The landscape of Montana is known to be wild and sparsely populated. The name for this rocky mountain state actually comes from words meaning “mountainous country.” The rocky mountains and fertile valleys of the western region give way to the wide open plains that cover the majority of the state. It also earned the nickname “Big Sky Country.” What better way to explore its expanses than taking on a cycling adventure? We’ll explore the longest biking trail in Montana as it winds its way along one of its waterways.
River’s Edge Trail: The Longest Biking Trail in Montana
The longest biking trail in Montana is the 55-mile River’s Edge Trail. It runs northeast out of Great Falls and carries riders along the Missouri River.
The trail stretches along both sides of the MIssouri River and is a perfect path for biking, walking, hiking, jogging, and skating. It has both paved and singletrack trails. The trail provides a charming route through Great Falls’ historic downtown. It then transitions to views of the mountains, prairies, and river canyons of the Big Sky Country. Along the way, you’ll encounter magnificent waterfalls, reservoirs, and many hydroelectric dams. The longest biking trail in Montana is a total of 55 miles long. Of these, 3 miles are concrete, 20 miles are smooth asphalt and 32 miles are singletrack for adventurous riders.
History of the Longest Biking Trail in Montana
The River’s Edge Trail contains former sections of both the Milwaukee Road and Great Northern transcontinental railroad systems. The trail originated in 1990 as a result of a ten-year planning process. This was undertaken by the local community and titled Vision 2000. Advocates for the trail saw an opportunity to convert abandoned rail routes into a thriving recreational opportunity. It became recognized as a National Recreation Trail in 2018.
River’s Edge Trail Route Navigation
The city of Great Falls is the largest city in Central Montana and offers an interactive online map of the River’s Edge Trail. Parking areas, restrooms, scenic views, as well as kiosks, and dog waste stations are all noted on the map. It may be best to keep this accessible on your device in addition to printing a physical copy of the trail map to bring along for the journey.
The trail consists of roughly 20 miles within the city of Great Falls. These urban segments travel through many city parks. You may want to make time to explore a nearby museum or stop for a picnic lunch before continuing the journey out of the city.
As part of your cycling journey along the longest biking trail in Montana, you may want to partake in some self-guided tours. Brochures, including maps, are available for these on the trail website. The River’s Edge Trail is a complex network. You can create a unique path suited to your style and abilities. We’ll walk you through some of the trail sections to help you plan your trip.
After some exploration within the city, your cycling adventure will transition into the rural parts of the River’s Edge Trail. The view at the Crooked Falls overlook is incredible across the river just below the dam and Rainbow Falls. This is just one of many, as the Missouri River drops roughly 500 feet within 21 miles. Over five sets of waterfalls will be available for your viewing pleasure. It’s no wonder that the city of Great Falls gained its name! They aren’t only good for a spectacular view though, these falls created the ideal conditions for hydroelectric power. The first dam was built near Black Eagle Falls in the late 1880s. Many more were soon to follow.
Giant Springs State Park
After breathing in the waterfall-charged air of the Crooked Falls overlook, ride back toward town. Make a stop to explore Giant Springs State Park. This is allegedly home to one of the world’s shortest rivers and one of the largest freshwater springs in America. The 2-mile loop within the park offers fantastic views of Black Eagle Falls and Steamboat Island. The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center is also in the area and definitely worth checking out. This is a great place to begin an exploration into the Corps of Discovery and learn about the route Lewis and Clark embarked on along the Missouri.
River’s Edge Trail History Tour
Most of the sites along this tour are concentrated along the north side of the river. Explore sites of the Native American people of this region and famous buffalo jumps and ride along the first hydropower dams along the Missouri. Follow the map given in the Rivers Edge Trail History Tour brochure to explore the historical sites.
Railroad Historic District Tour
Learn about the early days of the city and its journey to becoming a prominent Western railroad town. Many sites are along River Drive and include some notable architectural wonders. There are 20 railroad-specific sites to explore along the trail. You can pull out your Railroad Historic District Tour brochure and explore all the sites listed.
As you continue your exploration of the longest biking trail in Montana, check out the south shore by cycling back toward Crooked Falls and beyond. Or, you may want to drive to the Lewis & Clark Trailhead Overlook and cycle downriver. This part of the trail will take you about 8.5 miles to Box Elder Creek. This section is dirt trails and there’s not much shade along the route. This is where the trail becomes a bit more rural, so be sure to pack lots of water and some snacks.
Serious mountain bikers might want to head straight to this section of the River’s Edge Trail. This set of expert trails starts about 1.5 miles from the trailhead parking area. The name is a hint to the difficulty level of these technical and expert trails.
The trail system is marked for ability and actually contains beginner, intermediate and expert routes. So, there is something for everyone. Most people would enjoy the ride to Ryan Dam. The trail that continues beyond the dam to Box Elder Creek contains more difficult sections suited to strong riders. These single-track sections of the trail are earning a regional reputation for serious bikers!
The rural section of the north shore travels from the Rainbow Dam trailhead downriver. It includes a complex system of trails that lead roughly 9.5 miles to Morony Dam. Beyond Cochrane dam, the trail becomes single-track and is best suited to intermediate or advanced cyclists. If you’d like to get a feel for this section of the trail without committing to the entire length you can always drive to one of the dams and begin from there.
Elevation and Difficulty of the Trail
The River’s Edge Trail in its entirety is a difficult undertaking best left to experienced cyclists. It’s a bit of a “choose your own adventure” network of trails so the elevation gain will depend on the route you choose to embark on. With so many trailheads to choose from along the routes 55 miles, there is truly something for everyone along the longest biking trail in Montana.
Beginning cyclists may want to stick to the paved sections of the route. Though the route is generally downhill as it winds downriver, it does go up and down and in and out or creek bottoms, called “coulees.” Intermediate and advanced riders will likely want to explore the more rural sections of the South Shore and North Shore and venture along the cliff-hugging “Mayhem” routes.
How Long Does the Trail Take to Complete?
The entire network of the River’s Edge Trail is best undertaken by experienced and adventuresome cyclists only. If completing the entire trail, it will likely take several days. Even if only exploring part of the network, it’s recommended that you set aside three days for the experience. One recommendation is to reserve one day for the trails in town, another for cycling the north shore trails, and a third for the south shore trails.
Wildlife on the Longest Biking Trail in Montana
While biking the River’s Edge Trail within the city you may come across some wildlife like the official state bird, the western meadowlark. Along the Missouri River, you may spot a beaver on the bank or a trout jumping the waters. When venturing into the wild sections of the trail, it’s important to be aware that Montana is a bear country. Always keep a safe distance from wildlife. Bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and coyotes all dot the wild landscape of Montana and you never know what you might encounter along the way.
Cycling can bring you into a state of harmony with the natural world as you travel at a rate that’s aligned with your surroundings. So have fun exploring and be sure to respect the territories you traverse along your way.