Montana's Flathead Lake

Flat Out Beautiful

By Pat Piper

Photo of Flathead Lake, Montana

Now here's a place so special that the locals prefer we not even write about it, fearing we'll encourage too many folks to visit. They'd dearly love to keep this American jewel a secret all to themselves.

Montana's Flathead Lake comes with lots of statistics: With its 161-mile shoreline, it's the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi; one of the 300 largest lakes in the world; and it's more than 380 feet deep, just to name a few. But these numbers don't do justice to the most-talked-about Flathead characteristic: It is stunning.

"People are surprised by Flathead Lake," local resident Robert McDonald will tell you. "It's water surrounded by mountains that is untouched, clear, and pristine. They'll be on a boat or on a raft and look down and see rocks and then look again and realize the rocks are 12 feet beneath the water. They always tell me they don't have clear water like this in the Midwest or on the East Coast."

McDonald is spokesman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who manage the Flathead Indian Reservation on the southern half of the lake. Under an agreement known as the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, the tribes own 1.3 million acres of the more than 20 million acres on which they originally lived. Because of this, anglers will need to obtain a south Flathead Lake tribal license, which costs $12 and is available at most water-related businesses along the shoreline.

The View From Here

Map of Flathead Lake, Montana

From Flathead Lake, there's usually a snow-capped mountain in sight. To the north, you'll see the peaks from the 1.4-million-acre and century-old Glacier National Park. The Mission Mountains reaching almost 6,000 feet high are visible in the east and the mile-high Salish Mountains are to the west. The Swan and Flathead Rivers, fed by water from the snow-capped peaks on either side, empty into the lake near Bigfork along the northeast shoreline, and the result is clear and frigid water.

"It's a large body of cold water", notes McDonald, "and I get a kick out of watching children run and dive into the lake while their parents don't even try to take a swim until late July when the temperatures have warmed.The lake's water temperature reaches a high of about 60 degrees in late August for those considering when to join their kids.Of the 22 islands on the lake, 2,000-acre Wild Horse Island is the largest, and most popular. It's a state park with daytime-only access and reachable only by boat. There are five public landing sites on the island. Have a chart if you're going to do this; all are easily marked, and visitors need to be aware there are 56 small private lots around the perimeter. The closest access point to Wild Horse is Big Arm State Park on the western shore. It's a favorite place for fishing guide Mike Howe: "Big Arm State Park is perhaps the nicest and least utilized state park, especially for day users," he says. "There's lots of parking, a good ramp, and it's one of the closest ramps to Wild Horse. New this year are three yurts (cabins) that are rentable by the night, and a great campground with lakeside spots. "Big Arm is clean and safe and convenient, it's one of the nicest facilities on the southwest end of the lake. But it gets tricky when strong east winds are blowing. Still, it's a great place for boating when winds are whipping up the rest of the lake." Big Arm has a pebble beach (sand beaches don't exist here) and is home base for many visitors with boats. There is also a popular launch on Finley Point, a peninsula that is also part of Flathead Lake State Park. It's located east of Polson.

Photo of fishing guide Mike Howe with a lake troutFlathead Lake angler and guide Mike Howe shows off one of the lake's prized, though controversial, catches: a lake trout. This 32" fish was caught in South Woods Bay at a 160-ft depth and released to grow larger

There's an obvious reason for the name. Wild Horse Island was used as a hiding place for the Pend d'Oreille Indians after numerous horses were seized on land by members of the Blackfeet Tribe. If all goes according to plan, by the end of the year the island will have about five horses in its population along with the longtime resident mule deer and big horn sheep.

This is considered a spectacular place for hiking and the trails are relatively easy. A pair of bays on the northwest side of the island are used for protection from high winds and are deep enough for anchoring sailboats with keels. Mike Howe adds that the company for which he guides ( even arranges picnics on the island, including, if the spirit moves you, linen tablecloths, fine china, catered meals, and fine wines from local wineries.

For Robert McDonald of the Salish-Kootenai tribe, there really is a Big Horse spirit of sorts. "It's a chance to visit a place where the ecosystem is still untouched. It's an oasis and provides a wonderful chance to slow down, step back, and soak it in."

Located on the lake's northeast corner, Bigfork, Montana, has a population of 1,400 residents and is home to 50 shops,antique stores, restaurants, and more than a dozen art galleries. The Bigfork Summer Playhouse is celebrating 50 years of providing live theater productions. Bigfork is also home to the Whitewater Festival in May that attracts kayakers from around the country, the Festival of the Arts in August that celebrates the playhouse and galleries, and Tamarack Time in October where the harvest is the star attraction. You can launch just a half-mile south of Bigfork at the 67-acre Wayfarer State Park.

At the opposite end of Flathead and in the heart of the Salish-Kootenai Indian Reservation is the city of Polson. With a population of about 4,000, this lakefront city is host to a cherry festival for a weekend in July that triples the number of residents. The Flathead River flows along Polson's shoreline for four miles until it comes to the Kerr Dam, which provides hydroelectric power to the nearby area. In 2015, the Salish Kootenai tribes will have the option of taking over management of the dam, a move many expect they'll make. There are a number of boat ramps near Polson. Riverside Park on the Flathead River has a ramp and so does Sacajawea Park at the northern end of the Armed Forces Memorial Bridge.

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