With more than 500 miles of trail ranging from buffed-out, buttery single-track to root-and-rock staircases and butt-puckering cliff drops, locals know that the Flathead Valley is home to some of the best mountain biking, trail running, hiking and horseback riding in the country.
In Whitefish alone, a sprawling 47-mile network connects 15 trailheads ringing Whitefish Lake and the Flathead Valley’s northern terminus. From Beaver Lake to Swift Creek, Spencer to Skyles, Lion Mountain to Big Mountain, the Whitefish Trail network has not only continued to expand the local suite of trail offerings, but it’s helped conserve open space at a time when development pressure has never been higher.
The nonprofit curator of the local Whitefish Trail system is Whitefish Legacy Partners, which last summer debuted the newest addition to its network when it opened “Holbrook Overlook,” a day-use area featuring 3.8 miles of stacked loops just off Big Mountain Road near the base of Whitefish Mountain Resort (across from the Whitefish Trail’s existing Big Mountain Trailhead).
Although trail users could spend an entire summer exploring Whitefish’s offerings, the neighboring communities of Columbia Falls and Kalispell have similarly stunning trail systems that have all seen significant expansions in recent years.
For the best online resources to learn how different organizations and communities coordinate their efforts to furnish the Flathead Valley with the best trails and paths in the nation, check out the Flathead Trails Association at flatheadtrails.org.
Holbrook Overlook and the Whitefish Trail Easy
The Holbrook Overlook Trailhead, located just below Whitefish Mountain Resort, provides stunning views of Whitefish Lake and the entire Flathead Valley. Enjoy the amenities at the trailhead such as a formal overlook, interpretive signs, ADA picnic table, covered benches, a vault toilet, and an information kiosk, or explore the many stacked trail loops that meander through open forest and huckleberry bushes. The 3.8 miles of multi-use trail explore this island parcel of Flathead National Forest, helping reconnect the community to a former U.S. Forest Service site that was once widely used, but which fell into disuse through the years. Now, it’s back and better than ever for the public to enjoy.
Take Wisconsin Avenue north from Whitefish and turn right onto Big Mountain Road. After driving up a steady grade for 3.4 miles, after you pass the Big Mountain Trailhead on your right, the Holbrook Overlook Trailhead is the next left turn through the guardrail and is open year-round.
For more information, visit whitefishtrail.org.
Cedar Flats Trails Intermediate
As one of the newest additions to the local trail system, the Cedar Flats Project involves the planned construction of 25 miles of non-motorized, multi-use trails north of Columbia Falls in partnership with the Flathead National Forest. Last year, organizers completed the first phase of their grassroots effort when it added more than four miles of trail and began hosting monthly Run, Ride and Walk events to tour the trails with anyone interested. To date, the organization has successfully applied for grant funds to expand trail development, including money for a vault toilet and a designated parking area. The trail system is already taking shape, with lots of loop options for your intermediate trail adventures.
In Columbia Falls, take Second Avenue WN across the railroad tracks and turn left onto Fourth Street WN. Follow Fourth until it ends at a T (turns into Barnett Road on Google Maps). Parking for the trailhead is on the right in a large dirt parking area. Please be respectful as you drive through the residential area toward the trailhead. The residents of Barnett Road personally fund maintenance for the road.
Learn more about the project on the Flathead National Forest’s Crystal Cedar Project Page at gatewaytoglaciertrail.com.
Columbia Mountain Advanced
While the trails around Glacier Park and the Flathead are getting more popular every year, there are still some places that feel like a haven for locals, and Columbia Mountain ranks high among them. To summit Columbia, hikers must navigate a steep, 12-mile out-and-back trail that climbs nearly 5,000 feet to a peak that forms the northern terminus of the famed Swan Crest. Located near Hungry Horse, the trail is generally considered a challenging route, even if many hikers opt for an easier outing, including a relatively short hike to the namesake waterfall, Columbia Falls, or to numerous rock outcrops that offer expansive views of the Flathead and a prime choice for a picnic.
To reach the trailhead, drive east of Columbia Falls on U.S. Highway 2 through the junction with Montana Highway 206. The righthand turnoff will be approximately 3.5 miles after the junction on an unmarked dirt road. Follow the dirt road south for 0.2 mile until you see the Columbia Mountain Trailhead on your left.
This article was originally published in Glacier Journal, our annual guide to summer in Northwest Montana. Pick up a copy on newsstands across the region.