Ennis Lake is a man-made body of water in southwestern Montana’s Madison County. It was formed in 1905 as a result of the Madison Dam’s construction on the Madison River, at the head of Bear Trap Canyon.
This is the spot where the Madison River flows out from the reservoir, creating a pretty wild run of rapids known by white water rafters and paddlers.
Its nearness to Yellowstone National Park makes Ennis Lake and its surrounding region a great home base from which to navigate a southwestern Montana vacation. Longtime inhabitants of the Ennis region still refer to the local body of water as Meadow Lake (although the Forest Service renamed it long since).
The depth of the 2.5-mile long lake ranges somewhere between 8 and 20 feet, and the water is warm and ideal for a variety of water sports like windsurfing.
This lake covers almost 5,000 acres and divides the Madison River in some capacity. As it is quite shallow, it often gets very warm during the summer months.
Thus the lake draws in droves of water-loving recreation enthusiasts, and in winter it is especially popular for ice skating and ice fishing.
The lake freezes quite easily because of the shallow water, which also makes the people on the surface feel a bit safer.
You can find Ennis Lake in the northeast corner of the small Montana town of Ennis. To access the lake from the town, you’ll need to head north along US Highway 287 for about 6.5 miles.
Then at the McAllister Junction, take a right turn onto Ennis Lake Road. You’ll come to the lake about three miles along this road.
Ennis Lake Stats
- 4,800-acre lake
- 9-site campground
- Open year-round
Main Attractions at Ennis Lake
The main attractions around the lake itself tend towards outdoor recreation, water sports, and camping-based activities.
However, the region itself forms part of a larger circuit altogether, and the Ennis Lake Scenic Loop runs right through the region. The route is a twenty-three-mile drive that makes a loop around Ennis Lake, with plenty of scenic views to take in along the way.
The drive includes Ennis Lake and the dam, the Tobacco Root Mountains, and Madison Range Mountains. It follows three roads to complete the route: the North Ennis Lake Road, starting out in McAllister, the Ennis Lake Road along the lake’s eastern shore, and Highway 287 between Ennis and McAllister.
After two miles along Highway 287, the scenic route passes the Ennis Lake Fishing Access Site, where the campground is also located. Past the fishing access site, the route winds along the northern shore of Ennis Lake, and this is a stretch with lots of places to pull over and take photos, or even do a spot of fishing.
A few miles later the route heads across the dam at the head of the lake. Once past the dam, the road morphs into Ennis Lake Road heading back toward Highway 287, with some impressive views of the Tobacco Root Mountains and the Madison Valley. The route winds up at the junction with Highway 287 just a mile south of Ennis.
Things to do at Ennis Lake
Ennis Lake supports recreational fishing for brown trout and rainbow trout, camping, boating, and white-water rafting in Bear Trap Canyon downstream (north) of the dam. Some areas are designated for swimming by floating buoys near the lake’s Kobayashi Bay, and there are camping and wildlife watching opportunities.
If you would rather get out onto the lake you can enjoy boat fishing and a variety of other water sports. Although Ennis Lake is not that big, it still gets pretty windy regularly. So it’s worth noting that a motorized powerboat is the best option for fishing the lake or even covering any reasonable distance.
Canoeing, Sailing, Kayaking
Boaters can enjoy a free run of the lake and entrance to the river with non-motorized boats, including canoes, sailboats, rowboats, kayaks, and even inflatables. In really good conditions you might get away with paddling boats like inflatable kayaks for lake paddling, and inflatable canoes and pontoon boats work well.
As the shallow lake tends to be on the warm side throughout the midst of summer, it can hinder the fishing somewhat and limit the trout populations.
That said, you can fish for Brown Trout, Mountain Whitefish, and Rainbow Trout, and Ennis Lake has some decent-sized rainbow and brown trout. The larger fish inhabit the lake’s deeper crevices, so you might need a boat to locate them.
Access to the lake is no problem, and on the western side of the lake near the town of Ennis lies a decent fishing access site and boat ramp. Some excellent fishing can be found just below the dam, along the road that follows the river for a short distance.
Using the lake’s old name of Meadow Lake, this is a primitive campground with gravel-padded sites. There are 9 sites in all including tents.
The sites have some wonderful views of the lake and the mountains, operated on a first-come-first-serve basis you can gain access to the campground east from McAllister on Ennis Lake Road. You soon see a beach and the campground, with a nearby RV park.
The campground has fire rings and a vault toilet, as well as a 7-day limit on stays. Fees are $7.00-$12.00 per night.
Hiking Trails at Ennis Lake
This is a route that takes you from South Fork Trail to Pioneer Falls along a 6.5-mile, moderately trafficked out and back trail. The trail is used mainly for hiking, walking, and wildlife and nature trips. The best time to use it is between May and October.
You’ll encounter rolling hills, vistas, and even a decent waterfall at the end. The first 3.5-mile or so stretch seems easy, but the next 9 miles or more up to the falls is a bit more on the moderate side. Dogs are allowed to use this trail on the condition they are kept on a leash.
Summit View Nature Trail is a short but sweet, 2-mile, out and back trail with light traffic. The route is rated as moderate, and is best between June and October.
The trail is used mainly for hiking and walking, as well as nature and wildlife trips. It crisscrosses a creek and is laced with wildflowers along the way. The route follows Beehive Creek, crossing it at various points in fact, and the scenic trail has plenty of resting benches dotted along it for a breather. Dogs kept on a leash are allowed along this trail.
This trail covers almost 8 miles of moderately difficult trail that connects with Cherry Creek Trail from Ennis Lake, and also finishes up in a meadow with another connection to Carpenter Creek Trail.
This is a lightly trafficked trail that does actually pass through private property, with a few fences and such like to negotiate. There are a few creeks and various switchbacks. This is really the thing that makes this trail more of an intermediate level of difficulty. It also features some great views of Ennis Lake.