Big Bike Country: Experiencing Montana’s Bitterroot and Milwaukee Trails
If you’re screaming down US 93 in a climate-controlled SUV, you might not notice the strip of blacktop paralleling the busy highway from Missoula to Hamilton in western Montana. Likewise, users of the 51-mile Bitterroot Trail can sometimes forget to look past the road traffic and noise to fully appreciate the surrounding area bursting with history and natural beauty.
“If you want to go to Europe to see scenery, come bike Western Montana and the Bitterroot [instead],” said Bitterroot Trail Preservation Alliance’s Jean Belangie-Nye.
My original plan was to ride the Bitterroot, stopping every few miles where the trail intersects the Bitterroot River or a tributary creek and cast a line. Montana is known for its world-class trout fishing, and I was looking forward to combining one of my newest passions, fly fishing, with one of my oldest, pedaling a bicycle. Unfortunately, when I arrived in May, it was several weeks too early to fish with the waterways too high due to snowmelt. Perhaps it’s just as well; I’m not sure how cool I would’ve looked pedaling in hip waders and felt-soled boots.
Experiencing Bitterroot Valley
Even without snagging a rainbow trout, there was enough to see and do throughout the Bitterroot Valley to make it an interesting trip. Just a few miles south of Missoula, Travelers’ Rest State Park is the nation’s only archaeologically verified campsite of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition more than two centuries ago, as well as a frequent stop for the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Nez Perce peoples who lived throughout the area.
“Lewis and Clark resupplied there, trading with the Salish,” said Bill Whitfield, Ravalli County Museum historian. “Lewis and Clark would travel Lolo Ridge, passing by a spot [historically] referred to as the Indian Post Office.”
The Salish and Nez Perce would leave messages on the rocks there, as well as worship and gather medicine. It’s still considered a sacred spot to the tribes. The Salish lived peacefully in the area until they were forcibly moved to a reservation north of Missoula around 1891.
Both the Bitterroot Trail and US 93 follow the spur of an old Northern Pacific rail line, Whitfield said. Trains on that line primarily hauled silver and copper ore mined in the nearby mountains, as well as lumber. Even as late as the 1970s, trains were still fairly frequent, but the line was shut down in the early 2000s. While there aren’t many reminders of the rail history along the trail, the Ravalli County Museum has plenty of photos and exhibits to check out.
Pedaling the Bitterroot Trail
When I rode the trail, it felt like a near perfect encapsulation of modern-day life in Montana; the Bitterroot Range to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east cast a shadow over the small towns, cattle farms and industrial areas just off the trail. (If you enjoy both riding and gambling, you’ll love this trail; I’m not sure who Lucky Lil is, but she seems to own a casino in nearly every town along the path.) You’ll also have plenty of post-trail options for food, drinks and accommodations or camping. Lolo Peak Brewery, about a quarter-mile off the trail, may be one of the most popular pitstops for its great beers and old-school hunting-lodge vibe. The BuffaloTrout Golden Ale is a great, lighter beer that allows you to fool yourself that you’re actually hydrating.
Multiple camping areas can be found just off the trail, including a couple of bike-only options for non-motorized travel. Just north of Stevensville, Bass Creek Recreation Area not only offers camping, but also miles of hiking and mountain bike trails. In Hamilton, the Angler’s Roost RV Park and Campground is a convenient basecamp for folks wanting to ride the southern half of the trail.
Let’s address the huge bison in the room: Because the Bitterroot parallels the highly trafficked US 93, there’s no escaping the traffic and road noise just yards away. My good friend, local cyclist Carolyne Whelan admitted this isn’t a trail for when you’re looking to relax and unwind; it’s the trail you ride when you want a good workout, are commuting to work, or you’re on the way to a relaxing trail.
According to Annie Creighton, an employee of Hamilton’s Valley Bicycles and Ski, the southern terminus of the trail is “a matter of opinion.” For her, the trail ends just north of Hamilton, but others use city sidewalks as an extension down to the Angler’s Roost. (Having experienced it myself, I would suggest taking side streets through Hamilton, as they offer more shade and less noise.) The Bitterroot parallels a segment of the TransAmerica Trail, an on-road route spanning more than 4,200 miles, so both the trail and the shop see a lot of out-of-state visitors.
“After being on the road for so long, most riders love to get on the trail and relax a bit,” Creighton said.
On the northern end of the trail in Missoula, the Bitterroot winds through an industrial area, past a few murals and shopping centers before intersecting with the Milwaukee Trail about a half-mile from the Clark Fork River that runs through town. The 1.8-mile Milwaukee Trail is a paved glimpse into Missoula’s residential life, connecting several neighborhoods, community gardens and shops.
“The Milwaukee Trail in Missoula is one of our primary commuter trails, and by far the busiest commuter trail in our system,” said Nathan McLeod, senior landscape architect for Missoula Parks and Recreation. “As the trail is expanded to the east and west it will provide a really important link between the communities east and west of Missoula.”
McLeod points out that the trail connects a string of parks along the south side of the river and is utilized heavily by joggers, walkers, bikers, skaters and others out enjoying the outdoors. The Milwaukee Trail also ties into the Riverfront Trail and the Kim Williams Nature Trail, expanding access to the University of Montana and downtown for trail users.
The Great American Rail-Trail®, a developing multiuse trail stretching more than 3,700 miles between Washington, D.C., and Washington State, will follow the Milwaukee route through Missoula, potentially bringing thousands of riders into the city.
“It was a multi-year project to secure a new trail corridor in order to continue the connection through town,” McLeod said. “The next step is to build a river crossing, and the city has already secured easements and land west of the river to continue the trail to Mullan Road. Eventually, we imagine this trail being fully connected from Frenchtown to East Missoula and beyond.”
Likewise, Bitterroot Trail organizers dream of expanding that trail, eventually serving as a connector between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Belangie-Nye explained. There are some significant logistical and financial hurdles, though, such as building along Flathead Lake, a dangerous section from Darby to Sula with the water on one edge and a mountain on the other side. The other big dream would be to connect to another segment of the Great American: Idaho’s Trail of the Couer d’Alene, an incredibly scenic Hall of Fame rail-trail about 130 miles northwest of Missoula.
GREAT AMERICAN RAIL-TRAIL
The 3,700-mile developing Great American Rail-Trail® is 53% complete to date. Learn more about this epic cross-country route.
“Folks are pretty excited about the Great American Rail-Trail running through Missoula,” McLeod enthused. “People who are aware of the project see tremendous benefit to Missoula residents and tourists alike. Missoula has a strong tourism economy and is already well poised to be more than just a ‘stop along the way,’ but will become a destination itself. With our vibrant downtown full of local businesses, a beautiful river and friendly people, visitors will find that Missoula is a city that they will want to spend some time experiencing.”
Related: Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and Route of the Hiawatha
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