Trail Usage and Value: A Helena, MT Case Study

Uses studied: ,
Place: Helena


In Helena, Montana, an 80-mile hiking and mountain biking trail system attracts more than 63,000 trail users during the summer. Seven in 10 users are residents, but visitors who use the trail system account for $4 million in spending, support 60 jobs, and generate $185,000 in state and local taxes.


This study is a blueprint for how to conduct and present a high-quality study of the impact of trails on a community’s economy and local residents’ quality of life. The report includes methodological details and the survey instruments that can guide similar studies.


This study is based in Helena, Montana.

Trail Type

This study evaluated an 80-mile hiking and mountain-biking trail network on private, city, and federal lands near town.


The purpose of the study is to help the City of Helena, local businesses, and advocacy groups estimate the role played by the community’s trail system in the local economy and way of life for residents. The community has invested in mountain biking tourism (it is one of 12 Silver Level Ride Centers in the world, indicating a large trail network and substantial business and community support for biking) and was particularly interested in measuring returns on these investments.

The study was funded by the Montana Lodging Facility Use Tax, Bike Helena, City of Helena Parks and Recreation, and the Prickly Pear Land Trust.


  • More than 63,000 trail users hiked or rode their bikes on the trails during the summer of 2017. Twenty-two percent were visitors.
  • Non-locals made up 20% of hikers surveyed and 27% of mountain bikers surveyed.
  • Residents use the trails frequently: 70% report using the trails at least three times per week.
  • Residents who moved to Helena more recently were more likely to identify the trail system as an important factor in their decision to move to Helena and their decision where to live in Helena. The authors highlight the significance of these finding in attracting businesses and employees to the community.
  • Trail usage rates decrease substantially for respondents over age 60. The authors point to concerns about providing accessible recreation for this cohort.
  • Visitors who used the trail system spent about $4 million between May and September. This supports 60 jobs annually, $1.5 million in income, and $185,211 in local taxes.
  • Fifty-five percent of respondents from the community survey had used trails at least occasionally.


The authors conducted two main surveys: a survey of trail users and a community survey of Helena residents.

The trail user survey was conducted at eight trailheads throughout the area and at the pickup location for the free shuttle that takes people from downtown Helena to trailheads. The sampling plan across trailheads incorporated knowledge of busy times from the previous year’s trail counter data and was structured so all parts of the trail network were visited at all days of the week and all times of the day. They had 930 responses.

The community survey was conducted by intercepting people at gas stations. They also administered a survey implemented online and promoted via social media, but because these surveys tend to draw more supportive responses the results are interpreted cautiously.

Estimates of trail use were developed using infrared trail counters placed at the highest-use trailheads, as well as hour-long “proportional counts” in which the surveyor recorded the count of users, whether they were locals or visitors, their mode of travel, and group size. The proportional counts were calibrated with the infrared counters to estimate trail use at trailheads without infrared counters. The paper provides detailed information on how trail use was calculated for individual segments based on the data available.


Sage, J.L. and Nickerson, N.P. 2018. Trail Usage and Value-A Helena, MT Case Study. Missoula, MT: Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana.