With abundant wildlife and stunning scenery at every turn, Northwestern Montana must have been the inspiration for the nickname, “The Treasure State.” This small slice of heaven contains some of the most beautiful tourist attractions in the nation. In addition to the natural beauty of the area, there must be something in the cool, clean water, because the locals are just plain friendly – quick to share a story and a hand shake.
Townsfolk in the areas surrounding Flathead Lake are no exception. For the ultimate in summertime vacationing, Flathead Lake delivers a friendly, relaxed vibe, a flurry of recreational activity, and a spectacular landscape. Flanked by the majestic Swan and Mission Mountain Ranges, the setting couldn’t be more beautiful. Lying just south of Kalispell, travelers flock to Montana’s largest lake to engage in outdoor activities like camping, fishing, swimming, boating, kayaking, water skiing, hiking and pure, unadulterated enjoyment of the fresh, open air.
Filled with over 200 square miles of water and circled by roughly 185 miles of shoreline, Flathead is the largest, natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the lower 48 of the United States. For its size, this pristine, freshwater lake is claimed to be one of the cleanest in developed parts of the world. Two highways skirt along Flathead Lake’s east and west shorelines – Montana Highway 35 on the east side and U. S. Highway 93 on the west. Twelve scenic public access sites, maintained by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, surround this massive lake. These sites include:
RV and trailer hookups, bathrooms and boat launches are available at all except Ducharme (RV/trailer hookups only), Wild Horse Island (bathrooms only) and Yellow Bay (no RV/trailer hookups). Big Arm State Park, Finley Point State Park, Wayfarers State Park, West Shore State Park, and Yellow Bay also offer water facilities and tent camping. Wild Horse Island State Park is only accessible by boat and is for day use only. Because the southern half of Flathead Lake is located within the reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, visitors must purchase a tribal recreation permit and special fishing license for this area.
Due to its proximity to Canada, the climate of “the Flathead,” as locals call the entire valley, is unexpected. The Salish Range and massive Mission Mountains provide refuge from cold winds. Also, thermal effects from the lake help to generate somewhat balmy temperatures year round. This might explain why the area is so frequented by loyal, Canadian visitors. In winter, temperatures typically range from 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and summer temperatures usually vary between 70 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit - absolutely ideal for visitors from any part of the world.
Dyed-in-the-wool anglers will revel in fishing Flathead Lake and the two large tributaries that bring a constant supply of clear, fresh water - the Flathead and the Swan Rivers. Those who are looking to wow friends and family with the ultimate “fish story” may want to forego casting a line from the shore and charter a fishing boat, but be prepared for a fight. It’s not uncommon to land an enormous lake trout (or mackinaw).
Additional fish that can be found in Flathead include various types of trout (brook, brown, bull, cutthroat, golden and rainbow), along with perch, pike, whitefish and bass – both largemouth and smallmouth. Of roughly 25 species of fish found in the Flathead River-Lake ecosystem, 10 are native and 15 have been introduced.
All types of watercraft can be found on the waters of Flathead – motorboats, sailboats, paddleboats, canoes and kayaks. Most, if not all, are available for charter or rental at various locations, and thrill-seeking recreationists may want to try out a paddleboard or a jet ski.
On opposite shores of the lake, two golf courses deliver magnificent scenery and stimulating play. Open to the public since 1938, visitors love to golf the Polson Bay Country Club course which offers supreme value with a knowledgeable, yet friendly atmosphere. With twenty-seven challenging holes that provide breathtaking lake and mountain views, this is the only golf course with fairways adjacent to the Flathead Lake shore.
Located on the north shore of the lake is the Eagle Bend Golf Club, a 27-hole championship course. The original 18 holes were designed and built by William Hull, and the remaining nine holes were conceived by Nicklaus Design and opened in 1995. Ranked among the top 50 in the United States by Golf Digest, the course features carefully-groomed fairways, superb greens and an exceptional practice facility, not to mention stunning views of the lake, the Swan Mountains and Glacier National Park.
