There are many reasons why Whitefish, Montana is suddenly on every mountain biker’s radar and a 3,800-foot descent is one of them.
There’s something refreshing about the town of Whitefish, Montana. Perhaps it’s the clean mountain air. Or maybe it’s the expansive sky. Or it could be the refreshing simplicity of the place: Central Avenue is located in the middle of downtown, which is a short walk from City Beach, and from all these spots you’re offered an incredible view of the aptly named Big Mountain, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Whitefish sprang up over a century ago when a railway station was built in the Flathead Valley, about an hour’s drive south of the Canadian border. It was inhabited by loggers, farmers and railway workers back then, but that changed in the 1940s with the development of the ski resort on Big Mountain. Soon athletes and travellers were visiting the area and many stayed.
Today, the town of 8,000 offers something for every outdoor recreationalist from stand up paddleboarding and fly fishing to skiing and hiking in the nearby Glacier National Park. But it’s mountain bikers who are definitely stoked about Whitefish. After all, there aren’t many places in North America where you can enjoy the comfort of a chairlift to the top of a 6,817-foot mountain and then ride down past the resort’s base lodge all the way into a lakeside town that boasts over 40 restaurants, cafés, a brewery, and a distillery.
Dan Hansen moved to Whitefish eight years ago largely because of the skiing and mountain biking. The Minnesota native had emigrated West to hone his skills at Mammoth Lakes in California but eventually headed north to the Rockies, partially for the loam. He’s now the president of the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a non-profit with a mission to preserve and advance mountain bike activities in northwest Montana. “I loved mountain biking at Mammoth but I moved up here because there are more trails, the dirt’s better, and there’s a better variety of terrain,” he says. “There’s just about everything you could want as a mountain biker.” He goes on to explain there are 23 miles of trails accessed by two lifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort, as well as hundreds of miles of singletrack that make up the town’s many mountain bike networks and, if you prefer getting high, lots of excellent alpine trails.
His favourite run, however, is the one described above that takes you from the top of the resort and into town. “There’s something like 3,800 feet of vertical drop and there are multiple ways down from old-school tech to fast and flowy. Then, after riding through Haskill Basin into Whitefish, one of the first businesses you hit is Bonsai Brewing Project. Guaranteed you’re smiling and tired by the bottom.” (See sidebar for more of his favourites.)
Like most mountain biking locales, the scene in Whitefish grew out of rogue development that took place in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then, Whitefish Legacy Partners was established to protect local open lands from development, ensure permanent public access to those lands, and develop a close-to-town recreational trail system. The Whitefish Trail opened in 2010, and today there are 43 miles of maintained trails that make up the network, all accessible via 14 trailheads. Additional access can be found at the Whitefish Bike Retreat, a unique lodge and campground located eight miles out of town that caters to mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts.
OTTER POP – The Spencer Mountain trails are a short drive west of Whitefish and offer 19 miles of freeride bliss including the fast and flowy Otter Pop.
WOODS LAKE LOOP – This one’s great for a mellow day. It’s part of the vast Whitefish Trail system and includes scenic overlooks of the surrounding lakes and the mountains.
ALPINE TRAIL #7 – This trail begins on Columbia Mountain to the east of Whitefish and weaves along a ridgeline for 54 miles offering incredible views of Glacier National Park, the Hungry Horse Reservoir and the Flathead Valley.
Aside from the Retreat and the mountain resort, Hansen says the other great service catering to mountain bikers is the Whitefish Shuttle. “It’s a new business that offers day trips and guiding,” he says. “So if you’re coming here for a few days of riding, it’s easier now because you can hire them to take you to all the best spots.”
Jenn Sabean is an avid mountain biker and resident of Nelson, British Columbia, who’s visited Whitefish multiple times. She says it’s an easy 3.5-hour drive from her home, which means she can leave in the morning and be on the trails by the afternoon. “Because Whitefish is a small town, you can do a lot in a day,” she says. “Aside from all the biking, there are lots of lovely little shops and awesome cafés and bakeries.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort was her first-ever lift-access biking experience and she says it was an amazing place to get used to that style of downhill. “There’s a lodge at the top of the mountain with a massive patio and the views are amazing. From there you can access three main trails and my favourite is Kashmir because it’s so flowy. Then, at the base of the mountain, there’s the Cyndi’s Loppers trail with jumps and tabletops that are really friendly. It’s great for learning.” She plans to bring her two young sons with her on the next visit because of the many family-friendly areas that are on offer, from the pump track at Armory Park in town and the many easier trails that make up the Whitefish Trail network.
“Yeah, this place is great for all ability levels because of the friendly riding,” confirms Hansen. “There’s just so much it would take a lifetime to cover it all. I’ve lived here eight years now and I’m still discovering new areas.”
For more information about mountain biking in Whitefish, visit explorewhitefish.com.
Whitefish Businesses Every Biker Should Know:
- Bonsai Brewing Project
- Craggy Range Bar & Grill
- Folklore Coffee
- Fleur Bake Shop
- Loula’s Café
- MacKenzie River Pizza
- Montana Coffee Traders
- Piggyback BBQ
- Spotted Bear Spirits
- Swift Creek Café
- The Wich Haus
- Wasabi Sushi Bar
- Whitefish Bike Retreat
- Whitefish Mountain Resort
- Whitefish Tours & Shuttle
- Whitefish Hotels & Lodging