10 Top-Rated Things to Do near Flathead Lake, Montana
Author Brad Lane lived nearby in Missoula for nearly three years and enjoyed visiting Flathead Lake.
Flathead Lake, in Northwest Montana, has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the American West outside of Alaska. This massive expanse of water spans over 190 square miles with over 160 miles of shoreline. And while the lake is well known throughout the region, it still holds a hidden gem quality for many visitors to Montana.
Shoreline adventures and boating excursions are the most common activities at Flathead Lake. Lakeshore hubs like Polson, Bigfork, and Somers offer several adventure outlets like boat rentals and chartered fishing trips. Public access points also dot the entire lake, operated by either Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Adventures abound in every direction of Flathead Lake. Eye-catching wonders like the Kerr Dam and Wild Horse Island offer memorable afternoon visits. And full-day excursions occur in nearby places like Jewel Basin and Glacier National Park. Even in the winter, Flathead Lake is a fun place to visit, thanks to things like dogsledding adventures and downhill skiing.
Explore this amazing gem of Montana with our list of the top things to do near Flathead Lake.
- 1. Take a Boat Ride on Flathead Lake
- 2. Camp by the Shores
- 3. Hike into Jewel Basin
- 4. Take a Boat Ride to Wild Horse Island
- 5. Plan a Day Trip to Kalispell
- 6. Experience Glacier National Park
- 7. Visit Polson
- 8. See Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam (formerly Kerr Dam)
- 9. Get a Fresh Taste at the Flathead Cherry Festival
- 10. Dogsledding in Bigfork
- Map of Things to Do near Flathead Lake, Montana
- Best Time to Visit Flathead Lake
1. Take a Boat Ride on Flathead Lake
Highlights: Rentals and public boat launches enable easy access to the massive lake
Boating on Flathead Lake is the reason for many visits. As one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi, the lake has plenty of space for all types of watercraft, from self-propelled kayaks to sailboats and powerboats. And with several public access sites and available rentals surrounding the shoreline, it's an easy endeavor to get on the water.
For those transporting a boat to Flathead Lake, expect to encounter a mandatory state boat inspection site en route. These easy inspections are to prevent the spread of invasive lake species. Once you make it to the lake, the state manages several boat access areas.
These public sites include all six units of Flathead Lake State Park. It also includes other access points like Elmo Fishing Access Site and Sportsman Bridge. Several of these sites have boat ramps and places to park a trailer. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also operate several fishing sites on the south of the lake. Special tribal permits are required to cast a line.
Rentals are prevalent around the lake. Tourist hubs like Polson, Bigfork, and Somers offer a full array of vessels, including paddleboards, Jet Skis, and powerboats. These same hubs are also home to guided boating opportunities, and places like Flathead Lake Charters in Bigfork are well known for their guided fishing trips.
Read More: Best Lakes in Montana
2. Camp by the Shores
Highlights: Several shoreline campgrounds for tents and RVs
For those interested in camping near the water, Flathead Lake State Park operates five shoreline units with campgrounds. These places to pitch a tent span both the east and west side of the lake. RV sites are also available.
The Big Arm and West Shore units each have campgrounds supporting RVs and tents on the lake's western bank. Over 70 sites are available between the two, and only a select number of sites have electric hookups. Nearly all the sites are reservable six months in advance, which is a recommended way to go for the summer season.
Flathead Lake State Park operates three campground units on the eastern shore. And between Finley Point, Wayfarers, and Yellow Bay, there's a mix of boat-in sites, tent-only sites, and RV parking spaces. Like Wayfarers, this side of the lake also has hiker-biker sites for those traveling the nearby Continental Divide bicycle route.
Read More: Best Campgrounds in Montana
3. Hike into Jewel Basin
Highlights: Hiking-only area of Flathead National Forest with alpine lakes and mountain goats
The expansive Flathead National Forest circles much of Flathead Lake.