Springtime at the lake brings an explosion of fluffy white blossoms from the numerous cherry orchards lining the Flathead shore. During the summer months of July and August, a number of roadside stands dot the lake perimeter offering cherries for sale. Even the most diehard carnivore will not be able to resist just-ripe, sweet and juicy Flathead cherries. They can be purchased already picked, or individuals can pick their own in most orchards for the utmost in freshness and fun.
Noted in the diaries of explorer John Mullan, local Indians once used Flathead’s largest island for safekeeping of horses that might otherwise have been stolen by rival tribes. The 2,164 acres of extraordinary habitat is now home to five wild mares (four of which were transplanted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and one surprising island native, born shortly after her mother arrived).
Over 75 species of birds including eagles, geese, herons and osprey inhabit the island along with bears, bighorn sheep, coyotes and mule deer. Rare plant species have been discovered on the island’s Palouse Prairie grassland, and there is an abundance of old-growth ponderosa pine. To the delight of hikers, observation trails wind through and around the island, and the scenic shoreline is beloved by swimmers, sailing enthusiasts and kayakers.
Kerr Dam is located in Polson at the outlet of the lake on the southern end. Measuring 204 feet, the arch-variety, concrete dam stands taller than Niagara Falls, and during the late spring, the spillway is awe-inspiring. With the help of a 1,000-foot boardwalk, visitors are allowed a spot just above the falls to take in spectacular views of the canyon. Recreationists can enjoy a full day of fun at Kerr Dam with white-water rafting, fishing and an afternoon picnic.
Situated at the southern tip of the lake is the town of Polson which delivers spectacular, panoramic views of the Mission Mountain range. Its location on the lake makes it the ideal venue for summertime recreation. Attractions include the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum, the popular Cove Pizza and the Best Western Kwataqnuk Resort and Casino. Warm-weather, community events include the Polson Fairground's Banquet and Cowboy Ball in April, the Gimme Golf Tournament in June, the Flathead Cherry Festival in July and the Cruisen by the Bay Car Show in August.
Fittingly named the “Village by the Bay,” Bigfork is nestled where the Swan River meets the lake. Known as a key arts community, this picturesque little town offers entertaining live theatre, a host of art galleries, open-air cafes and delicious, farm-to-table restaurants. Among the exciting annual events in Bigfork are the Festival of the Arts in August and the Tamarack Times Festival in October. Visitors may want to stop in for an adult beverage at the favorite local beer joint, the Garden Bar, located downtown on Electric Avenue, or check out the Barn Antiques store, situated on Hill Road, outside of town.
Neighboring communities on the bay, Lakeside and Somers are located on the northwest shore of the lake, just eight miles south of Kalispell. These quaint villages offer year round recreation, from swimming, sailing and boating to snowboarding and skiing at Blacktail Mountain.
Beautiful Northwestern Montana is not just for summer recreationists. Far above the lake in the Mountains near Somers, Blacktail Ski Area delivers 13 miles of terrain, 24 trails and 70 acres of gladed-tree skiing in the Flathead National Forest. Skiers can take a ride on any of three chairlifts, while enjoying views of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. Blacktail’s lodge offers fine dining in Muley’s 3rd-floor restaurant and a cafeteria for more affordable fare.
Check out downtown Bigfork for great shopping. A variety of boutiques, galleries and gift shops line the main drag, Electric Avenue. Although it is only four blocks long, there is a lot to see. Twin Birch Square is a pine-log shopping mall with two levels of shops filled with beautiful hand-crafted works from artists all over the country. The Canadian government’s limit increase for cross-border shopping has been greatly appreciated from merchants around the lake, as Canadian visitors have become an important economic resource.
Once upon a time, lakefront property at Flathead was the “best kept secret” for variety at affordable prices, in comparison to other big lakes. However, the secret is getting out. The list of famous lake residents includes former NBA coach Phil Jackson and former NFL footballer-turned commentator, Howie Long. Other famous people spotted around the lake include Courtney Cox, Elle McPherson and Tom Celic.
People considering a Flathead lakefront property can truly live the life of their dreams in this beautiful setting. Current real estate for sale on the lake would be regarded as mostly developed. Available are vacation homes, luxury lakefront homes, cabins, condominiums and a few unimproved land or property sites.
