At 28 miles (45 km) in length, 15 miles (24 kilometers) in diameter, 370 ft (113 meters) at its deepest and 124 miles (200 kilometers) of shoreline the answer is Flathead Lake, in northwestern Montana. In all, it’s almost 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) provide plenty of space for the boater, sailor, swimmer, camper and angler to partake of their favorite water-borne recreation. And for other recreationists, like hikers and mountain bikers, campgrounds, picnic areas and trails scattered along the shoreline offer views of the lake and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Flathead Lake, at slightly less than 3,000-feet (914 meters) elevation, occupies a basin that was scoured out by a huge glacier about 12,000 years back. The Flathead and Swan Rivers at the northern end are the significant streams that replenish the lake, whereas the Flathead River drains from the lake’s southwestern end at the town of Polson.
To reach Polson in the south, you’ll drive through the Flathead Indian Reservation occupied by the Salish (Flathead) and Kootenai tribes. The lake is known for the Flathead Indians, who got their name from the flattened foreheads they’d get out of their baby-carrying cradles. To fish in the southern region of the lake, you will need a reservation fishing license, which is available from the reservation or from sporting goods stores around the lake.
Polson sits on the shore of Polson Bay and contains several boat launching facilities, including the people Sacajawea and Riverside parks. Both parks also have picnic tables. Riverside has the added bonus of overnight camping with electric RV hookups.
For people who like a narrated tour of the lake, the 41-foot (12.5 meters) Port Polson Princess takes passengers on horseback cruises every day from about June 1 through September 30 beginning from KwaTaqNuK Resort in Polson, at 49708 US Hwy 93 E, Polson, MT 59860. The on-board guides are ready to point out notable landmarks along the lakeshore and to share their knowledge of the natural history of this lake. Four tours are scheduled daily, including a three-hour cruise around Wild Horse and Bird islands and three 1-1/2 hour cruises. It’s best to make reservations ahead of time by calling 800-882-6363.
A place to learn about the human history of this region is the Polson-Flathead Historic Museum, located at 708 Main Street, Polson, MT 59860. Their telephone number is -LRB-406-RRB-883-3049. Here, you’re brought in touch with the pioneering era through displays like a homesteader kitchen, the ranch mess (or chuck) wagon, military artifacts and steamboat memorabilia.
Ahead of the Great Northern Railroad reached the valley in 1892, steamboats did a thriving business ferrying passengers and freight to points all along the lakeshore. And do not forget to ogle the “Flathead Monster”, a 181-pound 7-1/2-foot-long (82 kilograms, 2.3 meters) white sturgeon captured in 1965. The museum, doesn’t charge admission, but they appreciate donations.
South of Polson is the town of Pablo, Montana, where it is possible to make use of the services of Native Ed-Ventures, which provides visitors a personal tour guide to the community indigenous cultures and cultural events, like pow-wows in the lake. Their address is Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855, phone number is -LRB-800-RRB-883-5344.
This is the largest island in Flathead Lake at 2,134 acres (864 hectares) and, in actuality, is one of the largest islands in the inland United States. Privately owned before the state bought it in 1978-79, several private lots and houses stay on the island. Otherwise the state has left the rest of the island as wilderness.
It was named for the horses the Flathead and Pend Oreille Indians maintained there as security from Blackfeet raids. To provide the practice a present-day connection, Montana maintains a population of wild horses on the island.
Besides the wild horses, the island is well known for its bighorn sheep, which number around 200. One of those predatory in nature, bald eagles live and nest on the island and coyotes and mink search the forests, plains and rocky shores for their own meals. It is also home to the endangered Palouse prairie plant species.
Wild Horse island is accessible for day-use only by leasing or private boat. Wild Horse and its neighbor to the south, Melita Island, form a channel that local anglers call “Mackinaw Alley” due to the lake trout that linger here at the 100-foot (30 meters) and deeper depths.
The town of Somers, at the northern end of the lake, was a major port for steamboat traffic. 1 reason for this was the huge lumber mill that functioned in the early 20th century. Somers is still a key spot for watercraft because it’s home to the largest sailing fleet in this end of the lake, also it is the home of the Far West tour boat; -LRB-406-RRB-857-3203.
You can even enjoy a sunset cruise on the lake on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. They are located at 7220 U.S. 93 S, Lakeside, MT 59922, phone number is -LRB-406-RRB-844-2628.
For a side trip from Flathead Lake, head north from Somers for seven miles on Highway 93 and you will get to the full service town of Kalispell. Restock your larder here from supermarkets, gas stations, malls, restaurants and other businesses.
When you have done that, you can pay homage to the creator of the bustling town by visiting the Conrad Mansion six blocks east of Main at 4th Street. Fully furnished with original family possessions, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the most authentic turn-of-the-century house in the Pacific Northwest.
While you’re in Kalispell, you could also pick up recreational information to the 2.3-million acre (930,777 hectares) Flathead National Forest at the primary office, 650 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell, MT 59901. You’ll find the workplace for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and its information on state parks in 490 North Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901, -LRB-406-RRB-752-5501.
On your way back to Flathead Lake, grab Highway 82 north of Somers and head east toward Bigfork. Watch for the nest platforms of osprey that match officials have established atop telephone poles right next to the road. Osprey eggs hatch around mid-June, and the fledglings are ready to test their wings by late July.
That also happens to be the opportunity to enjoy the Flathead area’s most prized delicacy – the huckleberry. The season for huckleberries can actually last through Labor Day at higher elevations and some folks claim that these later berries are the sweetest of all. The National Forest lands around Flathead’s shores provide the best spots for berry picking, but State lands also have berries for picking. Request at the National Forest and State Park offices in Kalispell for the best places. In abundant years, you could have the ability to purchase huckleberries at farmer’s markets, some grocery stores in the region and some roadside stands.
The good place to have a taste of huckleberries, in preserved form, is in Bigfork. Take Grand Avenue into town and turn right on Electric Avenue; look for Eva Gates Preserves on the right.
Eva Gates started her huckleberry business in 1949 with her grandmother’s recipe, and they put up the preserves by the identical recipe in the same smallish batches. They also make huckleberry jelly and syrup. Besides huckleberry’s, Eva Gates also makes preserves from cherries, spiced apple, strawberry, raspberries, black caps (which is a kind of raspberry) and several sorts of syrups.
Just south of Bigfork on the lakeshore, you will find Montana’s most popular state park, Wayfarer. With 30 campsites, boat ramp and a beach, the state park is a take-off stage for waterborne recreation. At the far end of the picnic area, a stone outcropping dotted with junipers provides a vista point of the lake.
South of Wayfarer on Highway 35, you’ll drive past roadside stands that might sell huckleberries in season. However, about the same time that the wild huckleberries are coming in, would be the bing cherries. The east shore of Flathead Lake has most of the valley’s cherry orchards and most of the fruit stands. Some orchardists also raise raspberries, strawberries, apricots, grapes and pears.
In the center of this orchard country, you will find the earliest biological station in the country. In Yellow Bay, University of Montana researchers study the lake’s freshwater habitat and fish, including lake (around 30 pounds), cutthroat, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout as well as Kokanee salmon, perch, whitefish and bass. The channel is open to people. Coincidentally, Flathead Lake’s deepest point, at 370 feet, is at Yellow Bay, which is also the site of the state park with a boat ramp and a shore.