- Associated Press - Friday, April 15, 2016

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - A blast of cold, snowy weather swept across southwest Montana the first week of spring, coating the mountains in fresh powder and providing a chilly reminder of winter. But now warmth has finally arrived, and with sunny skies and pleasant weather on the horizon, it’s time to retire the skis for the year and lace up the hiking boots.

Just in time for spring, the Montana Wilderness Association has launched the state’s first online, statewide hiking trail guide. Conceived of by MWA Community Engagement Manager Kassia Randzio, and brought to life through MWA volunteers and staff, the guide offers a quick way for hikers to find a trail to explore.

“I get out hiking and backpacking with my husband and dog as often as possible,” Randzio said Tuesday. “We wanted to make this information available for people to get out and connect with these areas, especially in places we are trying to protect, to connect people with outdoor adventure and the future of these wildlands.”

The MWA was founded in 1958 by a group of Montanans who shared a love of wilderness. The group is dedicated to protecting Montana’s wildlands, keeping public lands in the public domain and maintaining the Montana section of the Continental Divide Trail.

MWA’s new hiking trail guide, online at hikewildmontana.org, is designed to provide easy access for Montanans and visitors looking for a quick escape from town or a long trip into the backcountry. The site features more than 200 trails ranging in distance from a couple of miles to well over 40.

Hikers can find a new trail using a variety of search criteria. The site breaks trails down not only by location but also by trail features, such as badlands, buttes and waterfalls, and by seasons and trail surfaces.

“We really want to showcase the full diversity of the landscape Montana has to offer,” Randzio said. “When people think of hiking they often think of a snow-capped mountain, but we want to show the badlands, the prairie, the old-growth forest.”

What all the hikes have in common is a chance to experience Montana’s outdoors.

“I think people care a lot more about the places that they have been to,” said MWA communications manager Ted Brewer. “What this guide does is gets people out onto landscapes that we feel are worth protecting. It is a tool to connect people to special places in Montana.”

After narrowing down your search and selecting a hike, the site provides detailed trail descriptions, directions to trailheads, topographical maps and contact information for land management agencies.

The data collected for the site was provided by more than 70 MWA volunteers that responded to a call last summer to amass content for the site. Volunteers used GPS units and smartphone apps to collect information, including round-trip trail distances, elevation gain and highest elevation. The information was vetted by three editors, and a flagging system exists on the site to report errors.

Each trail description also includes photos of key features and views, a spot for user reviews and links to nearby businesses that enhance the outdoor experience.

“We put out a call for recommendations on local businesses, so when you are out on the trail dreaming of a hamburger or a micro brew when you are done, you can walk into that downtown business and discover it,” Randzio said. “(The idea is) to highlight the economic benefits of these places to local communities.”

Hikewildmontana.org was funded by a grant from the Montana Office of Tourism. More than 11 million visitors come to Montana each year. Many of those visitors may be excited to find a place to hike, but finding the right trail might be a barrier.

“If you have lived in Montana or are visiting, you once needed a library of resources and maps to get information about where to go hiking and when,” Randzio said. “Especially for people that are new to hiking or aren’t as familiar with Montana, it can be a daunting task and they end up going to the same old spots. We want people to get to the lesser known-places. We want them to be a part of the future of those places as well.”

MWA used its more than 50 years of leading wilderness walks across Montana to develop the hikewildmontana.org. An option to add a new hike to the database is available for users who log in. MWA hopes hikers participate in developing the website for others to use and to share the joy of Montana’s wild places.

“We want to see the site grow,” Randzio said. “We hope a real community develops around the site so we can be a valuable resource for the outdoor community.”

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The original story can be found on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s website: https://bit.ly/1S1spOz

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