Just south of Glacier National Park across the Flathead River, the Flathead National Forest is home to several rugged wilderness areas, the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, and part of the Rocky Mountain Range. It’s an extremely popular recreational area in Montana, with 2,800 miles of hiking trails alone.
Predominantly evergreen forests, you’ll find plenty of fir and pine trees, but lakes, grasslands, and meadows are also well represented in the region. Because it encompasses a portion of the Continental Divide, the range of elevation is quite vast, with this portion of the range containing both Scapegoat Mountain and the Chinese Wall: a 1000-ft-tall limestone escarpment that can take hikers several days to reach.
While you’ll find many animals typical in much of Montana – like white-tailed deer, mountain goats, and big-horn sheep – the Flathead National Forest is a particularly good place to see wolverines, beavers, and porcupines. Hikers especially should be reminded that this is still bear country, and bear spray is always a good idea to take along even on short hikes.
If you plan to visit, be sure you check with the Forest Service to determine whether you have all the necessary permits and passes. Within the forest, even something as seemingly inane as picking mushrooms or gathering firewood could be a punishable offense, so best to familiarize yourself with the regulations beforehand.
Flathead National Forest Stats
- Size: 4 million acres
- Season: Year-Round
- Major Feature: Flathead River
- Campgrounds: 25+
Main Attractions in Flathead National Forest
Though the Flathead National Forest encompasses several mountain ranges, vast wilderness areas, and a plethora of recreation areas, there are a handful of locations within it that are particularly beloved among Montanans. Here’s a brief outline of some of the most popular places in the region that you should keep on your radar.
Three Forks of the Flathead River
Inducted into the Wild and Scenic Rivers program in the late 60s, the three main forks of the Flathead River are both popular recreation areas and protected parts of Montana’s natural landscape. While visitors can enjoy fishing, swimming, and white-water rafting along the Flathead River, everyone must follow the guidelines devised by the Forest Service to keep these areas pristine.
Summit Nature Center
Up at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in the lower level of Summit House is the Summit Nature Center, an educational and informational center with several exhibits about the local ecology. You can expect to see displays about the local animals, plant life, and forests.
Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex
Combining the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wildernesses, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is over 1.5 million acres and is the third-largest wilderness complex in the contiguous United States. Part of it lies within the Flathead National Forest and offers superb recreational opportunities like hiking, fishing, and camping.
Mission Mountains Wilderness
With high-mountain lakes and endless hiking opportunities, the Mission Mountains Wilderness has routes for outdoorspeople of all skill levels. No motorized vehicles are allowed within the wilderness whatsoever, including bicycles, so all of your exploring will have to be done on foot.
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
A 15,000-acre wilderness region within the Flathead National Forest, the Jewel Basin Hiking Area is reserved specifically for travel by foot and camping. It is an extremely popular recreation area famous for its wildlife, especially the excellent fishing. Though the hike to Birch Lake is the most popular, there are several Alpine lakes in the area that can be reached by traditional hiking trails or by ungroomed back country routes.
Stay Overnight in the Flathead National Forest
The Forest Service maintains several cabins within the Flathead National Forest that can be reserved on Recreation.gov or, for last-minute reservations, by contacting the nearest ranger station. Fees range from $40 to $100 a night.
Mission Lookout Cabin • $45/night
On a 40 ft. tower high above the forest, the Mission Lookout Cabin may be only one room, but it has spectacular views of the Mission Mountains and a catwalk surrounding the cabin to enjoy them from. The cabin has a gas range and propane heat, though there’s no electricity or water.
Hornet Lookout Cabin • $40/night
Though it has 360º views of Glacier National Park and Kintla Lake from the top of Hornet Peak, Hornet Lookout doesn’t have many of the amenities that other cabins managed by the Forest Service have. It lacks water and electricity, though it does have a wood-burning stove for cooking and heat. The hike to the lookout is about a mile from the trailhead, so keep that in mind when you’re packing supplies. It’s closed from November until mid-June.
Anna Creek Cabin • $75/night
On the west side of Hungry Horse Reservoir sits the single-story Anna Creek Cabin, a rustic forest home that sleeps up to 12 people. It has running water and a full kitchen including both a range and an oven. Though it is open year round, reaching it in the winter will likely require a snowmobile or other over-snow travel.
Old Condon Ranger Station • $85/night
One of the more substantial cabins in the Flathead National Forest, the Old Condon Ranger Station sleeps up to 8 people between its three bedrooms and a fold-out couch in the living room. It has a full kitchen with a modern gas range, and both propane heat and a wood-burning stove.
