By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
BIG SKY – Two new trail projects reached completionin late August in Big Sky. Though short in distance, these trails will go a long way in increasing access to public lands and connecting some of the community’s most used trails.
Tanner’s Way (North Fork connector)
On Aug. 9, about a week before the new trail’s completion, the arm of a mini excavator claws the ground, uprooting dirt and loose rock. Seated in the machine, Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association Trails Manager Patrick Rooney ushers the excavator forward. A freshly dug trail snakes behind him toward the horizon.
The trail is Tanner’s Way, a 1.7-mile, two-way hiking and biking connection between the Meadow Village area and the North Fork trailhead. Now years in the making, the trail is the product of public demand, private partnership and local collaboration.
SWMMBA built the trail and will continue to maintain it, and the Big Sky Community Organization holds the easements for the trail, which runs across private land owned by the Kircher and Noble families.
The public expressed significant interest in such a trail when the Big Sky Community Organization conducted a survey to inform its 2019 Master Trails Plan. After the survey was published, Kim Kircher approached SWMMBA about how she and her husband, John, could help bring the community’s wish-list item to fruition.
BSCO became involved last fall to secure permanent easements in the public’s name with the Kirchers
and the Nobles. For both families, the deal was a no-brainer.
“John and I have a long history in the recreation business in Big Sky,” wrote Kim in an email to EBS. “This trail project is an example of numerous landowners and agencies working together to open access for our community. This becomes more important as Big Sky grows.”
For the Nobles, the easement was an opportunity to contribute to the mountain bike community in Big Sky as well as a way to honor the memory of their late son, Tanner.
As described by his father, Kevin, Tanner was a kind, bright young man with a “gigawatt smile.” Named for Montana, Tanner was imbued with a love for the state where his family lived part-time. Just shy of his 19th birthday in July of 2017, Tanner died of a heart condition while biking in Big Sky.
“He would love the idea for us to pedal out the back of the property onto the trail and either go downtown to Big Sky Town Center or go up to the North Fork,” Kevin said. “He and I used to ride the North Fork all the time. And so that whole area is special to us.”
According to Adam Johnson, BSCO parks and trails director, part of the value in Tanner’s Way is the access it provides to public lands. Much of the North Fork area is on Custer-Gallatin National Forest Service land and eventually connects to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, but currently the only way to access this land is by driving to the trailhead. In the same survey that indicated public interest in a North Fork connector trail, 40 percent of respondents said they often walk or bike for transportation in Big Sky. Trails like Tanner’s Way expand those opportunities, and they unclog busy trailheads, Johnson said.
“We are all private land in Town Center, and it’s quite a ways to be able to get to that public land,” Johnson said. “With all the private [land] around, there’s not as much a way to get out and get going. Once we get people to public lands, they can spread out and recreate.”
Max Erpenbach, trails director for SWMMBA’s Big Sky chapter, said Tanner’s Way was a community effort from start to finish. It was the community that asked for it, Erpenbach recalled from the Master Trails Plan, and it was the community that brought it through the finish line, from the local organizations and landowners to the volunteers that dug out the last rocks and roots.
In addition to machine work, SWMMBA hosted five evening volunteer sessions on Tanner’s Way, with anywhere from five to 15 volunteers showing up each night.
“A lot of people supported it from the start and people were excited to see it, and then it took a community to help finish it,” Erpenbach said.
Tanner’s Way currently spits out onto Montana Highway 64 west of the tunnel near the turnoff to Lone Mountain Ranch. BSCO and SWMMBA plan to further connect the trail to town by securing an encroachment permit from the Montana Department of Transportation to build a path from the trail to Little Coyote Road. Currently, bikers and hikers can use the highway to connect to the Meadow.
Adam and Tele’s Connector (Hummocks/Uplands connector)
For more than five years, Johnson has made strides for parks and trails from his post at BSCO. Now moving on to new opportunities, Johnson’s impact will be celebrated with a connector trail that joins the Hummocks and Uplands trails near Town Center.
Named for Johnson and his dog, Adam and Tele’s Connector weaves through meadows of young pines for a little more than half a mile. Though a quick bike or walk, Johnson said the connector allows the two distinct trails to offer a broader experience.
“Just a small connection opens up the ability to connect trails in a different way to make it much longer,” he said. “Simple connections can make loops that, depending on how you put them together, can add multiple miles.”
Since its acquisition of Town Center from the Simkins family in May, local development group Lone Mountain Land Company owns the land Hummocks and Uplands are on and Adam and Tele’s Connector was created with the company’s support.
“We’re excited to partner with BSCO on an expansion of trails,” said Matt Kidd, LMLC’s managing director. “The connector trail is a small piece of the overall trail connectivity and trail work that we’re working on and we look forward to sharing more details over the next few months.”
Hummocks and Uplands are currently available for public use based on an agreement, according to Kidd.
Adam and Tele’s Connector will be part of the course for the Big Sky Biggie mountain bike race on Aug. 27.