What’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River? At 28 miles (45 km) in length, 15 miles (24 kilometers) in diameter, 370 ft (113 meters) in its deepest and 124 miles (200 kilometers) of shoreline the response is Flathead Lake, in northwestern Montana. In all, it is almost 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) provide plenty of space for the boater, sailor, swimmer, camper and angler to partake of their favorite water-borne recreation. And for other recreationists, like hikers and mountain bikers, campgrounds, picnic areas and trails scattered along the shore provide views of the lake and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Flathead Lake, at slightly less than 3,000-feet (914 meters) elevation, occupies a basin that was scoured out by a massive glacier about 12,000 years back. The Flathead and Swan Rivers at the northern end are the significant streams that replenish the lake, while the Flathead River drains out of the lake’s southwestern end at the town of Polson.
To reach Polson from the south, you’ll drive through the Flathead Indian Reservation occupied by the Salish (Flathead) and Kootenai tribes. The lake is known for the Flathead Indians, who got their name from the flattened foreheads they would get out of their baby-carrying cradles. The southern half of the lake is within the reservation boundaries. To fish in the southern region of the lake, you’ll need a reservation fishing permit, which is available in the reservation or from sporting goods stores around the lake.
Polson sits on the shore of Polson Bay and contains several boat launch facilities, including the people Sacajawea and Riverside parks. Both parks also have picnic tables. Riverside has the added bonus of overnight camping with electric RV hookups.
For those who enjoy a narrated tour of the lake, the 41-foot (12.5 meters) Port Polson Princess takes passengers on horseback cruises daily from about June 1 through September 30 starting from KwaTaqNuK Resort in Polson, at 49708 US Hwy 93 E, Polson, MT 59860. The on-board guides are eager to point out notable landmarks along the lakeshore and to share their knowledge of the natural history of the lake. Four tours are scheduled daily, including a three-hour cruise around Wild Horse and Bird islands and three 1-1/2 hour cruises. It is best to make reservations beforehand by calling 800-882-6363.
Their phone number is -LRB-406-RRB-883-3049. Here, you are brought in contact with the pioneering era through screens such as a homesteader kitchen, the ranch wreck (or chuck) wagon, military artifacts and steamboat memorabilia.
Before the Great Northern Railroad reached the valley in 1892, steamboats did a thriving business ferrying passengers and freight to points all along the lakeshore. And do not forget to ogle the “Flathead Monster”, a 181-pound 7-1/2-foot-long (82 kilograms, 2.3 meters) white sturgeon captured in 1965. The museum, does not charge admission, but they appreciate donations.
South of Polson is the town of Pablo, Montana, where it is possible to use the services of Native Ed-Ventures, which provides visitors a personal tour guide to the local indigenous cultures and cultural events, like pow-wows at the lake. Their address is Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855, telephone number is -LRB-800-RRB-883-5344.
Heading north from Polson, your reach Big Arm Bay and its units of the Flathead Lake State Park – Big Arm, Elmo and, in the mouth of this bay, Wild Horse Island.
This is the largest island in Flathead Lake in 2,134 acres (864 hectares) and, in fact, is among the largest islands in the inland United States. Privately owned before the country bought it in 1978-79, several private lots and homes remain on the island. Otherwise the country has left the rest of the island as wilderness.
It was named for the horses that the Flathead and Pend Oreille Indians kept there as protection from Blackfeet raids. To give the practice a present connection, Montana maintains a population of wild horses on the island.
Aside from the wild horses, the island is well known for its bighorn sheep, which number around 200. Among those predatory in nature, bald eagles live and nest on the island and coyotes and mink search the woods, plains and rocky shores for their meals. It is also home to the endangered Palouse prairie plant species.
Wild Horse island is available for day-use only by rental or private boat. Wild Horse and its neighbor to the south, Melita Island, form a channel that local anglers call “Mackinaw Alley” because of the lake trout that linger here at the 100-foot (30 meters) and deeper depths. Fishing around the island, however, requires the tribal license.
The town of Somers, in the northern end of the lake, was a significant port for steamboat traffic. 1 reason for this was the huge lumber mill that operated here in the early 20th century. Somers is still an integral spot for watercraft because it is home to the largest sailing fleet in this end of the lake, also it is the home of the Far West tour boat; -LRB-406-RRB-857-3203.
They are located at 7220 U.S. 93 S, Lakeside, MT 59922, telephone number is -LRB-406-RRB-844-2628.
For a side trip from Flathead Lake, head north from Somers for seven miles on Highway 93 and you’ll get to the full service town of Kalispell. Restock your larder here from supermarkets, gas stations, malls, restaurants and other businesses.
When you’ve done that, you can pay homage to the creator of this bustling city by visiting the Conrad Mansion six blocks east of Main at 4th Street. Fully furnished with original family possessions, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the most authentic turn-of-the-century home in the Pacific Northwest.
While you’re in Kalispell, you could also pick up recreational information for the 2.3-million acre (930,777 hectares) Flathead National Forest in the main office, 650 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell, MT 59901. You’ll find the office for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its own information on state parks at 490 North Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901, -LRB-406-RRB-752-5501.
On your way back to Flathead Lake, grab Highway 82 north of Somers and head east toward Bigfork. Watch for the nest platforms of osprey that game officials have established atop telephone poles right alongside the road. Osprey eggs hatch around mid-June, and the fledglings are ready to check their wings by late July.
That also happens to be the time to enjoy the Flathead area’s most prized delicacy – the huckleberry. The National Forest lands around Flathead’s shores offer the best spots for berry picking, but State lands have tomatoes for picking. Request at the National Forest and State Park offices in Kalispell for the best places. In abundant years, you might have the ability to purchase huckleberries at farmer’s markets, some grocery stores in the region and a few roadside stands.
The fantastic place to get a taste of huckleberries, in preserved form, is in Bigfork.
Eva Gates began her huckleberry business in 1949 with her grandmother’s recipe, and they put up the preserves by precisely the identical recipe in the same smallish batches. They also make huckleberry jelly and syrup. Apart from huckleberry’s, Eva Gates also makes preserves from cherries, spiced apple, strawberry, raspberries, black caps (which is a kind of raspberry) and several kinds of syrups.
Just south of Bigfork on the lakeshore, you will find Montana’s most popular state park, Wayfarer. With 30 campsites, boat ramp and a shore, the state park is a take-off point for waterborne recreation. In the far end of the picnic area, a stone outcropping dotted with junipers provides a vista point of the lake.
South of Wayfarer on Highway 35, you will drive past roadside stands that might sell huckleberries in season. But, about the same time that the wild huckleberries are coming in, so are the bing cherries. The east shore of Flathead Lake has all the valley’s cherry orchards and most of the fruit stands. Some orchardists also raise raspberries, strawberries, apricots, pears and grapes.
In the center of this orchard country, you’ll find the oldest biological station in the country. In Yellow Bay, University of Montana researchers study the lake’s freshwater fish and habitat, including lake (up to 30 pounds), cutthroat, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout as well as Kokanee salmon, perch, whitefish and bass. The station is open to people. Coincidentally, Flathead Lake’s deepest purpose, at 370 feet, is at Yellow Bay, which is also the site of the state park with a boat ramp and a shore.