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“You chose to come to Helena on vacation from the UK?” I was asked with incredulity as I handed over my cash at a checkout.
It soon became clear that Helena, Montana, isn’t a frequent stop off point for UK holidaymakers! We’d chosen it as a destination for the Cycle Sprog road trip of the Pacific North West when reading about the trail system that had been built from the city centre out onto the mountains that cradle the western side of the city.
As we’d been unable to find a rental car that allowed bike racks to be fitted, being able to rent bikes and ride with our two boys (aged 8 and 11) from the bike shop was one of the prerequisites of any location on our trip. And Helena certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. It also meant we were the objects of geographical curiosity wherever we went! Indeed, we were the first visitors from the UK that our Airbnb hosts had ever had and they were thrilled to be getting both English and Welsh visitors in one hit.
Helena, the capital city of the state of Montana, is nestled on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, about 600 miles east of Seattle and 200 miles south of the Canadian border. With a population of just 28,000 it’s compact and has the feel of an active, outdoorsy kind of place whilst also being a functioning place to live and work, rather than a resort town.
I’d already had a series of emails with Amanda at Big Sky Cycling and Fitness. As an expat Brit who’d fallen in love with Helena and stayed, she was keen for us to experience the best the city had to offer during our short stay. Between her and colleague Coen, they kitted us out and pointed us in the right direction to the best rides for a family. I could hardly believe how many were within riding distance of the shop and, even better, our Airbnb situated in a suburb of the city.
The bikes we were riding during this stage of our trip were as follows:
Chris – a Pivot Mach 429
Myself and 11 year old N – the Liv Embolden in Medium and XS respectively
8 year old T – as with everywhere we'd been, there wasn't a decent junior 24" wheel or 26" wheel mountain bike available, so he had another 27.5” wheel women's MTB in the form of the Trek Cali S in a 13.5” frame. He’d ridden the slightly superior specification SL model when we’d been in Bend.
Several things were becoming obvious during out road trip. Firstly, we were asking a lot from the boys (and ourselves) to be riding new trails on unfamiliar bikes. It can take time to learn the ways of a bike - some you get on with, others can prove troublesome. If you don’t trust the bike, then you don’t ride your best In particular we were asking the boys to ride bikes with adult components, which they aren't used to.
Secondly, what local adults can perceive as a quick, easy ride, can take hours and hours when you’re new to the area and have got tired kids with you.
Thirdly, everyone drives to the trail heads, so a lack of transportation was a hindrance. (Give Helena it’s due, they have free shuttles to some of the more popular trails 5 days a week – Wednesday through Sunday. Yes that’s right dear reader, you can probably guess which two days we were in town!).
It’s fair to say that the first day of riding in Helena was the hardest we’d come across during our trip. It was a mixture of the steepness of the slope, legs with 4 days of mountain biking in them out of the past six, and the unrelenting heat. We’d been recommended a figure of eight route that took in Helena City Park and Helena Mountain. I decided to split this into two individual loops for our two days of riding, and how glad I was with that decision (I'd learnt my lesson from Day 1 in Ketchum earlier in our road trip)
The first thing we noticed about cycling in Helena was that the provision of urban cycle paths was poor. Every other location we’d ridden in over the previous three weeks (Vancouver, Portland, Bend and Ketchum) had great infrastructure, but in Helena we found ourselves having to mix with the traffic. It was quite a shock to the system, and certainly much more stressful as I reverted to the status quo of shouting nervous instructions over the noise of car engines, all the while trying to come to terms with cycling “on the wrong side of the road”.
OK, it wasn't a huge metropolitan centre during rush hour, but when you've been spoilt with protected cycleways wherever you ride, it certainly comes as a rude awakening to be mixing with cars, jeeps and lorries once again. However, once we were out on the quiet roads to the trailhead (where traffic is restricted to just 25 mph), our hopes started to raise – this place was stunning!
We passed a couple of lime kilns, and stopped to learn that the first trail we were heading out to, the McKelvey Trail, was named after Irish born James McKelvey, who owned the Grizzly Gulch Kilns that supplied the lime to build the impressive Capitol building in the city centre.
Equipped with this knowledge we arrived at the trailhead, where we met a retired New Yorker who’d lived in Helena for 5 years. He immediately suggested a dozen more routes to try once we’d finished the loop we were riding. Yet again we were lamenting only having two days riding in each location.
We’d been warned several times that the final part of the McKelvey Trail was rather steep and would require pushing. If only! It’s safe to say that it was the hardest bit of riding we’d faced on our trip.
It wasn’t so much the gradient, but also the fact that T was tired and his legs weren’t working on the uphill. The sun was beating down and there wasn’t much shade.
The slope just went on, and on, and on for what seemed an eternity without a hint of respite.
Tempers were frayed, and as we cajoled and bribed everyone to the top of the trail, I was seriously wondering what on earth we were doing.
Were we pushing ourselves too far?
Should we have limited ourselves to riding in a couple of locations only??
Why the hell were we even doing this???
Wasn’t this supposed to be enjoyable????
And most importantly, where would we be without the pack of Jelly Worms which tempted T slowly up the hill?????
I'm sure James McKelvey was turning in his grave by this point!
