THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO RIDING IN
Words, photos, & video by Brice Shirbach
I got back in my rental car and had to smile. I had just spent the previous 3 hours on the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park, hiking out to film the introduction for the vlog that accompanies this piece, and to take in what might be the most beautiful stretch of real estate in all of North America. The hike out was a stunner, though I admittedly experienced some bear country-induced anxiety, which was compounded when a couple behind me asked if I was carrying bear spray.
"No, just a 10 lbs aluminum tripod and a multi tool." I said with a laugh intended to mask my nervousness.
"Oh," they replied. "Well, we were hoping you were and we planned on following you."
A look back 2 minutes later revealed an empty trail behind me. We can chalk the lack of interest in me by resident grizzlies up to good luck. I did manage to fall in line behind a very confident marmot on the narrow slice of cliff hugging trail for a few minutes before putting my camera's shutter under a great deal of strain, as the sights were almost incomprehensibly beautiful and the frames piled up on my micro SD card for over an hour as I slowly made my way down trail, stopping every 15 feet to capture one breathtaking sight after another.
The Highline Trail starts on one end at Logan's Pass, and traces the continental divide north from there. There's a bit of exposure early on, and that seems to keep the crowds off of the trail for the most part, as they often opt instead for the relatively straight forward hike up to Hidden Lake from the same parking lot. I was about half a mile from the trailhead when I first saw the mountain goat. It was headed my way along the narrow stretch of singletrack and it was immediately clear, given the lack of turnaround options or alternative routes available with a near vertical scree field to my left, and a 200 foot cliff to my right, that we were going to have to squeeze by each other. The goat didn't seem to notice me at first, and I took that opportunity to crouch low and snap a few glamour shots as it approached my position on the trail. Once I stood up it stopped, and seemed to size me up. A young couple 200 feet below us along the Going-to-the-Sun Road seemed to find this encounter fascinating and stopped whatever it was they were doing to watch this unfold, with phones at the ready as a video of me tumbling down the cliff and scree field would no doubt go viral as animal encounters seem to be all the rage these days.
// Local FlavoursAge:
Wilmington, DE, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Pearl Izumi, 9point8, Julbo, MRP, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, Dialed Health, Stan's No Tubes, Topeak, Leatt, Cane Creek Cycling ComponentsInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in Whitefish:
Freebird to Careless WhisperRiding Style:
Fortunately we managed to squeeze by one another without incident, and the smile remained on my face throughout the rest of the evening. As profoundly affecting as my afternoon in Glacier was, it would prove to be the cherry on top of a week riding an abundance of amazing trails, and spending time with people who share an incredible passion and appreciation for this beautiful playground in the mountains. Most of the folks I spoke with seemed to come to Whitefish from various corners of the country, and now call this place home. After a week in town, I get it. The gravity of this place is undeniable, and that's before you even think about the hundreds of miles of world class trails that call Whitefish home.
A Bit About the Region
Originally known as Stumptown due to the amount of forest that needed to be cleared in order to develop the town initially, Whitefish got its start in 1906 when the Great Northern Railway, which connected Minneapolis, MN to Seattle, WA, needed to be re-routed from its original course through Kalispell. Amtrak still uses this railway today and the rail yard in town is still quite active with upwards of 70,000 passengers embarking and disembarking at the depot yearly, making this the state's busiest station.
Construction of a ski resort on Big Mountain was completed in the 1940's, with the first T-bar opening on the slopes in December of 1947. The actual name of the mountain is Big Mountain, and thus the resort was called Big Mountain Ski Resort, before being changed to Whitefish Mountain Resort just a few years ago. The ski area helped usher in a new sector of business to Whitefish which had up until that point leaned heavily on the rail and timber industries, and is now the primary economic driver for the town: tourism. With a massive lake in town, a bustling downtown, a mountain resort, and nearby access to both a national park and Flathead Lake, Whitefish may very well be the most prolific and ideal hub for outdoor adventure in a state full of big skies and vast wilderness.
Today, Whitefish is home to nearly 7,000 residents, many of whom are transplants from other parts of the country. While tourism and the outdoors might power the engine that keeps the economy running here, it is also very much a part of the fabric of the community here, and I was struck by the amount of people riding on the Whitefish Trail or running along the greenway in town all day, every day. A trip to City Beach is even more telling, with dozens of paddle boarders, kayakers, and swimmers enjoying the cool and refreshing waters of the mountain lake from sun up to sundown. Beyond their love of the outdoors the people here seem to love their food and drink as well, with options to account for all tastes, both in town and up on the mountain, as well as several breweries and a distillery in downtown.
