A guide to exploring the remarkable body of water that brought many of us here but too often gets lost in the bustle of summer

By Myers Reece – Photos By Lido Vizzutti
You’d think Flathead Lake would be hard to overlook. It’s the largest natural freshwater lake in the Western U.S., stretching nearly 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, with 160 miles of shoreline. It’s the soul of the Flathead Valley. Yet, we often do forget about it, or simply take it for granted.

But when you bring a visitor up Highway 93 and the lake comes into view near Polson, look at your friend’s face. You’ll recognize the expression, because it’s the same awe that lit up your eyes the first time you saw the lake. It’s the reason many of us are here. And that wide-eyed wonder never actually disappears, even if the years store it away somewhere hidden within us.

There’s a lot to do in Northwest Montana, and much of it takes people away from Flathead Lake. And if you don’t own a boat or waterfront property, it’s easy to tell yourself that the lake isn’t for you. So we look for fun elsewhere, and summer days fill up with trips to Glacier or excursions to less crowded bodies of water. Hiking trails lead us into the mountains, veering away from the valley floor. The big lake – the epicenter of it all – gets left behind, forgotten for another day.

But let’s try to remember it this summer. Let’s not forget how we felt when we first encountered this grand piece of water. Let’s find that feeling again, wherever it is inside us. Let’s start today.

Flathead-Lake-2

Boaters come and go from the dock at The Raven while diners enjoy the sunset over Flathead Lake from the lakeside deck.

LAKE CULTURE

When I came to the valley eight years ago, I heard legends of the Flathead Lake Monster and immediately sought out a suitable bar for research purposes. I stopped by The Raven on the Woods Bay shoreline and ordered a stiff cocktail, scanning the lake horizon for a giant serpent head. Defeated, I ordered another research beverage, and then another, still keeping my eyes peeled for the water beast. After my fourth drink, I was fairly certain I saw it. Then, after my seventh or eighth, I think I swam with it.

I’ve been diligently returning to The Raven ever since. Though I’ve never been able to reconfirm that early monster magic, I’ve built up a lot of goodwill and large tabs, and I haven’t regretted a second of it. If you spend a sunset there, you don’t need to see a mythical creature to know there’s magic in the water.

East Shore

The Raven offers a glimpse of the essential spirit of modern Flathead Lake. You get the views, the warm summer breezes swirling off the water’s surface, the panorama of 21st century lake life: swimsuit-clad partiers and sunscreen-soaked families mingling happily at the pier, where they climb out of boats on their merry way to a cold beverage and good meal.

After absorbing that scene, you realize how unique the Flathead is among the Rockies. It’s a culture built on big water; it’s a mountain beach community. It’s the coast with freshwater. But it’s also unmistakably Montana.

To that point, The Raven embodies the ideal marriage of old and new Montana: a gathering spot for both locals and tourists, where the owners freely incorporate their worldly whims without crowding out the West. Carhartts and bikinis are equally welcome. The pad Thai somehow fits perfectly next to the yak meatloaf.

Next door to The Raven is the Sitting Duck Saloon, and across the street is the original Flathead Lake Brewing Company, one of the most respected microbreweries in the state. The taproom fills up fast, but if you can’t find a table you can always head north to the brewery’s newest location, situated in a renovated bowling alley on Bigfork Bay.

The Bigfork brewpub is newly opened and promises to be an idyllic summer destination, serving the same great beer that has given the brewery its high standing in the craft brewing world, plus some new ones from head brewmaster Tim Jacoby. The spacious building has a restaurant with a deck area overlooking the lake.

On the south end of the east shore, in the Finley Point area, is a pair of restaurants with loyal local followings. The East Shore Smokehouse offers classic barbecue fare like St. Louis style ribs and brisket, along with the highly recommended smoked prime rib. Nearby Finley Point Grill sums up all you need to know on its sign: steaks, chops and seafood.

West Shore

Most of the lake’s offerings on this side are stacked on the northernmost end in Somers and Lakeside or the southernmost point in Polson. There are a few waterfront options in Polson, including the KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino, which has a restaurant, an assortment of gambling opportunities, and its own tour boat that holds up to 150 people. The boat offers three lake tours per day.

