July 26, 2017 - Brink Kuchenbrod is Adventure Cycling's Digital Media Coordinator.
My family loves to ride. We also love western Montana, and when summer began knocking at the door, we loaded up and headed for Kalispell, Montana. We tackled Glacier National Park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, local singletrack, and a rail trail, and we kept the whole operation powered up with top-notch food, and local brew for the adults. In fact, we had such a memorable time, we plan to return to Kalispell on Bike Your Park Day, September 30.
Our first morning, we parked at the Herron Park Trailhead off Foys Lake Road, 10 minutes from Kalispell, and met our guide, Mark, from Wheaton’s Cycle. With so many trails to choose from, a good guide like Mark can quickly assess a group’s abilities and get them rolling right into the fun without any awkward, decision-by-committee moments. After pumping up the tires and having a quick chat with Mark, we climbed manageable, family-friendly grades and swooped through flowing singletrack on the Notch Trail like we knew what we were doing. Thanks, Mark!
This trail system (see the Herron Park trail map) has evolved from unplanned trails to sustainable trails suitable for many different types of recreation. Along with hikers and equestrians, you’ll find these trails have much to offer mountain bikers. If you’re feeling ambitious, head for the Chase Overlook.
The Foys To Blacktail Trails organization has increased the size of Herron Park from 120 acres to 440 acres since 2010 and continues to focus on securing public access all the way to Blacktail Mountain, five miles to the south. That will prove to be quite an amazing trail system.
After a solid morning ride, we fueled up at the Split Rock Cafe in Kalispell’s historic KM building. They serve breakfast, lunch, and great coffee in a relaxed setting with plenty of vintage furnishings.
“Roll Down the Windows!”
Get Glacier Park in your nose ...
Imagine a little puff of air at the top of a 10,000-foot mountain in Glacier National Park as the sun sets on the jagged western horizon. The evening chill cools that little puff and it starts to tumble downward on a journey like few others … making its way to your nose.
It floats down over lichen-covered sedimentary rock shoved eastward and upward 170 million years ago, down over the venerable ice of one of the park’s 25 remaining glaciers, through the long whiskers of a pika gathering plants and hiding them in talus for the winter, and combed through the soft needles of stubby, snow-impeded subalpine fir trees, their shiny, gray bark blistered with sap.
It continues its soft tumble, slipping past the dark horns of a steady-hoofed mountain goat, wafting past a patch of flowering bear grass, brushing through the coarse guard hairs of a grizzly bear feeding on huckleberries, and maybe even tickling the nose of a wolverine, lumbering past on another long-range hunt, carrion on its breath.
On its final downward slide to your nose, whitewater snowmelt splashes the puff just before it reaches you, standing there a little awestruck at your first, or 50th, sight of Glacier National Park. Then that puff wafts into your face as you take an inspired breath.
Frequent visitors, my kids know this scent, and whenever we pay a visit to Glacier Naitonal Park they clamor, “Roll down the windows!” and we all inhale a mountain-perfumed breeze you won’t encounter elsewhere.
And we needed fuel because our next stop was Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Each spring, before the road crews completely clear snow from the highest sections of the road, cyclists from all around journey to this stunning national park for car-free weekend rides on this jaw-dropping road. Monday through Friday the road crews work hard, but on the weekends cyclists come to play.
Interested in this five-star bike ride? You’ll need to enter the park at West Glacier, Montana, a beautiful 32-mile drive from downtown Kalispell. Once in the park, it’s another 17-mile drive to the often busy area of Avalanche Creek. We luckily scored a parking spot at the campground here where the road is gated and the bikes-only cycling begins.
Trust me, it’s worth it! This land boggles the mind and you’ll likely snap the family Christmas photo of your dreams. We rode about 8.5 miles up the road, which put us about one mile beyond the Loop, the dramatic switchback on the west side of this famous road. And if you look carefully in the upper left of the photo below, you’ll see the highest reaches of the still snow-clogged Going-to-the-Sun Road where it begins to reach the top of Logan Pass.
We enjoyed lovely weather in the park and felt lucky as we departed in a big, drenching storm. They say the weather changes quickly in the mountains, and this was a perfect example. Take warm clothing!
After a long day of cycling, we needed a great meal. As we shuffled into the Desoto Grill in Kalispell 10 minutes before they closed, I sheepishly asked the waitress if our late arrival was okay. She smiled and said, “No problem! Would you like some fresh strawberry lemonade? I just made it.” We were in the right place! My kids’ eyes popped when bright mason jars of lemonade arrived. And when our beautiful meals arrived, our plates looked like something you might post to Instagram. #foodstagram! Thanks, Desoto Grill.
In Columbia Falls, Montana, halfway between Kalispell and West Glacier, you’ll want to search out Montana Coffee Traders. We grabbed great deli sandwiches, and the adults loaded up on roastery-fresh coffee. Even though a crowd of customers filled this popular spot, we enjoyed quick service and great smells. Plus we grabbed a pound of Grizzly Blend coffee beans. Why not?
Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana converts abandoned railroad beds to nonmotorized recreation trails. We checked the Kalispell area rail-trail map and rode seven miles southwest out of Kalispell for a bike ride to the Smith Lake WPA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns this public land, managed for nesting geese and ducks, other migratory birds, and wildlife. You’ll find scenic spots along this car-free alternative to Highway 2 with lush green all around and snowcapped peaks in the distance. Watch out for turtles warming themselves on the pavement!
The tasting room at the Kalispell Brewing Co. is open from noon to just 8:00 PM, thanks to Montana’s rather complicated liquor laws, so don’t delay if you’re on the hunt for top-notch local brew. Located right on Kalispell’s Main Street, this is the only brewery in town and you won’t be disappointed. Bring the whole family to the relaxed-atmosphere tasting room, set the kids up with sodas, and enjoy the tasty wonders of Two Ski Brewski Pils, Rope Tow Pale Ale, or Snowslip Stout, and others, right where they're brewed.
Want a tour of the brewery? Give them a call.
You’ll want to visit Hop’s Downtown Grill for dinner. It’s great. I started to order some chicken thing and my wife said, “Hey, you can order chicken anywhere. Why don’t you order a burger ‘made from Flathead Valley born and raised, free-range, grass-fed, grass-finished beef.’” I’m not kidding, she really said all that because she was reading it from the menu. Well, burgers, beer, and bikes go together if you think like I do, so I was pretty much in my groove at Hop’s. I ordered the burger and loved every bite.
What’s so special about “grass-fed?” Corn-fed cattle tend to have the bland flavor we’re familiar with. The beef from cattle that have eaten nothing but grass has a more complex, wild flavor, like the venison from deer and elk. It’s a culinary thing worth experiencing. And in my family, we say, “Keep the game gamey and the fish fishy.” It all makes sense to us.
Our final day in Kalispell started with breakfast at Sykes Diner prior to a fun morning of cycling around town. If you’re looking for a straight-ahead, all-American breakfast, here you go — power up for the day with an omelet or pancakes bigger than your plate. Wash it all down with their famous 10-cent cup of coffee.
Food and bikes are great, but eventually you’ll need to slow it down for a little culture. Kalispell will not disappoint.
After breakfast at Sykes Diner, we hopped on our bikes and rode to our first stop. Open Monday through Friday, the Museum at Central School holds the history of the Flathead Valley. An impressive collection of Native American cultural items awaits you. Can you find the necklace made from 40 grizzly bear claws? It’s not hard to spot this tremendous piece because grizzlies have very long claws, unlike their black bear cousins.
Frank Bird Linderman, 1869–1938, spent time with Charlie Russell, learned from and befriended the native people, and the museum tells his story with artifacts and photos. And the Timber Exhibit will teach you about the tie hacks and river pigs of the early timber industry.
Need to relax in a park? Need a shady spot for a picnic? You’ll find Woodland Park east of Main Street on Woodland Ave. Lock up the bikes and stroll around. The ducks and geese will try to convince you they are VERY hungry.
After a short bike ride from Woodland Park you’ll find the Conrad Mansion, owned by the city of Kalispell. A hard worker who was in the right place at the right time, Civil War veteran Charles E. Conrad started at the bottom and eventually made his fortune in Fort Benton, Montana, with his shipping empire on the Missouri River. While moving to Spokane, fortune in hand, Conrad and his wife stopped in the Flathead Valley and were stunned. They stayed and never left its beauty. The Conrads built their mansion with every conceivable comfort available, including a laundry staff working upstairs, a kitchen staff on the main level, and a muscle-powered elevator between them to help keep a busy house running smoothly.
A tour of the mansion is worthwhile. Honestly, every place you turn in this huge, amazing house has something interesting to behold, and most of the original furnishings remain. If you love vintage furniture, you’ll be tripping over yourself. Ever seen the full mount of an albino whitetail deer?
If you love art or find Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indians interesting, you’ll want to ride your bike over to visit the nearby Hockaday Museum of Art. Find the Crown of the Continent Glacier National Park Gallery and relive your time in the park through the eyes of these artists. When we visited, Manel Alvarez had a special exhibit for his work inspired by Montana, Native American tribes, and the West called “Step by Step.”
Photos 1–4 and 6–15 by Tom Robertson | Photos 5, 16–19 Brink Kuchenbrod
Bike Your Park Day Bike to or within nearby parks and public lands with thousands of people around the country on the same day — Bike Your Park Day on September 30, 2017. Bring friends and family to join the ride and discover the outdoor adventures in your backyard. Make it your own experience: ride any distance; go with friends, family, or join a group; bike on trails or roads. Visit a national or state park, monument, historic site, river, seashore, recreation area, preserve, forest, wildlife refuge, or parkway. #BikeYourPark