Flathead County

County Seeks Federal Funding to Potentially Pave Lower North Fork Road

Environmental valuation and public involvement process will determine a plan for increasingly popular recreation corridor

By Micah Drew
North Fork Road. Beacon File Photo

Heading north out of Columbia Falls towards the North Fork corridor along the Flathead River is one of the most scenic, enjoyable drives in Northwest Montana, that is, until just after mile post 12, where the pavement ends. Then drivers and passengers are subjected to a slow, teeth-rattling and dusty ride in order to access two popular entrances to Glacier National Park, more than 100,000 acres of national forest land and the Wild and Scenic North Fork Flathead River.

That may change in the next few years, however, as Flathead County recently applied for a nearly $6 million Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) grant to begin the preliminary environmental evaluation and public involvement process looking at the feasibility of paving 10 miles of the North Fork Road to the intersection of Camas Road. The funding would also cover roughly two-and-a-half miles of road improvements as a first phase of the full corridor improvement project.

The North Fork Road (NFR) stretches from the north end of Columbia Falls to the Canadian border, passing from state to county jurisdiction just past mile post 12, where it transitions from pavement to a gravel road. Other than a brief half-mile of pavement, there is a 10-mile stretch of dirt road until the intersection with Camas Road, a turnoff that leads to Glacier National Park.

In addition to accessing the Camas entrance to the national park, the North Fork Road leads to the community of Polebridge and another entrance to Glacier, which has increased in popularity in recent years. There are also roughly 300 full-time residents who live up the North Fork corridor and can only access their property via the NFR.

“The road is heavily used getting to Camas, or continuing north to Polebridge,” Dave Prunty, the county’s public works director, said. “These days, all four seasons the North Fork gets used and in the summertime there’s no question it really gets pounded.”

While the North Fork Road north of the Camas Road intersection is also mostly gravel, it isn’t degraded as much as the 10-mile lower stretch. Anyone driving the lower road can attest to the dusty conditions, limited sight lines, constant washboarding and sparse parking areas and pullouts. Sections of the road have been widened up to 12 feet past the standard road width and cycling and pedestrian use is considered dangerous.

County officials estimate it costs $300,000 annually to maintain the road all the way to the Canadian border.

“We’ve got someone up there a whole heck of a lot trying to maintain that corridor. One of our graders spends a hell of a lot of his overall employment time just on the North Fork,” Prunty said. “We’re doing the best we can, but the traffic increases we’ve seen here in the last three years are mind boggling.”

The North Fork Road sees peak traffic in July and August as visitors swarm to the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park (GNP). A 2010 study of the North Fork corridor showed an average of 1,500 monthly visitors entering the park through Polebridge in the summer. In 2022, data from GNP showed 20,799 visitors passing through the same entrance station in July, all accessing it via the North Fork Road.

Prunty said the main goal of the FLAP application would be to kick off the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) evaluation of the 10-mile stretch of road and to begin the public comment process. The evaluation would consider the impacts of various improvement strategies on a primitive ecosystem bordering Glacier National Park.

The FLAP application states that as the only gravel surfaced section of roadway between Columbia Falls and the Camas Entrance to Glacier, paving the road would fill a “missing link,” improve emergency service and Border Patrol access throughout the North Fork corridor, and increase recreational use along the North Fork Flathead River. For cyclists, a paved surface would close a 50-mile bike loop between Columbia Falls, West Glacier and the North Fork, and improved pullouts and parking spaces would increase river access for fishing and boating.

“The goal of the surface improvements is not to promote the fastest route to the Camas Entrance, but rather to provide an improved 35-45 mph recreational access road,” the application states. It also adds that better road conditions to the Camas Entrance of Glacier Park could alleviate some of the congestion seen at the West Entrance.

Flathead County has been extremely successful with FLAP funding applications since the program began in 2013, with Prunty estimating the county has received around $15 million for projects around Blacktail Mountain, Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge and the North Fork.

“It’s a great way for us to be able to improve our roads, but it’s also a reality with federal funding that there’s a whole lot of processes to go through and that takes time,” Prunty said. If Flathead County is awarded the grant, it will contribute $100,000 to the project for construction work.

If the project moves forward, Prunty said it would likely be done in 2- to 3-mile stretches at a time and he estimates construction could begin in 2026. If the road is paved to state standards, the Montana Department of Transportation would take over maintenance from the county.

The county submitted another FLAP application at its March 28 meeting for a separate project on the North Fork Road north of Polebridge where a landslide has reduced the road to a single lane.

“This stretch of road has been this way for years, and even though it’s kind of stabilized, I’m always thinking that on one wet spring, we might not have a road anymore,” Prunty said. “The problem there is there’s a wetland to the west, a river to the east, and bedrock right there. It’s above my brainpower to engineer the solution.”

The funding request for 500 feet of road reconstruction is $696,331, with the county contributing $50,000. The project timeline, if funding is secured, would align with the lower North Fork Road project with construction taking place in 2026.