Located on the eastern side of the beautiful Flathead Lake, Yellow Bay State Park occupies fifteen miles of rocky beaches, scenic views, and a relaxing, cozy spot to play or rest for the night.
While Flathead Lake offers multiple state parks – all with their own unique personalities – Yellow Bay is – dare we say? – an introvert’s dreamscape.
This northwestern Montana mainstay near Kalispell is ideal for fishing, kayaking, water sports, sunbathing, picking cherries, and grilling at the barbeque pits, but that’s what happens when you’re sitting on the largest natural freshwater lake in the western landscape.
Since the state park actually lays across the smaller Yellow Bay Creek, you’re likely to find driftwood along the stony beach, as well as miles of solitude.
While the Salish and Kootenai communities are the current stewards of this land, its glacial landscape often saw numerous indigenous people passing through to take advantage of the area’s healing waters, abundant trout, and ripe fruits and herbs.
In a nod to its previous stakeholders, the whole of Flathead Lake was once called “Salish Lake,” although it’s now co-owned by the tribes and the United States government.
And likewise, Yellow Bay sits within viewing distance from Wild Horse Island, a wildlife area previously used by indigenous people to protect their horses from theft. All this to say: life has been happening here for a long time.
With only five available first-come, first-serve campsites (tent only!), we recommend arriving during the height of spring to surround yourself with the scent of cherry blossoms, or towards the end of summer for an even more gratifying cherry season (Check out K&J Orchard for an amazing cherry-picking experience!).
Summertime will also see a larger number of boaters, fishermen, and playing children, but due to its smaller size around an enormous lake, you won’t feel cramped for space.
If you’re interested in fishing, please keep in mind that this beautiful land requires a tribal fishing license, due to being on the Flathead Reservation. But you’re in luck because Flathead Lake is something of a powerhouse for trout fishing.
Our favorite nearby fishing charter is easily Flathead Lake Charters, which offers both half-day and full-day fishing trips. Or, just get out there and do your own thing with that fishing license. Chances are, you’ll come out successful either way.
It’s easy to lose track of time at Yellow Bay State Park, but it’s time to move on to some of our favorite attractions in the area, especially the trail routes.
Yellow Bay State Park Stats
- Size: 15 acres
- Season: Year-round
- Hours: Year-round, Visitor Center: M-F 8:30 am-4:00 pm
- Nearest Body of Water: Flathead Lake
- Number of Campsites: 5, first-come, first-serve
- Number of Picnic Sites: 5, with numerous nearby
- Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Main Attractions Around Yellow Bay State Park
Yellow Bay State Park is part of a larger arm of state parks surrounding Flathead Lake, and we wanted to highlight some of our favorite things to do in the area. That is if you manage to leave the rocky beaches… Let’s get into it, starting with…
Wayfarers State Park
One of our favorite nearby state parks is Wayfarers State Park, which is a 67-acre recreation area right near Flathead Lake State Park. But why do we love it so much?
Well, the rocky cliffs sure don’t hurt, but the real reason is The Northern Rockies Paddlefest in May, which offers opportunities to check out kayaks and canoes, as well as the always fun Cardboard Paddle and Kayak Races.
Yep, you’re seeing that visual in your head correctly: participants create boats on Saturday to race them on Sunday at the end of the festivities, and it always leaves a huge smile on our faces.
If you’re not in the area in May, taking a nature walk along Wayfarer’s gorgeous cliffs is always a good idea.
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
We love the Jewel Basin Hiking Area at the northern end of the Swan Mountain Range. You may find a lot of fellow hikers in the area, so this isn’t the spot if you’re looking for solitude, but it’s worth it for the gorgeous surrounding views and unique hiking trails.
Our favorite is Mt. Aeneas, which we’ll get more into later. While you’re in the area, we highly recommend checking out Swan River National Wildlife Refuge, another glacially made beauty that protects waterfowl and houses around 170 species of birds! It’s absolutely beautiful and provides far more solitude than the Jewel Basin.
Kootenai Falls Suspension Bridge
Looking for something a little bit different? It’s a bit of a drive northwest, but totally worth it if you’ve got the time and the guts.
The Kootenai Falls Suspension Bridge in Libby, MT provides a thrilling view of Kootenai Falls via an incredible bridge.
You can feel free to walk across it and back, but we also like to sit there and eat our packed to-go lunch from Cabinet Mountain Brewing Co. At 2,100 feet, it’s not a bad place for lunch!
