Spring Fever '99, Part Two 

The Mountain Bike Mecca


Having had the opportunity to visit some of the legendary cities of mountain biking in the last couple of years-namely Moab, Utah and Crested Butte, Colorado-it has become more apparent to me on each subsequent trip just how good us biking fans have it here in good old Missoula. No other place in the West has the sort of access to quality trails that we do here. Even in those cities that are supposedly known for their mountain biking opportunities, you would be surprised to find that the nearest trailhead lies 30 miles away, leaving you no choice but to use your car to transport your bike, all for a day's trek.

Thankfully, this is not the case in Missoula, because on any afternoon, you can choose from a number of challenging rides at any one of the valley's three major areas: Pattee Canyon, the Rattlesnake Nation-al Recreation Area and Blue Moun-tain. The beauty of it all is that each of these is close enough to ride to without having to depend on your car to get you there. I know a few of you may think this is impossible, but you would be surprised what you can accomplish if you try.

Pattee Canyon is perhaps the best place for beginning riders, since its terrain is the mildest of the three areas. Access is divided between two trailheads. At the Southside or Crazy Canyon trailhead, you will find access to the top of Mount Sentinel via a winding, moderately strenuous road. There are a few loops of single-track trails to be found that are quick and smooth. At the top of the pavement lies the Northside trail system, home to the Sam Braxton loop, a trail named after the late owner of the old Braxton Bike Shop. What makes the Northside trails so much fun are the easy climbs and tight, twisting descents. Added bonuses go to the color-coded trail markers that make it hard to get lost.

With Pattee Canyon, the Rattlesnake and Blue Mountain Recreation Areas all within easy pedaling distance, Missoulians can fly high in relative solitude.
Photo by Chad Harder

The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, meanwhile, is Missoula's most popular mountain bike area for good reason. The 'Snake offers a wide variety of terrain close to the university and downtown, ranging from the wide-open expanses of the main corridor trail to the gravity-defying descents of the Curry trail system. For those looking for something to make a long day out of, I'd recommend packing a lunch and following the signs to Franklin Bridge, a remote but easily accessed landmark along the main corridor. More experienced riders always rave about a trail known locally as Snowbowl Lookout. The Lookout, which is a spur of the Stuart Peak trail system that rides the ridge between Grant Creek and the Rattlesnake, climbs a lung-searing 2000 feet before plunging back down. Extra caution is needed here, as the Forest Service recently installed a system of water bars to prevent erosion. Also, regardless of your route in the 'Snake, be aware of your proximity to wilderness areas, which are illegal to access with your fat-tire steed.

Blue Mountain, finally, is home to the valley's most difficult terrain-going up and going down. A large part of this is due to the fact that much of the area where mountain bikes are allowed is shared with motorcycles and ATVs. The results are steep, loose trails with craggy drop-offs and birmed-out corners that are difficult to manage on a bicycle. A good bit of intermediate riding can be found in the lower meadows near the frisbee-golf course, but still you should be conscious of trails that are closed to bikes and are instead reserved for foot and horse traffic. Like Pattee Canyon, Blue Mountain is well marked with signs and maps to take the guess work out of what's rideable and what's taboo. For the more adventurous and large-of-lung, a long 14-mile climb up the main road to the Blue Mountain Lookout is rewarded by an eight-mile descent aptly named Dead Man's Ridge. Consider yourself warned.

Keep in mind that in the spring months extra care needs to be taken to avoid damaging wet trails. If you're leaving tracks, it's a safe bet that you shouldn't be riding. Blue Mountain seems to melt off and dry out first, especially the trails in the lower meadows. On the flip side, the 'Snake usually melts off last. By taking the time to find dry trails, you ensure that all of us get to keep Missoula as our own secret mountain bike Mecca.

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