This mountain-infused environment offers several outlets for recreation, including some of the best hiking in Montana. And Jewel Basin is one of the most popular hiking areas nearby, offering high-elevation lake views and a good chance of spotting wildlife.
Jewel Basin is accessible from the north side of the lake and with approximately a 15-mile drive from Bigfork. The area is exclusively for hiking and backpacking and encompasses 15,000 acres in the Hungry Horse Reservoir District.
The most common trailhead to explore Jewel Basin is the Camp Misery Trailhead, at 5,717 feet. Low-clearance vehicles are not recommended for the gravel road approach.
From Camp Misery, a world of high-alpine wonder awaits. Several routes stem from the trail, including a path toward a chain of backcountry lakes teeming with fish. One recommended route is the approximately four-mile, one-way trip to the top of Mt. Aeneas. Here, gaze out across Flathead Valley and Flathead Lake, and expect to see mountain goats that call the alpine environment home.
4. Take a Boat Ride to Wild Horse Island
Highlights: The Largest island on Flathead Lake, inhabited by wild horses and hiking trails
Wild Horse Island is arguably the most unique unit of Flathead Lake State Park. One of the best state parks in Montana, it encompasses over 2,100 acres of the largest island within the lake, which is still home to feral horses, among many other wild animals. The only way to reach Wild Horse Island State Park is by private boat, boat rental, or ferry.
Several private businesses on the west side of the lake lend access to Wild Horse Island. Places like Boat Rentals and Rides in Big Arm or See Me Paddle in Lakeside offer guided trips and rentals. Renting a kayak and paddling to Wild Horse Island is an option. The easiest approach, however, is chartering a ferry ride.
Upon landing, an approximately three-mile hiking trail circles the southwest portion of Wild Horse Island. This well-established route winds along the bay and through an enchanting ponderosa pine forest.
Wildlife is often spotted while hiking the trail, including a few lucky sightings of the five to seven horses living on the island. Other common wildlife includes bighorn sheep, mule deer, and bald eagles.
5. Plan a Day Trip to Kalispell
Highlights: The largest city in the Flathead Valley with a lively downtown district
Kalispell is 10 miles north of the northern shoreline and is the largest city in the region. It makes for an excellent base camp during a vacation to Flathead Lake.
The old west facade of Main Street invites shopping and dining throughout the day and into the evening, and its proximity to significant Montana landscapes encourages adventures beyond the city streets.
The Desoto Grill and Hops Downtown Grill are two of the most popular places to grab a bite to eat in Kalispell, and Sweet Peaks Ice Cream is by far the most popular spot for dessert. Among the things to do in Kalispell, the downtown area offers several museums to enjoy on a rare rainy day or an afternoon spent indoors.
Kalispell is also a good place to visit for those interested in checking out Glacier National Park. It's approximately a 45-mile drive to the West Entrance of the park, enabling easy day trips. Kalispell is also home to the expanding Glacier International Airport, where several flights land daily.
6. Experience Glacier National Park
Highlights: Crown of the Continent National Park just north of Flathead Lake, straddling the Continental Divide
The Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park, is less than an hour's drive north of Flathead Lake. The route to this internationally renowned park heads through the resort community of Whitefish. Both Whitefish and Glacier offer many days of exploring and adventure.
The West Entrance is the closest area of Glacier to Flathead Lake. Here, alongside the beginning of the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road, the shimmering waters of Lake McDonald stand out with scenic appeal. This western side of the park is ripe for an overnight trip from Flathead Lake, with historic lodges and several hiking trails lining the roadside.
One of the highlights of Glacier National Park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road spans 50 miles across the park to Saint Mary Lake and the park's east side. This route crosses the Continental Divide midway at Logan Pass, elevation 6,646 feet, with spectacular views the entire way.
7. Visit Polson
Highlights: Charming community on the south end of Flathead Lake
Polson is a small town on the southern tip of Flathead Lake and a base camp for many visits. The charming community boasts several things to do and easy access to the water. Alongside restaurants and shopping on Main Street, other roadside tourist attractions include unique museums and outdoor parks.
