Run by local non-profit Whitefish Legacy Partners, the Whitefish Trail (WT) offers residents 43 miles of multi-use trails. The various trail networks can be used for hiking/running, mountain biking, and horseback riding, although some have restrictions, so check each section’s rules before starting out. There are five main sections with a total of 14 trailheads, and all are dog-friendly. The Whitefish Trail is constantly evolving, with plans that will eventually join most sections of trail. In the coming years, the proposed 55-mile route will ultimately link downtown with Big Mountain and completely circumnavigate Whitefish Lake.
With the Beaver Lakes Trailhead just a few miles from our apartment, we used the Whitefish Trail almost daily during the week. Stephan would wrap up his east coast hours around 3 p.m., so we’d still have several hours to explore the surrounding trails and lakes with Sanchez before dinner. After living in a bustling city suburb where we’d do the same, boring 1-mile loop around busy streets at the 5 p.m. rush hour, this was such a gift.
While Beaver Lakes was closest, all the trailheads were easily accessible from our place, so Sanchez had a bevy of new sights and sniffs every day. For short after-work excursions, the WT was just perfect – the trails are impeccably maintained and there’s enough trail length to actually get a decent walk. If you’re staying in the Whitefish area and looking to get out and about on a daily basis, you can’t beat this trail.
We’ve compiled a list of the sections we hiked, a few of them frequently, to give an idea of some of the routes you can put together. For a detailed map of the Whitefish Trail, check out this website: https://www.whitefishlegacy.org/trailheads/.
Note: The official map lists the distances of (most) individual segments of trail. Make sure to use these given distances to calculate your route rather than relying on a simple visual estimation, as the maps are not drawn to scale.
The Beaver Lakes Trail was the first section of the WT we visited. Hiked as a loop, the trail was about 4 miles, and adding in the 1-mile spur to Beaver Lake created a 6-mile track. Of the four trailheads around the Beaver Lakes area, the namesake Beaver Lakes is the closest to Highway 93 (2 miles up Beaver Lakes Rd). The other three (see below) are several miles further up badly washboarded roads.
This part of the WT is a really gorgeous section of singletrack. As such, we found this section to be the most heavily frequented by mountain bikers. While everyone was super nice and had flawless trail etiquette, we didn’t want to feel like we were an impediment to everyone’s afternoon rides. Consequently, we only used this section of trail a few times. If you’re looking for accessibility, trail quality, lake access, or a nice afternoon ride, this is a fantastic trail.
Total distance: 6.0 miles
Elevation gain: 615 feet
North Beaver Connector / Woods Lake / Dollar Lake
These three trailheads, along with Beaver Lake, collectively make up the Beaver Lakes area of the WT. While the North Beaver Connector is the northernmost of the trailheads, each of the three mentioned here are about 4 to 5 miles from the previously described Beaver Lakes Trailhead. Starting from the North Beaver Trailhead, you can walk/bike a 6-mile loop that encompasses three small lakes – Woods, Dollar, and Little Beaver (technically four, as there is also a short spur leading to the north shore of Beaver). Parking at either the Woods Lake or Dollar Lake Trailheads will give you a similar but shorter loop by omitting the ~3 miles RT up to North Beaver. Conversely, you could choose to lengthen the route slightly by adding on the Overlook Trail, an approximately 1.5-mile easement granted by a local landowner. This area is less trafficked than the main Beaver Lake Trailhead (including far fewer cyclists), but the road condition does make it slightly more effort to get here.
Total distance: 6.1 miles
Elevation gain: 797 feet
Lupfer Loop & Lookout
With a 3.8-mile loop and 1.2-mile (round-trip) lookout spur, Lupfer was easily the most lightly trafficked portion of the Whitefish Trail. The Lupfer Trailhead is the furthest from downtown Whitefish (13.5 miles northwest up Highway 93), but a good one if you’re looking for some solitude.
Total distance: 5.0 miles
Elevation gain: 603 feet
Just a couple miles north of downtown Whitefish, the Reservoir Trailhead is the closest to the town center. This stretch of trail, however, is a bit less versatile than the other sections as it currently stands alone as a 5.5-mile point-to-point. The trail stretches about five miles one-way from the Reservoir Trailhead through Haskill Basin, terminating at the Big Mountain Trailhead on the eastern side of Big Mountain. Consequently, hiking the trail as an out-and-back in its entirety will be about 11 miles. This portion of the WT is open only to hikers/bikers, with horses not allowed on this route. Like Beaver Lake, this section is quite popular with bikers (more so on weekends), but it’s a good option for a bit more elevation gain. It also offers a couple of lookouts onto Whitefish Lake and south to Blacktail Mountain.
