10 Top-Rated Things to Do in Polson, MT
Author Brad Lane visited Polson while living in nearby Missoula.
With a population of approximately 5,000 residents, Polson is in Northwest Montana on the southern end of Flathead Lake. The town is on the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It's also one of Montana's best small towns and a base camp for tasting and discovering this adventurous Northwest region.
As the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the lower 48, Flathead Lake is the primary backdrop for any Polson vacation. Several access points and state parks line this enormous water body that covers over 200 square miles. And Polson provides several places to visit to enjoy its lakeside location.
The lake also lends to another thriving aspect of the region. The clean water and fertile soil surrounding the lake produces bright and juicy cherries throughout late July and early August. Polson celebrates this bountiful harvest every summer with the Flathead Lake Cherry Festival.
The town is the perfect addition to a Montana road trip. Polson to Missoula is a 70-mile drive, and Polson to Kalispell is a 50-mile route next to the lakeside. And the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park, is only a 70-mile drive north. But Polson is a destination in its own right, with unique attractions like surging dams and detailed museums adding a few more days to an itinerary.
Start planning your next Montana vacation with our list of the top things to do in Polson.
1. Put a Boat onto Flathead Lake
Highlights: Largest freshwater lake in the Western U.S.
The expansive Flathead Lake defines any visit to Polson. As the largest natural freshwater lake in the Western U.S., the entire shoreline stretches for more than 180 miles. Polson sits on the lake's southern end, and if driving from Missoula, a massive view of the water welcomes visitors to the town.
State park units, campgrounds, and hiking areas line either shoreline extending from Polson. And the most popular way to enjoy the lake is by getting on the water. Alongside its size, the lake is also well known for its excellent fishing, powerboating, and paddling conditions.
Polson is home to a few boat rental companies. Places like Riverside Recreation and Flathead Boat Company have an array of vessels. Boats for rent in Polson include powerboats, pontoon boats, and Jet Skis. For non-motorized travel, Riverside Recreation also has a fleet of kayaks and stand up paddleboards.
2. Marvel at the Kerr Dam (Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam)
Highlight: Massive dam with stunning public viewpoints
A seven-mile drive south of Polson, the massive Kerr Dam regulates water levels in the adjacent Flathead Lake. This towering concrete structure is an incredible 204 feet tall, with water cascading down the spillways. A short boardwalk trail from the public parking area leads to a great view of this rushing water.
The best time to visit Kerr Dam is during the spring snowmelt when all 14 spillways open to release the extra water. However, the observation area is accessible throughout the year and is a recommended pit stop no matter the season. For those traveling from Polson to Missoula, or vice versa, the Kerr Dam is just a quick detour along the route.
The history behind the Kerr Dam is just as fascinating as the structure itself. Construction started on the dam in 1930, just as the Great Depression was sweeping the nation. Today, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes own and operate the dam. In 2015, they officially changed the name to Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam. Keep an eye out for this signage upon making the drive.
3. Camp at Flathead Lake State Park
Highlights: Several units on the lakeshore with camping, hiking, and public boat ramps
For scenic spots to hang out in next to the water, the Flathead Lake State Park system operates six different shoreline units. Many of these are within a short drive of Polson. Two of the sites are on the west shore, and three are on the east. The sixth state park unit, Wild Horse Island, comprises the largest island in the lake where wild horses still run free.
The closest state park unit, Finley Point, is an approximately 12-mile drive to the east. It provides a scenic campground next to Flathead Lake with a small collection of RV sites, tent sites, and boat camping slips. Popular activities spurring from the campground include fishing and utilizing the boat launch.
Big Arm is the next closest state park unit, approximately 14 miles west in the other direction. Here, a long pebble beach encourages sunbathing and lounging by the shore. This state park unit has a larger campground with 40 sites available.
The other state park units, Yellowbay, Wayfarers, and West Shore, also feature small campgrounds, and each Flathead Lake State Park unit has a public boat ramp.
4. Attend the Flathead Lake Cherry Festival
Highlight: Summer celebration centered around locally grown Flathead cherries
Come summer, Polson and the rest of the Flathead region come alive with the taste of cherries. The mild climate surrounding the lake is ideal for cultivating these stone fruits, and the community capitalizes on the season. The best time to visit for peak ripeness is from the second week of July through the second week of August.
During this time, keep an eye out for roadside stands selling bagfuls of fresh produce. And other places around the lake, like Hockaday Orchards in Lakeside, offer U-pick opportunities. But the real way to get a taste of the cherry culture is at the Flathead Lake Cherry Festival in Polson.
The two-day Cherry Festival typically takes place in prime cherry-picking season, somewhere near the end of July. Much of this city celebration takes place on Main Street. It includes local vendors with a variety of cherry products for sale. The festival also features handmade regional arts and decor.
5. Experience Americana at the Miracle of America Museum
Highlights: Indoor/outdoor museum with an eclectic collection of cars, Americana, and novelty items
This homegrown museum houses thousands of artifacts covering a wide range of Americana. And thousands of visitors a year flock to this roadside museum and its sprawling property. Plan for at least a few hours browsing the collection when visiting.
Vintage motorcycles and a turn-of-the-century schoolroom comprise a few pieces of the Miracle of America Museum's collection. Other prominent displays include historic automobiles, artistic sculptures, and firearms from throughout the ages. Some of the more obscure items include golf ball cacti and extraterrestrial memorabilia.
With such a wide range of interests, everyone finds something to catch their eye upon visiting. This family-friendly museum is open daily throughout the year. Kids under the age of two receive free admission.