Several dining options entice visits to Polson for all three meals of the day. Betty's Diner is a classic Americana café serving all-day breakfast. And like Cherries BBQ Pit and The Cove Pizza and Deli, other Polson institutions cater to lunch and dinner appetites. For finer dining, head to Finley Point Grill for steaks, chops, and seafood.
If you're only making a quick trip to Polson, or driving through, take a stop at Salish Point Park to enjoy the enormous view overlooking the lake. The park also serves as a popular swimming hole during the summer months.
8. See Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam (formerly Kerr Dam)
Highlights: Stunning dam running its fullest in spring, viewing platforms at the bottom of stairs
Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam (formerly Kerr Dam) is a stunning roadside attraction a short drive from Polson on the south side of the lake. It's a concrete-arch dam on the Flathead River that generates electricity and helps regulate water levels. The view of this rushing water, dropping more than 50 feet farther than Niagara Falls, is simply a stunning landscape to enjoy.
Alongside the entire southern half of the lake, the dam is within the Flathead Indian Reservation. In 2015, after purchasing the dam, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes renamed the facility the Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam.
It's less than a 15-mile drive from Polson to the signed parking area denoting the viewing platform. A long set of wooden stairs lead down to the viewing area from the parking area. These stairs aren't steep, but there are a lot of them. The workout is worth the effort, though, with a stone shelter and a great view of the rushing water.
9. Get a Fresh Taste at the Flathead Cherry Festival
Highlights: Summer celebration centered around locally grown Flathead cherries
The sheer size of Flathead Lake has a significant effect on the local climate. The lake water helps regulate air temperature throughout the year, lending to prime growing conditions come summer. And while peaches, plums, and other stone fruits break through the soil near the shore, it's Flathead cherries that receive the most acclaim.
Cherries begin to blossom in May, but the best time to go for fresh fruit is mid-to-late July through early August. Each peak season is a little different, but this timespan always delivers on a fresh bite.
Roadside stands tend to pop up at this time of year, offering cherries by the bagful. These local purveyors are often on the east side of the lake, alongside the largest collection of orchards. U-pick opportunities are also available on this side of the lake.
The fullest flavor of the cherry season is at the annual Flathead Cherry Festival in Polson. This two-day event typically occurs towards the end of July, and spans Main Street. It features several cherry stands and events like a cherry pie eating contest. A growing collection of local artisans also set up stands with handmade goods.
10. Dogsledding in Bigfork
Highlight: Winter fun behind the reins of a dogsled
While some summer activities at Flathead Lake go dormant in the winter, the frostier season opens new avenues for adventure. The unique opportunity to mush a dogsled out of Bigfork is an excellent example of the region's cold-weather appeal.
Base Camp Bigfork offers dogsledding adventures typically between January and April. They offer a few different tour options, including half-day and full-day excursions and a special overnight winter camping adventure. Trips generally need to be booked in advance.
And it's not just dogsledding at Flathead Lake that adds to the mix of wintry Montana adventures. Other cold-weather sports take place here, from the water to the slopes of Blacktail Mountain Ski Area on the western bank. Other popular activities stemming from the lakeshore include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.
Map of Things to Do near Flathead Lake, Montana
Best Time to Visit Flathead Lake
The best time to visit Flathead Lake is during the summer months of July and August. These are the two warmest months to visit and enjoy the notoriously cold water. July is also the month that Flathead cherry farmstands line the roadside. Expect average temperatures in the upper 70s during these two summer months.
The extended spring season, spanning April, May, and June, is also a good time to visit. Swimming conditions might be a little cool, but activities like boating and fishing are still prevalent. Rain tends to stick around the forecast at the beginning of April, but the entirety of May and June are typically lovely times to visit with fewer crowds.
Winter comes quickly to the Flathead Valley. The autumn shoulder season, spanning September and October, is a beautiful time to visit, although nightly temperatures become chilly by the end of October. Snow may even appear by the end of the month.