NINEMILE PRAIRIE – Where the Nimi’ipuu once dragged thousands of pounds of bison meat, Bert Lindler packed only a granola bar.
He pedaled a bike on the embankment raised to support steam locomotives. The Blackfoot River flowed below, devoid of boats. Western Montana’s original freight corridor relaxed in springtime isolation.
“It’s a great afternoon ride in wildflower season, or to go for a picnic,” Lindler said last Thursday. “It’s an opportunity waiting to be done.”
Barely 45 minutes from Missoula, this little-known spot sheds its winter snow much sooner than many other recreation sites. And it comes packed with both scenic and historical value.
The Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) Tribe knew the Blackfoot River corridor as the Cokahlah-ishkit, which translates to “Road to the Buffalo.” They used it to cross the Rocky Mountain Front and bring plains bison meat and hides back to their homelands along the Montana-Idaho border country.
Lewis and Clark recorded the route on their way back to St. Louis in 1806. Ironically, if the Corps of Discovery had left the Missouri River around present-day Wolf Creek on their way west, they would have been a two or three days’ walk from the Blackfoot and the rest of the Columbia River system. Instead, they spent a miserable fall stumbling through the Bitterroot Mountains.
Prospectors found gold near Lincoln in 1865, and loggers quickly followed to harvest the drainage’s big Ponderosa pines for mine timbers and smelter fuel. They initially floated logs down the Blackfoot to mills in Bonner before starting to build a railroad up the river channel in 1904.
Today, the Blackfoot has become a popular trout stream after years of mining pollution was cleared up. The rails have been recycled and a new forest has grown up around the ancient stumps. Thousands of acres of private timberland owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. have been sold to The Nature Conservancy, which has transferred significant chunks to the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.
In December, The Nature Conservancy nearly doubled BLM's Blackfoot River holdings with a 5,500-acre transfer north of Belmont Creek.
“There has been a lot of interest from horse riders, mountain bikers and hikers for recreational opportunities in that whole area,” Nature Conservancy lands protection specialist Chris Bryant said of the Blackfoot Corridor. “Our first project here was along the river corridor in the late 1990s. That’s what started it all.”
While the popularity of floating, fishing and private property ownership led to the innovative Blackfoot Compact governing day and overnight use along the river, land-based recreation has been slower to develop. The BLM owns most of the best bits of the old railroad grade, but has had little ability to make it a destination.
“You need to discover it on your own,” said BLM field manager Joe Ashor. “The recreational experience is meant to be fairly low-key, with not a lot of advertisement. Whether we can keep that approach in future years, as Missoula approaches 115,000 people, I don’t know. It’s becoming more and more popular.”
The Road to the Buffalo has some gaps. The biggest spans Belmont Creek, where a railroad trestle bridge was removed decades ago. A 50-foot drop from the rail grade to the water offers no safe crossing in an easily erodible gravel slope. That leaves the rail in two unconnected segments, one six miles long from Whitaker Bridge and one two miles long from Riverbend Day Use Area.
Belmont Creek itself has a BLM-managed fishing access site, but it’s several hundred yards upstream of its connection to the Blackfoot and only reachable from Ninemile Prairie Road. That gravel road crosses Belmont Creek considerably farther upstream – a connection that turns a casual bike ride into a mountain bike adventure.
That actually expands interest for people like Ben Horan, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula. While the area has been networked with industrial logging roads, designed bike trails would offer a very different picture.
“A lot of people would love to see some trail connections through here,” Horan said. “But there’s a big difference between a 14-foot-wide, 15-degree logging road and a 30-inch multi-use trail. We try to think of user appeal and social sustainability. It’s better to have purpose-built trails than repurposed logging roads that erode and weren’t meant to last. But those projects are difficult and expensive.”
And probably volunteer. BLM’s Ashor said his agency doesn’t have funds available for significant work on the Road to the Buffalo.
“We’re always looking for volunteers to step up and help us,” Ashor said. “We have a lot of good energy, but we just have limited capacity and federal funds to construct new recreational facilities. And once you build something, it’s not guaranteed to have maintenance dollars.”
Nevertheless, a chance to travel through wild country, without a house or car in sight for hours, makes a worthy attraction.
“It’s a great place to take kids on a strider-bike or go for a picnic when the trails are wet,” Horan said. “It’s like the Kim Williams Trail without the crowds.”