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Researchers behind a new study found that on a typical day last summer, more than 1,700 trips were taken on trails in the Bridger Mountains.

On a typical weekend day, over 2,400 uses were counted. Foot traffic was particularly high on trails near town, but it was also significant on some trails farther away from Bozeman, like North Cottonwood and Sacajawea Pass.

The study — titled “Measuring Trail Use in Montana’s Bridger Mountains” — was conducted by the research group Headwaters Economics. Its findings provide a detailed snapshot of foot traffic between the latter part of last June to mid-September.

Researchers mounted counters, little black boxes that emit infrared beams, on trees near 20 of the Bridger range’s trailheads. They made sure the boxes were high enough to register trips by children, but not dogs.

Each time a person crossed a counter’s beam, the box registered a use. That means for each out-and-back trip, two uses were counted. The data was compiled on an online dashboard.

Bridger Mountains trail use study

A map shows spots near trailheads in the Bridger Mountains where staff from Headwaters Economics tracked trail use during the summer of 2021. Trails with larger and darker dots were most popular, on average.

Megan Lawson, a statistician and economist who leads Headwaters Economics’ research on outdoor recreation and economic development, said some findings were no surprise.

For example, average daily traffic on the College “M” Trail was tremendous, she said. Users crossed the trail’s counter 380 times on an average day.

Other findings were more interesting to Lawson. Outlying trails that are farther out of town, like Middle Cottonwood, Truman Gulch and North Cottonwood, also saw a high rate of use.

Counters registered an average of 178 uses per day at Middle Cottonwood, 93 uses per day at Truman Gulch and 75 uses per day at North Cottonwood. On some summer days, parking lots at far-out trails were at capacity, Lawson said.

Traffic was also high at Sacajawea Pass, where counters registered 137 uses per day on average. Lawson said she expected use would be high there, but she didn’t anticipate it would be that high.

Bridger trails

Kyrsten Reistad hikes up the final section of trail before arriving at the 'M' in the Bridger Mountains on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

“It’s one of the most popular trailheads despite a pretty hairy drive up to Fairy Lake,” she said. “That’s not really deterring users.”

The Custer Gallatin National Forest and Gallatin County provided equipment and played an advisory role in the work. Information gathered in the study will help them as they make decisions that impact recreation in the Bridgers.

Lawson said the Bridger Infrastructure Subcommittee of the Custer-Gallatin Working Group is trying to prioritize investments in infrastructure throughout the range, and understanding exact rates of use will help members make informed decisions.

“The Forest Service and the county were really interested in better understanding how much use is happening, and where, because during the pandemic, there was a big increase in recreational activity,” she said.

Land managers are considering how often trailheads are near or exceeding their capacity, and whether those capacity issues lead to challenges with overflow parking or trespassing, according to Lawson.

While the Bridger trail use study is meant to help the Forest Service and county, Lawson hopes it will benefit a variety of user groups who are interested in doing trailhead maintenance or investing in upgrades.

Bridger trails

Theresa Huyser, left, and Azure Taylor approach the College M trailhead after going on a snowy hike in the Bridger Mountains on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Bridger Ridge Trail

Leaves on the western side of the Bridger Mountains below Ross Peak were starting to turn yellow on Sunday, Sept. 5. Mountain grouse could be seen in the underbrush at various points along the Bridger Ridge Trail that day.

Hikers, bikers and other users can reference the information as they plan trips. It might help them avoid crowds or find parking spots, she said.

Headwaters Economics hopes to use ongoing research to build on the counter data from last summer. They’d like to create models and make predictions about trail use over time, she said.

“We’re just really excited to share this research with land managers, but also with the community,” Lawson said. “So many people have stories of busier trails or crowded trailheads, and we see our role as being the folks who can provide the data to help people understand exactly what’s going on.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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