Forty miles north in Lakeside is the Tamarack Brewing Company, a hugely popular year-round mainstay for locals and tourists alike. In addition to serving its own handcrafted beer, the Tamarack highlights brews from around the state. It also has a full liquor bar, plus a diverse food menu with steaks, pastas, Mexican food, and more. Check its website for special evenings such as trivia night and live music.

A few blocks north across the street is the new Acqua Pazza, which serves Italian fare in the former location of The Docks. Acqua Pazza is closed until June 15 but then open for the rest of the summer.

Just north on Highway 93, take a right turn to find the Somers Bay Café. Located in an old bank building constructed in 1905, the café has become a vital hub for the surrounding community and hungry passersby. It’s a great breakfast and lunch destination.

Red Lapin cherries speckle the leafy-green branches of cherry trees surrounding the Glacier Fresh Orchards facility on the east side of Flathead Lake.

Red Lapin cherries speckle the leafy-green branches of cherry trees surrounding the Glacier Fresh Orchards facility on the east side of Flathead Lake.

Other Highlights

If you’re a wine enthusiast, it’d be worth your time to stop by Mission Mountain Winery in Dayton, accessible from the highway or the lake. Mission Mountain opened over 30 years ago, making it the oldest bonded winery in the state. It has earned national and global recognition, winning over 100 international medals, including quite a few top prizes.

The tasting room is open May through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with hours extended until 6 p.m. in July and August.

And if you want to learn more about the lake itself, specifically its ecology, the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, a research institution on Yellow Bay, welcomes the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center encourages visitors to call ahead to arrange a guided tour of its research facilities.

On July 14 in Lakeside, the biological station is holding a Flathead Lake research cruise. The cost is $50 per person, with proceeds benefiting its research and monitoring program. There is limited space, so reservations are required. The center is also hosting an open house on Aug. 5, with tours of the campus, exhibits, presentations by scientists, and boat trips. For more information, contact Tom Bansak at (406) 982-3301.

Summer on Flathead Lake offers no shortage of events, from concerts to sailing races to cherry festivals. To see what else is on tap, check in with www.flatheadevents.net.

The Far West pulls into place along the Lakeside Marina after an evening cruise around Flathead Lake.

The Far West pulls into place along the Lakeside Marina after an evening cruise around Flathead Lake.

OUTDOORS

During summer, traffic on Highway 93 can get overwhelming. The sun is bearing down on us, reflecting blindingly off the cars that snake bumper to bumper along the periphery of Flathead Lake. The apocalypse has arrived, and it’s sweatier than we even imagined. Over on Highway 35, the situation’s not much better. Patience is running thin. Maybe it’s time to pull off for a self-imposed timeout.

Depending where you find yourself, there are quite a few options for a lakeside breath of fresh air, maybe a dip in the water. First and foremost, there are six state parks located on the lake. They are among the most popular of Montana’s 54 state parks, with five directly on the lake’s perimeter and another – Wild Horse Island – literally on the lake.

Flathead Lake as seen from Finley Point State Park.

Flathead Lake as seen from Finley Point State Park.

East Shore Parks

It would be a summer day finely spent to hit all three state parks on the east shore, while working your way through acres of cherry orchards that flank each side of Highway 35. You can hit up the many cherry stands and eat to your heart’s content, which, if you have stronger self-discipline than I do, should stop somewhere short of debilitating stomach cramps.

The southernmost park is Finley Point State Park, nestled four miles off Highway 35. Finley Point’s location lends it an aura of seclusion, and it particularly caters to boats and RVs. It has 16 RV campsites, four boat camping slips with water and electric hookups, 12 boat camping slips without electricity, and walk-in tent sites.

Less than 15 miles north is Yellow Bay State Park, the smallest of the lake parks. Located in the heart of Flathead’s cherry country, the park is only 15 acres and has five tent campsites. Its gravel beach offers beautiful lake views and swimming opportunities. If you’re interested in fishing, remember that all state parks on the south half of the lake require joint tribal licenses.

Farther north, just outside of Bigfork, is Wayfarers State Park, a bustling hub of summer water recreation. The 67-acre park has a long shoreline dotted with picnic tables. There are 40 camping spots total, including 10 hike-bike sites geared toward touring cyclists.

Often overlooked are Wayfarers’ hiking trails, which veer into shaded forest and along rocky cliffs that provide some of the best views anywhere on the lake. The area is laden with wildflowers, too. It’s a great place to give your pup – or just yourself – a dual outing in the woods and water.

