Islands in the Sky—Explore Central Montana


In this age of high technology, finding your next favorite trail is sometimes as simple as hitting the "explore" button on your preferred trail app. Paper maps are all too often a thing of the past, and actual exploring is left to kitchen-table Google searches. However, there are still plenty of trails that don't exist in any digital realm, with one of the biggest repositories being that of Big Sky Country in Central Montana.

Central Montana is unique, which is a bit of a two-sided coin. Bordered by the Rocky Mountains on the west, much of the area is fairly flat—low-lands for farming and ranching segregated by slow, wandering rivers. However, Central Montana is also home to many so-called island mountain ranges. Separated by miles of rolling prairie, these lone ranges rise up thousands of feet and are often home to mazes of old Forest Service roads and long-forgotten trails.

Mountain biking on the Mayhem Trail in Great Falls, Montana.

About 90 minutes north of Helena, the state capital, Great Falls sits along the banks of the Missouri River, and is the western gateway to Central Montana.

The River's Edge trail begins in downtown Great Falls with paved and gravel paths, which then lead to miles of singletrack just outside the city. Following the north bank of the Missouri River, the North Shore River's Edge Trail is a 20-mile out and back. On the south bank, the Kaos Trail and Lost Fork Loop are more advanced trails accessible from town without driving to a trailhead.

Once you've burned out your legs with the lower elevation trails near town, drive east to Highwood and ride the Windy Mountain Loop, a 16-mile ride with 2,700-feet of descent. We've heard rumors of a few other rides in the area that were described as, "not for the faint of heart." If that piques your interest, we'd recommend you start perusing some Forest Service maps. …

Riding the Mayhem Trail in Great Falls, Montana.

Back on the road and heading north toward the small towns of  Choteau and Shelby, there are many opportunities to dive west into the massive peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountain Front. Tucked between the many national parks and wilderness areas are sections of national forest that hold hidden gems like the North Fork Birch Creek ride and the Palookaville Trail.

The burn on the North Fork Birch Creek trails extends nearly to treeline. Image courtesy of Great Falls Bicycle Club.

Access can be tricky (the Palookaville trail has little signage), but it's worth the effort to ride these seldom traveled trails. The Birch Creek ride was part of a massive burn in 2015, and with the young vegetation just starting to grow back, the scenery is sure to be spectacular during the summer wildflower season.

When you finally arrive in Shelby after a day (or three) of exploring the Rockies, the Road Runner Recreational trail is a mellow ride to spin out tired legs. How mellow? It's actually paved, but with a good amount of elevation to work up a sweat between stops to check out the interpretive signs and plentiful wildlife.

Going east, Havre has brand new trails waiting for rubber. Built only last year, the Rotary Falls Loop is part of a new trail network in the Bear Paw Mountains near town. While only a few miles of trail are in so far, another loop is set to be completed this spring with even more plans in the pipeline. There's also the Baltrusch Trail from town which leads into Beaver Creek Road, taking you straight into the mountains.

About three hours south of Havre sits Lewistown. Just east of the massive Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Lewistown has a fairly large network of town trails to spin on and soak in the views, and there are quite a few island ranges within a few hours’ drive that whisper promises of ridge-top single track and secrets yet unridden. One such range is the Big Snowy Mountains, south of town.

Grandview Point above Crystal Lake in the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown, Montana. Getting to this view is only the warm-up for the full Big Snowys Loop.

In what most would consider an all-day-epic, the Big Snowys Loop comes complete with caves holding (mostly) year-round ice formations and ridge-top riding leading to a technical descent that might take an hour or two to complete. Did we mention the year-round ice caves?

Upon first glance, Central Montana may look like an unlikely place for great riding. However, the many island mountain ranges and areas of national forest—some twice the size of Rhode Island—conceal yet untapped singletrack potential, and that's not to mention the bordering Rocky Mountain Front. To find the goods you'll have to put the phone down and pull out the paper maps. It may not be as easy as following the local heat trails on Strava, but what you'll earn doing things the old-fashioned way will reap far more rewards. 

Resources To Get You Started

Staying Safe Around Bears

Bicycling Central Montana

Crystal Lake Area Trails

Highwood Mountains

MTB Project-Montana

Great Fall Bicycling Club

North Fork Birch Creek

Havre Trails

Rocky Mountain Ranger Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest District Map #3 of 9 — Palookaville Trail