People say that adventure awaits at every corner of Flathead Lake in Montana, known to be the perfect spot for all kinds of in-water activities. A vacation trip to Flathead Lake is packed with your favorite summer activities; sailing, swimming, fishing, camping, and picnics. It is the ideal place to create travel memories that you will cherish for years.
Wild Horse Island and Kerr Dam, two stunning tourist spots, are ideal for an afternoon outing. The more adventurous travelers can take full-day trips to nearby attractions like Glacier National Park and Jewel Basin. When winter arrives, visitors can enjoy dog sledding and skiing down the lake.
The major population centers around the lake are Kalispell, Bigfork, and Polson, and many people use the lake area as a basecamp for exploring some of these towns and their various nuances. Certainly, if nothing else they can serve as stop-offs for a complete range of groceries and supplies.
Flathead Lake is bordered along the eastern shore by HWY 35, and HWY 93 between Polson and Kalispell will also get you to the western side.
Flathead Lake Stats
- 30-mile long x 15-mile wide lake
- Up to 300 feet deep
- 13 campgrounds
- Open year-round
Flathead Lake in Montana: So Much To Do!
There’s a lot to do at Montana’s largest freshwater gem if you know where to go. This guide will help you make the most of your time at Flathead Lake, so keep reading!
The Great Outdoors
Flathead Lake’s 185 miles of shoreline has various camping, recreation, and fishing access points. The lake’s ample trout fishing opportunities are sure to delight anglers. Trout fishing enthusiasts will enjoy trawling the lake’s deep waters. Coming during the spawning season will ensure you won’t return empty-handed!
There are several public recreation sites that offer a wide range of activities on Flathead Lake in Montana, such as; Big Arm, Elmo, Walstad Memorial Park, Finley Point, Woods Bay, and Yellow Bay. Visitors can find a full range of amenities for swimming, camping, picnicking, watersports, boating, and fishing at these spots.
There are also numerous state park units within Flathead Lake State Park, including West Shore State Park, Big Arm State Park, Yellow Bay State Park, Wayfarers State Park, and Finley Point State Park.
One of the largest islands in the Great Lakes, Wildhorse Island, covers more than 2,000 acres of lush pastures. Wildhorse Island State Park is home to wild horses (hence the name), deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and a variety of birds. The park can only be reached by boat and is open to the public for day trips and picnics, though overnight camping is prohibited.
The most popular activities at Flathead Lake include boating and shore trips. The towns of Polson, Somers, and Bigfork, all of which are located on or near the lake, provide a wide range of outdoor recreational activities: including boat rentals and guided fishing trips.
Furthermore, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes offer public access to locations around the lake.
You can go swimming, fishing, stand up paddle-boarding, sailing, or kayaking on the stunning waterways, all the while catching the stunning reflection of the snow-capped peaks and lush forests. Just make sure you follow “Clean.Drain.Dry.” principles while exploring Montana’s lakes and rivers to help keep Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) at bay (pun intended).
Take a wetsuit with you if you plan to spend time in the water. Even at the peak of summer, the lake’s glacial water keeps it cold. If you are bringing a boat to Flathead Lake, you should expect stopovers at a state-mandated boat inspection location along the way. The purpose of these simple inspections is to prevent the spread of invasive species in the lake.
If you don’t have your own accommodations, it is not uncommon to see people renting out their homes in the area surrounding the lake. You can browse from hundreds of rental locations online.
With all kinds of boats available in tourist destinations including Polson, Bigfork, and Somers, visitors can enjoy a variety of water activities. Flathead Lake Charters in Bigfork, Montana, is one of the best places for embarking on guided fishing trips.
There are ample campgrounds, both public and private, around Flathead Lake. There are 13 public camping access sites around Flathead Lake maintained by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
Yellow Bay State Park is a 15-acre public camping and fishing access site. The park is found on the west shore of Flathead Lake along HWY 35, just inside the Flathead Indian Reservation. The park also contains Yellow Bay Creek with its wide, gravelly beach.
Attractions here include boating, lake trout fishing, water skiing, bird watching, swimming, camping, and scuba diving. This campground is accessible year-round, with available tent camping between May and September. There are 5 tent campsites that are first-come, first-serve only, and don’t forget a tribal fishing license is required at this park.
Wayfarers State Park means rocky cliffs and impressive shoreline vistas of the lake any time of day. Visitors enjoy camping, boating, and swimming. Wayfarers Park is 67-acres of outdoor recreation with camping, restrooms and showers, trailer dump, and boat launch facilities.
The campground covers 27 acres with several tent sites located next to the lake, especially for anyone arriving by boat, and next to the park is the Harry Horn Day Use area. Wayfarers are accessible year-round with full services on offer from May through September.
Finley Point State Park is a 28-acre park with 18 campsites and 16 boat slips suitable for boats as long as 25 feet. To enjoy this secluded campground you’ll have to head to the lake’s south end where you find it nestled cozily amidst the setting of a mature conifer forest.
Hiking Trails at Flathead Lake
There is almost limitless hiking around the Flathead Lake region. Lakeside is one place where the trails seem endless. Blacktail Mountain Ski Resort, just outside of Lakeside is another major hiking consideration. You’ll find little hiking across the south side of Flathead Lake near Polson, but if you head further south the Mission Valley hiking trails are available for you to enjoy.
Lone Pine State Park provides panoramic views of Kalispell and the Flathead Valley, with 6 miles of developed trails that are shared by hikers and mountain bikers. The trail traverses through gorgeous wooded terrain, with fantastic views from the top.