Getting to Whitefish
The aforementioned Amtrak stop is a popular means of getting to and from Whitefish, especially if you're traveling from the Pacific Northwest or the Midwest. Amtrak recommends that passengers arrive 45 minutes prior to departure if you're traveling with baggage. The Empire Builder, as the train that services Whitefish is known, makes twice-daily stops in town.
Flying here is another viable option, with Glacier Park International Airport just 15 minutes down the road from town. This airport offers daily flights to Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake and Minneapolis, in addition to seasonal and weekly flights to Las Vegas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland OR, Oakland and Atlanta. It's a very small airport, with 6 total gates, so it's reasonable to expect a fairly short security line, and you won't have to sprint far if you're running a bit behind. You can find a solid selection of car rentals here as well, with four agencies at the airport, and a few others nearby.
Montana is a beautiful state, and if you can make a road trip out of getting here, do so. While the speeds on many of the interstates in Montana are high, be sure to keep things in check while driving in town. You can also utilize the Snow Bus shuttle service for laps from the bike park to downtown, a system made much easier if you have a vehicle handy. Hopping on the bus is free with or without your bike. Check out the summer schedule here
Things get dry in a hurry here, but these berms are as reliable as they come.
The Best Trails to Ride in Whitefish
I suppose that before I get into the specifics, I should note that Whitefish is surrounded by an unbelievable amount of riding opportunities. Columbia Falls and Kalispell are next door neighbors, and both have their own gems that are worth visiting. In between these towns are a bevy of backcountry riding options, including some world class backcountry ridge lines on Doris Mountain, with nearly 3,500 feet of elevation loss available for those willing to commit. Whitefish is also less than an hour south of the Canadian border, and is 2-3 hours from some of BC's finest networks including those found in Fernie, Cranbrook, and Kimberly.
For the sake of keeping things simple, and also because you can spend a week of riding here every day (like yours truly) and still feel like you've only just scratched the surface of what Whitefish has to offer, we'll stick to the trails and networks in and right on the outskirts of town.WHITEFISH MOUNTAIN RESORT
The bike park at Whitefish Resort
features 22 downhill trails, and an additional 9 trails designated for hiking and mountain biking, including the Summit Trail, which is a multi-directional trail the meanders up or down the mountain for 8 miles. The upper portion of the mountain is managed by the United States Forestry Service, and as a result the options from the very top of the lift down are slightly limited compared to the amount of trails available from the halfway point to the bottom due to the amount of time and money required to design and build trails within the confines of USFS protocols. However, with the exception of the Summit Trail (the first lift access trail built here), which is rated for intermediate riders, the other options are intended for advanced riders and up, with high speed flow sections, some technical and fun line options, and several tables, step-downs, step-ups, and a handful of drops thrown into the mix. The park is served by two lifts: a high-speed summit lift with quads and a few gondolas sharing the line, and a slower moving but much shorter ride that takes riders from the base lodge to the top of the Bad Rock
section of the bike park. Bonus points for having the chance to descend over 4,000 feet across 10+ miles from the top of the bike park to town, which involves the use of both downhill trails and really fun section of the Whitefish Trail
, which we'll discuss here shortly.Key trail - Freebird: I love this trail. I love it hard. In fact, if you combine this trail and then pick up Careless Whisper after you exit, you've got 2,200 vertical feet of shit-eating grins waiting for you throughout. Freebird features some of the sendiest jumps in the park outside of the Overflow jumpline, as well as some steep and fast berms that offer a good deal of support, in spite of the talcum powder-like dirt that seems to gather in their pockets. My favorite section of the entire trail is about 2/3 of the way down, and last for less than 30 seconds, but is a riot to blitz through. It's a forested section of trail with surprisingly tacky dirt, some natural booters, and several amazing corners.SPENCER MOUNTAIN
Spencer Mountain has a storied history in Whitefish, and is proof that the world needs more advocacy groups. What began decades ago as a rogue trail network, is now one of the shiniest jewels in the crown of this community. A favorite among locals looking to hit some super creative features, as well as those looking for maximizing what might be a limited amount of time to ride (see: after work). The freeride nature of most of the trails here nearly led to their removal, save for the diligence of DNRC and FAMB, along with the City of Whitefish and Whitefish Legacy Partners who worked hard to ensure the trails were recognized as legal. Thanks to a cooperative agreement, and the trails at Spencer are now licensed for public use through 2024.Key trail - Otter Pop: Otter Pop starts out with a minute or two of pedaling on mostly flat trail, with a couple of quick and fun interruptions. But once the descent begins in earnest, it's full on for 3/4 of a mile and close to 600 vertical feet down. Save for a multiple-option ladder drop, the trail is blazing fast and intuitive, with well-built berms and some senders with no apparent speed limit. If you can ride this trail later in the day, the golden hour light can make it feel otherworldly.