A full moon rises over sailboats competing in a North Flathead Lake Yacht Club Friday night race on Flathead Lake.

A full moon rises over sailboats competing in a North Flathead Lake Yacht Club Friday night race on Flathead Lake.

West Shore Parks

Big Arm State Park is the west shore’s southernmost park. At 217 acres, it’s the biggest of the lake’s non-island state parks. A lengthy pebble beach follows along the turquoise-toned water that’s often found throughout this stretch of lake. Over 70 campsites, including 44 with electricity, are scattered throughout ponderosa pines. And a 2.5-mile hiking trail provides vistas of the lake and surrounding mountain peaks, as well as wildlife viewing.

Big Arm is unique in offering yurts. These canvassed circular dwellings hold the promise of moderately priced roofed comfort that delicately, yet ably, straddles the line between house and tent. The walls and roof keep the elements at bay without killing the camping vibe.

Big Arm is also a jumping-off point for Wild Horse Island State Park, which is only accessible by boat. Wild Horse is the largest western freshwater island at 2,160 acres. It derives its name from wild horses that still inhabit the island in small numbers.

The park is also known for its bighorn sheep and other wildlife, as well as rare plant species of the Palouse Prairie grasslands. You have to get there by water, but once you’re there you should put your feet to work and explore this ecologically diverse outpost.

West Shore State Park, a few miles south of Lakeside, is a personal favorite day-trip destination. The park encompasses 129 acres of mostly pine, fir and larch forest, with 31 campsites. Both the scenery of the lake backdrop and the park itself are beautiful, with picnic tables scattered along a trail that parallels the rocky shoreline. If you’re able to snag one of the tables during the busy summer tourism season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better picnic and swimming spot anywhere in the valley that’s so accessible.

Polson also has a nicely kept stretch of city parks in town, wrapping around the bay to Salish Point near the KwaTaqNuk Resort. Between Riverside and Sacajawea parks, there’s ample access to beaches and docks, including ones specifically designed for swimmers and others for boats.

Hiking Trails

In addition to trails found at state parks, there are other day hikes that take you away from the summer congestion into the quiet of lakeside forest. You can access four from a single location on the east shore.

Heading south from Bigfork, drive through Woods Bay and turn right into the Beardance Trailhead parking lot just past mile marker 23. Flathead Lake Interpretive Trail No. 77 begins there, descending somewhat sharply toward the lake before looping back around over a creek via footbridge and then back uphill for a total distance of under a half-mile. Along the trail there are access points to the lake and, depending on the water level, an expansive rocky beach area.

Across the highway from the parking lot is the trailhead for Beardance Trail, a multi-use route popular for mountain biking. The 6.7-mile path climbs 2,200 feet in elevation and intersects with two other trails: 2.1-mile Crane Creek and 3.8-mile Phillips, which climb 330 and 660 feet, respectively.

A swimmer reaches out to the cold waters of Flathead Lake while diving near the Somers boat access.

A swimmer reaches out to the cold waters of Flathead Lake while diving near the Somers boat access.

More Exploring

If you’d prefer to see the lake from horseback, Flathead Lake Lodge offers daily trail rides open to the public, with prices beginning at $45 for an hour.

And if you’d rather actually be on the lake, there are numerous boat rental companies, including Flathead Boat Company and Riverside Boat Rentals out of Polson, Bigfork Water Sports, and Wild Wave Rentals out of Lakeside. The Dayton Yacht Harbor offers sailboat rentals and sailing school.

Also, Far West Boat Tours out of Lakeside conducts daily tours ($22 adults, $10 children) and is available for private charters of groups up to 149 passengers.

Bird watchers, or really any nature lovers, should check out the Flathead Waterfowl Production Area, located on the lake’s north shore off of Highway 82 between Somers and Bigfork. Encompassing over 2,000 acres, this federally managed site offers critical protected habitat for a wide array of bird species, as well as opportunities for the public to view those birds.

Please note that the area is closed to the public between March 1 and July 15 to protect ground nesting birds. For more information, call the refuge manager at (406) 858-2216 or visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Northwest_Montana_Flathead_County_WMD/visit/rules_and_regulations.html.