Access to the outdoors right out your front door

48˚ NORTH STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAY BJORK
A jogger pulls on her sneakers and heads out the door, her pony tail swinging as she runs a few blocks through town and disappears into a canopy of trees spiked with golden sunlight spattering gems onto the river below. She passes a mother pushing a stroller who stops to watch the ducks do a dizzy dance in the sparkling water. Across the river a doe and her fawn move quietly through tall grass to reach the river.

It is common knowledge that the Flathead Valley area offers gorgeous trails in Glacier National Park, the Jewel Basin hiking areas and beyond, but sometimes you don’t have to look farther than your own backyard for a lovely place to take a walk or run.

From the paved trail system in Whitefish to the old dirt road of the Swan River Nature Trail, there are miles of pathways that offer a convenient, safe and time-saving fix for the urge to get moving and air out. Many of the trails are also suitable for any human-powered endeavor, including bicycling and in-line skating, and some also allow horses. They also can provide a transitional path for those recovering from an injury or surgery to get them back onto those mountain trails.

Whitefish becomes more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly each year with a growing network of trails throughout town. Commonly known as the Fish Trails, 12 miles of paved paths wind through several parks and across a pedestrian bridge over Whitefish River. A section along Wisconsin Avenue begins at Edgewood and the BN Loop and heads north over the overpass to Houston Point, providing a safer route along the busy road to reach Big Mountain Road and Whitefish Lake City Beach. A great starting point is off Baker Avenue near Riverside Park where it follows the scenic Whitefish River. The trail also connects to Monegan Road where it not only provides a great route for recreational purposes, but also establishes a safe pedestrian and bicycle commute to several Whitefish schools and to the Smith Fields soccer and baseball fields.

Whitefish river trail

A couple enjoys the end of the day walking on a trail along the Whitefish River.

Just outside of Whitefish is the Whitefish Trail, another growing trail system led by the Whitefish Legacy Partners. Current trails access Lion and Spencer mountains, Beaver and Skyles lakes, and Swift Creek with more challenging grades and terrain on unpaved trails.

In the heart of Kalispell you will find a wonderful place to run (or walk) in Woodland Park where you might not escape the carousel of neighborhood activity, but are still amidst trees, gardens, water features and wildlife.  The 38-acre park was once a private game preserve for Charles Conrad, the founder of Kalispell, and is Kalispell’s oldest park with large trees towering over two miles of paths that wind around a fountain, a lagoon seasonally filled with ducks, geese, and a water and skate park, playgrounds and picnic grounds. If you get out early morning or late in the day, it is possible to capture a more serene time in the park along with the magical light of a sunrise or sunset.

Just a short distance from a bustling Highway 93 are Lawrence Park and the Buffalohead Pond. Lawrence Park lies along the Stillwater River and the Buffalo Hills Golf course and has a mile-long paved trail along with a place for Frisbee golf and picnicking. Lawrence Park is just a smidge short of 80 acres, with another 37 acres of natural open space. Stroll over the walking bridge and through a varied habitat that includes shade trees, wetlands, the Stillwater River and a variety of birds and wildlife.

If you find yourself waiting for someone at the Kalispell Medical Center you can take a short walk down Grandview Drive to the Buffalohead Pond just south of Flathead Community College. The two-acre pond area is set in almost six acres, like a secret garden tucked into a quiet neighborhood. Access through a tall culvert sets the tone for entry into this magical and wild space where kingfisher, turtles, and fish find refuge in the middle of town. Glacier Church provides park access and parking and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department has installed a portable toilet near the culvert.

Woodland Park Kalispell

Late day sunlight turns into a rainbow at the fountain in Woodland Park.

On the southern fringe of Kalispell are two other large parks with extensive trails. Trails at Lone Pine State Park offer 700 feet in elevation gain, which provides a great aerobic workout as you wind through the forested slope. At the top you are rewarded with an outstanding view of the valley and surrounding mountains where you will also find a visitor center that is open year-round. Stop at the center for a tour of forest ecology and wildlife found in the park. Varied terrain can be found on the 7.5 miles of trails with both steep and moderate grade for hikers, mountain bikers and horsemen. The trail begins on Lone Pine Road.

A little further from Kalispell is the 380-acre Iven Herron Memorial Park with 14 miles of trails, which is also a gateway to the Foy’s to Blacktail Trails system and Blacktail Mountain forestlands. The park has been expanded in recent years through The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization holding the property while the group raises funds for purchase. They have added 260 acres to the original 120 to date with a goal to purchase the final 60 acres by 2015. Trails are open to joggers, walkers, bicyclists, skiers and horsemen. The Family Trail, built in 2010, provides a mellow trail for access to the ridgetop and serves as a connector trail to several loop options. Be alert for bicycles and horses when rounding blind corners. Bicyclers and pedestrians must yield to horses.

A section of The Rails to Trails system offers a 22-mile paved path from Somers to Kila, passing through Kalispell on the old rail grade. The entire trail is more suited to bicycling in its entirety but if you pick up a map at the Kalispell Visitor Center in Depot Park you can select an entry point for your walk. The Somers trailhead is located across from the post office and marked by an old locomotive and archway at the beginning of the trail. The Somers trailhead is a tranquil section that begins in the trees and along a lagoon for a mile before crossing Highway 82 and following parallel to Highway 93 where it breaks out into stunning mountain and valley views. The path lies adjacent to Highway 93 and Highway 2 and provides a safe path around the Kalispell Bypass. The second half of the trail meanders along Ashley Creek and through the Batavia Waterfowl Production Area for a chance to observe mallards, sandhill cranes and other birds and wildlife. Starting points on the west side of Kalispell include off Ashley Meadows Road where the trail crosses the road and east of the intersection of US 2 and Spring Creek Road. Both have parking space for a few cars. If you want to start in Kila, there is parking along Kila Road at the intersection with Smith Lake Road or at a pullout a little farther north.

Beaver Lake Whitefish

Beaver Lake as seen from The Whitefish Trail.

In Bigfork you can get on the wild side just a few steps from downtown. Head up the hill on Grand Avenue to reach Swan River Nature Trail. Long ago it was a gravel road to the Swan Valley and follows the river for two miles, ending at the Kearney Rapids Bridge and merging with Swan River Road. There is limited parking at the Bigfork trailhead, but you also have the option of parking at the Kearney Rapids Bridge pullout, where you will find parking for several cars. This road has gone back to nature with abundant wildlife and wildflowers in the summer. The first mile follows the “Wild Mile,” a boiling section of river in the spring that serves as a stage for the Whitewater Festival each Memorial Day weekend. A side trip mid-way on the trail leads to the “Big Rock” where spectators gather to watch kayakers during the slalom competition. The steep riverbank mellows above the spillway providing easier river access in several places where you can observe waterfowl and see the old skeleton stumps that remain after the river was dammed.

On the west side of Bigfork is a trail system starting in the Harry Horn Park at the entry of Wayfarers Park. There are several trail options leading through the forest that include a climb to a knoll that breaks out for a view of Flathead Lake and Bigfork. The trails also provide access to the lake where you can find a dramatic overlook in the rock cliffs.

One of the big bonuses of these wonderful trails is that after you’ve gone for a walk – you are almost home.