Total distance: 7.8 miles
Elevation gain: 1,219 feet
Another section of the WT that’s a bit more highly trafficked, Lion Mountain is one of the closest sections to downtown Whitefish. It’s also just steps off Highway 93. This section of trail goes all the way to the Beaver Lakes via the Skyles Connector (6.5 miles one-way), but can also be hiked/biked as a short 2.5-mile loop. Interestingly, Lion Mountain’s stunted summit is currently used as a fire control lookout point for the greater Whitefish area. From the top, there’s a small overlook offering views over nearby Skyles Lake:
Pros: The highpoint offers a nice little view of Skyles Lake; the trailhead is close to downtown. Cons: the trail can get busy; you get quite a bit of road noise because of its proximity to the highway; it’s a very short loop (unless you extend your walk/ride via an out-and-back to Skyles or beyond).
Total distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: 413 feet
The North and South Spencer sections of the Whitefish Trail (now connected via an 8-mile singletrack) are on the opposite side of Highway 93 from Beaver Lakes/Skyles/Lion Mountain. Accessed from Twin Bridges Road, just off the highway, this section of trail is probably best if you’re looking for some solid downhill biking. It’s the oldest section of trail, incorporating pre-existing trails and service roads into the modern WT, rather than constructing a trail from scratch, like most other sections. While North Spencer has only one short walking path, it offers seven dedicated downhill biking trails of varying levels of difficulty (novice to expert). The jumps and bridges at the end of the double black diamond track looked pretty badass to me, and I was hoping to catch some riders as we passed the trail. If you’re looking for a nice walk, this is probably the least desirable section of the WT (busy, limited route options, lots of sun exposure). However if you’re into downhilling, North Spencer’s certainly got something for everyone.
Total distance: 3.9 miles
Elevation gain: 666 feet
Murray Lake is one of the small lakes within the Beaver Lakes area of Whitefish. While there is currently no trail to the lake, a future section of the WT will connect Murray and Rainbow Lakes with the rest of the Beaver Lakes loop. For now, there are two parking lots at opposite ends of the lake that provide access to a few primitive campsites. Additionally, there’s a small path around about half of the lake (~1 mile one-way) that connects the two parking lots. With its crystal-clear water and several areas for Sanchez to gradually wade in and splash around, it was one of our favorite spots.
The next two sections of trail are not actually part of the Whitefish Trail, but are a couple of alternatives if you’re looking for some additional short hikes around the Whitefish area:
About 14 miles northwest of Whitefish via Highway 93, Round Meadows offers 12 miles of trails for cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking/biking the rest of the year. The trailhead for Round Meadows is about 3 miles off Highway 93, up Farm to Market and Star Meadow Roads on the way to Tally Lake Campground. While we found the trails at Round Meadows to be somewhat inferior to those of the WT in terms of maintenance and scenery, it was nice to just have another option to explore. While I can’t speak to the trails’ quality as cross-country ski routes, Round Meadow does offer seven trails of varying abilities (from easy to advanced).
Total distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation gain: 445 feet
Tally Lake Overlook
Though modest in size, Tally Lake is actually the deepest natural lake in Montana, with a reported maximum depth of 492 feet (150 meters). Tally Lake Campground sits at the northwestern edge of the lake, offering camping as well as a day-use beach area for swimming, boating, or picnicking.
If you’re looking for a short walk and a slightly higher vantagepoint of the lake’s sapphire water, check out Tally Lake Overlook Trail #804. It’s a short loop, but with its proximity to the campground (the trailhead’s about 0.3 miles from the entrance), it would be a nice walk for kids. If you’re driving from Whitefish, rather than staying at the campground, I can’t say it’s worth the effort; the drive is a bit long and the trail a bit short. Additionally, the beach area is pretty small, has a $5 day use fee, and dogs are not allowed on the swimming beach.
Total distance: 2.1 miles
Elevation gain: 422 feet