Two-Wheeled Tourism

Increase in bicycle-related tourist activities brings more cyclists to the Flathead

By Molly Priddy

In high summer in the Flathead, tourists and travelers arrive in all manner of transportation, from planes and trains to cars and RVs. And lately, more tourists are making the valley either part of or their entire bicycle trips.

Out near Beaver Lake, west of Whitefish, Cricket Butler of Whitefish Bike Retreat has experienced a boom of guests who are staying at her lodging accommodations near the Whitefish Trail.

“My summer has gone amazing,” Butler, who opened the bike retreat last year, said. “Business has quadrupled since last year.”

Butler said she believes the increase is due to a combination of more people finding out she’s got campsites and bunkhouse space specifically catered to cyclists, and having more cyclists in the valley.

Robert Lucke at Montana Bike Hostel, located off U.S. Highway 2 north of Glacier Park International Airport, said he’s seen a similar increase in business, and also attributes it to better marketing and more bikers.

“I think cycling is really growing,” Lucke said.

The Flathead Valley is part of two major cycling trails: the Great Divide and the Northern Tier. Some riders, instead of starting the Great Divide trail in Canada, are now flying specifically to the Flathead to start their trip, which will eventually take them to Mexico.

“People have been flying into Glacier Airport and they FedEx their bikes here and the next day they assemble their bikes and they ride the Divide trail,” Lucke said.

While the two trails certainly bring many cyclists through the valley, the Flathead is developing and growing its own reputation as a biker’s paradise, with road cycling opportunities as well as world-class mountain biking.

The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau has identified cyclists as one of its target demographics, WCVB executive director Dylan Boyle said, because they come to the Flathead for all of the road and mountain biking opportunities and end up discovering other aspects of the valley.

“It’s something that we are more focused on, not only because we have those (cycling) assets but through research we’re finding out they really are folks who are looking to come here and really experience Whitefish,” Boyle said.

Cycling tourism is a major market, according to a December 2013 research report from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.

The study showed that cyclists spend an average of $75 per person, per day, and stay an average of eight days for their trips. Of the more than 700 cyclists in the survey, 92 percent of them were planning future multi-day cycling trips.

Forty-one percent of those surveyed visited Glacier National Park, with many of them saying riding Going-to-the-Sun Road was one of the highlights of their cycling experiences.

Mountain biking is also gathering crowds, with the valley offering top-rated trails at Kalispell’s Lone Pine State Park, the Whitefish Trail and on Big Mountain through Whitefish Mountain Resort.

According to Riley Polumbus of Whitefish Mountain Resort, August is a big month for mountain biking, and the resort saw its largest amount of riders in 2013, with 5,679 on the trails. That’s a 40 percent increase from 2012, Polumbus noted.

The resort also expanded its bike park last summer, allowing for more staff and an increase in bike rental equipment.

Other businesses have caught on to the increase in mountain biking in the valley. Greg Fortin of Glacier Adventure Guides in Columbia Falls said his crew has started leading guided trips on the Whitefish Trail, usually for family groups.

“It’s been going pretty well,” Fortin said. “We’ve had some pretty good interest in it, and we’re working closely with Glacier Cyclery.”

While some mountain biking trails can be intimidating for beginners, Fortin said the Whitefish Trail has opened up a whole new market because it offers trails for varying skill levels.

“It’s a nice alternative for people,” he said. “The Whitefish Trail is user friendly.”

Other mountain bike guiding businesses, such as Beyond the Boundaries near Whitefish, are sprouting up as well.

Racene Friede, executive director at Glacier Country Tourism, said cyclists explore Northwest Montana in different ways than many other travelers.

“In addition, the Flathead Valley has so many different routes that cyclists can travel and it’s really a prime region for them to visit,” Tia Troy, PR and communication manager for Glacier Country Tourism, said.  “From road riding to an extensive trail system, we are poised to welcome more cyclists to this beautiful corner of the state.”

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