Building Connection—and Bike Trails—in Big Sky
BY JASON BACAJ
Among the Big Sky biking community in the late 1990s and early 2000s there used to be a joke about how heading off to ride singletrack was like going to work in a mine. The climbing was steep, the descents spicy and technically demanding.
Riders would sing to one another “heigh-ho, heigh-ho it’s off to work we go,” said Melissa Cronin, a fifth-generation Montanan who lived in Big Sky for about 25 years and helped lead early efforts to develop recreational trails around the area. While the Disney Snow White song is perhaps hyperbole, it underscores the challenge of mountain biking in the area back then.
“I was always super amazed looking back that we did what we did on the bikes that
we had available,” said Cronin, who now serves on the Southwest Montana Mountain Biking Association’s executive board.
Not only were the trails difficult and bikes unforgiving, but riders also frequently confronted private property, dipping in and out of legal trails. That rogue era of mountain biking in southwest Montana almost sounds like fiction when contrasted with the sport today: Big Sky Resort rakes in summer business with more than 50 miles of downhill bike trails serviced by three chairlifts; bike shops are as common as ski shops in town; and a sprawling network of local trails are painting Big Sky as an up-and-coming bike town.
Trail connectivity is a huge part of not only making the area more bikeable, but in linking the community with its outdoor spaces and public land. One local organization in particular has made it its mission to advance trail connectivity in Big Sky, and it’s already got miles of trails to show for it. Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association (SWMMBA) is a Bozeman-based nonprofit which builds community around biking through trail building, advocacy, events and education. The organization was founded in 2015 as a spin-off of the Dirt Concern of Gallatin Valley Bicycle Club and has been growing exponentially ever since, especially as interest in biking and the population of southwest Montana continue to swell post-pandemic. As proof, in August 2022 SWMMBA hired its first executive director, Josh Fairchilds, a longtime local who had worked with Oboz and Simms Fishing Products. The chapter-based organization is expanding into territories beyond Bozeman, including a very active Big Sky chapter and the 2023 launch of the Madison County chapter in Ennis.
SWMMBA’s Big Sky chapter started during the summer of 2020, said Max Erpenbach, the chapter’s trails director. He and a few others around the area had been talking about how they could create a community trail work organization. The idea was to get people together for “dig days” to maintain trails, maybe host races, ride bikes together, run—really anything that had to do with improving access to trails and public land, Erpenbach said. Before long, the local effort met SWMMBA. The nonprofit provided a foundation of fundraising know-how and many years of experience organizing volunteer-based trail work. That first year, Erpenbach said the chapter hosted one trail day in September where folks worked on the regionally popular Mountain to Meadow trail, which connects Big Sky Resort to Big Sky’s Meadow Village with a 1.5-mile climb and flowy 6-mile descent. The following summer, the chapter gained momentum, offering 10 trail days.
Then, in the summer of 2022, an opportunity to build a brand new trail cemented the chapter’s mission of establishing more trail connectivity in the Big Sky area. The concept for the new trail, Tanner’s Way, arose back in 2019 when the Big Sky Community Organization, a nonprofit focused on year-round recreation and community partnerships, surveyed the community to inform its developing Master Trails Plan. Results revealed community interest in a trail connecting the Meadow Village area to the popular North Fork trail, which provides access to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
There was just one problem: like much of the land around Big Sky, the public U.S. Forest Service land around North Fork abutted large swaths of private property, which would have to be crossed in order to make the connector trail possible. Luckily, the property owners’ values were in line with SWMMBA. The two families—the Kirchers and Nobles—worked with the BSCO to provide permanent public easements on their properties to make the trail possible. Kim and John Kircher, former owners of Big Sky Resort, told the local newspaper upon the trail’s completion that they saw the project as a way to help ensure open access to the community. Their neighbors, the Nobles, mountain bikers themselves, jumped at the chance to provide access to the local community. The trail, Tanner’s Way, is named for the Nobles’ son, who died of a heart condition while biking in Big Sky in the summer of 2017.
“I feel like most of the private landowners here, they moved to Big Sky because of the outdoor recreation,” said Ashley Wilson, BSCO controller and SWMMBA Big Sky chapter president. “And I feel like the community members and the private landowners here in Big Sky are really open and want to help in any way that they can.”
