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Stillwater State Forest, Montana

Stillwater State Forest is situated in Flathead County, close to the beautiful Glacier National Park. It’s one of seven state forests in Montana and has been designated as such since 1925.

This vast swathe of forest near Whitefish has been a protected portion of land for almost a century – the law, passed by the Montana Legislature, has been vital in preserving the habitat.

More and more of the forests in the area are becoming part of what is essentially a huge conservation project – land was added to the State Forest as recently as 2018.

Stillwater State Forest Stats

  • Stillwater State Forest covers an impressive 90,000 acres (3642 ha). It’s one of the largest state forests in Montana.
  • Open year-round
  • Camping season begins in May
  • Upper Stillwater Lake covers 592 acres

Main Attractions

Upper Stillwater Lake

The largest lake in the area, Upper Stillwater Lake is 592 acres of pristine waters. Surrounded by beautiful pine forest and mountain views, the scenic location is a popular spot for fishing and boating. It’s a fantastic place to see local wildlife, with everything from beavers to bald eagles found in the area.

Lower Stillwater Lake

lower stillwater lake
Image: Troy Smith

The counterpart to Upper Stillwater Lake is far smaller – the two are connected by three miles of the Stillwater River. Aside from eager kayakers and boating enthusiasts, you will most often find people fishing for northern pike and yellow perch, the most commonly caught fish from the lake. It’s also a lovely place for swimming in the summer months, and popular with families.

Recreation Activities

Keep in mind that a Recreational Use License is required for any recreational activity on state trust land. You can purchase a license here.

Hiking

One of the most popular activities in the Stillwater State Forest is also the simplest: hiking. There are dozens of trails of varying lengths – some will take hours, others days. The gorgeous scenery and variety in difficulties ensures that hiking through Stillwater is an experience for everyone.

Fishing

Fly-fishing might as well be the national pastime in Montana – it’s become particularly famous for it. If you’re hoping to catch pike, head to the Stillwater River. You can expect to find brook trout and perch if you’re fishing Upper Stillwater Lake. If you’re lucky, you might even lure a cutthroat. In Lower Stillwater Lake you will find mostly rainbow and brown trout.

You need a valid Montana Conservation License from DFWP to fish on state land.

Camping

Stillwater State Forest has two official campgrounds – the Upper Stillwater Lake Campground and the Upper Whitefish Campground. Both have some facilities, but are very minimalistic – the rural location doesn’t afford many luxuries.

For a more luxurious experience, try glamping at Stillwater Getaway.

Kayaking

The Stillwater River has a grade III-IV stretch of whitewater between Upper Stillwater Lake and Lower Stillwater Lake. This mid-difficulty section offers some fantastic kayaking. If you’re looking to hire boats, there are plenty of options in the Whitefish area.

The launch at Upper Stillwater Lake is a gravel launch.

Golf

If you want a relaxing alternative to water sports and epic hikes, head to the Smith Lake Disc Golf Course. You can find it in the southeastern corner of the Stillwater State Forest, on the edge of Whitefish Lake.

The challenging and technical course has 27 holes, and is open to the public from May to November. For more information, visit their website.

Skiing

When winter season rolls around, skiing takes over from everything else. The Round Meadow X-C Ski Trails cover 12 miles of easy to advance moderate nordic ski terrain, with seven different loops.

There is parking and a restroom at the trailhead. Dog Creek Lodge is one of the most popular luxury resorts in northwestern Montana. They maintain over 16 miles of nordic trails during the winter season – you can buy a pass here to access them.

If snowmobiles are more your style, check out Northwest Montana Adventures.

Trail Routes

Stryker Basin Trail

This 3-mile trail weaves through the State Forest, with occasional forays into National Forest lands. The views of Stryker Peak are breathtaking.

Whitefish Trail – Swift Creek

This short but sweet trail is suitable for all abilities, and at 1.4 miles long, is only going to be a shortstop. You get to experience a gentle walk through the forest, as well as enjoy views of a river and lake – if you visit at the right time of year, you’re likely to see schools of trout darting through the water.

Ralph Thayer Memorial Trail

At 17 miles, the Ralph Thayer Memorial Trail is one of the lengthier popular trails in the State Forest. It’s worth it, however, for the spectacular views over the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park.

The sweeping vistas are interspersed with sections of dense forest – you start at Werner Peak and head north from there.