Helena was the only place in Montana to earn a spot on National Geographic Magazine’s recent list of America’s top 20 mountain bike towns.
It’s not the first time Helena has earned recognition as a mountain biking mecca. Helena and its trail system ranked silver-level by the International Mountain Bicycling Association and is often mentioned in biking magazine and on websites.
But earning a spot on the National Geographic list is a special designation, says Heidi O'Brien, executive director of Visit Helena Montana and Bike Helena.
“It’s interesting because part of my mindset is that it’s another list, but this is National Geographic and that comes with a lot of credibility. It’s not just clickbait,” she said.
Helena joins mountain biking locals from across the country, earning a spot along with other western destinations such as Moab, Utah, Sun Valley, Idaho, and Durango, Colorado.
The article notes that Helena is often overshadowed by university towns Bozeman and Missoula, but easy access to trailheads and plenty of miles to ride gave it the edge. It goes on to praise Helena’s central location between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, culture and craft beer.
“It was IMBA's designation of Helena as a Silver Level Ride Center that put Helena on my radar,” author of the article Tess Weaver Strokes said in an email. “I wanted to include a Montana town, and Helena's 75 miles of single-track, easy access to trails from town, proximity to the Continental Divide Trail, free bike shuttle and seemingly vibrant cycling scene made it an easy choice.”
O’Brien says she sees some strong momentum in Helena’s mountain biking community.
“I think the timing is right … and we’re working at it a little bit more each year,” she said.
Promotion at national bike shows, the trail rider shuttle and location all work in Helena’s favor, she said, adding that efforts are underway to showcase the state itself as a bike destination to attract visitors.
When asked if she believes the growth is incremental or rapid, O’Brien said that her answer has changed in the last week. Interest in the recently held Spring Shuttle Fest was exceptional this year with buses packed to capacity all day.
“We’re growing and the question now is what does that growth mean for us, what are the impacts we should be concerned about?” she said. “We know we have a great thing with our trails and they’re multi-use and we’re working really hard to maintain that.”
Prickly Pear Land Trust executive director Mary Hollow said she was excited to hear about the National Geographic recognition. Prickly Pear is the major supporter of the trail system and responsible for much of its expansion.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to harness some of the energy around tourism as the state’s biggest industry, and for Helena to be a leader in that is a really exciting place to be,” she said.
The land trust through its responsibilities sees the importance of keeping conservation as key element of the trails, and how industry develops because of them.
“People know Montana is a really wonderful place and the more forward thinking we can be and helping conservation be at the core of that conversation will help make what we’re doing that much more sustainable,” Hollow said.