Flathead Lake and Surrounding Areas
Known for its natural beauty and plethora of outdoor adventures, Northwest Montana is home to many stunning wilderness areas such as the famous Glacier National Park. Another must-see destination in this scenic corner of Montana is Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Located just 7 miles south of Kalispell, and 30 miles from Glacier National Park, the naturally-formed Flathead Lake covers 197 square miles and is world-renowned for its clean and clear waters. Reaching depths of over 350 feet in some places, the pristine body of water is fed by both the Flathead River and Swan River. Picture perfect with its crystal clear waters and views of the nearby Mission, Salish, and Swan Mountains, the lake is also a major recreation area—popular for boating, fishing, hiking, swimming and camping.
Spanning approximately 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, Flathead Lake has plenty of shoreline to explore. 13 public access points on the lake are maintained by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), many offering boat launches, fishing access, camping facilities, beaches, picnic areas and restrooms. The lake is easily accessed from one of the scenic highways running alongside it, U.S. Highway 93 to the west and Route 35 to the east. Plan on several hours to navigate the drive around the lake so you can enjoy the views and charming small towns along the way. Be sure to stop at one of the farms along the eastern shores to try the locally grown Flathead Lake Cherries.
Another popular way to explore the shores of Flathead Lake is by boat. The area has plenty of boat rentals, both motorized and human powered. Paddlers can explore the Flathead Lake Marine Trail, a “mapped trail” of suggested routes between lake access points and features (with options for all experience levels) taking paddlers along the lake’s waterways and most scenic sites. It is also commonplace to see a number of sailboats on Flathead Lake—thanks to the frequently windy conditions and memorable views. The lake features several islands that are only accessible by boat, including the largest of the islands, Wildhorse Island. The 2,000+ acre state park is abundant with wildlife including bighorn sheep and, of course, a few of its namesake wild horses.
Flathead Lake has several deep water areas known for solid trout fishing, notably near the lakeside towns of Big Fork and Somers. Native trout species include westslope cutthroat and bull trout. The lake’s native fish species have been threatened by the growing population of lake trout that were first introduced to the area in the early 1900s. The annual Mack Days lake trout fishing contest encourages participants to catch the invasive Mackinaw lake trout (weighing as much as 20 lbs) as they try to preserve the lake’s natural ecosystem. Other fish that can be found in Flathead Lake include pike, whitefish, bass, salmon and perch. Anglers fishing the southern half of Flathead Lake will need to purchase a tribal fishing permit in addition to a state fishing license, as the location is within the Flathead Reservation.
For even more fly fishing opportunities, the nearby Flathead River (which drains into the lake) offers anglers a good chance at catching Montana’s state fish, the westslope cutthroat trout. For more remote and low pressure fishing, anglers should explore the North, Middle and South Forks of the river.
Whether it’s your ultimate destination, or you’re just passing through on a road trip to Glacier National Park, the breathtaking natural beauty of Flathead Lake is not soon to be forgotten. For more Northwest Montana outdoor adventures, Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest are within a few hours drive of Flathead Lake. Visitors can also explore the amenities of nearby towns such as Kalispell, Bigfork, and Polson. A few of Western Ranch Brokers favorites things to do in the area are highlighted below:
- Get your cultural fix at the Hockaday Museum of Art or the Conrad Mansion Museum.
- Stroll the many shops and art galleries along Main Street in downtown Kalispell.
- Enjoy a local brew at Bias Brewing or SunRift Beer Company.
- Hike or mountain bike the trails at nearby Herron Park.
- Ski or mountain bike depending on the season at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
- Horseback ride in Lone Pine State Park for sweeping views of the Flathead Valley.
- Watch the sunset over the rocky shores of Flathead Lake at Wayfarers State Park.
- Play 9 holes at Eagle Bend Golf Club, designed by Jack Nicklaus.
- Quench your thirst at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. or Whistling Andy’s Distillery.
- Enjoy live entertainment at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts or al fresco at Sliter Memorial Park.
- Walk the boardwalk at Salish Kootenai Dam (formerly Kerr Dam) for views of the 204 ft waterfall, higher than Niagara falls.
- See the wildlife at the National Bison Range, home to over 300 bison.
- Whitewater raft the Flathead River’s class II and class III rapids.
- Time your visit to check out the annual Flathead Cherry Festival in July.
- Explore indoors at the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum or the Miracle of America Museum.
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