Address: 36094 Memory Lane, Polson, Montana
6. Shopping and Dining in Polson
Highlights: Several local restaurants catering to a wide range of appetites
With fewer than 5,000 full-time residents, Polson offers a surplus of excellent restaurants to check out while in town. It's the hungry tourists that drive such an appetite. For the biggest selection of local eateries, head to the central downtown district near the lakefront.
Renowned for its slow-cooked meats, Cherries BBQ Pit is one such popular eating establishment in this part of town. It pays to arrive early to this BBQ joint before the daily menu sells out. Other popular places to eat in Polson include Betty's Diner, The Cove Pizza and Deli, and Mrs. Wonderful's Cafe. The finest dining in Polson is east of the town center at Finley Point Grill, featuring steak, seafood, and pasta.
The city also has several local storefronts to browse between meals. From a modern-day mercantile to artisan cheese shops, the shopping in Polson is reason enough to visit. One spot not to miss, the Sandpiper Gallery, features several local works on display. This non-profit cooperative gallery is very involved with the community and hosts workshops throughout the year.
7. Day Trip to Kalispell
Highlights: Bigger town on the other end of the lake accessible with a scenic drive
Kalispell, 10 miles past the lake's northern end, is the largest city in Northwest Montana. It offers additional culinary, cultural, and natural attractions well worth the day trip from Polson. The first stop when visiting is the charming downtown district filled with Western-inspired goods and services.
And much like Polson, Kalispell is an excellent jumping-off point for area adventures. Great golfing, skiing, and hiking trails await in the surrounding landscape. The city is also blessed with several engaging museums, including the Northwest Montana History Museum and the Hockaday Museum of Art.
Driving from Polson to Kalispell is half the fun. Two routes span either side of the lake, each lending big views of the water along their approximately 50-mile routes.
The drive from Polson to Kalispell along the eastern shore closely follows the water before reaching Bigfork. This route is lined with cherry stands between July and August. The western route connects with communities like Big Arm and Lakeside, with several local restaurants along the way.
8. Soak in the Sun at Sacajawea Park and Salish Point Park
Highlights: Public grassy spaces overlooking the lake with easy access to town
On the northern tip of Polson's commercial district, these two park spaces are common hangout spots on summer afternoons. A sprawling green space connects both parks, and each has lakefront views. Everyday things to do at either park include boating, swimming, and lounging. Picnics are also popular in these public spaces.
Special events and festivals at the park showcase its valuable community space. The Flathead Lake Festival of Art, sponsored by Sandpiper Gallery, occurs in Sacajawea Park every July. Other performances like live music and community productions take the stage throughout the summer.
Salish Point Park is the place to visit in Polson for open-water swimming. Two docks bookend a roped-off swimming area extending from the beach, ensuring no interference from boat traffic. The site also features a fishing dock.
9. Take a Boat to Wild Horse Island
Highlights: Unique state park unit in the middle of Flathead Lake
Wild Horse Island, the largest island in Flathead Lake, encompasses over 2,000 acres north of Polson. This unique landmass is heavily forested and large enough to host wildlife, including mule deer, bighorn sheep, and a few feral horses.
Today, the island is a designated day-use state park. No public boat rides are available to reach Wild Horse Island, so visitors need to charter their own ride. Six designated landing zones circle the island, with some of the best hiking trails spanning from the Eagle Cove and Skeeko Bay landing zones.
Boat Rentals and Rides in Big Arm offers a round-trip shuttle service to Wild Horse Island for those without a personal vessel. This locally owned company also offers motorized and non-motorized rentals. And farther north, in Lakeside, Sea Me Paddle offers guided kayak trips to the island and back.
Wild Horse Island is very primitive with few amenities. Vault toilets are available, but otherwise, visitors need to pack out everything they bring onto the island. For those interested in fishing, a tribal fishing license is required. Other popular activities on the island include picnicking and swimming.
10. Take Part in History at the Polson Flathead Lake Museum
Highlights: Local history museum open seven days a week throughout the summer
The Polson Flathead Lake Museum adds some valuable context to any visit. This non-profit museum highlights the early days of modern civilization in the southern Mission Valley. Much of the museum's collection includes artifacts dating back to the 1800s.
A historic operating stagecoach and antique firetrucks are a few of the objects on display. The museum also houses the original Lambert Trading Post on the grounds, first built in the 1870s. Today, this historic trading post now serves as a gift shop with local books, jams, and artisan crafts.
The museum operates seven days of the week between May 15th and September 30th. Special ticket packages are available for admission to the Polson Flathead lake Museum and the Miracle of America Museum, located three miles down the road.
Address: 708 Main Street, Polson, Montana
Map of Things to Do in Polson, MT
Best Time to Visit Polson, MT
The best time to visit Polson is the summer months, including June, July, and August. The Flathead Valley really shines this time of year, with warm weather and abundant sunshine. These months enable the most outdoor adventures when visiting, including boating and swimming in the lake. And the area's signature produce, Flathead cherries, are typically available by July.
The summer months are the busiest time to visit Polson, with the most tourist traffic and demand for hotels. The shoulder seasons offer a good time to visit for fewer crowds. Summer extends into the beginning of September in Polson, and the fall season through the end of October is also a lovely time to visit. Expect possible wintry conditions by the end of October.
Winter sticks around Polson into March, where the month has a mix of sunshine days and wetter weather. Plan a visit toward late April or May for an enjoyable springtime trip. It might be too cold to swim this time of year, but daytime temperatures reach into the 60s by May.