When going to a new area for some mountain biking trails, you could check out topographical maps by squinting at squiggly green lines and trying your best to use your imagination. Or you could ask someone with the inside track - someone who knows all the ins and outs and all the best trails.
Larry Dent has been mountain biking for 15 years, and has been chronicling his mountain biking adventures in Missoula, Montana since 2010 at MountainBikingMissoula.com, and has covered a lot of single tracks and downhill sprees in that time.
Larry took a moment to tell us about Missoula, some of his favorite rides, and some other things to check out while you're in town.
Why should a person try mountain biking?
I love mountain biking for many reasons. It's a great way to access the many recreational and natural surroundings in our area to explore and enjoy. I like the physical and mental challenge of mountain biking; it's a very rewarding experience. I love the sense of "flow" or being in the moment. Also, it's fun to bike with other riders. There are many social aspects of the sport that make it very enjoyable, such as sharing the natural beauty of the area - forests, flowers, mountains, streams, and wildlife - with other riders. Moreover, biking with other riders can improve one's knowledge and abilities through sharing of riding techniques, gear & equipment, and encouragement to excel.
I started riding with a group every Thursday evening as a way to learn the trails in our area. We call ourselves the "Thursday Night Ride" (TNR) group. We consider ourselves as endurance or all-mountain bikers. We like the physical challenge of climbing and the "flow" of rapid descents on single-track trails. Many riders in our group excel in distance events, such as the Butte-100 or 24-hour races. After a ride, our group frequently meets for a pint and a slice at a place we call the "clubhouse" formally known as Bridge Pizza.
What trails in Missoula would you recommend?
In the Missoula area, most of the trail rides start off with a good amount of climbing, then loop back to the trailhead on rapid swooping downhill descents. For a flavor of the area, I would suggest the Snowbowl Overlook to Spring Gulch trails or the Sawmill Gulch to Fence Line and Turkey trails in the Rattlesnake; or 3-Larch and Sidewinder trails on Mount Jumbo; or MoZ to Crazy Canyon and Mount Sentinel trails; or Hayes Point on Blue Mountain, or Snowbowl and Point Six trails.
Are there trails for beginners?
The terrain and trails are quite variable, but I would not classify any of them as harsh or super-technical (except maybe Sheep Mountain, but that's an all-day ride). Once a biker learns the trail systems, there are numerous intersecting trails that can be taken to satisfy riders with many different abilities. If a rider is uncomfortable with a particular trail, they can easily do an out-and-back without any problem.
What trails do you recommend based on a rider's skill?
Here are my trail picks. For an advanced rider, I would suggest Snowbowl/Point Six trails. For an intermediate rider, I would suggest 3-Larch/Sidewinder trails on Mount Jumbo. For a beginner rider, I would suggest the Sam Braxton trails in Pattee Canyon. Keep in mind that all of these trails can be extended or shortened by taking other intersecting trails in the area.
The Woods Gulch trail in Missoula reportedly has a very high ratio of fun to work. What are some other rides with a high work-to-fun ratio?
Yes, Woods Gulch is one of our regular rides. Most of our Thursday night rides are similar loops with moderately steep climbs that can vary in vertical climb anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 feet over 15 to 20 miles; and swooping downhill singletrack trails over 2 to 3 hours total ride time, which to me is the formula for a high work-to-fun ratio. Other similar rides include: Sawmill Gulch to Snowbowl Overlook to Spring Gulch trails; or the Wallman trail or the Fence Line and Turkey trails in the Rattlesnake area; or the 3-Larch trail and Sidewinder trails on Mount Jumbo; or the MoZ to Crazy Canyon to Mount Sentinel trails; or Hayes Point on Blue Mountain.
What are the best options for accessing several other trails for a full day of riding?
The Rattlesnake Recreation area is one of my favorite places to ride because of the various terrain and intersecting trails. The natural beauty is unsurpassed with streams, forests, wildlife, and scenic views. There are many other places to explore mountain biking in our area as well, such as the Ravine Trail, Woods Gulch, Mount Jumbo Saddle, Marshall Mountain, Mount Sentinel, University Beacon, Deer Creek, Pattee Canyon, Crazy Canyon, Sam Braxton, Blue Mountain, and SnowBowl.
Most of these trails are accessible within a 10- to 15-minute bike ride from door to trailhead. Accessibility to trails makes riding in the Missoula area super easy and fun. Many bikers are able go riding most anytime during the day or evening, and are also able to bike early and late season by using bike lights.
For a short drive, there is more amazing biking in the Bitterroot Valley or Seeley-Swan area.
What is the most scenic and picturesque trail that gives someone the best overall feel of the landscape?
I would suggest any of the trails in the Rattlesnake Recreation area. However, I especially like starting at the Rattlesnake trailhead and riding the Ewok trail (aka mandatory singletrack) to Sawmill Gulch to Curry Ridge to Stuart Peak Trail, then down the Fence Line and Turkey trails looping back to Sawmill Gulch, and the Ewok trail to the trailhead.
Is there one style of bike over another that does particularly well in Missoula?
I own a lightweight Rocky Mountain Element 970 BC Edition (carbon frame) with full-suspension (that locks out on climbs), 29" tires, disk brakes, and drop seat, which provides me with the most enjoyment possible for the type of terrain in the area. Some riders in our group like to ride a lightweight (carbon frame) hard tail for enhanced climbing; but from my experience, a full-suspension bike is much more enjoyable especially for the many rapid rooty and rocky downhill descents on swooping singletrack trails. Of interest, most mountain bikers in our area are riding 29ers; the 26ers are phasing out. There are some areas that are suitable for cross bikes with skinnier tires, such as forest service roads or double tracks, but that's not the type of riding our group enjoys.
What can non-riders do in Missoula?
Non-riders might consider spending some time in downtown Missoula; there are numerous restaurants, shops, microbrew pubs, opportunities for sightseeing, and arts in the area. Every Saturday during the summer season, the Farmer's Market is open until noon. Every Wednesday, Missoula hosts Out-to-Lunch with food and music. Every Thursday night, Missoula hosts Downtown Tonight with food vendors and live concerts. On the first Friday of every month, Missoula opens all the art galleries for a walking tour. Activities on the river might include inner tubing, kayaking, or paddle boarding.
For a short drive, there is more to see and do in the Bitterroot Valley or Seeley-Swan area.
Are there any attractions that even riders should take a break to see?
For sightseeing, there is the University of Montana campus, hiking the M, hiking Water Works hill, Caras Park Carousel & Dragon Hollow for children, Missoula Art Museum (MAM), Children's Museum, Spectrum Discovery Museum, Fort Missoula, Elk Foundation, Brennan's Wave on Clark Fork River, Smoke Jumper's Center, water parks, swimming pools, and a lot more.
There are so many good restaurants, such as the Face Club, Pearl, Depot, Finn & Porter Deck, and Shadow's Keep to name a few.
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