Connecting Trails to Community

As the popularity of outdoor recreation surges, the nonprofit Whitefish Legacy Partners prepares to break ground on new trail and broker new conservation partnerships

By Tristan Scott
The Holbrook Overlook area of Big Mountain in Whitefish on May 13, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A year ago in Whitefish, just as the community regained its footing following the pandemic’s first shockwaves — grocery aisles were restocked, gear rooms converted into home offices, personal spaces recalibrated — a curious manifestation of the public health crisis began to take shape amid the dirt and the dust and the divots of local trailheads. 

They were teeming full.

From dawn to dusk, the parking areas bustled bumper-to-bumper, brimming with cars and trucks bearing exotic place names like “Texas” and “Delaware.” For many local residents, it was the first indication that the COVID-19 pandemic would have lasting consequences in the community, prompting both consternation and relief as the trails, as well as the protected lands they gird, became wellsprings of gratitude.

From Beaver Lake to Swift Creek, Spencer to Skyles, Lion Mountain to Big Mountain, the Whitefish Trail network provided a haven from the hellscape of breaking news headlines, an outlet to quell anxiety, and an outdoor setting to safely socialize, with water bottles replacing water coolers as a conversational centerpiece as office life drifted into obsolescence. 

“If you noticed our local trails felt busier this past year, you were right,” Mike Jopek, board chair of the Whitefish Legacy Partners (WLP), the nonprofit curators of the local trail system, wrote in the organization’s annual community report. “Whitefish Trail use increased 18% as outdoor shops sold out of bikes, trail shoes and kayaks. Our local conservation lands were a refuge for many as we looked for new ways to recreate during the pandemic, and we enjoyed seeing more families and friends spending time outside together.”

Indeed, WLP is moving forward on its ambitious plan with renewed vigor, and is preparing to break ground on a new trailhead and looped trail system along Big Mountain Road, while also developing a 25-year maintenance plan for the Whitefish Trail that will consider using resort tax dollars.

Dubbed “Holbrook Overlook,” the new section of trail promises to be among the most popular in town, reconnecting the community of trail users to a former U.S. Forest Service site that was once widely used. Logging last year was the first step in the Flathead National Forest’s Taylor Hellroaring Project, which blends forest management, fire mitigation and habitat improvements with increased recreation development opportunities like trails.

“We’re excited about it not only because it represents the first recreation action of the project, but also because it’s such a broad spectrum of community engagement,” Alan Myers-Davis, director of development at WPL, said. “Eventually it will provide access to the whole front face of the Whitefish Range, with the Whitefish Trail serving as that connection.”

Even before the new segment provides a conduit to other trails, such as the Ralph Thayer and Smokey Range trails, it will provide local trail users with a day-use area and 3.5 miles of stacked loop trails near the base of Whitefish Mountain Resort, located just above the current Big Mountain Trailhead.

“Even before the other connectivity happens, Holbrook will become a standalone area that will serve as a great attraction to the community and also provide a space for folks coming and going from Whitefish Mountain Resort,” Margosia Jadkowski, program director at WLP, said. “So we have long-term plans that are very exciting in terms of conservation and connectivity, but the community benefits will be realized very soon.”

With plans to break ground on the new section of trail in July, the team at WLP has been researching the history of Holbrook Overlook, which was once a widely used site with expansive views of the entire Flathead Valley — and even provided a scenic backdrop in the 1993 family film “Beethoven’s 2nd.” Since Big Mountain Road was re-routed in 2008, however, the Holbrook Overlook was largely lost to the community and the existing infrastructure has slowly faded. 

“Improving and redeveloping this historic recreation site with managed, non-motorized recreation will add invaluable benefits for locals and visitors,” according to WLP. “With 3.5 miles of family friendly loop trails, an accessible interpretive loop to an inspiring Whitefish Lake overlook, picnic tables and day use amenities, the Holbrook Overlook will once again become a valued public land recreation destination just minutes from town.”

Holbrook will also serve as a starting point for longer trail adventures on the Whitefish Trail to Hellroaring Basin, over to Smith Lake, and on into the Whitefish Range. 

“These will be public recreation assets for generations to come,” WLP Executive Director Heidi Van Everen said, noting that its cost-share agreement with the Forest Service ensures protection of the land in perpetuity.

To establish those connections, WLP has been awarded $75,000 from the Montana Recreational Trails Program, $25,000 from the National Forest Foundation, $20,000 from Flathead National Forest, and private matching funds from local donors excited about the project, including Rick and Sue Williams, who have owned property in Whitefish for more than three decades, witnessing the area’s growth firsthand. Last year, they announced a $50,000 gift to WLP to support the next phase of trail development at Holbrook.

“We give to WLP and the Whitefish Trail every year because outdoor recreation is such a big part of the community,” according to a statement from the Williams family. “The quality-of-life benefits are substantial — not to mention the economic impact — and we feel that permanently protecting our surrounding local lands is paramount, especially now.” 

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