Oasis in the Woods

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – The buffed-out single-track winds through verdant forest corridors and past lakes of cobalt blue before dropping down into a cycling oasis, where trail-weary mountain bikers can fix a meal, crack a beer and discuss gear ratios before resting their heads on a feather pillow, which is adorned with an electrolyte supplement instead of a mint.

“I designed everything to help people get on their bikes and get going,” Cricket Butler, who recently opened the Whitefish Bike Retreat along the Whitefish Trail near Beaver Lake, said.

Given the plush, bike-centric amenities and the two-wheel aesthetic of the lodge-like accommodations, getting going is easier said than done, and some bikers find themselves lingering on the couch with a pastry and a hot cup of Pedal Push, the retreat’s Montana Coffee Trader’s blend.

But it’s not due to proximity. The retreat is situated a stone’s throw from the Whitefish Trail proper, the nearby lollipop loop easily accessible from the lodge and nearby campsites.
“Some people just don’t want to leave,” Butler said.

A mechanic’s room and a bike wash station make maintenance easy, while an outdoor fire pit accommodates nighttime camaraderie. Inside the bunk lodge, the retreat’s centerpiece, a flat-screen television and a selection of bike-themed DVDs, comfy furniture, rustic hardwood flooring, bannisters crafted out of old bike frames and an array of cycling magazines provide a classic hostel common room for cyclists, making it difficult to escape the retreat’s elegant and affordable comforts, even as the trail beckons.

The 19-acre property also features a perimeter trail and a Frisbee golf course designed with bicycle rims in lieu of tone poles or baskets.

Still, the Whitefish Trail’s network of single-track is Butler’s best and most organic promotional tool. Designed with ice-cream scoop turns and banked berms, the Whitefish Trail draws riders of all abilities and levels. Visitors hail from across the country, while the international set is well represented, too.

“There’s a whole diversity of trails in Whitefish and the Flathead Valley, and a whole diversity of riders who want to visit,” Butler, who has relied primarily on word-of-mouth advertising, said. “Every bike is welcome here.”

Guests can access dozens of miles of trail just outside the bunk lodge or from five nearby campsites, while Butler will shuttle guests and their bicycles to trailheads throughout the Flathead Valley and, within reason, beyond (she’s recently shuttled a stranded cyclist from as far away as Seeley Lake and picked up others from the airport in Helena).

Locals pop in regularly to patch a tube, pump air into their tires, purchase a snack at the concession store and visit with guests.

Karen Tremaine bikes the trail from the office and bunkhouse to her campsite at Whitefish Bike Retreat west of Whitefish. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

An avid cyclist herself, Butler had long dreamed of opening a bike hostel. She previously set her sites on a central, downtown location, but when she stumbled upon a ramshackle barn in the Stillwater State Forest, she realized she’d discovered the ideal site.

“As soon as I saw this place I knew it was perfect,” she said. “It’s so peaceful, you’re away from the whole hustle and bustle of town. My guests love it.”

Working with a local builder and designer, she set about transforming the buildings (a tractor was parked inside the barn) into their current state and opened for business two months ago.

The retreat also enjoys a geographic advantage, not merely because of its proximity to world class trails, downtown Whitefish and Glacier National Park, but because it is situated almost directly along the 2,745-mile long Great Divide Mountain Bike route, an underground endurance feat known by all in the cycling community. Although few riders attempt the entire length of the route, and fewer still compete in the annual Ride the Divide event, numerous riders explore sections of the Great Divide, and the retreat is the ideal outpost.

At the Whitefish Bike Retreat, many of the guests are attempting all or part of the Great Divide, which Butler, an endurance junkie who has through-hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, has ridden four times.

An aficionado who knows the route’s every turn, her guests appreciate the beta she shares.

“I love to sit down with the Divide riders and talk about the routes and the trails and the shops and the people,” Butler said.

Recently, a Swedish guest attempting the Divide route became ill during her stay at the retreat. She lingered for a week, convalescing and biking the nearby trails whenever her energy and spirits lifted. The rider, Emma Wichardt, even celebrated her birthday at the retreat before setting out on the long route to Mexico.

Along the way, she spread the word about the Whitefish Bike Retreat to other cyclists, touting it as a can’t-miss stopover.

Clint Ball, left, hangs a bike on the rack as his wife, Karen Tremaine, and their dog Blue head to their camper at their campsite at Whitefish Bike Retreat near the Beaver Lake trailhead.

“A German couple showed up one night after dark on their bikes and said, ‘Emma sent us. We had to come.’ They ended up staying two nights,” Butler said. “It’s really my guests who are spreading the word.”

The bike retreat is located just off of U.S. Highway 93 North, on Beaver Lake Road. The route leads to Fernie, British Columbia, a popular mountain biking destination, and on a recent weekday morning several bikers were wrapping up a fast-paced ride before continuing on their way to B.C. to compete in the seven-day, 400-kilometer TransRockies race, which runs from Fernie to Canmore, Alberta.

It was at last year’s TransRockies that Butler met two of the cyclists, Clint Ball and Karen Tremaine, who design stylish and practical cycling garments at their Steamboat, Colo.-based busines, Cogma.

The last time the couple passed through Montana they camped in the woods near Tally Lake, dreaming of a cyclist’s Eden like the Whitefish Bike Retreat.

“It’s right on the road to Fernie,” Ball said. “This is deluxe.”
Butler also rents bear spray for safety and paddleboards so her guests can cool off in nearby Murray, Beaver and Woods lakes at the end of a hot, dusty ride.

The retreat is dog friendly, and if guests don’t want to take their canine companions on the trails, her two sons run a “hound hostel.”

To learn more about the Whitefish Bike Retreat or to make reservations, visit the lodge’s website at www.whitefishbikeretreat.com.