Experience the lake life on overdrive when you visit western Montana’s gorgeously tranquil Flathead Lake, a freshwater wonderland that plays host to an abundance of activities and claims one of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots in Montana.
Growing up, our mom spoke so highly of Flathead Lake that we were all convinced we would live there when we grew up because surely there was no better place. And though none of us ended up there, I do like weekend getaways to Flathead Lake and consider it to be one of the most special parts of Montana.
About Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake offers a wide range of recreational activities that attract visitors the world over. It’s a large natural freshwater lake in Montana that spans over 200 square miles and offers a stunning perspective along its 185 miles of shoreline.
It exists as a result of the flooding of the prehistoric Glacial Lake Missoula during the ice age. Flathead Lake is the largest natural water source on the west side of the Continental Divide. The lake intersects Mission Mountains on its east side and the Salish Mountains on the west.
Overview of Flathead Lake Activities
With several public access sites around the lake, Flathead Lake offers countless activities for visitors of all interest levels. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks operates sites along the lake that have various camping and swimming opportunities plus picnic shelters and restrooms. There are also many boat launches located around the lake.
For anyone interested in a wide range of Flathead Lake activities the state recreation areas are a great choice: Elmo, Big Arm, Finley Point, Walstad Memorial Park, Yellow Bay, Woods Bay, and Wayfarer are among the public access sites that offer full amenities for picnicking, swimming, camping, doing watersports, fishing, and boating.
Adventurous visitors to Flathead Lake looking for one-day activities will enjoy Wildhorse Island. Wildhorse Island is on the west shore of the lake, spans over 2,000 acres and is only accessible by boat. This makes it an ideal day-trip activity to Flathead Lake for visitors looking for a serene, relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
Flathead Lake Fishing
For visitors looking for things to do both in and on the water, Flathead Lake offers countless fishing and boating opportunities. Visitors interested in fishing will enjoy finding some prime fishing spots off the lake towns of Somers and Big Fork, or by Sportsmans Bridge.
Anglers will appreciate the abundant trout fishing activities offered at Flathead Lake. Those interested in excellent trout fishing will have good luck trolling the deep waters of the lake. During the spawning season, they can visit the shallow bays of Flathead Lake with excellent results.
There is more than just trout in Flathead Lake, though. Visitors will appreciate the various variety of fish within the lake, making any fishing trip to Flathead Lake an exciting endeavor. In addition to trout, the lake is home to pike, whitefish, rainbow trout, yellow perch, bass, Kokanee salmon, and the massive lake trout, usually weighing in between eight to 20 pounds.
With boat launches at several parks along the lake, visitors can either bring their own fishing boat, rent one from a local marina, or join a charter trip.
For those not interested in fishing but still looking for Flathead Lake activities on the water, recreational inflatable boats, inflatable kayaks, and paddleboards do well along the shore.
Flathead Boat Rentals + Where to Rent Watersports Gear
Arrowhead RV Park and Marina, Bigfork Marina and Boat Center, Big Arm Lakeside Marina, and Marina Cay Resort all have boat rentals, plus boating supplies you can rent for the day. You can also visit these Flathead Lake boat rental companies to rent some recreational water toys like kayaks or paddleboards.
Flathead Lake Swimming Holes and Beaches
The pristine waters of Flathead Lake make it an ideal spot for in-water activities. Flathead Lake waters are among the cleanest and clearest in the world.
Along the southern shore, Salish Point, located in the small city of Polson, offers an ideal open-water swimming area. Families will enjoy the roped off, contained swimming spot.
The beach extends about 100 feet out from the shore. Because there are no dining options on-site, it is recommended that visitors bring in their own food and drinks for a fun picnic on the beach.
If you are spending a lot of time in the water, it’s wise to bring or rent a wetsuit. The lake consists of glacial water and so it’s quite cold, even in the summer.
Kayaking on Flathead Lake
We mentioned kayak rentals earlier and now it’s time to talk a bit more about this popular Flathead Lake activity.
Kayak rentals are located in all of the major towns around the lake. You can rent them for a few hours, the whole day, or even a week.
One of the best places to paddle your kayak around is on the Flathead Lake Marine Trail.
The Flathead Lake Marine Trail is a series of waterways and stopping points around the lake that feature some of the best parts of Flathead Lake. You can pick up maps of the trail at the visitor center, and most boat rental shops will also likely have maps on hand.
Because of the many different routes and miles you can do, the trail works for both experienced kayakers and beginners. Those who are skilled in navigating a kayak may enjoy the more challenging routes that go through rocky water less shielded by the elements, while the routes that are closer to shore with forested terrain keeping the water calmer is more ideal for beginners.
The Flathead Lake Marine Trail also has access points and campgrounds only for those traversing the lake with hand-powered vessels, meaning these spots are off limits to anything with a gas or electric motor, making for a more relaxing activity for paddlers.
Staying at one of these campgrounds and doing a multi-day paddle is a great way to really experience the wonder and beauty of Flathead Lake.
