One Valley. Six Epic Rides. You. A bike. Go.
“Have you been on a mountain bike before?” the rental manager at Wheaton’s cycle shop asked.
“Oh, sure,” I said. He didn’t ask me if I had ever ridden a mountain bike on a mountain-bike trail. Good thing, because my middle-aged male ego might not have allowed me to tell the truth: Not since elementary school had I ever ventured off paved streets on two wheels.
I guess I’m a typical guy, because I never want to admit when I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I can hack this, right? It’s just a bike and a mountain.
A couple hours later, I found myself literally flying on the seat of my pants, hurtling down a narrow dirt track high in the mountains above Kalispell, laughing aloud at my false confidence in the bike shop and my long-secret reluctance to do this. Just a bike and a mountain, indeed. But on the saddle of a sweet Trek hardtail, looking out across the wide Flathead Valley, I briefly forgot that anything else existed.
That evening, safely ensconced in Kalispell’s North Bay Grille with one hand wrapped around a frosty Montana Trout Slayer, I peppered my friend Tristan with questions about more biking opportunities in the area. Tristan is one of those dudes who gets off running overnight races and pointing his bike or skis down “trails” that look more like cliffs to me.
“Basically, any kind of riding you want, it’s around here,” he said. “There are some seriously dedicated people around here who keep expanding the off-road trails, and there are great road routes in basically every direction.”
Here are some local favorites:
Foy’s to Blacktail — A dedicated crew of volunteers has worked for more than a decade to create and maintain this well-signed, smartly designed network of trails. Arrayed along a forested drainage just a few minutes southwest of Kalispell, the current trails can easily be tackled by a moderately skilled rider in a day. On my short circuit up the single-track Notch Trail, I was rewarded with beautiful views of Upper Foy’s Lake, a veritable carpet of wildflowers and some manageable challenges to whet my appetite. Eventually, these trails will connect all the way to Lakeside and Blacktail Mountain. Download a current trail map: http://www.FoysToBlacktailTrails.org.
East Side Highway, Flathead Lake — For a scenic road ride that’s fun both on and off the saddle, you’d be hard pressed to do better than the east side of Flathead Lake. Between Kalispell and Bigfork, you’ll pass through mostly flat agricultural land. Once you get near the lake, the road begins to snake along the forested foothills of the Mission Mountains. Stop along the way for a pint of Flathead Lake Brewing Company’s award-winning 369’ Stout, or (in season) pick cherries at Fat Robin Orchard or Getman’s Cherry Red Orchard. If you’re feeling really ambitious, it’s about 97 miles all the way around the lake — but with so many enticing stops along the way, that’s best done as an overnight ride. Vehicle traffic can be heavy on busy summer weekends, so pick a midweek date if you can.
Pig Farm: Farm to Market Road area — An elaborate network of fat tire single-track through woods and meadows, these trails are easy enough for casual day-trippers but also serve as a favorite playground for local hard-cores. There aren’t trail markers (even the parking area is unsigned), so bring a healthy sense of direction — or your GPS. To get there, head north from Kalispell on U.S. 93; turn left on West Reserve. Four miles later, turn right on Farm to Market Road. About seven miles later, park on the left across from the Ray Kuhn Wildlife Reserve.
Rails to Trails — The nonprofit Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana has paved more than 10 miles of the Great Northern Rail Trail around Kalispell, from the town of Somers on the north shore of Flathead Lake west to Kila bordering the Smith Lake Waterfowl Production Area. These spurs offer relatively flat rides that are great for a family outing.
The Whitefish Trail — Traversing the wooded hills along the west side of Whitefish Lake, this system of trails is another jewel of community-based conservation efforts. Featuring more than 26 miles of stacked loops, scenic overlooks, buttery single-track trail and gated logging roads, the Whitefish Trail is a must-visit destination for off-road cyclists. With a long-term master plan in place, it’s set to grow much larger in coming years. Access most of the trails at the Lion Mountain Trailhead, about two miles west of Whitefish along Highway 93.
Going-to-the-Sun Road — Simply stated, you won’t find a more breathtakingly beautiful and challenging paved ride in all of America. The hale and hearty who head up this famed highway are rewarded with spectacular scenery, plus bragging rights for conquering the 3,500-foot elevation gain from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass. Distance from the park’s west entrance is 32 miles. The first half is fairly flat; needless to say, the second half isn’t. (Make sure your brakes are tuned up for the return trip.) Restrictions apply: www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gttsrfaq.htm.
BONUS: Two Don’t-Miss Cycling Events
Cino Heroica — Classic bikes, epic challenges and hard salami converge every September in this two-day ride from Kalispell to Hot Springs and back again. If the 60-mile route looks easy, that’s because you didn’t realize you’ll be riding your old-school road bike on dirt and gravel the whole way. People come from across America for this throwback to the earliest days of Euro road racing. http://www.cinorider.com/
The Huckleberry 100 — The Huckleberry 100 has a rich history, with roots reaching back into the 1970s. Held each autumn, this spectacular “century ride” along paved roads takes cyclists from Kalispell through the backyard of Glacier National Park, offering the perfect mix of gritty challenge and breathtaking beauty. For riders who want to hit the road for a shorter stretch, the event also features 50-mile, 25-mile and family rides. http://www.huckleberry100.com/
HOP IN THE SADDLE
Need to rent (or buy) a ride? Get geared up in Kalispell at the following shops:
MORE TRAILS AND ROUTES
Lone Pine State Park — More than six miles of hiking/biking trails, from well surfaced to steep single track, topped off by a terrific Visitor Center and fantastic bird’s eye views of the entire valley. http://fwp.mt.gov/parks/visit/lonepine
Fish Trails — 12 miles of pedestrian/bike paths around the city. Access from Edgewood off Wisconsin Avenue after crossing over the BN viaduct.
Spencer Mountain — About 15 miles of established trails for bikers, hikers, and horseback riders, taking off from Spencer Lake 4 miles north of Whitefish at Twin Bridges Road.
Big Mountain Road — About 5 miles and 1,500 vertical feet of up, rewarded with 5 miles of down. A road biker’s nemesis and heaven, rolled into one.
Whitefish Mountain Resort — Hang your mountain bike on the lift and sashay up “the Big” to free ride over 20 miles of cross country trails from the superbly scenic Summit Trail to the Runaway Train. Bike rentals available at Snow Ghost Outfitters in the Village; 406-862-1996.
Looking for other great vacation ideas?
Lights Down. Volume Up. — Get into the Montana groove at these Flathead Valley hotspots.
Rustle Up Some History. — Art, architecture and artifacts connect present to past in Kalispell.
Cowboys and Beethoven. — Get cultured, Montana-style.
Tame the Flathead Monster. — Dragons on the water, Tarzan on the stage, and beauty all around signal summer on Flathead Lake.
Take a taste of summer. — Farm-to-table, fine dining and a bona fide craft drink movement lend flavor to the season.
Sunbathe, ski, hike and bike: All in a day’s fun. — Summer in Northwest Montana means four seasons of adventure.