Glacier National Park is a staggeringly beautiful land of snow-capped mountains and icy blue lakes. Whereas much of the visitor traffic centers around Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, and the Many Glacier area, the North Fork is much less traveled due to its remoteness.
I wanted to learn about a hidden jewel of this area, Bowman Lake in Montana. What makes it so special, what is involved in getting there, and what activities and sights reward the more intrepid traveler?
Where is Bowman Lake?
Bowman Lake is tucked into the northwestern section of Montana’s Glacier National Park, about 30 miles from the western entrance. The name refers to the North Fork of the Flathead River, which defines much of Glacier’s western boundaries.
This is one of the most remote sections of the park, with limited services, and so appeals to the more adventuresome and self-sufficient visitors.
The Lake is 8 miles long and under a mile wide and stretches far back into the Livingston Mountain range so that they seem to rise directly from the Lake’s shores. The Lake can be deceptively deep, with a maximum depth of 253 feet. At an area of over 1,700 acres, it is Glacier’s 3rd largest lake behind Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake.
There’s a lot of western history here, as the region was originally home to several Native American tribes, including the Salish, Blackfeet, and Kootenai Nations. Trappers and explorers began entering the area in the early 1800s.
It is believed that the Lake was named after one of these trappers, Fred Bowman, who came here around 1885.
Getting to Bowman Lake
Getting to the lake is a driving challenge. It is only reachable by a narrow (little more than a car’s length wide), potholed, winding, rutted road that stretches 30 miles from the park’s western entrance, through the small community of Polebridge just outside the park boundaries, and then back into the park for the final six miles of difficult road.
No trailers over 20 feet are allowed due to the tough driving conditions and difficulty of attempting any 3 point maneuver to turn around.
The Community of Polebridge
Since there are very limited facilities at Lake Bowman, the small nearby community of Polebridge offers the best opportunity to stock up on food before driving to the Lake. The town gets its electricity by electrical generators and solar panels and has no cell phone service.
Polebridge Mercantile (The Merc) is a rustic store that has been in business for over 100 years and is well worth a stop, though they are temporarily closed due to Covid-19. Their baked goods are famous, particularly the Huckleberry Bear Claws.
There are tables outside for a snack or lunch or take your supplies the rest of the way to the Lake for a picnic in the picturesque lakeside setting.
Apart from The Merc, there are a few other places for a meal in or near Polebridge, including the Northern Lights Saloon (also temporarily closed due to Covid-19) and the Home Ranch Bottoms Restaurant.
Camping at Bowman Lake and When to Go
Bowman Lake has a beautiful serenity and off-the-beaten-track feel that will reward campers who want to have a peaceful stay in gorgeous surroundings. The National Park Service operates Bowman Lake campground, containing 46 campsites in tree-shaded sites near the lake.
There is potable water from spigots during the peak camping season from late May to early September and pit toilets. The cost for overnight camping is $15 per night during peak season. Sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Primitive camping is available, subject to weather and road conditions, from early to late May and mid-September through the end of October. Primitive camping is $10.00 per night. During primitive camping season, there is no water available, and campers must bring their own drinking water.
For those who want to visit Lake Bowman and take advantage of its daytime recreational activities, but prefer regular lodging, there are some alternatives to camping. There are rustic cabins available at Polebridge Mercantile and at Polebridge Ranch and beds for overnight stays at North Fork Hostel.
What to Bring
Given the rustic conditions, plan on bringing your own bottled drinking water as well as food. Mosquitoes and black flies can be a problem in the warm weather months, so pack some insect repellant or head nets. This is one of the more remote areas of Glacier National Park, so be sure to bring bear spray if you are planning to do any hiking.
Bowman Lake Activities
There are several day hike opportunities. These include:
- Bowman Lake Trail (7.1 miles one-way), Hikers can explore the lake via the Trail, which goes from the Campground to Brown Pass and the Continental Divide
- Numa Lookout Trail (5.6 miles round-trip with views of Montana’s Whitefish Range)
- Quartz Lake Loop Trail (12.8 miles round-trip, leads to the three Quartz lakes, with forest and lake views)
- Akokala Lake (an easy 5.8 miles round-trip)
The best period of the year for hiking and camping near the lake is from May through October. The Fall months provide the most spectacular views as the foliage begins to change colors.
Although there is a boat ramp, the Park service prohibits any motorized boat above 10 horsepower on the lake, so the best choices for getting out on the water are with kayaks or canoes.
Although there are fish in the lake, primarily cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon, the intense coldness of the lake’s water mean that there are not large populations of fish able to withstand the cold conditions.
Generally, the waters of the lake average 50 degrees, so the only possibility for attempting to swim would be in the later summer in August, but still expect very chilly conditions. The lake receives its water from snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, explaining the icy temperatures.
5. Wildlife Watching
There is ample opportunity to see wildlife around Bowman Lake. White-tailed deer and elk abound, while lynx and mountain lions live in the area but are warier of crossing tracks with people. Bowman Lake is gray wolf habitat, so if you choose to camp here, you may be able to thrill to the unique sound of the wolves howling at night.
For bird enthusiasts, the Lake’s forests and waters offer opportunities to spot bald eagles, ospreys, and loons.
Bowman lake in Montana requires a bit more effort to get to and a commitment to sacrifice some creature comforts in terms of rustic camping and the tough road conditions to get there. But the sheer remoteness o the lake makes it undeniably appealing, and the scenery is among the most spectacular in the park.
For those in search of peace and quiet and the lack of crowds, the North Fork region and Lake Bowman should be at the top of your list when visiting Glacier National Park.
Surrounded by stunning mountains and set on pristine Lake Bowman, visitors can get in touch with nature on the beautiful hiking trails and enjoy the views while paddling a canoe or silently gliding through the waters in their kayak. There are fish to catch, wildlife to view and photograph, and perhaps even a brisk swim for summer visitors!