area. This year, there will be two shuttles transporting participants to either Helena Ridge or 2006 Trailhead/Arrowroot Road. Once the weekend comes to a close, the shuttle -- known as the Trail Rider -- will continue, with trips up the mountain Wednesday through Sunday.
Among Friday morning’s early risers were Tony Zammit and TJ Lehman of the Montana Bicycle Guild. Zammit noted that despite the rainy morning, Shuttle Fest meant something bigger.
Though summer solstice is still a month away, as far as Zammit is concerned, Shuttle Fest is synonymous with summer.
“It’s cool that the Trail Rider is back up and running for the season, despite it being a little rainy today,” Zammit said. “It’s a wonderful service that Bike Helena puts on for everybody here. It’s kind of the official start of summer.”
The start of the summer season also marks the start of a busy time for tourism in Helena. The 2017 Trail Rider season brought 3,767 riders, while visitors increased by 98 percent (or 35 percent, excluding Shuttle Fest). According to a trail usage and economic impact study on the South Hills by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, over 63,000 users took part in Helena’s outdoor recreation between May and September 2017.
Mountain bikers accounted for 17,438 of those trail users, while 45,602 were on foot. Of those, 27 percent of mountain bikers and 20 percent of hikers were not from the local area.
“Any time we can have those visitors come and stay and have a great visitor experience, that’s definitely what we want to ensure happens,” said Andrea Opitz, executive director of the Helena Tourism Alliance.
Extra trail traffic paired with the recent rains can add up to trail damage and requires a certain level of trail knowledge and etiquette, according to Opitz and Karen Reese, administrative assistant for the Helena Tourism Alliance.
“As the trails are becoming busier and busier, we’re working more closely with those that are working with maintenance on the trails and making sure that we’re communicating with and educating the community on when they should stay off the trails and when they can still use them, as well as trail etiquette,” Opitz said.
According to Reese, when the ground gets muddy, there’s a problem of damaging the trails further, or widening the single tracks. When it comes down to these two options, stick to the middle of the trail, so as not to widen it. More trail etiquette includes yielding to others: bikers yield to hikers, and both bikers and hikers yield to users on horseback.
The start of trail season continued with Ales for Trails Friday night, which brought a record number of breweries to Pioneer Park for an evening of fundraising. Money raised by the event will be going toward the construction of a downhill trail on Mount Ascension.
“Having visitors in town to come is a nice time to merge the two together, so they can bike all day and then have access to music and the local breweries and local beers, as well as raise money,” Opitz said.
The Trail Rider runs on sponsorship from local business and organizations, as well as donations from its users. Donations go toward maintenance, branding, gas and hiring drivers for the shuttle.