Though the common interest is there, having an organization like SWMMBA is critical to transforming community interests and landowners’ buy-in to rideable trails.
Working with private landowners helped the trail project move quickly, said Patrick Rooney, SWMMBA trails manager. Once the easements and trail corridor were settled and agreed upon, Rooney and others cleared the trail with chainsaws and eventually with SWMMBA’s new tool, the mini excavator. The initial clearing was followed by six days of volunteers digging up roots, clearing branches and buffing out the trail. All told, the process of building out the 1.7-mile trail spanned a single summer.
While Tanner’s Way is a huge stride toward connecting the town of Big Sky with the National Forest trails, a short, trailless gap still remains between the Meadow Village and the end of Tanner’s Way. Wilson said she’s working with a local HOA to get the trail across some of the association’s open space and more fully connect town to the trail and, ultimately, public land.
“A connected community through trails is definitely a goal,” Wilson said. “Big Sky’s trail system has rapidly evolved just in years. And because Big Sky’s kind of a valley/island, if you will, that’s surrounded by private land or national forest, we the BSCO and SWMMBA have formed really good relationships with not only the U.S. Forest Service but also the private landowners.
Wilson added that a major local development group, Lone Mountain Land Company, has been an integral partner of SWMMBA’s, with a shared passion for connecting trails motivating support for ongoing projects, one of which is expected next summer.
LMLC and funds from local resort tax will help SWMMBA foot the bill for an asphalt pump track that’s integrated with a skate park near Meadow Village, Rooney said, adding that tentative plans for the park also include a shade shelter, bathroom and landscaping. It’s a multi-phase project, but Rooney said the nonprofit hopes to have a dirt outline and track in place by summer 2024.
LMLC—which last year bought one of Big Sky’s most distinct areas, called Town Center— announced last October that the company plans to add more trail connections between town and trails near Michener and Mud creek toward the Gallatin Canyon, potentially as early as summer 2023.
“Where we’ve been trying to get involved is there’s so many great bike trails in Big Sky and a lot of them don’t go all the way into town,” Erpenbach said. “I hope that as Big Sky changes, [developers] continue to think about how these trail networks can connect in terms of in between the buildings and the concrete.”
Erpenbach moved to Montana 11 years ago and has since worked for Big Sky Resort. He’s witnessed Big Sky’s built environment expand, as well as the trails around it. A decade ago, he said mountain biking around Big Sky was mostly limited to lift-accessed riding and big backcountry adventures without much in between. Now, he enjoys after work rides, whether it be a flowy, shuttled ride down the Mountain to Meadow trail or a loop around the Hummocks and Uplands trails near Town Center.
After recalling the unestablished early days of mountain biking in Big Sky, Cronin says steady development of accessible trails around Big Sky “speaks highly of the people” in the community who’ve had the vision and been able to puzzle together the various pieces over time. “The community of Big Sky has been phenomenal,” she said.
And yet, plenty of work remains. Wilson said trail connectivity between the four main areas of Big Sky— neighborhoods in Gallatin Canyon, Meadow Village, Town Center and Mountain Village—is crucial to addressing the community’s more pressing issues of traffic congestion and shrinking its carbon footprint.
“Everybody has been stuck [at the resort] or stuck because there’s an accident,” she said. “If we could work to reduce traffic, it would not only be safer for pedestrians and cyclists, it would be better for the environment just overall.” Such remediation is among BSCO’s top priorities.
Alongside practical considerations, improved trails and connectivity provide other benefits to the community. Cronin, whose own two kids grew up in Big Sky in the 2000s, said kids living in Big Sky nowadays have expanded ways to enjoy their surroundings that earlier generations dreamed of. Cronin credited this growth in opportunity in large part to the vision of local nonprofits, businesses eager to improve outdoor access and the willingness of community members to get their
“If you look at all those components as a spoke on a wheel for community building, there’s a lot of things that have come together to make those trails as important as they are,” Cronin said.
The old days of “heigh-ho, heigh-ho” are a humble past for Big Sky’s cycling community, one that marks the expansive progress of the present. The future is full of opportunity, a flow trail of excitement and possibility.
“… If we realize, for the most part, people are good and that the concept of freedom of movement—especially on a trail system—is a really good thing; it’s good for the community, for the businesses, the people, the kids,” Cronin said. “That would be my wish for the future.”
Jason Bacaj is the managing editor at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.