This trail is very popular with Bozeman bikers and hikers alike due to its close-but-not-to-close proximity to town for after work rides and runs.
From the trailhead, you have an immediate climb up several switchbacks. Some tight, some not so tight, though the trail is wide and very smooth, making it a nice climb (if there ever was such a thing).
True Bozemanites will combine the South Cottonwood Creek trail with the History Rock Trail for an epic ride with a lot of uphill and downhill. If you choose this route, you’ll cross South Cottonwood Creek about nine times over foot-wide footbridges. Some tilt off-camber and are slippery and wet from the river. You’ll need to carry your bike with one hand and hang onto the railing with the other.
The footbridges, I believe, are the most technically challenging sections of this trail because if you do slip and fall into the river, in late spring or early summer, it’ll be downright ugly.
With each creek crossing, there’s a subsequent climb and descent. The good news is that the climbs are short. Around the fifth crossing, the trail becomes fairly level (by Montana standards) along the creek.
The real reward on this ride is where the two trails meet. There is an open meadow (about seven miles in) with stunning views of Mt. Blackmore. Even if you’re not a poet, you’ll still be moved to recite Baudelaire.
At the meadow, you’ve reached the seven mile mark (on your odometer). From here you have three options. Pick up History Rock Trail, continue on South Cottonwood Creek or turn around and ride back to the trailhead. If you continue on South Cottonwood Creek, the trail becomes very primitive and technical: roots, rocks, felled trees, more river crossings but without the footbridges. Depending on the time of year you ride, you will most likely encounter snowpack.
As usual, our timing was impeccable. We were in Bozeman in late June following a record snow year. At that time, Cottonwood Creek was bulging with an unusually-heavy spring snowmelt to about a Class 4 level with lots of dangerous strainers and sieves.
Unfortunately for us, that same water was gushing over the section where South Cottonwood Creek trail and the History Rock Trail connect. We opted to continue on the increasingly primitive Cottonwood Creek trail until we ran into snowpack and had to turn back.
The out-and-back is still worth it and most of the trail is smooth and very well maintained with enough moderately rocky sections to intimidate beginners and challenge everyone else.
By Bozeman standards, South Cottonwood Creek trail is a mellow ride along Cottonwood Creek. By this Minnesotan’s standards, the uphill section that begins immediately out of the trailhead made my head explode and I was disappointed that we ran into snowpack in late June.
Such is the dilemma when a flatlander rides in the mountains out west.
Getting there is easy. From highway 191, turn south onto Cottonwood Rd. Go about eight miles, past the turns for Hyalite Lake, Pasha and Starling Rds. Keep winding around until you come to the trailhead on your left. Take a left and follow the road back for two miles or so.
If you’re not familiar with the trails of Bozeman, be sure to pick up a copy of Bozeman & Big Sky’s Essential Mountain Bike Rides, a great and informative map that’s available at any of the Bozeman bike shops.