Gateway to Glacier Trails Gaining Ground

The nonprofit trail-building organization is growing a network of single-track trails in Columbia Falls and beyond

By Tristan Scott
Montana Conservation Corps member Callie Snow chops away at a log for a Crystal Cedar trail building project in Columbia Falls on May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Jeremiah Martin has been spreading the Gateway to Glacier Trails’ gospel for years, preaching about expanding the recreational opportunities in the Flathead National Forest flanking Glacier National Park, including pitching a 25-mile network of multi-use single-track that is accessible from downtown Columbia Falls.

Without exception, the response has been supportive, even if progress on bringing the ideas to fruition were slow, with yards of red tape to navigate, environmental assessments to complete, funds to raise, and collaborative partnerships to forge. But this summer, Martin, who is president of the nonprofit Glacier to Gateway Board, is prepared to do a lot more showing than telling.

“It’s about to get really exciting,” Martin said recently, describing what’s been dubbed the Crystal Cedar Project. “I realize I’ve been saying that for years, but this project is to the point where people are going out there and they’re like, ‘wow. I can see it.’ It’s the first step in a much larger system, but it’s finally happening.”

The Crystal Cedar Project includes a proposed 25 miles of recreational trails about a mile north of Columbia Falls, just west of North Fork Road. It also proposes to conduct 3,700 acres of vegetation management to reduce fuels close to neighborhoods in the wildland-urban interface, including 2,500 acres of timber harvest, the majority of which has taken place. 

“This was a recreational trail plan that we piggy-backed on a fuels-reduction timber sale,” Martin explained. “They have been logging for the past two years and have one last section to finish, but we’ve been able to get started on our trail work. We machine cut one section and we will be soliciting volunteers and contractors to finish it off.”

To date, the project has applied for and received more than $150,000 in grant funds for trail development, including funds for a vault toilet and designated parking in the area. Last fall, the group’s contractor, Montana Made Trails, broke ground on the project with help from a Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) crew, helping clear the trail corridor in preparation for work by a mini-excavator. That work continued this spring, with an additional half-mile of trail construction.

The MCC crew recently completed work on a turnpike, which is essentially an elevated segment of trail with a culvert to allow water to flow beneath, keeping the trails safe, dry and usable. This season, Martin said more work is scheduled to construct several additional miles of trail, as well as a parking area, kiosk and vault toilet.

“We did get a [Recreation Trails Program] grant so we want to hit the ground running and get this next section built, which should make a really great loop,” Martin said.

Conceptually, the project got underway years ago when a group of trail-users inquired with the Flathead National Forest about expanding and improving trails in the Cedar Flats area north of Columbia Falls, where motorized use has occurred for decades; however, a designated non-motorized trail system was missing. With the popularity of Glacier National Park having grown to the point where visitors need a vehicle reservation to access the park’s most popular corridors during peak summer months, Martin says he expects easily accessible trail systems on the park’s outskirts — the “Gateway to Glacier” — will be an asset for locals and visitors alike.

“There’s kind of a purge-valve effect where people who can’t get into the park are looking for something to do, and there aren’t a lot of readily available options,” Martin said.

The Crystal Cedar project is approximately 27,249 acres in size and is bounded to the south by the community of Columbia Falls and to the west by the Flathead River. The area includes Crystal Creek, Cedar Flats, Spoon Lake, Blankenship Road, and Teakettle Mountain and is located on the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District.

Anyone interested in learning more about the project should save the date for the group’s Pints for Paths Brewfest on Saturday, July 9, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Heaven’s Peak Lodge and Resort in West Glacier.

Learn more about the project on the Flathead National Forest’s Crystal Cedar Project Page or by visiting gatewaytoglaciertrail.com.