The Economic Impact of Outdoor Recreation and the Whitefish Trail in Whitefish, Montana

Place: Whitefish


In Whitefish, Montana, outdoor recreation is the most important reason why residents stay and visitors come to the community. On the Whitefish Trail, 22,000 annual uses by visitors (30% of total use) generates $3.6 million in spending and supports 68 jobs.


This study is relevant for those interested in understanding the impact of a specific trail on the local economy and quality of life. This study also is relevant for those interested in how to measure trail use across a complex trail network with numerous trailheads.


This study is based in Whitefish, Montana.

Trail Type

The Whitefish Trail is a 42-mile network of trails for hiking, biking, and equestrian use on the outskirts of Whitefish, Montana.


The purpose of this study was to help Whitefish Legacy Partners, which manages the Whitefish Trail, better understand the role the Whitefish Trail plays in local quality of life and the broader outdoor recreation economy. Whitefish Legacy Partners has used this information to help increase their support from local businesses, government, and residents.

The study was funded by Whitefish Legacy Partners, the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Kendeda Fund.


  • Nearly 73,000 trail uses occur annually on the Whitefish Trail, 70% of which are by locals.
  • Outdoor recreation is the most important reason why visitors come to Whitefish and why residents stay in the community.
  • The Whitefish Trail contributes $6.4 million in annual spending by visitors who come to enjoy the trail and by residents who purchase or rent outdoor gear at local stores. Spending by visitors who use the Whitefish Trail translates to 68 additional jobs and $1.9 million in labor income in Whitefish.
  • Spending by people visiting Whitefish mainly for outdoor recreation in the area amounts to approximately $101 million, 1,460 jobs, and $41.1 million in labor income annually.
  • Visitors whose primary purpose for coming to Whitefish tend to spend more ($278 per day versus $222) and stay in the area longer (5.8 days versus 4.2 days per trip).
  • More than half of residents surveyed report exercising more since the Whitefish Trail was built.
  • Local residents who report using the Whitefish Trail during the previous year spent twice as much as non-trail users during the previous year: $1,403 versus $660 for non-trail users.


The authors estimated trail use using a combination of four infrared trail counters and Strava data to estimate trail use where the infrared counters were not installed. The authors also conducted occasional manual counts to determine the infrared counters’ accuracy.

The authors conducted surveys of trail users at the four most popular trailheads. Non-trail users were interviewed at two gas stations and two downtown street corners. The survey instruments had separate sets of questions for locals and visitors. Questions for locals addressed the role the Whitefish Trail plays in quality of life. Questions for visitors addressed spending and the role the Whitefish Trail and other outdoor recreation plays in attracting visitors to the area.


Headwaters Economics. 2018. The Economic Impact of Outdoor Recreation and the Whitefish Trail in Whitefish, Montana. Prepared for Whitefish Legacy Partners; Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bozeman, Montana: Headwaters Economics.