Float, fish and find adventure along the Swan River

Story and photography by Greg Lindstrom
As the spring sun wakes up life throughout the Swan Valley, water from the Swan River feeds a frenzy of outdoor activities. From fishing to floating, camping to wildlife viewing, the many profiles of the valley offer adventure of every type for the spring traveler.

The Swan River flows 95 miles from Gray Wolf Lake in the Mission Mountains before emptying into Bigfork Bay along Flathead Lake.

From its headwaters at Gray Wolf Lake, which sits at 6,650 feet in the Missions, the Swan River cascades down to the valley floor where it begins a long meander toward Swan Lake. Montana Highway 83 roughly parallels this stretch of river, and several Forest Service roads offer fishing and camping access to the Swan or its many tributaries. Log jams along this upper section make floating more challenging, but the obstacles offer plenty of habitat for native cutthroat trout.

At the outlet of the 10-mile long Swan Lake, the river picks up speed as it flows toward Flathead Lake. This is a popular stretch for inner tubes in the warm summer months, but in the spring kayakers can have fun navigating the higher flows.

Below the Bigfork Dam the river becomes a cacophony of whitewater in the spring as snowmelt rushes toward the calm waters of Flathead Lake. This “Wild Mile” is home to the Bigfork Whitewater Festival on May 28-29.

Getting there: From Kalispell, head south on U.S. 93 and turn left after eight miles onto Montana Highway 82. Turn right onto Highway 35 near the town of Bigfork, and then take an immediate left onto Highway 83. Highway 83 roughly parallels the river for 55 miles to Lindbergh Lake Road.