Explore the new Whitefish Trail

This visionary partnership created on private, state, and federal lands will provide a legacy for conservation, stewardship, and recreation in Whitefish.

When the first twelve miles of an ambitious recreation and conservation project called The Whitefish Trail was officially opened for non-motorized public use in July 2010, Governor Brian Schweitzer summed it up well: “This is a great day for the Whitefish community,” he said. “By working together for a common goal, this cooperative effort is a successful example for communities around Montana.”

The Whitefish Trail is a regional, multi-partner project to develop a 55-mile recreational trail system looping around Whitefish Lake through state, federal and private lands, creating a regional amenity that is unique in western Montana. The Whitefish Trail will provide a high-quality recreational experience that links trail systems in the City of Whitefish and at Whitefish Mountain Resort with the Flathead National Forest, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), and multiple private ownerships.

The history of The Whitefish Trail is a complex story that can be originally traced back to The Territorial Act of March 2, 1864 that reserved two square miles of lands in every township in The Territory of Montana for the financial support of public schools, now called School Trust Lands and managed by the DNRC. The obligation of the DNRC is to obtain the greatest benefit for the school trusts and the greatest monetary return must be weighed against the long-term productivity of the land to ensure continued future returns to the trusts.

With increasing development and commercial pressures in 2003, the DNRC began to review real estate development proposals for the 13,000-plus acres of trust lands in the Whitefish area, which set off community alarms. In response to the community concern, the State Land Board chartered the Whitefish Area Trust Land Advisory Committee comprised of diverse stakeholders, including the DNRC, to draft the Whitefish Area Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan.

For the next year, the Advisory Committee worked to develop the plan with multiple work sessions and public meetings. The Whitefish-area community used this unique opportunity to demonstrate that outdoor recreation can be a viable, revenue-generating use of state lands and used this proposed regional loop trail system as a key component to create a permanent public recreation corridor.

Ultimately, The Whitefish Trail project will serve as the catalyst and anchor of the collaborative effort spearheaded by Whitefish Legacy Partners to implement broader long-term strategies of conservation in the Whitefish area, with a goal to ultimately conserve thousands of acres of open space in the North Flathead Valley.

“As a third generation Whitefish resident, one who grew up hiking the hills and fishing the lakes and streams with my father, I’ve seen first-hand how much access to public lands has been lost,” said Lin Akey, chairman of Whitefish Legacy Partners. “We are acting to secure permanent, high-quality access so our children and grandchildren can grow to know and love these lands as I have been able to do. In my more than 30 years of public service, this is one of the most exciting and meaningful projects I have ever worked on.”

Since trail work began in late summer 2009, more than twenty contractors and two hundred volunteers have participated, led by Greg Gunderson and David Noftsinger of Forestoration, Inc. Trail design has closely followed international standards for sustainable grades and water management, with the primary objective to design a trail network that is family-friendly, while remaining enjoyable and yet still challenging for hikers, bikers, runners, skiers, and equestrians. Today, the trail stretches nearly 20 miles, and construction over the next 3 summers will add an additional 35 miles.

To access the Lion Mountain trailhead, follow Highway 93 1.2 miles north of town to the State Park turnoff past the golf course, then continue straight on Mountainside Drive, which becomes Lion Mountain Loop Road. This trailhead has a vault toilet, a trailhead kiosk with signage and information, and a large parking area. The second “minor” trailhead is located off of Skyles Lake Lane, 3.5 miles west of town. This trailhead includes an informational kiosk and parking for six vehicles.

For more information, visit http://www.WhitefishTrail.org.