A few blocks from Electric Avenue in downtown Bigfork, the Swan River Nature Trail saunters along a century-old path through a forest of fir and pine stands, tracing the ravenous ripples of the Wild Mile into the Swan Valley. This two-mile route, one of the original gateways into the village on the bay, was established in 1914 as the main road from the foothills of the Swan Range to the northeast shore of the big lake.
A century after it was created, the classic trail is inspiring new concepts for expanded connectivity throughout the area, similar to other successful local trail projects, such as The Whitefish Trail and Foys to Blacktail Trails.
The Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork is spearheading an effort to potentially expand the recreation trail network in and around town, and the organization is hosting a public meeting on Wednesday, March 22 to discuss ideas and gather feedback. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Glacier Bank of Bigfork.
The initial vision — dubbed “The Bigfork Trail” — is to create a set of trail loops that would connect with existing and future trails on the north and south sides of the Swan River and tie into Sliter Park, downtown Bigfork and other nearby trails.
»»» Click here to view a preliminary design of the potential trail network
Paul Mutascio, president of the foundation, said ecotourism and outdoor recreation are becoming more and more popular, especially in Montana, and the new trail system would benefit residents and businesses while also attracting visitors.
“The idea of building a better trail network has been talked about for years, but I think we all realize the time has come,” Mutascio said. “As Bigfork has grown, and tourism has become a driving force in our economy, the call for more and better trails has become louder and louder.”
A small working group banded together last fall and began devising the preliminary project plan. The group gained the help of Greg Gunderson of Forestoration, a forest management company that specializes in ecological restoration projects, and Diane Conradi, an attorney in Whitefish who was heavily involved in the development of The Whitefish Trail.
“We decided to take on this project and bring in the best and the brightest,” Mutascio said. “And we want to bring in the community and get input and figure out a road map for moving forward.”
The preliminary concept is to begin with roughly 6 miles of new trail broken into different sections that all connect to the Swan River Nature Trail. One section would travel west from Kearney Rapids adjacent to Montana Highway 200 on the south side of the river and tie into Sliter Park in downtown.
“When I came out to explore the existing trail along the Swan River, I thought to myself, ‘This is like no other place in Montana,’” Gunderson said. “The combination of natural beauty of the river, the nearby open lands, and the unique small town feel of downtown Bigfork makes for a winning combination.”
The proposed new trail would be located entirely on private land owned by PacifiCorp, a Berkshire Hathaway Energy company that operates the Bigfork Hydroelectric Project.
Mutascio describes this week’s meeting as one of the first steps on a lengthy journey, but one that he hopes to see move forward swiftly. He said the goal is to develop a final plan by June and begin negotiating with PacifiCorp to utilize portions of their land for the trail network. Fundraising will also be a big part of the process, he said.
As others have told him, this vision is a worthy cause.
“I’ve seen first-hand what a well-built, well-conceived trail system adds to the community and the economy, both for those who live here and those who visit,” Conradi said.