Whitefish Legacy Partners broke ground last week on a new section of the Whitefish Trail that is expected to be the beginning of closing the loop of the trail around Whitefish Lake.
About 25 folks representing various partners in the project grabbed golden shovels, rakes and Pulaskis to dig a little dirt during a celebration at what will become the Lower Haskill Trailhead. The Haskill Basin section of trail is expected to be finished in October.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” Alan Myers-Davis, Director of Development for WLP, said. “It’s been four years since we broke ground on a new section of the trail. The feeling we’ve had from the community through that time is, we want more.”
The trail will connect Whitefish to Whitefish Mountain Resort with 5.5 miles of new trail, accessed by two new trailheads, as part of the first of four phase of the Close the Loop project.
A half mile up Reservoir Road by the city of Whitefish water treatment facility is the spot that will become a parking lot with 28 spaces and the starting point for the Lower Haskill Trailhead.
Legacy Partners Executive Director Heidi Van Everen outlined the project. She said the parking lot is bigger than the lot at the Lion Mountain Trailhead because the new spot is so close to the town. She said Legacy Partners also hopes to extend the city’s bike path from Wisconsin Avenue to encourage biking and walking access to the trail.
Near the parking lot will be a small park area with an interpretative trail including informational kiosks. Signs will explain the history of the property as the original Baker family homestead including pointing out a historic chimney and stonewall that still remain.
“We wanted to create a place where people can stay and sit at picnic tables or sit by Viking Creek,” Van Everen said. “A place for people to stay and hang out or if they want to head up the trail and hike, they can do that too.”
The trail crosses from city property to a conservation easement on Iron Horse property before traveling across F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. property that is part of the Haskill Basin conservation easement and then connects with Whitefish Mountain Resort property.
Roughly 1.5 miles up the trail, is planned for an overlook that will provide views of Whitefish Lake, the Flathead Valley and across the Haskill Basin watershed. Further up the main trail at about 3.5 miles, a spur trail on a boardwalk will head over a wetland area to a deck that will have views of the Whitefish Range.
“It’s exciting to have that as a destination,” Van Everen said. “We always try to have a destination within about a mile of the trailhead so there’s a place people can hike to and stop.”
The upper trailhead will be on Big Mountain Road on resort property just above Lookout Ridge. The upper trailhead will also have groomed Nordic skiing trails to access existing groomed trails in Haskill Basin.
Funding for the project costs came from $150,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, $90,000 from the Montana Recreation Trails Program, and $11,333 from the Flathead National Forest Resource Advisory Council. A $200,000 match was raised locally through the Haskill Match Community Challenge.
“We had such an incredible response from the community to raise that match in a short amount of time,” Van Everen said. “That also sets aside funds for future maintenance — this supports all pieces of the puzzle.”
A major component of the section of trail is the Haskill Basin conservation easement, which was finished in 2016, on Stoltze property. The easement prevents future development of Whitefish’s main watershed in an agreement involving the city, Stoltze, The Trust for Public Land, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The easement preserves Stoltze’s land as working forest land while also allowing for recreation access.
Mayor John Muhlfeld said for decades there has been discussion about permanently protecting the area.
“This area provides many amenities including recreation,” he said. “It’s also critical for Whitefish as 90 percent of the city’s water supply comes from Haskill Basin.”
Muhlfeld acknowledge the work of the late Alex Diekmann, who through his role as project manager for The Trust for Public Land, largely orchestrated the Haskill Basin conservation easement. Diekmann secured the initial $9 million in funding for the $20 million deal. A memorial for Diekmann, who died last year from cancer, will be located near the Lower Haskill Trailhead.
There are four phases remaining in WLP’s efforts to close the loop. The nonprofit behind the trail is aiming to complete the entire loop that would create a network of trail through the forestland beside Beaver, Dollar and Woods lakes west of town sweeping north to Swift Creek, then climbing up the lower flanks of Big Mountain into Hellroaring Basin before traversing below Elk Highlands to Haskill Basin and back into town.
An application for a conservation easement for the second phase of the project has been submitted to the state.
The Whitefish Trail already includes 36 miles of trail and 10 trailheads.
For more information, visit www.whitefishlegacy.org or call 862-3880.