COPPER CITY — On a recent windy afternoon, Tim Hawke pointed at a large expanse of rolling hills where trails weaved through the sagebrush. Two mountain bikers headed toward a ridge that offered views of the snowy Tobacco Roots.

Hawke has spent the last five years working on the trails, which were completed this summer when the last of the 22 miles of mountain bike trails opened. Now, he and others are making final touches, such as installing cattle guards and completing trailhead shelters.  

Beginning at a parking area, off of Highway 287 north of Three Forks, the trails form a few connected loops, increasing in difficulty as they get farther away. There are two bike-only downhill sections with jumps. A skills park sits next to the parking lot where bikers can test out dirt jumps and a pump track. There are also a handful of shelters made from reclaimed wood and hand-built picnic tables.

The trails are at a low elevation near the headwaters of the Missouri River, which receives less snow than the surrounding area, making it a great place for trail riding during the shoulder seasons — March to May and September to November.

The Copper City trails are open to runners and hikers as well, but they were built specifically with mountain bikers in mind. The routes expand the mountain biking options in the Gallatin Valley, where bikers typically stick to the Bangtails and Leverich Canyon.

“It’s definitely become a destination,” Hawke said. “The parking lot gets packed, and I see license plates from all over.”

In designing the trails, Hawke mimicked some of his favorite areas in southern Utah. He spent countless hours walking through Copper City to stake them out. He’d find features he liked, such as a boulder or limestone outcrop, and would link the features together to form trails. Once he staked out the routes, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land that makes up Copper City, had to approve them before excavation could begin.

“All of the best trails I’ve ridden, you could tell people put a lot of thought into them, so I wanted to do my due diligence,” he said.

Five years ago, Hawke approached the BLM with a proposal to develop Copper City for mountain biking. The area had been mined between the late-1800s and the mid-1900s with little success. Over the years, people have used it for biking, hiking, horseback riding and target shooting.

“There wasn’t a whole lot going on out here,” Hawke said. “I viewed this area as underused and wanted to change that.”

After reviewing Hawke’s proposal, the BLM accepted it as part of the 2016 updates to its travel management plan for Broadwater, Gallatin and Park counties, said Brad Colin, a BLM outdoor recreation planner based in Butte.

“It was a good opportunity to work with a partner who could go out and get the funding because it’s very difficult for us to get funding for projects of this magnitude, and we’re always looking for ways to improve our outdoor recreation opportunities,” Colin said.

Hawke and other members of the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association broke ground on the $500,000 project in August 2017. The association received state money, volunteered to help build the trails and brought in local donations.

“This is truly a community-based trail system,” Hawke said.

The Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association will partner with the BLM on maintenance, said president Ian Jones.

He hopes Copper City shows how local organizations can work with federal agencies to expand outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Copper City is some of the only new single-track in the valley in the last 20 years,” Jones said. “It’s a really great opportunity because it can be a full day adventure or just 30 minutes and is accessible to everyone from beginners to experts.”

Matt Johnson is one of those taking advantage of the new trails. He works in Helena and lives in Bozeman, so he often stops at Copper City on his way home to spend a couple of hours mountain biking. He has enjoyed the variety of trails and the ability to use them year-round.

“It’s quiet and the sunsets are pretty incredible out here,” he said as he took a short break during a ride last week. “The community is really grateful to Tim (Hawke) for leading the charge. This is definitely something the community needs more of.”