Report: Visitors, Locals Drawn to Helena’s South Hills Trail System

February 27, 2018

MISSOULA – More than 63,000 hikers, runners, walkers and bikers found their way to Helena’s South Hills trail network in summer 2017, according to a recent report by University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

While the majority of users on foot and on bike are locals – 80 percent and 73 percent, respectively – the trail system serves as a significant draw and activity for visitors from across the state, country and even the world.

“Throughout the summer, we surveyed and counted users as they entered the hills to find out where they are from, how much they spent and other attributes about their use of the trails,” said Jeremy Sage, ITRR associate director.

In total, nonlocal users spent $4.03 million on goods and services in the area – $1.4 million of which came from mountain bike users. This generates $4.3 million in total economic activity, as well as 60 jobs that can be attributed to spending by visitors who recreate in the South Hills.

 “Visit Helena Montana and Bike Helena marketing campaigns and promotions create a positive economic impact for Helena businesses, and this research helps us measure the success of those efforts,” said Jennifer Davis, community outreach director with Helena Tourism Alliance. “The South Hills trail system is an asset to Helena and helps make Helena an attractive destination for tourists interested in hiking and mountain biking.”

“Helena has an amazing, accessible trail system that is priceless to me and my businesses,” said Helena business owner and resident Shalon Hastings. “I happily live a block below a trailhead on Mount Ascension and use the trails daily as a wake-up and stress relief. It’s rewarding to see out-of-towners taking advantage of our trails and coming into both of my businesses, Hub Coffee and Taco del Sol.”

The main Mount Helena trailhead serves as the primary access point for day hikers, with nearly 25,000 entries over the summer. For bikers, the Mount Helena Ridge and Arrowroot Drive trailheads are the prime entry points. The volume of users accessing these trails is boosted by routine shuttle service from downtown via the Trail Rider.

In addition to quantifying trail use, researchers with ITRR found that over half of Helena residents surveyed rated the trail system as very important to their quality of life, and 55 percent indicate they use the trails at least occasionally.

“It’s wonderful to see the high values placed on our work in building the South Hills land estate and establishing and maintaining the trails system with the city over the years,” said Mary Hollow, Prickly Pear Land Trust executive director. “PPLT strives for bettering quality-of-life benchmarks, and this real-time data provides important information to assist in our planning and understanding of the economic and social impacts of our South Hills land acquisition and trails work.”

While the average adult resident of Helena has lived in the area for many years and does not overwhelmingly consider the trail system a significant component of why they decided to live where they do, the research shows residents who moved to the area within the past five years give more weight to the influence of the trails on not only their decision to move to Helena, but also where in Helena they chose to live. This importance to these newer, and frequently younger, Helena residents suggests an opportunity for the area to enhance the attraction of new businesses and residents.  

“While it’s no surprise that Helena’s trails are well-loved and well-used, it’s important to have real data that supports our assumptions,” said Helena Parks and Recreation Director Amy Teegarden. “Survey data is useful in responding to user trends, needs and expectations through adaptive management and planning. It’s important we recognize and embrace the increasing economic and social benefits the trail systems brings to the greater Helena community”.

Read the study report at https://scholarworks.umt.edu/itrr_pubs/365/. All information and reports published by ITRR are available online at http://www.itrr.umt.edu.

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Contact: Norma Nickerson, director, UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, 406-243-2328, norma.nickerson@umontana.edu; Jeremy Sage, economist and ITRR assistant director, 406-243-5552, jeremy.sage@umontana.edu.