Base Camp Bigfork
And now for something completely different, dog sledding in Bigfork! Although it wouldn’t exactly be fair to say Base Camp Bigfork does only dog sledding: they’re a year-round outfit providing kayaking, paddle boarding, cross-country skiing – anything your Montana heart desires!
Sidenote: if you’re looking for a tandem kayak, this is your spot! We just happen to love their dog sledding.
Recommended: a half-day excursion mushing through the snow, providing a unique experience. But the best part is definitely the happy Inuit sled dogs followed by a deep breath in their sauna. What’s not to love!?
Recreational Activities Around Yellow Bay State Park
Luckily, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to enjoy your time at and around Yellow Bay State Park.
But we know that not everyone comes to the area just to pick cherries, so let’s get into some of the best hiking, camping, and water activities. Bottoms up!
Hiking & Biking
You’re going to have plenty of hiking options at and near Yellow Bay, but one of our favorites is the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge. Why? We love the rocky cliffs and pebble beaches of Flathead Lake, but it’s the gorgeous wetlands and marshes of this Salish and Kootenai land that we thrive in.
You’re likely to see plenty of migratory birds and wildflowers along this hike. And you really can’t go wrong anywhere along the Jewel Basin, or our favorite, Mount Aeneas (see below).
We head over to Flathead Outdoors to pick up bikes for our treks, and we like them because they offer snow bikes, e-bikes, dirt bikes – anything you’ll need!
Swimming & Fishing
Sometimes you just want to take a boat out on the water, and there are numerous opportunities to do this on and around Flathead Lake. Heading back to Base Camp Bigfork, rent kayaks and paddleboards for a beautiful day out on the lake before a dip in the lake.
We’ve already mentioned Flathead Lake Charters as one of the best half and full-day fishing charters in town, but it’s worth mentioning again.
For ice fishing, we actually recommend a different outfitter: Howe’s Fishing and Boat Charters. They’ve got everything you’ll need for a chilly winter day!
Either way, we recommend either heading back to camp with some beers or trekking out of the state park for a drink at Flathead Lake Brewing Company.
We’re partial to the five first-come, first-serve sites at Yellow Bay for their intimacy, but there are plenty of options nearby if you’re looking to get out of Yellow Bay.
We love the yurt camping options at Swan Lake Campgrounds, but Flathead Lake State Park and Finley Point have plenty of options, as well.
But our favorite spot that’s not a state park is Montana Outback, a beautiful campground in the woods that has privacy, great amenities, and close proximity to the water. Let us know how you like it, wherever you stay!
Strawberry Lake Trail No. 5 – Length: 6 miles
Travel just a bit north to get to Strawberry Lake Trail No. 5, which takes a little under 4 hours to complete depending on your comfort level.
We’re going, to be honest: this isn’t one of the easiest hikes in the area, with steep markers and continuous switchbacks that may work your calves.
But hey, you’ll get to share the trail with horses, and may even experience snow towards the top closer to June (Wear good shoes!).
This isn’t a hike for the kids unless you’re ready to welcome multiple stops to dish out the snacks. But, we do recommend Strawberry Lake as a solo hike, and it’s perfect for a small group.
Life pro tip: bring a hammock for the moment you get to the gorgeous alpine lake. Awwwww yeah.
Swan River Nature Trail – Length: 4.2 miles
Alright, let’s downshift a bit to Swan River Nature Trail, a small jaunt north of Yellow Bay. This one is definitely more family-friendly, although you’ll still want to bring snacks for the trek.
Come here for the wide trails, friendly faces, and wonderfully gentle grade. That’s what we love about Montana – you’ve got trail options!
Just a small tip if you’re bringing smaller kids: keep them close to you towards the cliffs area because you’ll notice there are no guardrails. Other than that, enjoy!
Mount Aeneas Summit Trail – Length: 6.2 miles
And we’re back in challenging territory with Mount Aeneas, the area’s Everest. Don’t be discouraged by the first thirty minutes!
While the beginning incline may make you question your life choices, you’ll find gorgeous wildflowers and curious mountain goats on the path to keep you company.
If the mountain goat can get to the top, so can you! And trust us – it’s worth it for the stellar views of the Jewel Basin and Glacier National Park.
Columbia Mountain Trail – Length: 11.8 miles
We won’t lie: this trail is difficult but it’s great for dirt biking and hiking. It’s also easier to complete in chunks to build up your stamina, but the top offers fantastic panoramas of the Flathead Valley.
Start earlier in the morning to give yourself the best chance for solitude, but you and your dog will enjoy this hike at any time.
Also recommended to stop halfway for a picnic at the waterfall, and either keep going or head back down to base camp at Yellow Bay.