I have a confession to make: I only saw Glacier National Park from the window of a train. I have a theory though, that outside of actually hiking the entire park, the best view might actually be from the train. Unlike the major roadway through the park, the train is cut into the sides of the hills providing a totally unique view of both the valleys and the mountains.
In as much as the view from the train was incredible, I was bummed that I wasn’t able to see the park--but weather conditions would have made it less than fun and, on a bike, potentially dangerous. The route that I was originally going to see (with the generous help of Ranger Tim Rains from the National Park Service) is called the Going to the Sun Road. In peak months the road is apparently packed with tourists in cars so it’s difficult to see by bike, making late spring the ideal time to visit. I have to say, even without heading into the park, Whitefish was a really fun place to spend a couple of days and its transportation planning an interesting juxtaposition with that of the Twin Cities. In Whitefish, with its abundance of trails and scenery, biking, particularly mountain biking, is a natural fit for the city. While tourists have come to Whitefish for years to bike, in the past few there has been a marked uptick in the attention paid to this resource by the local community. The first taste I got of this was in my conversation with Cricket, owner of Whitefish Bike Retreat about 7 miles from town. When she first opened up four years ago, she was the only staff member and ran a shuttle, did all the maintenance, and all of the clerical work. Four years later, those long days have paid off and she has expanded; now catering to travelers from all over the world with her unique setting and variety of on property trails.
A business like hers has a much easier time, though, when the biking infrastructure is in place in the city and the community considers it a priority. I got a chance to try to understand way the greater Whitefish community thinks about bike plans in a meetup at a coffee shop with several local advocates, city officials and representatives from the parks and recreation department. The meetup was entirely facilitated by Dylan from the Whitefish Convention & Visitors Bureau, and I am so grateful that all of these people took the time to meet with me because they offered considerable insight into the direction the city is moving. It became quickly apparent that the community is extremely passionate about biking, which has led to the development of several different advocacy organizations that have over the years constructed their own trails through fundraising and grants. What is difficult about these trails though is the financing for upkeep. As the network rapidly expands, the burden frequently falls to the parks and rec department which is not equipped to support all this new infrastructure. I had never before considered how much planning for maintenance is necessary; and simultaneously, how what might be most critical in any community sponsored project is continued long term support. Another really fun thing I got to learn about at this meetup are plans to start a bikeshare program, an effort headed by local high school students. It was so encouraging to hear about the ambitious plans these kids have in store, though I'll admit I started to feel like a little bit of a slacker :) It was also hard to not draw parallels between Whitefish and Normal, Illinois, both small towns who are committed to providing bike access (though Normal's bikeshare is unconfirmed at this point) for varying reasons.
After the coffee shop meetup, I got to go on a very chilly tour of the bike friendly paths in Whitefish. There are a surprising number of different routes and allocated cycle tracks, which is a really wonderful thing. What becomes an issue is that they are distinct paths, at times very unconnected, or simply connected in an extremely confusing way. Getting to actually experience the bike infrastructure was really useful because I later that day I attended a community meeting for the Bike and Pedestrian plan. Unlike many of the community meetings I have gone to, this was interactive, almost like a dynamic survey. Community members gathered around maps of the city with existing bike and pedestrian paths. They then were directed to designate where they would choose to expand the existing routes, where they felt unsafe and or disliked biking and where they think routes need to be added. Observing the different groups it was encouraging to see debate and agreement in equal parts, with people tending towards excited as opposed to indignant or frustrated.
I am sad I didn't get to go into Glacier Park, but I spent two amazing days with beautiful scenery, and incredibly passionate people. All I can hope is that I get the chance to go back very, very soon.