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Northern Montanans are some of the luckiest folks in the United States. They have Glacier National Park in their backyard. Vibrant small cities like Whitefish and Missoula are filled with restaurants and shops. Plus, residents have easy access to one of America’s most remarkable lakes.
The glacial-fed Flathead Lake is 385 feet deep and holds the title of Montana’s largest freshwater lake. It’s an epicenter of outdoor adventure, offering a whole host of activities and a superb selection of camping options, including off-the-grid choices, RV spots, historic cabins, and even yurts!
Getting here is easy, provided that you have your own car. The southern part of the lake is located about an hour and 20 minutes from Missoula, which is home to the nearest airport. Glacier National Park’s west entrance and Lake McDonald are about 50 minutes northwest, and the city of Whitefish is on the route, about 30 minutes into the drive.
So what makes this such a remarkable destination beyond the beautiful location and the long list of outdoor activities? There’s a good chance that you’ve never seen water as clean and clear as the water at Flathead Lake. There are two good reasons for that. One is that there is a relatively small population around the lake, so it gets a lot less traffic than large lakes that are near more populated areas. Second, the bulk of Flathead Lake’s watershed is managed by the National Park Service, and so there’s not much pollution. This makes for gorgeous, clean water.
There’s plenty to do on and around Flathead Lake to keep you occupied for days. These are some of the most popular activities.
1. Visit The Community Of Bigfork
The community of Bigfork is the perfect destination for an afternoon of strolling, shopping, and sipping coffee. With a generous selection of quirky small shops and terrific restaurants, cafes, and ice cream counters, it’s a fun, relaxed, and welcoming destination.
Special spots to look out for include the Whistling Andy Distillery, the Flathead Ford Museum, and the Pocketstone Cafe (home to giant pancakes). There’s also a good selection of shops where you can rent or buy outdoor adventure gear. In the summer, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse puts on Broadway-caliber productions. Quite a few notable names have made an appearance in the theater’s 61-season history, including Oscar winner J. K. Simmons.
2. Embrace Nature On Wild Horse Island
Many years ago, the Salish and Kootenai tribes used Wild Horse Island to pasture their horses and protect them from thieves. For years, the island was part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, but in 1904, it was divided into individual plots of land. Sadly, it didn’t take long for homesteaders to cut down many of the old-growth trees and introduce nonnative plants. Fortunately, there’s more forward-thinking environmental management on the island these days. The island’s bighorn sheep population is capped at 100 members so that the fragile shortgrass prairie is protected from overgrazing. As for the wild horses themselves, in 2013, there were only five mares and one gelding.
Today, Wild Horse Island is a prime destination for swimming, sailing, hiking, and photography. In addition to the horses and sheep, visitors might spot osprey, bald eagles, mule deer, and coyotes. Keep your eyes open for wayward pear and apple trees -- at one point in history, orchards were planted here. However, there is one popular activity that is discouraged: cycling. On this sleepy island, fast bikes might startle the animals.
The island is only accessible by boat, and there are six landing sites for visitors to use. Each of these sites serves as a trailhead, and you’ll find an informational kiosk nearby with helpful information. Note that this is a pet-free destination; this is to protect the sensitive environment and also to keep pets away from the bears who visit the island.
3. Be A Kid Again At Flathead Lake Lodge
Flathead Lake Lodge is like a summer camp for adults. Families and individuals come to this all-inclusive dude ranch from across the U.S. and around the world in order to spend a week or more living like a kid. There are themed weekends and a long itinerary of activities from horseback riding to mountain biking to wakeboarding. Plus, there’s plenty of downtime, and every Wednesday night, there’s a steak fry.
The owners (including one member of the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall and Wall of Fame) prioritize an informal and personable setting. It’s a philosophy that impresses many guests, including Colin Powell, who described the lodge as the best place to meet real Americans. That’s an endorsement that’s hard to argue with!
4. Get A Round In At The Eagle Bend Golf Club
Flathead Lake isn’t all fishing and horses. Golf enthusiasts will want to get a round in at the 27-hole championship course at the Eagle Bend Golf Club. Located on the north shore of Flathead Lake, the course boasts beautiful panoramic views of the distant mountains. Construction on a new clubhouse is underway, with plans for a grand reopening in 2021.
5. Explore The Outdoors With Local Outfitters
Whether you want to explore Flathead Lake, the surrounding forests, or the nearby rivers, you can enjoy it all with Swan Mountain Outfitters. They organize horseback-riding trips, fishing tours, guided hunting excursions, and even wagon rides in the surrounding countryside. Half-day trail rides with lunch start at about $150, while six-day, five-night wilderness vacations begin at $2,425.
If your interests lie strictly with the lake and you want to improve your fishing skills, Flathead Lake Fishing Charters offers half- and full-day fishing tours. They’re an especially nice option for folks traveling without much outdoor gear, since the staff take care of everything, down to cleaning and packaging the trout you’ll inevitably catch.
6. Search For Lake Monsters -- If You Dare
Flathead Lake is a lake of legends, and also of loss. “Flessie” (sometimes called “Flattie”) is the legendary monster of Flathead Lake. Native American folklore tells the story of two girls who discovered antlers protruding from the ice in the winter. Alas, they were not the antlers of a long-dead animal who perished in the lake, but of the very much alive monster, whose unprecedented awakening caused many people to drown.
More recently, 100 or so boat passengers on the USS Grant saw Flessie (or, at the very least, a whale-like creature) in 1889. The feisty monster was particularly active in 1993, when there were 13 separate sightings. To date, there have been 109 documented sightings.
Whether Flessie is a monster or just a misunderstood giant fish, there are very real dangers on Flathead Lake. Swells on the water can top 8 feet during serious storms. The list of those who have perished on the lake includes many whose bodies have never been found. Those who live here know that the lake commands respect -- and caution.
Best Camping Near Flathead Lake
Locals claim that Wayfarers is home to the best sunsets on Flathead Lake. The popular, family-friendly park has great swimming, boating, and wildflowers aplenty, plus easy access to Bigfork’s services and amenities. This park is also ADA accessible and offers 30 campsites with room for RVs up to 40 feet long.
This park is surrounded by cherry orchards and, in season, roadside fruit stands. Some of Yellow Bay’s attractions include boating, lake trout fishing, waterskiing, bird-watching, swimming, camping, and scuba diving. It offers room for just five tents, which are first come, first served.
Home to a popular pebble beach, Big Arm offers visitors the chance to enjoy fishing, board sailing, boating, swimming, camping, picnicking, bicycling, hiking (there’s a 2.5-mile trail), wildlife viewing, scuba diving, and waterskiing. There are 41 campsites, including one that is wheelchair accessible, one group site, and three yurts.
West Shore is a fantastic place to camp if you wish to combine your stay with some paddling. Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours, a concessionaire at the park, offers rental equipment, including stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and pedal boats. The park offers 33 campsites and can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet long.
Flathead National Forest
A short drive from Flathead Lake, Flathead National Forest offers 31 designated camping areas. It’s worth putting in a bit of time to research the different campgrounds, as some are quite basic while others offer Wi-Fi, garbage services, and amenities like volleyball courts.
Dispersed camping is also available throughout the forest for those who want to go off the grid. However, if you’d like a bit more comfort, Flathead National Forest has 14 rental cabins with electricity -- and one even has indoor plumbing. All offer stoves for heating and cooking. History buffs will want to book the Hornet Lookout Cabin, which was built in 1922 as part of a forest fire lookout network.