Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Big Mountain Ski Resort (Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain), Whitefish, Montana

Summit Trail
Getting There:
From Kalispell Montana, head north on US Hwy. 93 towards Whitefish. In downtown Whitefish, take a left to stay on 93. Take a right on Baker Ave. (signs for either Big Mountain or Whitefish Mountain Resort). Go about 2.5 miles, and take a right on Big Mountain Rd. Drive all the way up the road until you reach the mountain village.  Park somewhere near the chalet, or maybe higher up, depending on the crowding and whether or not you're forced to pay to park.

The Route:
If the chairlift is running, ride that up and then choose your line down.  Otherwise, you're going to need to climb the Summit Trail, which is an 8 mile climb up, and a sweet 8 mile ride back down!  Runaway Train is about a 4.5 mile drop back to the base of the mountain.  There are trail maps around, so pick one up, or check it out online here.  Also, there is a network of cross country trails around the village.  Read the description below and check out the trail maps for more info.  Whatever you do, don't ride the Danny On trail!  That is hikers only (and would be a wicked-steep climb).

All About the Trail:
Full disclosure: when I mountain biked Big Mountain (now called Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain), the only trail that I rode was the Summit Trail. Runaway Train had not yet been built, the lifts were closed for the season, and I didn’t have the skills to ride any of the serious freeride stunts.

Older Jumps and Log Berms
Ok good that’s out of the way, now on to the review. As I just stated, the lifts were closed when I rode Big Mountain. However, when the lifts are running, Big Mountain sports the only lift served mountain biking for hundreds of miles. Montana is a big place, so Big Mtn. naturally has a local corner on the market. Despite the lack of competition, they have been pushing the envelope with their mountain biking programs. When I originally rode Big Mtn., the Summit trail was the main staple, with several shorter black diamond spurs going off of it, with some big stunts (wall rides, wooden tabletops, etc.), as well as some slower North Shore style skinnies. Since then, they have constructed a jump laden downhill trail named "Runaway Train" with "more than 29 berms, six rock drops, one rock wall ride, three natural terrain wall rides, more than 24 jumps of varying sizes, one large technical section of single track near the top, and a “flowy” section on Russ’s Street at the end." (From here.)

I have not had the opportunity to ride that trail, although I have seen pictures and it looks incredible! (Click here for some pictures, and browse the other summer months for more.)The resort put a lot of work into building this new trail, and like I said they are taking local lift served mountain biking to brand new levels. By the way, this new trail was built after the buy-out (hence the switch from Big Mountain to Whitefish Mountain Resort). So for the mountain bikers, the commercialization is bringing in better trails. Really, was the buy-out all that bad then?

Moving on. What I did ride was the Summit Trail. It climbs 8 miles from the parking lot to the summit of the mountain (so they named it the “Summit Trail”). For the vast majority of its length, the trail was anything but epic singletrack. It was built very wide, and it does accommodate traffic going up and down. However, rated on the basis of the narrowness and construction ethos of the trail, it leaves much to be desired. However, there are many well built switchbacks and turns along the length of the trail, which somewhat make up for its excessive width.

Well what’s the one benefit of a fairly wide, fairly straight trail with bermed corners? The answer: speed. And lots of it. Even riding my fully rigid steel-framed Giant, I was able to fly on my way back down that trail to the base of the mountain! This was my first real ride in the mountains, and despite the lack of high-quality trail, it still ranked as the best ride down a hill I had ever taken on dirt! The sporadic roots and rocks on the mostly smooth trail made for great air opportunities taken at speed on the way down. It was an awesome descent!

The Summit Trail’s biggest saving grace has to be the incredible views! The Flathead Valley is definitely God’s country! Since the trail crisscrosses many of the ski runs as it winds up the mountain, it affords amazing views of the valley that are hidden on most other trails by the deep northwestern forests. Bring a camera and prepare to be amazed!

There are even more trails on Big Mountain that aren't included in this reveiw. I have heard that there is a great network of cross country oriented singletrack around the base of the resort. No I have not ridden this, but when I make it back out to Montana to visit it is most definitely on my to do list!

One final note: this is Montana. The riding out here is wild stuff, with many of the rides starting on gravel mountain roads 15-30 miles from the nearest highway. The loops then extend 5-30+ miles away from that point. What I’m saying is that many of these rides are “out there.” Preparation and supplies should include some basic survival gear. The trails at Big Mountain see a lot more traffic, and are patrolled during the main summer season. If you are looking for a ride in the area that requires less commitment and preparation, I would suggest starting here at the resort.

Bottom line: The only lift served mountain biking for hundreds of miles. If you’re bringing the big hit bike and don’t want to shuttle or pedal, Big Mountain is the place to be!

What are your experiences with riding at Big Mountain? Do you have any more info about the trails that I haven’t ridden? If so, please share it!


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Greg Heil is the Editor in Chief for He's been writing and publishing online since before blogging existed.

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