What’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River? At 28 miles (45 km) in length, 15 miles (24 km) in width, 370 feet (113 meters) at its deepest and 124 miles (200 km) of shoreline the answer is Flathead Lake, in northwestern Montana. In all, it’s nearly 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, such as 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 ago. The Flathead and Swan Rivers at the northern end are the major streams that replenish the lake, while the Flathead River drains out of the lake’s southwestern end at the town of Polson.
To reach Polson from the south, you’ll drive through the Flathead Indian Reservation occupied by the Salish (Flathead) and Kootenai tribes. The lake is named for the Flathead Indians, who got their name from the flattened foreheads they would get from their baby-carrying cradles. The southern half of the lake is within the reservation boundaries. To fish in the southern part of the lake, you’ll need a reservation fishing permit, which is available from the reservation or from sporting goods stores around the lake.
Polson sits on the shore of Polson Bay and has several boat launching facilities, including the public Sacajawea and Riverside parks. Both parks also have picnic tables. Riverside has the added bonus of overnight camping with electrical RV hookups.
For those who would enjoy a narrated tour of the lake, the 41-foot (12.5 meters) Port Polson Princess takes passengers on sight-seeing cruises every day from about June 1 through September 30 starting from KwaTaqNuK Resort in Polson, at 49708 US Hwy 93 E, Polson, MT 59860. The on-board guides are eager to point out notable landmarks along the lakeshore and to share their knowledge of the natural history of the lake. Four tours are scheduled daily, including a three-hour cruise around Wild Horse and Bird islands and three 1-½ 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 the area is the Polson-Flathead Historic Museum, located at 708 Main Street, Polson, MT 59860. Their phone number is (406)883-3049. Here, you are brought in touch with the pioneering era through displays such as a homesteader kitchen, the ranch mess (or chuck) wagon, military artifacts and steamboat memorabilia.
Before the Great Northern Railroad reached the valley in 1892, steamboats did a thriving business ferrying passengers and cargo to points all along the lakeshore. And don’t forget to ogle the “Flathead Monster”, a 181-pound 7-½-foot-long (82 kilograms, 2.3 meters) white sturgeon caught in 1965. The museum, doesn’t charge admission, but they appreciate donations.
South of Polson is the town of Pablo, Montana, where you can make use of the services of Native Ed-Ventures, which provides visitors a personal tour guide to the local native cultures and cultural events, such as pow-wows at the lake. Their address is Box 278, Pablo, MT 59855, phone number is (800)883-5344.
Heading north from Polson, your reach Big Arm Bay and its units of the Flathead Lake State Park – Big Arm, Elmo and, in the mouth of the bay, Wild Horse Island.
This is the largest island in Flathead Lake at 2,134 acres (864 hectares) and, in fact, 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 homes remain 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 kept there as protection from Blackfeet raids. To give 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. You will also find mule and whitetail deer. Among those predatory in nature, bald eagles live and nest on the island and coyotes and mink search the woods, plains and rocky shores for their meals. It is also home to the endangered Palouse prairie plant species.
Wild Horse island is accessible for day-use only by rental or private boat. Wild Horse and its neighbor to the south, Melita Island, form a channel that local anglers call “Mackinaw Alley” because of the lake trout that linger here at the 100-foot and deeper depths. Fishing around the island, however, requires the tribal permit.
The town of Somers, at the northern end of the lake, was a major port for steamboat traffic. One reason for that was the huge lumber mill that operated here in the early 20th century. Somers is still a key place for watercraft since it is home to the largest sailing fleet at this end of the lake.
For a side trip from Flathead Lake, head north from Somers for seven miles on Highway 93 and you’ll reach the full service city of Kalispell. Restock your supplies here from supermarkets, gas stations, malls, restaurants and other businesses.
After you’ve done that, you can pay homage to the founder of this bustling city by visiting the Conrad Mansion six blocks east of Main at 4th Street. Charles E. Conrad built this 26-room, Norman-style Victorian in 1895, and in 1974 his youngest daughter donated it to the city. Fully furnished with original family belongings, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the most authentic turn-of-the-century home in the Pacific Northwest.
While you’re in Kalispell, you could also pick up recreational information for the 2.3-million acre Flathead National Forest.
On your way back to Flathead Lake, catch Highway 82 north of Somers and head east toward Bigfork. Watch for the nest platforms of osprey that game 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 time 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 people 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. Ask at the National Forest and State Park offices in Kalispell for the best places. In abundant years, you might be able to purchase huckleberries at farmer’s markets, some grocery stores in the area and some roadside stands.
The good place to get 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 using her grandmother’s recipe, and they still put up the preserves by the same recipe in the same small 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 many kinds of syrups.
Just south of Bigfork on the lakeshore, you’ll find Montana’s most popular state park, Wayfarer. with 30 campsites, boat ramp and a beach, the state park is a take-off point for waterborne recreation. At the far end of the picnic area, a rock 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. But, about the same time that the wild huckleberries are coming in, so are 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, pears and grapes.
In the middle of this orchard country, you’ll find the oldest biological station in the country. At Yellow Bay, University of Montana researchers study the lake’s freshwater habitat and fish, including lake (up to 30 pounds), cutthroat, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout as well as Kokanee salmon, perch, whitefish and bass. The station is open to visitors. 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 beach.
Between the wild huckleberries and cultivated cherries on the land and the trout, salmon and bass in the lake, you can really get a taste of the West’s largest natural lake – the Flathead.