One favorite warm-weather activity is a boat tour of spectacular, luxury homes along the shoreline. Locals are happy to give an opinion of the best areas.
Located on the western shore of Flathead Lake in Dayton, this is a family-owned business, as are many along the lake. The winery’s Montana vines produce pinot noir, pinot gris and small amounts of chardonnay, gewurztraminer and riesling. Grapes for other types of wine are grown in the Rattlesnake Hills of Washington. The winery’s tasting room is open from May through October, from 10am to 5pm daily.
Boaters can tie up in Wood’s Bay at the Duck’s convenient dock and head on inside for a beer or a cocktail. A relaxed atmosphere includes the snap and sizzle of a roaring fire paired with mounted caribou, elk, moose and mountain lion. The saloon also offers dinner or appetizers for hungry boaters and other patrons.
Situated on the beautiful northwest shore, The Docks is the only restaurant with views of the Swan and Mission Mountains. Convenient boat docking is available, and there is plentiful parking for visitors arriving by car. A comfortable waterside deck and two bars provide a relaxed ambience, and a sizeable dinner menu offers something for everyone at reasonable prices. If that weren’t enough, the pavilion features live soloists and bands appearing throughout the summer.
Enjoy a handcrafted microbrew, or try a soda in the new, expanded Glacier Brewing Company tap room and beer garden, located in Polson. Always available are seven varieties of beer, seasonal specials and two sodas. They also sell beer to go - by the six-pack, by the growler or by the keg. The taproom is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 4 pm until 8 pm.
A treasure beyond measure, Glacier National Park is a festival for the senses. Over one million acres of landscape feature majestic mountains carved with massive glaciers, lush meadows exploding with wildflowers, gurgling streams, roaring rivers and 400-foot waterfalls. It’s no wonder that this is a “must-visit” attraction for locals and travelers from around the world. The vivid sights of Glacier can be explored by car, by foot or on horseback.
With its beautiful, tree-lined streets and bustling activity, Kalispell truly represents the “Montana lifestyle.” According to many locals, it is “just the right size,” blending small town values with economic growth. Because it is located between Flathead Lake, Whitefish and Glacier National Park, this naturally scenic yet dynamic city makes the ideal base from which to plan vacationing adventures. A downtown stroll offers a variety of galleries, colorful shops and local cafes. Visitors to Kalispell may want to tour the Conrad Mansion, the pre-1900s home of Charles E. Conrad, the city’s founder. This lovely, spacious mansion has been carefully-preserved with nearly all of the original family furnishings.
Located on the shores of Whitefish Lake, the quaint and lovely town of Whitefish also rests at the base of Big Mountain, home to a busy ski area that attracts people from around the world. Residents are proud of their ranking in National Geographic Magazine as one of the “Top 25 Ski Towns in the World,” because they know it’s not just about the snow. This community exudes a happy-to-be-here, relaxed attitude, and there are a host of attractions and activities for tourists and locals alike.
Whitefish offers arts, culture, superb dining and year-round recreation in an exquisite setting. Some visitors may want to check out Whitefish Lake or one of the many challenging golf courses. Others may prefer a walk downtown for shopping, with a stop in at any of a number of delicious open-air cafes or coffee shops. Extreme adventurists may enjoy a summer jaunt to the “Mountain,” for a trip down Montana’s only Alpine Slide or the state’s longest zip line.
One of the largest ski areas in North America, Big Mountain resort delivers over 3,000 skiable acres and a vertical drop of 2,500 feet. Other features include snowmaking, state-of-the-art grooming, 14 lifts and terrain for skiers of every level – all at a reasonable price. The full-service alpine village also offers a free lift, along with snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and guided snowmobiling.
A small part of a larger, beautiful whole, Flathead Lake is indeed the “Jewel of Northwestern Montana.” With all it has to offer, who wouldn’t want to make the trip? Its vast, sparkling waters provide a host of exciting recreational activities, while miles of tree-lined shore and a stunning visual backdrop soothe the nature-lover’s soul.