Things to Do at Swan Lake in Montana’s Flathead Valley
Swan Lake is an under-the-radar Montana gem, and if you happen to stumble upon it you’ll wonder why it’s not widely talked about due to its alpine beauty and the many different activities you can partake in while there.
Often overshadowed by nearby Flathead Lake and Whitefish Lake, the serene beauty of Swan Lake is a long, narrow lake made even better by the fact it is often devoid of crowds. Accommodation isn’t as prevalent near Swan Lake, but it is totally worth a day trip if you’re staying near those other aforementioned resort towns.
While on vacation in Bigfork, my family and I did a day trip to Swan Lake simply because we wanted somewhere warmer and calmer than Flathead Lake, which was still way too chilly in July and with rocky waves from the rainy weather earlier in the week.
Typically driving somewhere when you could just walk to a similar location is more headache than it’s worth in my opinion – but not in Swan Lake.
I was stunned we could just drive up to the day use area of the state park and immediately find a parking spot right next to a short path leading to the lake. It made paddle boarding so easy! And when we were done we even had our own private little beach to hang out on, which leads me to my first Swan Lake activity.
Beach Area for Swimming and Picnics
At the Swan Lake day use area, you’ll notice that there are several little parking lots. Each of these leads to its own little beach area with picnic tables. I would estimate each section of beach is about 25 to 40 feet long and each one is separated from the other beaches by a thin layer of trees.
While there’s no guarantee you’ll have a beach to yourself, it’s possible (like the day we were there) and makes for a truly unique lake experience that is relaxing and especially great for families.
We launched our paddle boards at one end where there was another family splashing about and another enjoying some food on the picnic bench. When we paddled back to the day use area, we noticed a little beach a few spots down that was empty so pulled up or paddle boards there to let my daughters splash about on the shoreline and do some swimming.
When it was time to go, it took just a minute to paddle/walk back to our original beach area in order to access the trail to our car, but the whole time we were swimming it felt like we had the place to ourselves!
Boating on Swan Lake
While we could just put our paddle boards in the water from any beach, if you have a boat you’ll want to head to the boat launch area, which you’ll see right after entering the Swan Lake State Park day use area.
Drop off the boat in the water and then move the trailer to the overflow lot right across the street. It makes for a simple day of boating and a peaceful one; when we were there, it was a gorgeous sunny late afternoon the Thursday before a Friday holiday due to the 4th of July weekend and there was hardly anyone else on the lake.
The lack of other boats means it’s a great lake to do some water skiing or wakeboarding.
Kayaking and Canoeing on Swan Lake
Similar to paddle boarding, kayaking and canoeing on Swan Lake can be easily done from one of the little beaches in the day use area.
If you just need a spot to put your equipment in the water and don’t want to have to worry about swimmers, try one of the last parking lots you’ll come to in the day use area. We noticed those don’t have as great of a beach area so won’t be as busy while you’re getting your equipment ready for a day of canoeing or kayaking on Swan Lake.
Hiking Near Swan Lake
Swan Lake is close to many hiking trails, particularly near the southeast end of the lake. As you drive along the scenic Mount Hwy 83 highway to get to Swan Lake, you’ll notice several signs for hiking trailheads.
If you want lake views, opt for the scenic Sixmile Sidehill Trail, which veers off from Sixmile Lookout Trail, and runs parallel to the lake. Sixmile Sidehill Trail has gorgeous views of the Swan Lake along a trail of moderate inclines and declines.
To connect with this trail, you’ll start at the trailhead for Sixmile Lookout Trail, a much more challenging hike that goes up to the top of Sixmile mountain, and has panoramic views in all directions for those who make the ascent.
Swan Lake Camping
The Swan Lake Day Use area is adjacent to a campground…but you’ll have to cross Hwy 83 to get to it, so don’t expect lakefront campsites. That being said, it’s still a lovely campground located in the Flathead National Forest and is a short walk to the lake. Or you can pack up your car and drive over there and have free parking due to being a campground guest.
