The beckoning of wild country is just steps away if you live in Helena.
Trailheads at the end of city streets provide portals to land that’s part of this city’s allure.
Rocksand dirt, ponderosa pines and air sweet with wildflowers and grasses allow those who spend an afternoon or a day hiking or biking the South Hills trails to turn their backs — at least temporarily — on what might await them at home or at work.
An ongoing survey will help define who uses these city and Forest Service trails and sketch somewhat of a picture of those users based on age, household income, residency and spending while en route to Helena and while here.
The survey, organized by Bike Helena and the Prickly Pear Land Trust, has been about a year in the making and is seen as helping to provide direction for the trail system in terms of what people like and dislike as well as want to see in terms of expansion or changes.
A flyer to promote the survey appears with this month’s water bills in Helena encouraging people to go online and take the survey. Flyers promoting the survey are available in a variety of stores locally.
Who and how many people use the trails is a missing link in information on the trails, said Corey Baker, trails director for the Land Trust.
About two thirds of the roughly 75 miles of South Hills trails belong to either the cty of Helena or the Forest Service, he said. Of this portion, 32 miles of trail are on city land and 25 miles are on Forest Service lands. The remainder of the trails is either on Bureau of Land Management or private property.
Collecting information on trail use and popularity, Baker said, will help the Land Trust, which contracts for trail management, refine its plans for the trails.
Helena’s trail system is important to its residents and is proving to be an engine that can help drive the local economy as well as add to the quality of life attracting people to the community.
Joe Naimen-Sessons is a crew member at The Base Camp, a Helena outdoor store, and moved here with his wife about a year and a half ago from Boise, Idaho, a community with access to trails and wild country.
The availability of trails in Helena was one of the reasons they chose to move here, he said.
“It wasn’t the only draw, but it was a big draw,” he explained.
He recalled liking what he saw when he visited the community before making a decision on moving here.
Outside of Blackfoot River Brewing, just down the street from several trailheads, “there were 10 or 12 really muddy mountain bikes chained up outside,” Naimen-Sessons said.
This was a sign for him of the access and ambience that the community offered those interested in outside recreation.
Without the trail system, he added, “it would diminish so much to me what Helena is, in my mind.”
Recognition and popularity
Helena’s trails have garnered the community unique recognition.
The city is one of 11 communities worldwide to earn a bronze ranking in 2013 from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Only one community received the gold level award that year while five others located in places such as Taupo, New Zealand, and Livigno, Italy, earned silver honors.
The award is seen by trail advocates as providing another reason for people who mountain bike to plan their vacation here.
More than 70 miles of singletrack await mountain bike users, the association’s website notes in explaining why Helena received the award.
“Helena offers a vibrant cycling scene and bike lanes throughout town, meaning you can enjoy a car-free biking vacation,” the Bicycling Association’s website notes.
The popularity of the trail system here has two local organizations planning an expansion of the free shuttle service they provide for hikers and bikers.
Tracy Reich, executive director of the Helena Business Improvement District, said there are discussions about adding two days to the current three-day schedule.
The shuttle bus is full all the time, she said, adding that the biking and hiking communities here have requested different days and different locations for shuttle service.
What is envisioned now, said Pat Doyle, the community outreach director for the Helena Tourism Alliance/Tourism Business Improvement District, is adding evening service on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
This shuttle is would carry riders to MacDonald Pass where they would use the Continental Divide Trail and then connect to others for the ride to Rimini Road that would bring them to where their vehicles are parked by the city’s Ten Mile Creek water treatment plant, Doyle said.
The Friday evening shuttle, which was added last year, already serves the MacDonald Pass area. Weekend shuttle service ferries hikers and bikers to different trailheads.
A meeting is planned for 6 p.m. on April 22 at the Reeder’s Alley Interpretive and Convention Center — the old Stonehouse Restaurant at the top of Reeder’s Alley — to discuss the free shuttle service. Comments will be used to help guide the service that it offers, Doyle said.
Having a voice
The ongoing effort to garner information on local trails comes on the heels of work organized by the Land Trust that enlisted the aid of Carroll College students last fall, who went to several trailheads to collect information on trail users.
Variety of the trails is one reason for their popularity, Baker said. Another reason is the climate here that allows trails to dry out quicker in the spring and summer than those in Bozeman and Missoula.
Not all who take the survey will answer all of the roughly 50 questions. Some of the questions are geared to those who come to Helena to recreate while nearby residents, such as those from East Helena and Montana City, will be treated by the survey as if they lived in Helena. Everyone who takes the survey is eligible for a drawing for a $150 gift card.
More than 200 people logged on to take the survey in the first 24 hours, Doyle said, with interest is coming from other Montana communities and from Alberta, Canada.
“People want to take ownership of it,” Doyle said, explaining interest in Helena’s trails.
“They care deeply and want their voice to be heard. And this gives them that.”
“It’s really an integral part of living in Helena, especially for folks who live in town,” Baker said.
“People are pretty passionate about trails in Helena,” he added.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana collects information to gauge the impact of tourism statewide, Doyle said, adding that the Land Trust and Bike Helena survey is similar but focuses solely on Helena.
“This is going to hopefully give us a good blueprint for the trail system, what people like, what people don’t like, desired trail expansion areas or changes to existing people,” Doyle said.
All of the city’s trails are multiuse, he continued, and the survey will better define how many people use them to hike, as a place to walk their dogs, bicycle, run and even commute to work.
Trails are an amenity that Doyle said he sees as helping attract people to Helena and increasing property values.
“I think all of this stuff is important,” Doyle said of the trails, their recognition and popularity.
“This is something that makes Helena standout, not only in Montana but nationally.”