Here are three good examples of some of the trails on offer close to the lake:
Bear Dance/Flathead Lake Trail
This is an easy trail and the trailhead is along HWY 35 just south of Bigfork. The Lake Trail is classified as an easy to moderate hike, usually taking no more than an hour from one parking lot looping to another.
The parking lot is the trailhead in HWY 35 for the Bear Dance Trail, a 4-mile interpretive loop trail that is short but steep and allows some excellent views of Flathead Lake. The trail ends at Flathead Lake, and you can hike this trail from Bigfork by heading south on HWY 35 past Woods Bay and taking a right after the 23-mile marker.
Then you’ll enter the Bear Dance trailhead parking. The trail goes downhill from both parking areas, which is how the loop is formed.
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
The Jewel Basin area is a favorite local spot and is just a 30-minute drive from downtown Kalispell. Ideal for day hikers, this place has 35 miles of well-marked and maintained trails, not to mention 35 lakes, loads of wildlife, and some amazing views.
This is the Flathead National Forest and 5,000 acres of maintained hiking. The Jewel Basin receives heavy use due to its close proximity to Kalispell and the valley. Solitude may not be so easy to find, but on top of the trails, there are also some great fishing spots.
Pablo National Wildlife Refuge
The 2,500-acre Pablo National Wildlife Refuge is south of Flathead Lake and 3 miles from Polson, located on tribal trust lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The irrigation reservoir it comprises is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Flathead Irrigation Project.
The refuge provides sanctuary for migratory birds and other wildlife 75 miles north of Missoula. You can reach it by heading west on Reservoir Road then going west for a mile or so to the dike road around the Pablo NWR entrance
Flathead Lake in Montana can be reached in a day from Kalispell. To go to the northern end of Flathead Lake, you need to drive ten miles south. To complete the loop, head south on Highway 93 along the lake’s west shores before turning north on Highway 35 to return to the eastern shores.
A trip around the lake will take you to grassy landscapes, charming little towns, and vibrant communities. Don’t forget to visit state parks that have water activities like camping and boating as well as breweries, distilleries, and wineries during your one-day stay.
Be on the lookout for Flathead cherry orchards as you travel around Lake Michigan. Cherry trees blossom in May, and the roadside stands open in July and August where you can buy local cherries and food.
In winters, the area surrounding Flathead Lake turns into a winter wonderland. Downhill skiers can enjoy the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area (located west of Lakeside) – ideal for a family-friendly mountain adventure with stunning views of the lake. There are also various paved and backcountry trails for Nordic skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.
Even if some of Flathead Lake’s summer pastimes are put on hold in the winter, the frostier weather offers new opportunities. There is no better way to experience Bigfork’s cold-weather attractions than by renting a dogsled. The lake is huge so that its bays don’t freeze over entirely. But those that do make for great ice fishing opportunities.
From January through April, Base Camp Bigfork provides exciting dog sledding excursions. You can choose from half-day and full-day trips in addition to a winter camping excursion. In most cases, trips should be scheduled in advance.
Dog sledding isn’t the only option on the list of winter Montana activities. In addition to winter water sports, the western bank’s Blacktail Mountain Ski Area also hosts a variety of cold-weather activities. Snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing are just a few examples of the winter sports that add to lakeside fun.
Flathead Lake in Montana is a wonderful destination for families. The Bigfork Whitewater Festival, the Fourth of July Fireworks over Lake Missoula, or the Flathead Cherry Festival–for those cherries you keep hearing about–are the best of Western Montana’s annual events.
Pick your own cherries from mid-July to mid-August when Flathead cherries are in full bloom. During this season, orchards and fruit booths line the eastern shore of the lake. Salish Point, a little town in Polson, is a great open-water swimming spot on the southern side of the lake. The enclosed swimming area is popular for families!
Small Town Adventures
The towns near Flathead Lake — Bigfork, Big Arm, Polson, Elmo, Rollins, Lakeside, Dayton, and Somers — all have something special to offer. Bigfork, Montana’s largest Christmas Village, really lays on the charm during the holiday season. You can use this route as a jumping-off point for visiting the lake and its surrounding cities.
Fine dining, wineries, and distilleries selling true Montana craft beverages, fascinating museums, live theatre, a local symphony orchestra, and shopping for Montana-made products are just some of the delights you’ll find here.
More on Flathead Lake in Montana
Glacier National Park’s spectacular landscapes were etched thousands of years ago when glaciers found their way into Flathead Valley, and this is how Flathead Lake was born. Montana’s largest freshwater lake is situated at the foot of the Swan and Mission mountains.
The lake features 185 miles of coastline and a depth of 370 feet, covering roughly 200 square miles.
If you have a car, getting here is a breeze. The nearest airport is in Missoula, which is about an hour and a half away from the southern end of the lake. You’ll find the west entrance to Lake McDonald as well as the Whitefish city about 30 minutes into your drive to Glacier National Park.
The Flathead Indian Reservation, which covers the southern end of the lake, is settled by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. You need to obtain a tribal recreation permit if you plan on spending time on the lake’s southern side.
Lake Flathead is also home to a variety of Montana legends (the Flathead Lake monster to name one!), picturesque islands, incredible trails, and opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Flathead Lake in Montana is also one of the purest lakes in the world, its water being noteworthy for purity and clarity. During the summer you can see twenty feet into the lake, attributed to a lack of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) that promote the growth of algae.
Adventure knows no bounds at Flathead Lake in Montana, a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Whether you are seeking an adrenaline rush or just want to relax and enjoy the magical views, you won’t be disappointed. There is something for everyone at Flathead Lake. Make sure to schedule a day, or two to visit Flathead Lake on your next trip to Montana.