This blog is part of a six part series of hikes in and around the Whitefish area in coordination with Explore Whitefish. Check out their website at https://explorewhitefish.com to find out more ways to explore the area, things to do, places to stay, and how you can recreate responsibly while visiting.
The Whitefish Trail system is a wonderful collection of trails surrounding Whitefish Lake and provides access to a variety of terrains for all kinds of trail activities. This community-driven effort through the Whitefish Legacy Partners is a great model for how a community can come together and work with public and private partners to create outdoor spaces for a community.
One such section of trail starts at the quiet Swift Creek where it loops through tall trees giving you an overlook of the creek itself. A connector trail gives you an option to go up through an open area to the serene Smith Lake tucked up in the hillside.
I met Dan from Explore Whitefish at the Smith Lake trailhead where we left my car and headed down to the Swift Creek trailhead. We left the wide parking lot at Swift Creek and descended into the cool, dark forest. Large trees towered above the understory that was changing from green to colors of gold, orange, and red.
The mostly level trail loops through the forest and we headed left to do it clockwise. As forest birds chirped and chickadees “dee-dee’d” we worked our way over to the edge of the bench we were on. Below us rose up large cottonwoods that get flooded in the spring with runoff. Now they were just starting to turn fall colors. We were a bit early for their golden glow.
Not long after traversing through the forest, we reached our first spur to an overlook of Swift Creek which chattered far below. Distant hillsides showed larches that were just beginning to turn. We returned to the trail and continued on to a trail junction on an old road. A right would have brought us back to our car, but we took a left to head up to Smith Lake.
The trail continued to parallel the creek and we got one more glance at it at an overlook before we climbed up through the forest to a recently logged area. A not-so-distant windstorm had knocked down quite a few trees and, now cleared, opened up a new habitat. This drier landscape was further along in the fall foliage race and featured more colors and ample views. Tree squirrels warily eyed us from opposite sides of tree trunks and barked at us as we walked on by.
The trail crosses a dirt road then switchbacks up the hillside. The cleared trees and increase in elevation gain gives new vantages to wooded hillsides stretching out far into the distance. Once on the top of this ridge, we cruised along a trail giving cool views into draws and dips along its folded top.
As we approached the lake, we first came to a marshy area where the trail circled around it, then climbed up to the ridge that hemmed in the lake. The inlet and the outlet of the lake are at the far end, but at this end a variety of forest birds from the crossbills at the top of the canopy to the nuthatches hopping in the trees right above our heads to the song sparrows kept us entertained.
After enjoying the lake at the lake level, we finished our climb up along the western edge of the lake where a flat meadow opened up to our right. To our left the tall trees followed the slope all the way down to the lake. Just before the trailhead, I took a steep social trail that worked down to the edge of the lake to observe some waterfowl and get photos of the calm water.
I also visited a few other trails in the system that visit small lakes, travel over ridges, stop at overlooks, and just generally give you a variety of ways to get into the woods. Check out more at the Whitefish Trail page to get a map and see the goodness!