On the evening of Sept. 14, several dozen recreationists converged on an undeveloped parking lot north of Columbia Falls. Cyclists, hikers and runners were on hand to explore a new three-mile section of trail recently completed by Gateway to Glacier Trails.
The new non-motorized multi-use trail is the first phase of the Cedar Flats Trail project, which will eventually include 25 miles of trails stretching north of Columbia Falls to the west of North Fork Road.
“We’ve been stoked to be building these trails, and we’re stoked to finally share them with people,” Glacier to Gateway board member Jeremiah Martin explained before leading a group of runners to explore the new trail offerings.
The projected expansion of recreation opportunities are in conjunction with timber thinning and fuels reduction work on the Flathead National Forest. Glacier to Gateway Trails submitted the recreation proposal and is heading up the trail construction with the aid of several partner organizations.
Martin said that the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers provided lots of input on the initial proposal, and feedback was solicited from DREAM Adaptive to ensure that the lower trails were built with hand cycles in mind, avoiding narrow choke points that can be limiting for non-traditional bicycles.
“We’ve been talking about showcasing the work we’ve done to the community forever and now we’ve got a big section done, so we invited everyone to check it out,” Martin said of the evening meet up. “I was really impressed to see such a wide variety of users, which was really our goal with these new trails.”
Crews broke ground on the trail system last fall, starting with a mile-and-a-half section. Earlier this month trail crews finished work on an additional 2.5 miles of trail, with another mile-and-a-half or so in the early stages of construction. These trails represent the first of three phases that will encompass the full Cedar Flats system. The second phase will extend further north and include new trailheads accessible from the North Fork Road, and the third phase will include more remote trails leading up and over the ridgeline near Crystal Creek. Martin said the trails will become more technical as they get further from town.
Before winter ends this year’s trail-building season, the parking lot for the Fourth Avenue trailhead will be leveled, and a vault toilet added.
“As a local place to recreate, people have been coming out here forever,” Martin said, adding that he’s been running the user trails and Forest Service roads in the area for years. “It hasn’t really been known as a destination place to come, especially with other great systems in the valley, but now it is.”
On the other side of the valley, the Whitefish Legacy Partners recently held their own trail opening celebration at the new Holbrook Trail Overlook on Big Mountain Road.
The Holbrook Overlook used to be a bustling scenic picnic area before the road to Whitefish Mountain Resort was rerouted in 2008. Now, four miles of stacked loop trails will welcome visitors back to the area.
“It’s so great to breathe life back into this place that has a historical community recreation context,” Whitefish Legacy Partners (WLP) Development Director Alan Davis said. “We put in the work, money and time to make this an awesome place to roll up in your car. Even if you don’t want to hike, you can go to the ADA-accessible overlook and take in million dollar views you’d normally have to be halfway up Chair 1 to get.”
The Holbrook addition brings the nonprofit WLP one step closer to completing its goal of closing the Whitefish Trail loop — a fully connected network of trail connecting the city of Whitefish to Lion Mountain, Beaver Lake, Swift Creek, Spencer Mountain, and Big Mountain.
The new Holbrook segment will be a conduit to other trails, such as the Ralph Thayer and Smokey Range trails, and kicks off the next phase of the $400,000 Taylor-Hellroaring project, a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, the city of Whitefish and WLP that will add nearly 30 miles of trail to the network.
The trailhead also serves as a node of connection for WLP’s overarching conservation goals, signaling the next step in the organization’s work to permanently protect the lands around Smith Lake.
“This is really the jump-off point as we work to complete not just the loop of the Whitefish Trail, but the swath of protected landscape that surrounds the lake,” Davis said. “The backbone of our mission is to connect people to these landscapes.”
Recently, the Whitefish City Council approved an application for the Smith Lake Public Recreation Use Easement, which will protect approximately 600 additional acres of public land including proposed Whitefish Trail routes, that will bridge the gap between the Smith Lake trails and the Taylor-Hellroaring project.
Davis also noted that there are 10,000 acres of conservation easements across Haskill Basin and Trumble Creek that abuts the Cedar Flats area, creating a vast interconnected landscape on the north end of the Flathead Valley.
“These trails are managed recreation amenities that offer opportunities for people to get outside without degrading the resources we have in the area,” Davis said. “We have a fierce commitment to connecting conservation areas with managed, maintained trails.”
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