Key trail - Malice in Plunderland: This trail is all about rhythm. The trail starts with a 6+ foot drop into a catch berm, then immediately into a 4 bike length double. There are some really cool uses of lumber throughout the trail, including as a part of a sizable step-up midway down, and is essential to the design of the over-under feature towards the bottom. It'll take a ride or two to figure out, but once you do you'll be hooked.TALLY LAKE AREA
The trails above Tally Lake are not far from downtown as the crow flies, but the flavor here is most definitely backcountry in nature. FAMB works closely with the US Forest Service to keep the trails clear of brush and debris, and to help manage and maintain reroutes and water drainage. Listen, wildlife abounds throughout the region, but please ride these trails specifically with a group, and make sure you've taken measures to protect yourselves, particularly from the bear population that call these mountains home. You can rent or buy bear spray at most grocers and gas stations in town. Bonus: the trails are definitely shuttle friendly!Key trail: Reid Divide to Boney Gulch Reid starts with a solid 5 minute uphill grunt before opening up to a beautiful stretch of singletrack with impressive views a la a clear cut section of hillside, before riders embark on a 7 mile stretch of ups and downs in a deep section of Flathead National Forest. A moderate effort will get you to the start of the Boney Gulch descent in about an hour. The final 3 miles of the Reid divide will take you to the edge of Tally Lake via speedy descent, but I think you're better off hanging a right 1/2 a mile down onto Boney Gulch. It's warp speed for 3 miles and nearly 2,000 vertical feet from there. Crack open a beer and take a dip in the lake once you've finished. You earned it.THE WHITEFISH TRAIL
The Whitefish Trail is really a network of trails currently totaling 42 miles, with plans to "close the loop" in the coming years with a planned 55+ miles of trail when finished. Most of the trail networks in and around Whitefish are connected by the Whitefish trail, including the bike park, with Spencer the lone holdout for now. Once the loop is closed, Spencer will have a connection with the rest of the WT. The Whitefish Legacy Group is responsible for the acquisition of the land that this expansive network is built upon, which includes private land easements, as well as DNRC properties. The Whitefish Trail is an incredible example of what can happen when a community rallies around conservation and recreation. The trails are varied and fun, but I think the bigger picture of what this represents really helps cement the Whitefish Trail as a must ride when you pay this place a visit. You can donate to the Whitefish Trail Endowment here
, which is established to safeguard the long term viability of the Whitefish Trail for current and future generations of the people who call this place home.Key trail: The Haskill Line Haskill takes riders from the bike park to town, or the town to the bike park. As climbs go it's reasonably fun, with enough dips in elevation to give your legs relief, and little in the way of steep punches up the hill. But I did that once, and that was enough. I rode down the trail 3 times, with my final ride starting at the top of the bike park, and ending at the bottom of Haskill, and it was a perfect way to end my week in Whitefish. Haskill is a lot of fun, and it's easy to forget that this is a multi-directional and multi-use trail, so be sure to keep things in check whenever the line of sight is reduced. But yeah, if you can see for a stretch; and there are many extended sections of trail with which you can, feel free to twist the throttle if you've got the real estate.
Local Clubs and Advocates:
The Flathead Area Mountain Bikers
are dedicated to the preservation and development of mountain biking opportunities in and around Whitefish. These guys have been working diligently for over a decade, and have built some incredible trails throughout the region while maintaining and building on their relationships with various land managers in the region.Whitefish Legacy Partners
is a non-profit organization whose community-minded vision is to ensure conservation, recreation and education on the lands around Whitefish for future generations. While their efforts extend well beyond that of mountain bike specific trails, their efforts have resulted in a level of connectivity from the town to the bike park, and many points in between that wouldn't be possible without their dedication to the community and the preservation and development of recreational opportunities throughout Whitefish.
The trails here begin to open up in April, and can usually be ridden through November. While Montana is known for it's massive skies and high peaks, the mountains in and around Whitefish stay relatively low, with the summit of Big Mountain (aka Whitefish Mountain Resort) topping out at a hair below 7,000 feet above sea level. The slightly lower elevations keep things more moderate in terms of temps here, with daytime highs getting close to 90 degrees in July and August at times. The sun stays out past 10:00 pm midsummer as well, which can lead to some confusing sleep for the kiddos, but definitely means you can ride much later into the evening than you would normally expect sans lights. This is also a fairly dry climate for most of the summer, but it's always wise to come prepared with layers and rain shells, as weather in the mountains can change without much notice. The nights get cool as well, so pack accordingly.
