Whitefish Trail Legacy Runs Connect Community to Local Trails

The 14th annual trail running series offers a distance for everyone while highlighting recreation and conservation success stories

By Micah Drew
A competitor in the 2021 Whitefish Trail Legacy Run 50k Mountain Ultra. Photo courtesy Whitefish Legacy Partners

In the midst of the beer guzzling, steinholding and polka dancing that will take place during the second weekend of the Great Northwest Oktoberfest in Whitefish, revelers may notice some out-of-place looking attendees.

These attendees might be identified by shorter-than-average shorts, or perhaps by vests and packs bursting with bottles and hydration straws, or perhaps by a vaguely haunting look that comes from spending half a day, or more, running to the top of Big Mountain and back.

For the second year, the Whitefish Legacy Run 50-kilomteter (31-mile) ultramarathon, the brainchild of the nonprofit Whitefish Legacy Partners (WLP), will begin and end near Depot Park during the Oktoberfest celebration, giving more than 100 competitors extra pomp and circumstance as they finish near Depot Park.

“It’s pretty amazing to have a race where you can be at the start line and look up at the highest point of the race on the top of the ski resort, then run up there on your own two feet and come back down to town,” race director Cody Moore said. “The 50k will have a little more grandiose finish line this year with an epic party going on right next door.”

Last year, the first time the ultramarathon coincided with the Great Northwest Oktoberfest, it was the realization of a decade-long goal for the race organizers to combine two homegrown festivities and provide a unique way to tie the runners to another local event.  

When the Legacy Run was first conceived in 2010, there was only a single 10-kilometer course option, meant to showcase years of work done by WLP to bring sustainable recreation options to the Whitefish community in the form of the Whitefish Trail. 

Due to the community’s embrace of the fundraising race, the Legacy Run has expanded to offer five different course options over two days, ranging from a two-mile fun run to the 31-mile ultramarathon. Last year, Moore said the five races drew a record number of participants, including 125 finishers in the 50k.

“There’s truly a race distance for everyone, from kids or families that want to do two miles together, runners who want to complete a 5k-plus, 10k-plus, or half marathon distance out at Beaver Lakes on Sunday, and then first-time or competitive ultramarathoners can tackle the 50k on Saturday,” Moore added. “We really get to highlight some of the best parts of the Whitefish Trail and it’s a great way to support local recreation.”

A sign near the Big Mountain Trailhead of the Whitefish Trails system on May 13, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish Legacy Partners Program Manager Jedd Sankar-Gorton said that registration for the October event is on pace to match, or exceed, last year.

“We’re really trying to emphasize that this is an event for and by the community,” Sankar-Gorton said. “I think locals want this to be a race they can be proud to take part in, a race they want their friends to do, and an event they want to get out to spectate and cheer runners along the course.”

The Whitefish Trail currently includes 47 miles of natural trail surface and 15 different trailheads scattered in and around town, on Big Mountain and in Haskill Basin. The multi-partner project leverages land managed by the City of Whitefish, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, U.S. Forest Service, Montana State Parks and multiple private conservation easements to provide interconnected non-motorized recreational access around Whitefish Lake.

The master plan for the Whitefish Legacy Partners is to “close the loop,” ultimately connecting more than 55 miles of trail that will circumvent the lake. Future projects will include trail corridors between Beaver Lakes and Swift Creek, and from Swift Creek to the recently added Holbrook Overlook Trailhead.

The latest addition to the trail system is a new public use area at Smith Lake that will open to the public Sept. 21, and a dock, viewing platform, benches and day use area to make recreation at the lake more sustainable.

“Smith Lake and the Swift Creek area doesn’t have the same permanent protections like Beaver Lake does, but we use these projects as a proof of concept to show the importance of this kind of access to the community,” Sankar-Gorton said. “We want to do more work like this, and it’s through events like the Legacy Run that allows us to keep moving forward.”

The Whitefish Legacy Run is one of the organization’s largest annual fundraisers, pulling in around $50,000 while providing a unique opportunity to share and showcase the conservation and recreation work done in the area.

“Fortunately, the courses themselves give us this great opportunity to tell this story. It’s a chance for people to really live the story of the Whitefish Legacy Partners: easily accessed trail miles that are kept from development,” Sankar-Gorton said. “You can start from downtown Whitefish and end up on top of the ski resort only because of all the groundwork that’s taken place for more than a decade. People get to hit the trails with a bunch of like-minded runners and hikers and know that taking part will lead to even more opportunities to continue and expand the free access to these trails.”

The Whitefish Legacy Run will take place on Oct. 7 and 8. For more information or to sign up as a participant or volunteer, visit the event website. Individuals who volunteer will receive a discount to the event of their choice.

A competitor in the 2021 Whitefish Trail Legacy Run 50k Mountain Ultra. Photo courtesy Whitefish Legacy Partners