Flathead Lake Hiking
Hikers visiting Flathead Lake will appreciate the abundant trail paths within the state parks on the reservation.
The Flathead Lake trail is a fun activity for novice hikers. Both the Jewel Basin Hiking Area near Bigfork and Pablo National Wildlife Refuge near Polson are popular hiking destinations.
Horseback Riding by Flathead Lake
The High Country Trail Ride is a guided, 2-hour horseback trail ride on a large family ranch near Kalispell and is a great way to get up close and personal with animals in a controlled environment.
Day Trip to Glacier National Park
For the most impressive views of Big Sky Country, consider a Red Bus Tour along Going to the Sun Road. Going to the Sun Road cuts between Two Dog Flats and St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier National Park. Spanning over 50 miles, it offers impressive views of waterfalls, glaciers, and mountains. Red Bus Tours feature an open-top so visitors see received an expansive perspective.
Camping Fun at Flathead Lake
Campers will enjoy the wealth of opportunity for some outdoor sleeping around Flathead Lake.
The campground at Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork is a popular one; it is located a short 3-minute drive from the downtown area of Bigfork. This campground offers optimal privacy with lush foliage among the dense trees between campsites. It has both tent campsites and RV sites, though the latter can’t be more than 50 feet in length. With multiple walking trails and swimming and boating facilities, it’s a great family-friendly campsite.
Yellow Bay State Park on the west shore also has a coveted campground. Yellow Bay State Park is located between Big Fork and Polson. Yellow Bay State Park has limited tent camping sites so reservations are recommended. You also won’t find RV hookups at this site. What you will find are serene surrounding and an ideal spot close to the water so you can easily jump in and take a swim.
Those with a boat will like Finleys Point Campground on the southeast side of the lake since it has four boat slips available — reserve early to ensure you can pull you boat right up to the campground! This is also a popular campground due to its gorgeous location at the end of a small little peninsula jutting out into the lake.
Flathead Lake Museums
Many visitors seek out educational activities while visiting Flathead Lake to learn more about the interesting culture and history of the area.
The People’s Center
Museums chronicling this history, culture, and geography are in abundance around Flathead Lake. The People’s Center (Sqelixw-AqlSmaknik) introduces visitors to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). This includes the Salish, Pend d’Orielle and Kootenai tribes. Much of the culture of the tribes is passed down orally. As such, this museum allows the tribes to protect their rich heritage and culture and preserve its history. The museum includes an exhibit gallery and educational programs designed to showcase the tribes in their own voice. The Flathead Indian Reservation is home to these tribes who have made this area of Montana their home for thousands of years.
The Polson Flathead Historical Museum
Step back in time to The Polson Flathead Historical Museum to learn what farming, ranching, and living on the Flathead Indian Reservation was like when it was opened to homesteaders in 1910. Visitors will discover information about the Native tribes living here prior to that and be immersed in life in the 1800s.
Northwest Montana History Museum
Northwest Montana History Museum in downtown Kalispell is housed in a building that served as various schools over the last 220 years. Exhibits here help visitors explore the vast history of the Flathead Valley Region. Get a close hand look at the lives of the American Indians of Northwest Montana. This museum has many hands-on activities and visitors will especially find interesting the exhibit depicting the lives and trials of sawmill operators and a timeline of the logging industry in the area, which dates back to the late 1870s.
Farmer’s Markets and Berry Picking
In the Summer months, outstanding swimming opportunities coupled with an abundance of local fresh produce are a big draw. Roadside stands along the east shore of Flathead Lake sell fruits and vegetables throughout the day. Consider stopping by before a beach day to pick up locally grown apples, plums, and cherries. There are also some u-pick farms where you can handpick your own fruit.
Cherries are especially sought after. Flathead Lake Cherries are famous for their large size and sweet taste. If you’re there during cherry season, you’d be remiss not to get a basket of cherries and try some! You’ll likely be going back for more.
Once you have some fresh fruit on hand, continue on with your exploring of gorgeous Flathead Lake, while feeling like you’ve experienced the culture of the area; a simple gesture like visiting farmers’ markets or roadside produce stands while on vacation can help to make you feel like you’re even one of the locals for the day! Plus, travelers often come away with a deeper appreciation for the nature they’re surrounded by when connected by the food it produces.
Where to Stay in Flathead Lake
Visitors looking for a less rustic camping experience on Flathead Lake will appreciate the abundant amenities. There are motels and cabins available for rent along the shoreline. Neighboring towns of Kalispell, Bigfork, and Polson offer everything needed to make a visit to Flathead Lake comfortable. It is important to note that recreationists taking part in Flathead Lake activities must purchase a tribal recreation permit.
Doing Flathead Lake Activities Will Elevate Your Experience
Flathead Lake offers visitors countless activities. Whether you are an adventure seeker or just like soaking in gorgeous views from the shoreline, you’ll find the perfect pastime in Flathead Lake, and doing these activities will help to create new travel memories you’ll treasure for years to come.