For me, gravel riding hits a certain sweet spot. It’s not overly technical, nor is it boring. I can be both pilot and passenger at the same time, which is a perfect mix when I’m covering serious mileage out on the extensive spider web of gravel roads connecting to Whitefish.
If I were to zoom out and look down at the topography of our region, two areas stand out for their superb scenery and gravel: the North Fork drainage along the western flank of Glacier National Park and the Whitefish Range, further west. These parallel features extend north, clear to the Canadian border, offering an entire spectrum of “mixed surface” rides, from wide, well-maintained roads to thin overgrown doubletrack. They follow the myriad rivers, streams and mountain passes that meander all around this remote, raw and beautiful landscape. As gravel cycling and bikepacking have caught on locally, cyclists have pioneered several classic routes, but with an area so immense, your imagination is the only limitation to what’s possible.
One popular gravel destination is Polebridge, a rustic outpost located just over 40 miles north of Whitefish up the North Fork of the Flathead River, just outside the Glacier National Park entrance leading to Bowman and Kintla Lakes. There are several gravel routes to get you there, but the goal is the same: to sink your teeth into a famous huckleberry bear claw from the Polebridge Mercantile. The panoramic views come straight out of a postcard. Whether you decide to spend an overnight, do a one-way shuttle or commit to a longer loop back to Whitefish, the two main corridors follow either the eastern side of the Whitefish range along the Outside North Fork Road, or the west side, which takes you up-and-over gorgeous Red Meadow Pass via Upper Whitefish Lake Road.
Another popular ride out of Polebridge is the Inside North Fork Road, a decommissioned, heavily eroded gravel gem meandering one of the wilder parts of Glacier National Park. I’ve heard wolves howl on this seldom-traveled road littered with berry-infused bear scat. (For that reason, I stay particularly alert and always have my bear spray handy.) If you ride it south, you can punch out at Fish Creek Campground, take a dip in Lake McDonald and treat yourself to an ice cream in Apgar Village.
The gravel truly seems endless, and with the quality of the scenery and roads it’s no surprise that Whitefish hosts two “gravel grinders” to test your mettle on the dirt—the Joe Cosley Pancake Ride (pancakeride.com) and the Last Best Ride (thelastbestridemt.com).
Whether you’re a serious cyclist looking to get in your type-two-fun or just starting to explore what lies beyond the tarmac, the greater Whitefish area has something for everyone and you’ll have no problem finding a quality ride and that gravel sweet spot for you.
Travel is certainly different right now. If you choose to make the trip to Whitefish, be sure to check and observe the local health guidelines, recreate responsibly, and review COVID-19 protocols. More details can be found at ExploreWhitefish.com and WhitefishCovidCares.com.