The area includes shoreline access to 18 lakes that, although called a ‘chain’, are mostly not directly connected. They are clustered together though, and the chain starts where the Pleasant Valley River flows into Loon Lake at the westernmost point.
The chain continues in an easterly direction via Horseshoe Lake, Crystal Lake, Upper Thompson Lake, Middle Thompson Lake, Lower Thompson Lake, and McGregor Lake (as well as its smaller satellite Little McGregor Lake).
The outflow is the Fisher River, a tributary of the Kootenai River system, and there are intermittent streams between the lakes which are for the most part non-negotiable by boat. The other lakes arrayed around the larger ones are Lavon Lake, Little Loon, Banana, Bootjack, Cad, Cibid, Lily Pad, Myron, Rainbow, and Topless Lakes.
Seven of the lakes are larger than 35 acres and over 160 feet deep, and thirteen are entirely surrounded by public land. Several of the named lakes are under 20 acres and not that deep. Some organizations state the number of lakes as actually being much higher, and there are certainly a few unnamed ponds around including a few private and/or inaccessible ones.
The chain of lakes got its name from intrepid Scottish-Canadian explorer of the 1800s David Thompson, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company and Northwest Company along the Fisher River. He navigated his way through this area surrounded by forest and Douglas Firs in 1811, ‘discovering’ it.
Today you’ll find some of the best fishing in the state along with plenty of recreation to suit the whole family including camping and other outdoor pursuits. Logan State Park, operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), holds a 17-acre section of the North Shore of Middle Thompson Lake where much of the main camping is located.
Thompson Chain of Lakes State Park is a good place to find some great opportunities for wildlife viewing in the northwest Montana region. This is quite a remote area and many who venture to the lakes spend a few days out there enjoying the fishing and such. There are plenty of fee-paying campsites although they are all rustic with few or no amenities, including drinking water.
Some lakes like Little McGregor Lake, Lower Thompson Lake, Upper Thompson Lake, Horseshoe Lake and Loon Lake have concrete boat ramps, so watersports and boating are popular around them, as is lake fishing. Roads are on the primitive side and not best-suited to anyone with a motorhome or a large trailer, although the campsites on Middle Thompson Lake can accommodate them.
The whole area is managed by Montana State Parks which means there are fees for non-residents. A day-use entrance fee with a vehicle is usually $8.00, and $4.00 is the walk or bike-in rate.
To find the lakes from Kalispell head west for about 30 minutes along US Highway 2. This will bring you to the first of the lakes, which then continue in a chain.
Access is year-round but things can get a little difficult due to winter snow–so spring, summer, and fall are probably the best times to come.
Thompson Chain of Lakes Stats
- Approximately 3,000-acres
- 90-site campground
- Average water depth 55 feet
- Open year-round
Things to do at Thompson Chain of Lakes
Recreation! This is a great region to head to if you like to get away from it all. The landscape and terrain are packed with outdoor recreational delights based around camping or fishing, not to mention birding, wildlife viewing, boating, swimming, photography, and picnicking.
Swimming at Thompson Chain of Lakes
If you follow the chain of lakes from west to east you will come to Horseshoe Lake which is ideal for swimming. There are no wake zones here and there is plenty of space for all in this picturesque setting.
Fishing at Thompson Chain of Lakes
Fishing is what a large proportion of visitors come here for. All 18 lakes are highly-fishable, including in the winter when ice fishing is a popular activity. You are likely to encounter rainbow, brook/cutthroat trout, largemouth bass, yellow perch, Kokanee salmon, black crappie, and northern pike in the waters here—maybe a few other varieties too.
If you travel along HWY 2 heading towards Kalispell from Libby, you will be driving next to Loon Lake at some point. This is the first lake from the chain, and hence a popular spot for fishing. The lake contains brook trout, smallmouth bass, mountain whitefish, pike, and walleye in decent numbers.
A few of the smaller lakes are also points of attraction for anyone looking to fish, namely Topless, Cibid, and Bootjack Lake, and these are good for fly fishing between July and September. The entire lake system has nine state ‘fishing access’ boat launch sites, with a small launch fee charged at each.
Crystal Lake is popular for salmon and trout. Middle Thompson Lake is the place to head if you are seeking larger fish like largemouth bass, perch, kokanee, and pike, as well as rainbow trout. Lower Thompson is notable for rainbow trout and brook trout.
McGregor Lake is the largest of them all and is where you’ll encounter lake trout on the 20-inch-plus side if you are lucky, and these come. Trolling boats are used more in this bigger lake as they are in winter for ice fishing.
Camping at Thompson Chain of Lakes
There are numerous campsites around the Thompson Lakes, and you should be able to find something to suit your requirements. There are 83 standard campsites and 8 designated for groups, and all require a fee for overnight camping.
These sites are mostly rustic, with no available drinking water. The 37 developed campsites at Logan State Park, located on Middle Thompson Lake, are best for anyone looking for larger camping units. The McGregor Lake Campground also has 27 campsites operated by the US Forest Service.
There are various primitive campsites dotted along the Lower, Middle, and Upper Thompson Lakes, as well as Horseshoe Lake, Loon Lake, and some of the smaller lakes.
The maximum camping limit is 14 consecutive days, and amenities include a boat launch, a seasonal camp host, established fire pits, picnic tables, and vault toilets. There is a day-use area and firewood can be purchased on-site.
There are several resorts on and around Crystal Lake, McGregor Lake, and some of the other lakes. These accommodations are largely geared towards those coming to fish, with stocks of the relevant supplies available.
Crystal Lake has a few private cottages, along with some sections of Upper Thompson and Middle Thompson Lakes. McGregor Lake has resorts and a lodge.
Boating at Thompson Chain of Lakes
Many lakes have boat ramps, like McGregor, Lower Thompson, Horseshoe and Loon Lakes. Generally, anyone coming to the lakes with any prior thoughts of either lake fishing or simply some form of boating will be heading to these lakes known to have ramps and other amenities
Wildlife at Thompson Chain of Lakes
The entire area provides a wildlife habitat for all kinds of species, particularly birds like bald eagles, osprey, herons, common loons, owls, woodpeckers, and songbirds, not to mention ducks, geese, swans, kingfishers, cranes, and hawks, to name a few.
You are also likely to encounter black bears, elk, deer, moose, otters, and gray wolves, just to touch on some of the wildlife roaming these parts. The fall is the best time to come to the Thompson Chain of Lakes to see the wildlife. You’ll get the chance to see elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, and a multitude of birds.
Hiking Trails at Thompson Chain of Lakes
The only designated hiking trail at the chain of lakes is to be found at McGregor Lake. It comes by way of a 2.9-mile trail along the shoreline.
There is also a very light, half-mile trail leading out from the campsite at Logan State Park. Don’t expect anything too strenuous.
If you are in the region and looking for something a bit more challenging then consider that the Cabinet Mountains surround the southern side of the Pleasant Valley, and to the North lie the Salish Mountains.
This is close to large tracts of the Kootenai National Forest which offers some pretty rugged hiking trails, not to mention a few remote lookout towers and a few peaks over the 6000-feet mark.