Summertime recreation in Montana often revolves around watersports and fishing. One of the popular places in the State to enjoy boating, paddling, floating and fishing is Holter Lake (also known as Holter Reservoir).
This 25-mile-long reservoir offers visitors a fun and relaxed place to enjoy water sports and activities of all sorts. With plenty of camping and in close proximity to Wolf Creek, MT, this is a great stop on your next Montana vacation.
Holter Lake Stats
- Size (acres / ha) – 3,666.9 acres (1,484 ha)
- Season (when can it be accessed): All Year
- Number of campsites: 140
Holter Lake Recreation Activities
Holter Lake is teeming with opportunities for great outdoor recreation. This man-made reservoir is a perfect place to set out on the water for a day of exploring and fun.
Boating is the obvious recreational activity at Holter Lake. With 25-miles of water and a wide-open canyon, Holter Lake is a perfect place to put your boat on the water. One of the things we like the best about Holter Lake is that it isn’t as busy as some other spots in Montana.
In general, boating access to Holter Lake is pretty decent. There are a few public access boat ramps that you can put your motorized boat on. Most of the public access to Holter Lake is located on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
This lake is one of the few in the state that does not have any public access in terms of a boat ramp or park area that is operated by the State of Montana.
In the summer on Holter Lake, you’ll see plenty of recreational boats, including speed boats and pontoon boats. The lake is also a popular place for visitors to enjoy water skiing and tubing.
Holter Lake is a great place to enjoy some peaceful paddling. You’ll see lots of people on Holter Lake on their canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards.
Many people use these more peaceful methods of transportation for fishing since they make less noise and are more approachable to many of the lake’s fish species.
If you are hoping to enjoy your favorite paddle sport while visiting Holter Lake, you’ll want to be advised that some parts of the lake are prone to high winds that can easily capsize your canoe, kayak, or paddle board.
Most of the lake is surrounded by tall cliffs, and a ring of small mountains which shelter the lake from winds, but as you travel up the Missouri River towards Canyon Ferry Lake, winds will increase.
Also, this lake is quite popular for motorized boating, so make sure that you are aware of your surroundings so that you don’t have an unfortunate encounter with one of the many motorized boats on the lake.
Fishing is a popular activity on Holter Lake thanks to a nice population of rainbow trout. Rainbow trout are stocked annually in Holter Lake by the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks.
This lake seems to be an ideal habitat for rainbow trout, with many anglers reporting very large individuals. Other sport fish found in Holter Lake include; brook trout, brown trout, mountain whitefish, pike, yellow perch, and walleye.
Boat fishing is the best way to have a successful day on Holter Lake, especially if you want to try your hand at catching one of the lake’s large rainbow trout, walleye, and perch. Most people spin fish from boats on Holter Lake.
Fly fishing is also popular, but you’ll find that fish from the shore tend to be smaller. Most anglers that are interested in fly fishing on Holter Lake travel below the dam where the Missouri River becomes a blue ribbon stream.
There are three campgrounds that are open to the public around Holter Lake. The three campgrounds are well maintained and have a reasonable daily rate. All of the campgrounds are managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The three campgrounds are part of the BLM’s Chain of Lakes Recreation Site. The sites are open to RVs, Campers, and tents.
The cost per day for camping at the BLM campgrounds is $10 per day, and reservations can be made ahead of time (and are recommended during high season) on the recreation.gov website.
The campgrounds at Holter Lake also provide your boat access to the lake. All three campgrounds have a two-wheel drive boat launch and a boat dock where you can park your boat at the end of the day.
Hiking at Holter Lake is limited to the shorelines near the campgrounds, as much of the rest of the lake is bordered by private land. However, there is plenty of hiking located nearby, within National Forest areas that are along the lake.
Some of these trails are multi-use trails, so you’ll want to look out for mountain bikes and horses.
Two of the more popular trails in the area start at the Meriweather Picnic Area just a short drive from the Holter Lake Campground. This day-use area is also a nice place to enjoy a picnic.
It is also important to note that some trails are only accessible by boat or watercraft, so if you are interested in one of these, you’ll want to bring a canoe, kayak, or motorized boat.
Holter Lake Trail Routes
Much of the hiking accessible around Holter Lake is located in the Helena National Forest. Other popular spots for hiking can be found in the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness, located at the south end of Holter Lake.
This popular trail starts at the Meriwether Picnic Area on Holter Lake.
The picnic area sits at the site where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped on July 19, 1805, before heading down the Missouri River through the canyon that is now called the Gates of the Mountains. The trail leads you into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.
To access the trailhead, you will need to boat or hire a boat tour to the Meriweather picnic area. From here the trail travels for 5-miles along steep switchbacks.
At around the 5-mile point, the trail opens up and you’ll have views of Sacagawea Mountain and the valley. The trail continues another mile to trail junction 252.
At the trail junction, you can continue on to Refrigerator Canyon or return to the Meriweather picnic area. The total hike distance is 12-miles out and back.
The trail is considered to be moderately difficult, so it is best for more experienced hikers.
Mann Gulch Trail is another that is accessed from the Meriweather Picnic Area. This trail is poorly maintained and is best for more experienced hikers.
Hiking up the gulch provides outstanding views of the lake and canyon. The trail is difficult to find from time to time and is very steep in areas.
Many people that take this trail stop at the top to pay their respects to the 13 smokejumpers that died fighting the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949. The trail is a difficult 10.4-miles out and back.
This lightly used trail is popular with wildflower lovers. In the spring this trail that passes through a burn scar is the perfect place to enjoy mountain wildflowers.
The trail starts half a mile west of the town of Nelson, along FSR #4140. The trail is fairly moderate and can be hiked by most hikers with some experience.
The trail is 14.6-miles out and back and includes the Big Log Gulch Trail, which is the best place to see wildflowers in the spring.
One thing to note about this trail is that until you reach the junction with Big Log Gulch trail, this trail is very exposed, so make sure you bring your sunscreen.
Refrigerator Canyon Trail is a 16.6-mile out and back trail that takes you deep into the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness. Much of this trail travels through a narrow canyon surrounded by towering limestone cliffs.
The trail is aptly named for the breezes that pass through the canyon, cooled by the stream and the rock walls. Even in the summer, you’ll want a light jacket when hiking this trail.
You’ll have a couple of options to depart the Refrigerator Canyon Trail during your 8-mile hike. However, the trail ends just after Bear Prairie.
Many people stop at Bear Prairie and enjoy lunch and explore the wildflowers that grow prolifically in the meadow.
This trail is considered to be moderate in difficulty. It will take you a full day to hike, so you’ll want to start early, and make sure to bring plenty of water and lunch or a snack.