Forbidden; a Montana Roadtrip. Part 1 – Bitterroot Valley, Hamilton

In August of 2018, Sharon and I went on a roadtrip to Montana to look at what really matters for mountain-biking; Trails.

I don’t feel terribly pressured to ride alpine or subalpine trails. These are rare treasures enjoyed when weather is good and conditions are perfect. Alpine trails are fragile beasts, not be ridden (and consequently abused) when wet. Especially in Montana (or anywhere in western North America really) alpine access usually isn’t easy so the riding season is short due to the need to wait for snowmelt. This means that time windows for alpine trails are narrow and not easy to catch.

However, Montana is different. It has a disproportionate share of mountain-bikeable alpine trails in the continental United States. Many of these trails are in federal lands administered by the United States Forest Service. The USFS is embarking on various courses of actions which are likely to close trails to mountain-biking over the next few years. We felt we had to see these gems before mountain-bikers became common criminals for the act of riding bikes on trails

The Bitterroot valley and Hamilton Montana are in the SW corner of the state

Grand Coulee dam stop on the long drive from Vancouver to Hamilton

Sharon stopped and camped here with her family a while ago

USFS lands are administered by different Regions which have broad discretion in making land use decisions. Most of Montana is under USFS Region 1. We found that USFS Region 1 is, by quite a large margin, the region par excellence most opposed to mountain-biking. In large part a reasonable inference can be drawn that a large division of the USFS bureaucracy is inextricably biased against mountain-biking. Consequently a large portion of its management plans and public consultation are designed to give lip service to the process of managing recreational lands.

These articles will explore the pattern behind USFS Region 1’s land management. This region of the US Forest Service seems to have, as its prime reasoning, excluding many public users (particularly mountain-bikers) from public lands yet allowing hikers, horseback riders and other favoured groups. This does not bode well for mountain-biking in Montana.

Expect many (all?) of the trails featured in these articles to be closed to mountain-biking for reasons of “preservation” (for what and whom are valid questions). This article will outline closure reasons presented by Wilderness advocates and adopted wholesale by the US Forest Service. These closure reasons defy logic and fairness

The Bitterroot Valley is surrounded by mountains.

Roostercomb – Kent Lake

Our first stop was the Bitterroot valley close to Hamilton Montana. Here two sides who both enjoy the outdoors have clashed with lawsuits ensuing to each press their own views.
On one side mountainbikers and motorized users local to the Valley have a broad view feeling that they should be allowed to recreate on federal lands. On the other side Wilderness advocates and groups from outside the valley have a more restrictive view asserting that hiking, skiing and horseback are the only ways that should be allowed.

Mountainbikers and motorized won a short-lived reprieve following an early July 2018 court decision holding that the US Forest Service process in closing trails to biking was broken. However Wilderness advocates are tenacious litigants. We enjoyed sanctioned riding in the 110 miles of alpine Montana trails in the Bitterroot valley for all of one day. These trails were once again shut down in early August 2018 following Wilderness advocate’s lawsuits to close bike trails pending the Forest Service “fixing” their broken process by (pretending to) consult the public.

Rooster Comb to Kent Lake via 313 – Bitterroot Valley Montana August 10, 2018

Roostercomb and the 313 trail

On the first day of our trip we rode Roostercomb – 313 – Kent Lake as an out and back with Lance Pysher of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists showing us around. These are uncrowded trails with a wonderfully technical backcountry flavour; there’s not a berm in sight.

For us sea-level dwellers, this ride is surprisingly hard starting at 2300m and topping out at 2650m. It was an out-and-back 14km so seems like it would be relatively short. However Bitterroot trails are quite technical and you’ll always find yourself fighting for speed amongst all the roots and rocks. Lance cautions that many visitors to the regions consistently over-estimate the ground they will cover. Anticipate this and budget your time accordingly.

Of note, the 313 Trail (aka Rock Creek Divide Trail) is rarely ridden in its full length – we sampled but a small section. The length (approx 50km) is not the issue. The issue is its remoteness and the haphazard nature of its maintenance. Mountain-bikers were the primary maintainers and following their exclusion were forbidden from doing any work. The USFS is, of course, under-resourced and useless. Accordingly 313 is used as a connector for other trails, as in this ride.