Swan Guard Station • $70/night
The single oldest building in the Flathead National Forest, Swan Guard Station has been completely refurbished since it was originally built in 1909, though it retains its classic log cabin charm. Guest will need to provide their own bedding, food, and basic supplies, though there is a refrigerator, stove, and oven inside the cabin. Though there’s no running water indoors, there’s a hand pump outside where you can retrieve drinking water.
There are a huge variety of sizes and types of campgrounds within the Flathead National Forest, so whether you’re looking to set up your tent, RV, or trailer, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Most of the most popular locations in the forest have an accompanying campground or two, so you can easily prioritize location when searching for the perfect place to pitch a tent.
Below you’ll find a sampling of campgrounds within the Flathead National Forest, but you can also check out the complete list of campgrounds managed by the Forest Service.
Red Meadow Lake Campground – $X/night • No Reservation Required
Though it only has six, small tent-camping sites, Red Meadow Lake Campground, high in the Rockies, has fantastic views and excellent hiking, including connections to the Continental Divide Trail. There’s no electricity or running water, though there is a vault toilet onsite.
Swan Lake Campground – $20/night • Reservations Suggested
Deep in the Rocky Mountains on the shores of an Alpine lake, the Swan Lake Campground has 38 campsites for tents and RVs. There’s a gear rental facility right onsite with kayaks and paddleboards to rent by the hour, but you’ll have to bring your own bicycle if you want to take advantage of the many bike lanes that weave throughout the property.
Ashley Lake North Campground – Free • No Reservations
Though it’s a small, simply appointed campsite, Ashley Lake North Campground has excellent access to the lake and zero fees. There’s no electricity or drinking water onsite, but picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets are provided.
Emery Bay Campground – $18/night • No Reservations
A busy campsite on Hungry Horse Reservoir, Emery Bay Campground is great for those who want to go swimming, hiking, fishing, hunting, and boating. There’s a small-craft boat ramp onsite perfect for canoes and kayaks, and every campsite has fire rings and picnic tables.
Murray Bay Campground – $16/night • Reservations Suggested
On the east shore of Hungry Horse Reservoir, the Murray By Campground has a boat launch and sites for swimming and fishing. There are 20 sites suitable for both tent and RV camping, and though there aren’t RV hook-ups available, there are toilets and drinking water on site.
Activities in Flathead National Forest
Many of the tour operators in the region are focused on the many rivers and lakes in the area. Whitewater rafting, boating, and fishing are probably the most popular activities within the Flathead National Forest, and you can easily hire a licensed guide to arrange an excursion for you.
Great Northern Whitewater Raft and Resort
Though their most popular tours are their river floats and whitewater rafting trips, Great Northern Whitewater Rafting and Resort also offers a comprehensive River School where you can learn how to row, perform wilderness medicine, or provide technical rescue. They also have a handful of log cabins and a well-appointed lodge if you’d like to schedule an extended stay.
With hiking, biking, fishing, and rafting excursions in the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park, you may be able to schedule all of your favorite adventure tours with Glacier Guides. They have packages available for singles or groups and can arrange overnight stays as well.
Flathead Lake Boat Tours
Offering charters and daily tours of Flathead Lake, Flathead Lake Tours has several options to get you out on the water. If you’d prefer to forego the skipper, they also have boat rentals available if you’d like to go at it on your own.
Trail Routes in Flathead National Forest
Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the Flathead National Forest; it even contains several wilderness regions where hiking is the only form of transportation allowed, barring cars, bicycles, and even snowmobiles. While not every trail is open year-round, you’re bound to find
There are hundreds of designated hiking trails throughout the forest, but below you’ll find a small selection of a few of the most popular ones.
Bond Creek Trail
Though it’s a long trail with some significant gains in elevation, the Bond Creek Trail ends at the spectacular Bond Lake. The beginning of the trail follows Bond Creek past two waterfalls, followed by a steeper climb to the Lake. If you wish, you can continue further to connect with the Alpine Trail.
Holland Falls National Recreation Trail
Perfect for the beginner or intermediate hikers, the Holland Falls Trail follows the shore of Holland Lake to reach the falls. Total, it’s just under two miles, with
Mt. Aeneas Trail
There are several trails in and around Mt. Aeneas, though many find the summit trail to be too strenuous. If you’d like to take in the mountain views without straining to reach its peak, try this hike to the Picnic Lakes. it’s a long trail – nearly 9 miles out and back – but without the gains in elevation of the summit trail.