by Celia Bertoia
Lewis and Clark found the Montana area of 1805 to hold natural wonders, host plentiful game, and house friendly natives. All is still true today and much of the landscape they crossed remains unchanged. The main difference is that trails are marked and accommodations are comfortable. With the approaching bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery expedition, this is a perfect time to tour Montana. Runners will discover adventurous treks, well-organized races, beautiful national parks and sparse traffic. The entire state has a population of less than a million people with the largest city, Billings, home to only 80,000 residents, so you won't have to fight crowds or vie for good service.
The highlight of running in Montana is the vast groomed trail system throughout the state's public lands. Over 28% of our fourth largest state is federally owned, allowing infinite recreational use for runners. State forests and wilderness areas with generous scenic trail running opportunities abound throughout the region. In Glacier National Park over 700 miles of maintained trails beg use throughout the spectacular glaciated mountains and lakes. Glacier has an unusual system of backcountry shelters that are accessible only on foot and separated by an afternoon's run. Yellowstone National Park claims 950 miles of backcountry trails that wind through geothermal geysers, herds of buffalo and elk, and along the wide calm Yellowstone River. Beware bears, mountain lions, and other wild critters and carry bear spray or travel in groups of four or more for safety (take this seriously!).
Weather or Not
Summer is short in the Treasure State. Winter is an endless white affair that lasts from October to late May, and even spring or fall running may include snowstorms or cold spells calling for hats and gloves. Snow precludes trail running (unless you use snowshoes or yaktrax) in all but the warmest months of June through September. A bonus is the low humidity that makes all temperatures more bearable, so spring and fall running can be delightful. If you are looking for shorts and singlets conditions, July and August are your best bets with temperatures ranging from the 60's to 90's during daylight hours and dropping to the 40's to 60's at night. Perhaps because the summer is brief, it seems more pristine, special, and stunning than in warmer climates.
I'll Race Ya!
Local races carry on the traditions of the west. The Lewis and Clark Marathon course passes a campsite of the historic expedition on its hilly beautiful route near Bozeman. The Bridger Trail 10-miler twists up and down the forested and rocky Bridger Mountains that were first explored by Jim Bridger. More aspiring athletes can take on the Bridger 50K.
In September, the 7-mile John Colter Run follows several miles of the escape route of John Colter, one of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery adventurers. Colter, having returned as a trapper to the confluence of the three forks of the Missouri River, faced a tribe of Blackfeet warriors and ended up running naked to save his life. This race is a remarkable adventure in itself that provides several occasions to outwit your competition, although the first 1 1/2 miles of flat road might mislead you. You are thrust onto a steep single-track trail, creating a long huffing line of walkers nearly impossible to pass. Once up that first major climb, the open spaces remind you why Montana is known as big sky country, with expansive views of a huge azure horizon, high plains and rugged mountains in every direction for a hundred miles. Your prime chance to beat the crowd comes with another relentless hill that includes squeezing through a barbed-wire cattle fence! After several precarious zigzagging downhill sprints and a few more grunting rises, the Gallatin River is finally in view. But first, you have to beat the train. If you're quick, you can fly past the tracks before the train whistle blows while unluckier friends are forced to lose several minutes waiting for 80-some railroad cars to pass. Across the tracks, your last obstacle, the river, looms. In a drought season you can jog easily through the knee-high water, but some years the snowmelt provides for a mighty chest-high struggle warranting a rope aid. Finally, clawing your way out of the mud, you scramble the last 100 yards to the finish and all the beer you can drink. We are certain that Colter himself would have enjoyed the cold beverages. The Missouri Headwaters State Park, site of the race, permits only 300 runners, so sign up early for this fun adventure.
Other enjoyable races include Helena's Governor's Cup, with distances from 5K to marathon, which draws about 7,000 runners, more participants than any other single race in the state.
Great Falls' Ice Breaker offers cash prizes for its 5-mile contest and pulls in some of the area's finest competitors.
The Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, a celebration of arts and crafts, coincides with the Bozeman Classic 5K and 10K and children's run, a hometown favorite.
The YMCA Riverbank Run, offering a 1-mile, 5K, 10K or TriFecta, is touted to be one of Missoula's best races by Runner's World Magazine and especially caters to families.
The Pony Trot Trail Race in the tiny town of Pony, set in the gorgeous Tobacco Root Mountains, awards engraved used horseshoes for age group places.
The Montana Marathon in Billings presents a fast downhill scenic course with reasonable entry fees. Montana has several fine ultra challenges ranging from 50K to 100K, all on breathtaking and challenging courses through the mountains.
Whatever your ability or fitness level, Montana calls to you to discover her incredible beauty and unspoiled expanse. Weekly local running club fun runs in larger cities, timeless scenic mountain treks, or tame city park paths will lure you into distances you may not have foreseen. Come run under the big sky!
Where the Locals Run
Bozeman: Just north of the city, N. Rouse St turns into Bridger Canyon Road. Park at the "M" trailhead and bear left to catch the undulating Foothills trail of the Bridger Mountains. It runs all the way to Fairy Lake 20 miles away, so go out and back as far as you like.
Missoula: From town, head southwest on Rte 93 out of town, then right on Blue Mountain Road to the trailhead just past the Montana Athletic Club. The Blue Mountain trail system melts early and winds for endless miles with a variety of terrain so check the map at the trailhead to decide on your route of the day. Missoula, Butte, Great Falls, and Billings all boast partially paved lengthy river trails on their respective rivers. Just ask at any gas station, "Which way to the river trail?" and a friendly local will point you in the right direction.
Lodging /National Parks
Chico Hot Springs Resort- 30 miles from Yellowstone, has conference facilities, mountain trails nearby, and soothing pools of varying temperatures.
Boulder Hot Springs- between Missoula and Helena, will entice you with natural baths, trails out the back door, and ample Sunday brunches.
Old Faithful Inn- the oldest and most impressive of the Yellowstone lodges, this Inn has trails leading to geysers and Old Faithful herself spouting every hour in clear view.
Glacier National Park- is home to abundant wildlife, awesome peaks, and icy glacial lakes. Historical lodges abound, each with more spectacular views than the last.
Museums and Things to Do
Museum of the Rockies, with moving dinosaurs, living farm history, Montana history displays and rotating exhibits is sure to tweak your curiosity. (Bozeman)
Mining Museum of the World in Butte, located on the original site of Orphan Girl Mine, entices visitors to tour the 33 acres of a rebuilt mining town of the 1800's. (Butte)
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center has a dugout canoe and Indian artifacts. Rendezvous men will explain how they "set out early on the portage" of 18 miles past the waterfalls. (Great Falls)
The Dumas Brothel in historic Butte was a high-class parlor house that closed its doors in 1982. Today it is one of the only known brothel museums. (Butte)
The Carousel in Missoula, with 38 handcrafted unique horses, is a great place kids of all ages to step back into fantasyland.
Virginia City hosts re-enacted shootouts in this replica of a western town where shopkeepers don period costumes.