“Roostercomb” is also known unflatteringly as “Mosquito Meadows”. Trailhead shot

Alpine flowers in full bloom

As with all backcountry trails, expect technical jank

Mosquito Meadows – 313 junction

The Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists are the primary trail maintenance volunteers in the region. As soon as the cyclist ban was lifted; they started clearing downed trees from trail where they were previously prohibited.

More tech on the 313 trail

We were only on 313 for a short time before turning off to Kent Lake

A short downhill to Kent Lake takes us to blowdown. We stash the bikes and are instantly purified as we hike to Kent Lake, freed of our mechanical contrivances

The massive crowds of Kent Lake intruding on the Wilderness

Lance climbing out of Kent Lake

From Kent Lake then back via 313 and an alpine meadow to Roostercomb/Mosquito Meadows descent

Roostercomb descent

Strava route

Crystal Creek

On this day 180kms/110 miles in the Bitterroots in Montana (1/4 of the singletrack in the area and its best alpine trails) become illegal. In the spirit of cooperation and goodwill to all the Wilderness movement obtained a trail closure order banning bikes and motos from a good chunk of US Forest Service lands. We were camping at Como Lake without cell service and only found out about this as we aborted a ride on Razorback Ridge due to a mechanical (rear shock hardware explosion). This was a shame as Razorback had just recently seen tons of maintenance by mountain-bikers following the shortlived summer re-opening and legitimization for biking.

On getting back to town we discovered biking in a large chunk of the alpine (including Razorback Ridge) was now illegal. Thank you Wilderness and your lawyers!

We made do by heading off to ride the still legal Crystal Creek and found that the quality of trails in the area are still acceptable with a good level of jank and a distinct absence of golden berms. Crystal Creek is a short ride that can be made much longer as part of a route that the BBTC has dubbed “Macho Nachos” – a 43.2km long ride with 1,200m of climbing and 2290m of descending; a healthy ratio!

Razorback Ridge climb

The views we would have seen on Razorback Ridge

Crystal Creek trailhead and climb

Technical climb but just manageable

Some bridgework

Singletrack climbing to the subalpine

At the junction of Crystal Creek and 313. The Rock Creek Divide/313 now heads N to join Macho Nachos for a mostly downhill ride back to Hamilton

Dropping down back to Crystal Creek trailhead after getting to the 313 – Machos junction

On the downhill

Crystal Creek

Wilderness and the Bitterroots

Bitterroot trails were re-opened in early July 2018 then subsequently closed in August 10, 2018. In announcing this closure the Bitterroot National Forest (which is part of US Forest Service Region 1), confirmed that “trails in Bitterroot WSAs are closed to mountain bikes”. There is an opportunity for mountain-bikers to provide comments on the US Forest Service’s decision (comment by November 18, 2018) about closing trails in the Bitterroots. Whether the USFS will be swayed or politely shelve input into G for Garbage is to be seen.

One might ask why these trail are forbidden for mountain-biking? Crowds aren’t the issue; there aren’t enough users in the Bitterroot valley to create conflict. Hamilton is the largest town in the valley with 4,700 people. Missoula has 73,000 people but at 55kms distance is far enough away that riding the Bitterroots trails is a weekend endeavour. Maintenance isn’t the issue; mountain-bikers contribute overwhelming volunteer resources. Following the month and a half of trails being legitimized for biking, the small (approximately 50 person) Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists mountain-bike volunteer group had managed to put in some 250 volunteer hours clearing some 500 trees, and 20+ miles of trail.

The issue is the US Forest Service Region 1. Their default position is to manage public use of public land as anti-bike. More on the the US Forest Service (Region 1)’s anti-bike stance and the alphabet soup of wilderness designations in part 2

Our campsite viewpoint at Lake Como

Lake Como night sky

Lake Como campsite

Many small towns in the US have speed traps. Darby Montana is one of them. Beware of Sheriff Larry Rose and watch for the stealth 25MPH speed signs

My bike broke down on day 2. My need to look for parts in Hamilton had a silver lining – a stop at Bitterroot Brewing. Sharon the beer connoisseur approves

Red Barn is a tremendously well-stocked bike shop with excellent service



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