Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Camping at the WBR

One of the highlights of our family’s recent camping vacay in Montana and Idaho was a short stay at the Whitefish Bike Retreat (WBR), a gem of a spot about 10 miles northwest of this ski-resort town in northwest Montana. The WBR opened in 2013 and has been growing steadily, catering to mountain bikers and touring cyclists alike. The location is key: the WBR is trailside lodging for the terrific Whitefish Trail system, 26 miles of smooth single track; it’s only a minor detour off the Adventure Cycling Association’s popular Northern Tier route; and it’s also close enough to the Tour Divide route that Divide riders have been known to swing by for visit. The WBR has a bunk lodge where you can sleep in a bed and cook in a communal kitchen, but we opted for the camping.

The bunk lodge
I can’t recall how I first heard about the WBR—possibly through the ACA. While bike-first accommodations like the WBR are beginning to pop up across the US, usually along well-worn touring routes, the WBR is a bit unusual in that mountain biking seems to be the main draw. The Whitefish Trail is a 5-minute ride from the retreat, along a swoopy little connector, and it’s a well-maintained, clearly marked squiggle of fun in the forest. I’m generally not much for mountain biking, but I sure had a blast booting around one small part of the WT for a day.

The previous night we had camped at a KOA near West Glacier, and what a contrast. The KOA gave me the creeps. It was pristine, highly manicured but too clean, too perfect. The gravel was meticulously raked; mulch was prevalent; every surface of every structure had the shit painted out of it. And the whole enterprise was presided over by a small army of fanatical yellow-shirted KOA attendants. It was one of the more cultish-feeling KOA’s I’ve been to, and the cult is entirely focused around the RV. (We tented at one of the half dozen remaining tent-centric sites.) Like a lot of KOA’s, the place was a soul-less, tree-less, parking lot.

The WBR, however, offers a different kind--my kind--of camping. The sites are a bit wilder, shaggier. You feel like you’re in a forest, not a holding area. The balance between nature and humans feels a little more even. There are only about 10 sites (versus the hundred plus at KOA), nicely spaced apart and most of them tent-friendly and partially shaded. I wouldn’t call it rustic, though. The still-new-feeling bath house facilities are impressively clean and comfortable—and not in that sterile KOA way.

Our Site #2
But the big difference, of course, is how almost everything at the WBR is focused on the bicycle, not the RV. Sure, most people get to the WBR by car or truck, but the bike is why they come. And the folks at WBR have done a lot to cater to their cycling clientele: they offer not just rentals on site but also have a slick little pump track in the centre of the camping area, two bike wash stations, a cycling themed rustic disc golf course, and an office/store that sells classic cycling snacks like sleeves of Oreos and twin packs of Pop Tarts.

Disc golf, anyone?
Not that you have to be a cyclist to stay at or enjoy the WBR. The Whitefish Trail is multi-use and I saw a few groups of hikers plodding along. And I know that in the winter (the lodge is open year-round) the bunks are filled with cross-country skiers (and fat-bikers, of course). Really anyone who hates KOA camping would probably like the WBR.

The place just has a cool vibe. “Retreat” may sound a bit pretentious, at first, but it really is the right word for this place that is more than just somewhere to sleep between bike rides. Everything that word implies—escape, re-charging, re-connecting—feels entirely possible at a spot like this.

The hammock says it all
The biggest surprise for me was how family friendly the WBR turned out to be. When we were there, most of the sites were occupied by families with kids who loved the place. The pump track was the hang out of choice for all the kids. My boys spent hours there, both riding the track alone and playing with new friends they made on the dirt. There also seemed to be a class offered there, where a bunch of the kids staying at the retreat rode the trails in a group with an instructor each day. One kid I talked to said he was staying there all summer. Lucky kid.     

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