Chris and I had to keep reminding each other that the boys are just that - boys. They get tired, they need constant fueling, and often fail to remember that you have to struggle sometimes to get rewards. I was getting seriously worried that rather than increasing their love of cycling, we’d put them off for life. Had we pushed them that bit too far? And at the same time, whilst progressing at a snail’s pace up the mountain, were Chris and I not depriving ourselves of the opportunity to ride these trails? Why didn’t we just call it quits on the family cycling, rent one adult bike between us and take turns on the mountain biking and child care?
We all ended up pushing our bikes up the final few metres of the McKelvey Trail, and then in a split second everything changed!
With Montana spreading out tantalisingly below us, and the promise of some fun single-track descent to come, we all remembered why we love mountain biking. T was no longer a whiney 8-year-old with tired legs. He was a mountain biker, raring to test out his latest bike, all energy and smiles again.
And the riding wasn’t bad either! We met a group of riders at the top of Mount Helena who expressed reservations about the ability of an 8 year old to get down the Diretissima Trail, which filled me with dread! Needless to say, I needn’t have worried about T – he was off, and nothing was going to stop him!
Well, almost nothing!
As you can imagine, it was me struggling to keep up, as the rocky surface took us across the side of the mountain. I must confess that I struggle with trails that fall away precipitously below me, and watching my kids ride ahead of me on these can be even more troublesome.
I try and keep my eyes on the trail, avoiding looking down the slope for a flash of colour that would indicate tragedy. I often have to stop and regroup, catching a glimpse of the boys far ahead, the distance between us getting greater. This trip was all about riding some of the best trails available, and I had to fight my fears and keep pedalling.
And how we were all rewarded! Montana is not called Big Sky Country for nothing!
As we left the forest behind and the vista opened up in front of us we were all totally floored. We’d been promised a photo opportunity, and we all spent ages trying (and failing) to capture the majesty of it all.
After the extended photo shoot, it was all fast and fun back downhill to a trail head carpark at Adams Road.
I’m not going to go into the details of the ride back to our Airbnb at this point, suffice to say the lack of infrastructure almost lead to a nasty incident. T’s ability to front wheel lift over the kerb and keep control of his bike was impressive for any age, yet alone an 8 year old. And the reward for all our exertions? A trip to the local hot springs – a fabulous way to relax and recuperate after a hard day in the saddle. Result!
When I finally looked at Strava, all the struggling made sense..... sorry boys!
The next day we rode the trails of Helena City Park, which were a short, but sharp hill climb by quiet road from our airbnb. The first stretch of trail was called Rocky Road, and consisted of a series of uphill switchbacks. Obviously, the hot springs had cleared my mind, as I decided to just push T’s bike up any steep bits – it took a fraction of the time it would have done to ride them, and within no time we were on the much flatter (and fun) trails. What a difference 24 hours and a change of strategy can make!
We rode a loop of blue and green trails, taking in Rocky Road, Prickly Pear, Easy Rider and the Archery Range trail. Despite the exertion of the previous day and a late night at the Hot Springs, this was one of those fabulous days in the saddle.
We all rode really well, there was no moaning, and we were lamenting that we couldn't stay in Helena for longer. It was with heavy hearts that we had to head back into town to take the bikes back, but the final ride in Helena was made extra special by a deer crossing our path.
We made a quick detour to marvel at the Austrian inspired Helena Cathedral, before our riding in Helena was over.
Next day we were back in the SUV heading north, to cross the border back into Canada for our final mountain biking destination – Fernie, British Colombia (write up coming soon!)
We visited Helena in August 2017, following a prolonged dry spell that had resulted in forest fires. For that reason, long range visibility was restricted, but the days we visited were relatively smoke free as you can see from all the photos.
Day time temperatures during our visit were in the late 20C’s/early 30’s, with the temperature increasingly significantly between 1pm and 4pm.
We arrived in Helena by road as part of our Pacific Northwest road trip. It was a 6 hour drive from our previous destination of Ketchum in Idaho. It’s possible to fly to Helena from Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.
We stayed two nights in Larry and Mary’s Airbnb, where we were made to feel really welcome, and one night at the Radisson Colonial (using free points!) where the boys loved the pool and jacuzzi. There are also a good selection of budget motels in Helena.
Our mountain bikes were rented from Big Sky Cycling on Last Chance Gulch. We cycled from the shop to the trailheads and rode the blue and green trails, which probably equate to blue and red in the UK.
The trails in Helena are steep and rocky, with little respite on the uphill sections. Our boys were aged 8 and 11, and have both mountain biked for over a year and had instruction from qualified coaches. They struggled on some of the uphill but loved the descents. I am self- taught and was able to get up the hills OK, but lost my nerve a couple of times on the downhill switchbacks and had to push.
On Wednesday through Sunday free shuttles are operated by Bike Helena to allow you to get higher up into the trail network. We visited on Monday and Tuesday, so had to ride to the trailhead ourselves.
Trailheads in Helena consist of a car park and information board, with a vault toilets at the Adams Street Parking lot. All provisions must be purchased in the city before you set off, and there is nowhere to refill with water.
All trails are two-way, and shared with hikers, runners and dog walkers. These make up most trail users and mountain bikers are expected to give way (yield).
Cycling infrastructure in Helena itself does not reflect the quality of the trail network, so you have to navigate your own way along side roads, or ride in the traffic.
We only had two days cycling in Helena, and could have spent weeks there and only covered a fraction of the trails. Montana is stunning too, and we'd love to go back and explore some of the other areas, including their Lake District. It's a pity it's such a long way from home!
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