If you prefer your privacy or wide open spaces, go to the part of the campground along the Ponderosa Loop, which has larger campsites and more open space. The campsites along the Birch Loop of the campground, on the other hand, has smaller sites with more trees, which helps for shade as well as the comfort of being near other people if you prefer that when camping.
You can reserve up to six months in advance for individual campsites. There are also a few offered on a first come, first serve basis, but expect to get there early to get one during peak season.
Fishing in Swan Lake
Swan Lake is great for fishing fanatics. You can cast a line from your boat while in the lake for the chance to catch one of the many types of trout that reside in Swan Lake, including rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and brook trout. Anglers also might catch northern pike, yellow perch, or mountain whitefish.
If you want to try to catch some salmon, you’re just a short drive away from Swan River, a perfect place to try your hand at fly fishing and where Kokanee Salmon are often swimming.
You’ll need a Montana fishing license, which you can get through fwp.mt.gov or in person at Swan Lake Trading Post in the town of Swan Lake, Ferndale Market in Bigfork, or Sportsman and Ski Haus in Whitefish. There are several other places around Flathead Valley where you can get fishing licenses if those locations aren’t convenient for you, as well as around the rest of Montana.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding on Swan Lake
And last but not least, as I mentioned in the beginning of the article, I love Swan Lake for paddle boarding! If you love paddle boarding, too, I think you’ll also love the easy access and beautiful scenery that Swan Lake has.
Swan Lake, Montana Winter Activities
Headed to Swan Lake in the winter? It’s obviously a very different vibe there in the winter months, but you can still find some fun and adventure in the Swan Lake area.
Swan Lake is a great place for ice fishing when conditions are right for it. Remember that you’ll still need a Montana fishing license in the winter.
Snowmobiling is also a popular pastime around Swan Lake and the rest of the Flathead Valley.
For groomed trails specifically for snowmobiling, head to the Crane Mountain Snowmobile Trail located in Flathead National Forest.
For a guided snowmobiling excursion, check out Swan Mountain Snowmobiling, an outfitter that offers rentals and tours.
Another popular thing to do around Swan Lake in the winter is cross-country skiing. The Flathead Valley is home to several cross-country skiing trails that are groomed daily. A couple that stand out are Bigfork Community Nordic Ski Trails in Bigfork and the Glacier Nordic Center in Whitefish. If you want to be closer to Swan Lake, check out trails within the Flathead National Forest that borders the eastern side of Swan Lake.
Does it Cost Money to Visit Swan Lake, Montana?
The day use area of Swan Lake costs $5. Upon entering the day use area where you’ll see the boat launch, there is an informational board you’ll see right before you turn to access the beach and swim areas. On this board is a place to pay with an envelope you’ll need to fill out and another section you pull off and put on your dashboard.
There are park employees who drive around and check if you’ve paid, so save yourself any hassle and do so beforehand.
Where Exactly is the Swan Lake Day Use Area?
Getting to the Day Use Area (search for Swan Lake Day Park on Google if you’re having trouble finding it) is easy. Just follow Hwy 83 to the southeast corner of the lake and you’ll soon see signs for the day use area, which is right across Hwy 83 from the Swan Lake Campground.
For further reference, the Swan Lake Day Use area is just a few minutes north of the town of Swan Lake. So if you’re driving north on Hwy 83, once you pass through Swan Lake, stay on the lookout for the day use entrance on your left. If driving south on Hwy 83, you’ll need to look for the entrance to your right; if you come to the town of Swan Lake, you’ve gone too far.
Are There Any Facilities at Swan Lake Day Use Park?
The Swan Lake Picnic and Beach Area has restroom facilities, potable water, and trash receptacles.
Where to Stay in Swan Lake, Montana
I mentioned earlier there aren’t quite as many places to stay around this lake as others nearby, but there are still excellent options. In addition to the Swan Lake Campground, Airbnbs and vacation rentals are located around the lake. Another popular option is Laughing Horse Lodge, which is located right in the town of Swan Lake and feels like a rustic, mountain getaway.
Have a great time in Swan Lake, Montana!
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