Outlook Edition

New Year, New Singletrack

The Flathead Valley is positioned for another banner year of trail construction, expanding recreation access to the front country in communities throughout the region

By Micah Drew
Montana Conservation Corps members build trail for the Crystal Cedar Flats project in Columbia Falls on May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The last year saw an expansion of user paths across the Flathead Valley, from the opening of the Parkline Trail through downtown Kalispell to the addition of new single track in the surrounding hills. 2023 is shaping up to be an even bigger year for trail expansion as groups around the valley plan to break ground once the snow melts. 

Down in Bigfork, the Flathead Land Trust (FLT) recently took ownership of a 236-acre parcel of land from the Trust for Public Land, just north of the Swan River. The two groups, along with Montana Land Reliance, coordinated to purchase the property several years ago when it was initially slated for residential development, with the goal of permanently preserving it and opening it up to recreation. 

The Bigfork-Harrell trails project will break ground this spring, according to FLT President Paul Travis.  

“Our goal is to give different types of experiences for different users,” Travis said. “The property is pretty mellow and gently sloped, so it’s perfect for recreation trails.”

In the spring, Montana Made Trails will begin construction on the 4.5 miles of new singletrack designed as a series of stacked loops. Two existing dirt roads through the property will be incorporated into the trail system, with Travis estimating users will have access to just over six miles of dirt. 

“There’s definitely been a need in the community for a project like this that allows expanded access to front country space close to town,” he said. “These trails have been possible through a combination of luck and having a great project proposal that’s appealing to the community. The support we’ve gotten shows just how important this is to our residents.”

Up in Columbia Falls, Gateway to Glacier Trails plans continued work on the Cedar Flats trails project that broke ground last fall. The first phase included roughly four miles of construction, and Glacier to Gateway President Jeremiah Martin is excited to see the momentum continue. 

“We’re really hoping to complete more new trail this year than we’ve done over the last three years,” Martin said. “The momentum is there so we can really continue to make progress in the area.”

Plans are in place to improve the parking lot at the southern Cedar Flats trailhead, which will include a vault toilet, as well as a second parking lot to the north, off Forest Service Road 1690. The total planned trail network will exceed 25 miles. 

The organization, which also maintains the Gateway to Glacier multi-use path, also has plans to continue the Columbia Falls River Trail in the Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management area along the Flathead River.  

Martin said there is also a priority in 2023 to increase community engagement with the trail advocacy groups. A spur-of-the-moment gathering for the opening of the Cedar Flats trails drew dozens of cyclists, runners and hikers, and Martin hopes to host additional community gatherings next year, as well as lay the groundwork to host an event on the trail system that will tie into the city of Columbia Falls. 

A runner enjoys the trails at Herron Park in Kalispell. Beacon file photo

One of the most extensive trail networks in the valley begins at Herron Park west of Kalispell and stretches south to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area. The Foys to Blacktail (FTB) organization hosts two trail races during the year to raise money for new construction and general trail maintenance, which comes at a high cost. 

“I don’t think people really realize what it takes to keep really good trails in good condition,” said Gabe Dillon, the outgoing program coordinator for FTB. “Sure, you can let trails go for a long time, but then they’re in such rough shape that fixing them is almost like rebuilding them. Our users are used to having high quality trails from Herron all the way down.”

Trail maintenance can cost from $550 per mile per year, all the way into the thousands if sections need to be redesigned and rebuilt. Foys to Blacktail crews have spent the last two years doing drainage sculpting on the lower trails near Herron Park and have identified the Boundary Trail and Chase Overlook as priorities for drainage improvements this year. 

In addition, FTB hopes to finish construction on a group of new looped trails from Emmons Saddle, a project that broke ground in 2022. 

Tying these groups, and more, together is the Flathead Trails Association (FTA), a consortium of recreation and conservation-focused nonprofits, government agencies and user groups that came together last year to create a centralized hub for trail advocacy. 

Allie Maloney, FTA’s trails coordinator, said the group had a successful series of scoping meetings last year that covered big-picture planning, and accomplished all the major goals, including creating a central website and hiring her position. 

“When we first started meeting years ago, people were just dreaming of what could exist in the Flathead. We’ve accomplished all those dreams in our first year,” Maloney said. “There’s been so much cross-pollination between groups and FTA has been such a great behind-the-scenes entity to provide space for all the agency and nonprofit folks to meet and mesh their visions.”

In 2023, Maloney said FTA will continue to facilitate communications and outreach for all partner groups with aims of boosting attendance for trail maintenance days, filling classes and continuously engaging the public. One big event that will occur in late spring will be a trail skills weekend, meant to provide free trail-work training classes over a long camping weekend to engage nonprofit staff and members of the public. 

“So many people move here for the access to outdoor recreation, and we want all of them engaged in the next phase of increasing and maintaining that access,” Maloney said. “Getting more people involved in the trail community is the heart and soul of what we do.”