This is a tricky one, because there are options for just about every type of bike out there. You'll find plenty of DH bikes throughout the bike park, and if you're here just to ride park, then go for it. I don't know that the park has too much of any sustained steep and gnarly trails to warrant this kind of a rig, so if you were to opt for a long travel single crowned option, I think you'd get way more out of it.
I flew with one bike, my Firebird, and if I were to do it again I might actually opt for the shorter travel 29er in the form of my Switchblade. There are so many different zones to ride in, and many of them involve a great deal of pedaling up some sizable mountains before you begin what can often be a several mile long descent. Of course, if you're driving and have the ability to bring multiple bikes, I think a short travel trail slayer as well as a long and low rig will make you very glad to have options.
Accommodations and Food:
Whitefish's close proximity to one of the most popular National Parks in the country, in addition to having a sizable ski resort close by, means that there are no shortages when it comes to lodging options in and around the town. You can opt to stay up at the bike park itself, which has several options that range from economic to indulgent, and everything in between. Whitefish Mountain Resort
offers a stay and play package that includes reasonably priced lodging as well as a lift ticket. If you're traveling in a group, you can opt to stay in one of the rental cabins or condos on the mountain as well.
Down in the town, things open up even more, with plenty of Airbnb options, a number of hotels and motels, as well as a few places to camp. You can also choose to stay at the Whitefish Bike Retreat
, owned and operated by Cricket Butler, and offering a well maintained campground and lodge, equipped with multiple bike washes, a workshop, plenty of cold beer, private trails as well as connectivity to the Whitefish Trail, and of course wifi. Breakfast: Mountain Berry Bowls
offer up tasty and healthy options in the form of huge acai bowls, with a variety of toppings and combinations.Montana Coffee Traders
will obviously take care of your caffeine needs, but they also offer up plenty of breakfast sandwiches and other options to fill your belly in the am.Lunch:Amazing Crepes
are massive and tasty, made with local ingredients and offering savory and sweet options. Piggyback BBQ
is a low-profile barbecue joint located just a few blocks from City Beach. If you don't order the hush puppies, you're doing yourself a disservice.Dinner:Tupelo Grille
delivers some amazing eats and drinks, with live music throughout the week.Bonsai Brewing Project
is a chill spot to grab a local brew and tasty bites.Indah Sushi
has a great service staff, with really creative and delicious sushi and bowl options, as well as a huge selection of sakes.
Local Bike Shops:
I had the chance to meet and hang with the really good folks charged with keeping the town's two primary bike shops, Glacier Cyclery & Nordic
and Great Northern Cycle & Ski
, running smoothly, and can attest to not only their proficiency with customer and technical services, but also their genuine passion for promoting Whitefish and the trails they call home.
1. Go for a hike.
You can't ride bikes in Glacier National Park. Well, you can, but only on the road which is cool and all, but quite frankly I'm not interested in staying on the road, and if I have to explore the forests and mountainsides on foot, so be it. America has a number of problems at the moment, but one of the stalwarts of this great country is our National Park system, and Glacier may very well be the most beautiful of them all. Whitefish is a mere 40-minute drive from the park entrance, which makes building a day (or three) for a visit into your mountain bike vacation very easy. Do yourself a favor and spend some time hiking these amazing trails. Oh and don't forget the bear spray.
2. Hit the beach.
While Montana might be one massive and landlocked state, Whitefish and the rest of Flathead County offer a bevy of lake and riverside activities, particularly on Whitefish Lake, located a quarter-mile from downtown, as well as Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River located a few miles west of town. Pack your bathing suit and head to the beach where you can paddleboard, kayak, float, swim, boat, wakeboard, or just sunbathe in this mountain paradise.
3. Consider a guide service.
There is so much ground to cover here. Hell, I was in town for a week and left feeling like I barely scratched the surface of what this place has to offer mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Hiring a guide service can save you a ton of time and can also help to ensure that you're going to make the most of the time you have to explore Whitefish. Whitefish Tours and Shuttle
offer up mountain bike and hiking tours of the area and are based out of Whitefish. Kurt and his crew are great people, and have all of the licenses and knowledge to get you where you want to go, and to keep you smiling between laps.
Presented by Explore Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain ResortWhitefish mountain biking trailsWhitefish Mountain Resort mountain biking trailsThe Whitefish Trail mountain biking trails