Monday, June 22, 2015

Getting Out Of Dodge - Helena Bound

Took a little vacation recently to my home state of Montana for some much needed rest and relaxation as well as meeting up with and spending time with family. It was a fabulous time and like most vacation seemed to go way too fast but upon arriving back in the land of fast internets and uploading pictures I realized just how much stuff we crammed into a week and a half. Of course bikes were brought and rides were had, so the logical solution seemed to be to break the vacation into three separate blog posts, one for each ride since this is a blog about biking and not a vacation blog. Read along if you want, don't if it all bores you; the choice as always is up to you...

"You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”
~ Dr. Seuss ~

Photo Feb 20, 2 10 22 PM

Oddly enough the planning for this vacation started months ago, which is unusual for me as I am not usually a planner and organizer when it comes to vacations. Sure I usually have a general idea of where I'm going and what activities are going to take place but never anything as specific as the planning I did this time. The first leg of the journey was Omaha to Helena, the capitol city of the great state of Montana and a place that I had only been to once, maybe twice in my life and that was as a young child no older than 10-12.

Photo Feb 20, 2 36 17 PM

To be honest I didn't know much about Helena and probably never would have if it weren't for the awesome PR campaign that Bike Helena has been doing on both Facebook and their own website. Over the months leading up to vacation I started to learn about all of the trails that are accessible right at the end of the streets or via a free shuttle van, the way the community has embraced mountain biking and that Helena was recently awarded an IMBA bronze ride center designation. All good things and the guy I was talking to at Bike Helena was always very friendly, informative and quick to respond when I had questions via email plus I got a ton of free swag for expressing interest in coming out there and riding... in my experience mountain bikers love free stuff like "big boned" kids like donuts and Bike Helena just gets that.


We stayed at the Best Western Helena Great Northern Hotel, if you are up on your railroad knowledge you probably picked up on the fact that even though the Great Northern Railroad doesn't exist by that name anymore (it's currently part of BNSF railroad due to a series of mergers) but the hotel still carries the name. If you are a railroad buff, I recommend reading up on the Great Northern Railroad as it's history is pretty interesting, it was the only successful, privately funded  transcontinental railroad, it had a hand in the formation of Glacier National Park and was for awhile the only way to get to the park and provided service from Minnesota to Seattle in it's hay day; and for a time my Grandfather worked for them... so there's that as well. Montana still shows homage to all that the Great Northern Railroad did for the state, the name and goat symbol are still readily used throughout the state. The hotel was of course railroad themed, I was really liking the retro theme and feel to the hotel and would recommend it to anyone traveling through or staying in Helena.



One of the nicer things about the hotel was that it was located right in the middle of the Great Northern Towne Center, which is a collection of shops, bars, restaurants, fountains and even a large indoor carousel so once we parked the car there really wasn't a need to drive anywhere if you didn't want to and after driving 15 hours the thought of not driving for a day and a half sounded wonderful.


Timing of the trip worked out perfectly and we were able to meet up with a childhood friend of mine who was in town from Great Falls for work. Had a few beers and then a few more and threw in some food for good measure. Surprisingly to me was the fact that Montana has more than a few microbreweries that have popped up since the last time through the state, one of my favorite was Harvest Moon Brewery out of tiny little Belt Montana (population approx. 600 souls).


I also made a new friend while walking around the Great Northern Towne Center, not sure is he was the official mascot of the now defunct Great Northern Railroad but I can't say for sure that he wasn't either.


As I was getting ready to ride some of the great trails I'd been reading all about I realized that I had forgot to bring any water bottles, which is pretty ironic as I probably own at least 100 water bottles and have boxes of them that I may have only used once or might have never used. Trying to go without was not even an option as it was well into the 90s and I knew that the ride I had in mind involved plenty of climbing. Luckily I found these two great shops right next to each other, Great Divide Cyclery  is about what you would expect a bike shop to be but The Garage next door is gaining some notoriety for their custom bike builds. Not needing any custom work done it was just two water bottles for me and then out the door to hit the trails.

Mt. Ascension

Since I knew I would only have time for one ride in Helena I did a little research on MTB Project and decided that the Mt. Ascension trail up and the Entertainment Trail on the way down would provide the most bang for my buck and they also formed a loop. Being a born again flat lander, I knew that there would be more climbing than I was accustomed to but I also knew that the view of the city would be worth it from the top. The Stava layout shows just what I expected, I was climbing a mountain on my mountain bike.


This trail did not disappoint, when most people think "mountain biking" these are types of trails most conjure up in the imagination, pine trees, rocks, roots and lots of climbing. As you can see from the previous picture the first 3 miles was pretty much a nonstop climb.


While not as high in elevation as some places in Colorado, although the top of the climb is higher than Denver, it was still some 3,000 feet higher than I was used to riding and my lungs let me know it. Amazingly I only had to stop one time on my way up, which I considered good considering the heat, the hold gravity has on me and the fact I had no idea how much farther I had to climb... took this picture while drinking some water and munching on a granola bar and chatted with the guy in the previous picture when he caught up. Being a regular he was much more familiar with the trail, he informed me that I had already climbed 5/6ths of the way to the top; despite his odd fractional representation I felt a second wind knowing that I was close to the top and the spectacular views that lie ahead.


A guy could get used to looking at this during his ride for sure!


As they say what goes up, must come down and this trail was no exception to that rule. The way down was far less rocky or rooty and had unbelievable flow, even being unfamiliar with the trail I barely had to touch the brakes on the way down. It was so much fun as a matter of fact that I didn't stop a single time for a picture until I got to this plateau about half way down and snapped a shot of Farley in a field of flowers.


Once back down it was time to head back to the hotel and clean up, I was hot, sweaty and covered with some good Montana dust. I reevaluated my level of cleanliness after spotting this car but still opted for a nice shower back at the hotel.


As I said earlier my only other experiences with Helena were as a kid and one of those was a field trip to the capitol building for elementary school, so I am by no means an expert on Helena but from what I did see it wouldn't be a bad place to call home if one could snag a decent job. In addition to riding we hit up the walking mall and a few other local businesses, all of it reminded me of my childhood and reiterated the feeling that people just don't seem to be in as much of a rush in Montana as they are in other places I've been. Helena and Montana as a whole has a bit more of a laid back vibe to it that I really miss sometimes.

I'd definitely do it all again, only this time I'd make sure I had more time to sting together multiple days of riding. While Helena may not be on the hot list of all that many mountain bikers, maybe it should be, I'd recommend it for sure after riding just the one trail, here is a link to a few videos from Bike Helena of the trails Helena has to offer. I have a few videos on my Flickr site that are worth checking out from Helena, nothing bike related but one crazy squirrel and a unique fountain that is a tribute to the mining days of Helena... unfortunately Flickr still hasn't fixed their video sharing issue so you'll have to go there to see them.

That's it for part one, part two will be a fun little ride in Glacier National Park that is the only legal single track in the entire 1,583 square miles that is GNP. Something about that just seems wrong but that's an issue for another day.

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