Flathead Lake is considered the largest freshwater lake west of the
Mississippi within the boundaries of the continental United States. The Lake
contains cover 200 square miles of water and 185 miles of shoreline. Studies at
the Flathead Biological
Station show that water quality in Flathead Lake is among the best in the
world. Its major tributaries are the Flathead and Swan Rivers. Numerous small
streams flow directly into the lake at its shoreline, particularly on the wetter
East Shore. Kerr Dam is located at the outlet of Flathead Lake in Polson.
Regulations of outflow by KERR Dam maintain the lake level between 2,883 and
2,893 feet above sea level.
The southern half of Flathead Lake lies within the boundary of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation which was created in 1855 by the Hellgate Treaty. The unique relationship between the United States and the Flathead Nation insists that all non-tribal member recreationists must purchase a tribal recreation permit.
Recreational activities on and around Flathead Lake include multiple camping sites, including the 13 public access site maintained by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, sailing in and around the Dayton area, motor boating, waterskiing, swimming, fishing, and picnicking.
Public access sites include: Bigfork, Elmo, Juniper Beach, and Sportsman’s Bridge.
Public State Parks include: Big Arm, Finley Point, Wayfarers, West Shore State Park, Woods Bay, and Yellow Bay, and Wild Horse Island. One of the largest islands within Flathead Lake is Wild Horse Island State Park which is 2,165 acres. There is no over-night camping on Wild Horse and the park is only accessible by boat. All sites maintained by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks have boat launches, camping, and swimming facilities, as well as toilets.
There are three highways around the 185 miles of shoreline of Flathead Lake. Those three highways are US Highway 93 along the West Shore of Flathead Lake, Montana Highway 82 along the north of The Lake and Montana Highway 35 along the East Shore of The Lake.
The Lake’s most southern point where US Highway 93 and Montana Highway 35 intersect is Polson Montana. Polson is a small town of about 5000 people that was incorporated in 1910. Polson is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Flathead Indian Reservation is governed by The Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe which is headquartered five miles to the south of Polson in Pablo. Polson is a lakeshore community in the trading center for one of most fertile farming areas in Montana. This prime cherry growing region is home to dozens of orchards, which Polson celebrates with an annual Cherry Festival. The Friday Farmers Market is about a block long and is a local and tourist attraction. The Mission Mountain Range is to the east of Polson with its snow-capped peaks. The Flathead River that flows along the west side of Polson features whitewater rafting and Kerr Dam. There are two museums located in Polson, The Miracle of America and the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum. Five miles to the south in Pablo, the governmental headquarters of the Flathead Nation is the Peoples Center, a museum focused on the preservation of the rich history of the Tribes. All offer many displays and historic memorabilia.
Polson also maintains several city parks situated along the lake, and hosts a
27-hole golf course that is operated by the
City of Polson. In the
summertime, when temperatures range from 80 to 95 degrees Polson plays host to
many festivals and events including the Mission Mountain NRA Rodeo in June, the
Flathead Lake Basketball Tournament in July, The Valley Cruisers Car Show in
August, the Mack Days Fishing Event in September as well as numerous concerts
and other events through the summer season.
Moving East from Polson on Montana Highway 35 about 3 miles there is a fishing access point on the north side of the highway. The Ducharme fishing access site is an undeveloped 51 acre public access point with a small boat launch which resides within the boundaries of the Flathead Nation, therefore Tribal permits are required.
Continuing on Montana Highway 35 the next point of interest, about 11 miles from Polson is Finley Point State Park. Turn left at the old Finley Point store and travel about 4 miles to reach the park. Finley Point State Park offers 18 campsites; 2 tent only, with fire rings and grills, firewood, bear resistant storage locker, boat trailer parking, extra vehicle parking, picnic tables, hookup (electric 30, 50 amp and water), utilities, 16 boat slips up to 25 feet long, boat mooring, picnic tables, trash cans, and drinking water. Fees are charged for day use, camping and amenities.
Traveling along the east shore route includes a variety of locally grown apples, plums, and cherries stands where visitors can purchase fresh fruit directly from the growers. Also along the east shore route there are many motels and rental cabins that time has forgotten. It is in these non-chain accommodations that you can experience a Flathead Lake experience that sets it apart from the refined and polished brands you have come to know.
The next camping opportunity is Blue Bay Campground. Blue Bay Campground is a fee campground operated by the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes. The campground hosts both basic and full campsites, a fishing dock, and marina.
Continuing on is Yellow Bay State Park. Yellow Bay a public camping and fishing access site and is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, so you will need a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe fishing license to enjoy the excellent fishing here.
Woods Bay is the next small town you will come to. Woods Bay has a population of about 1000 people and one big corner. At the corner on the left side of the highway while traveling north you will find the Woods Bay Café. Stop by the lunch, the prices are very reasonable and the food is worth every dime. They also sell local honey which is, in my opinion some of the best around. At mile marker 27 turn west off of Montana highway 35 to reach the Woods Bay Fishing Access Site. This fishing access site hosts a boating ramp, fishing and public restrooms.
After an additional 14 miles on highway 35 is Bigfork Montana. Just as you enter Bigfork on the left side of the road is Wayfarers State Park. Wayfarers Park is a 67 acre state park that provides users with camping, restrooms and showers, trailer dump, and boat launch facilities. The campground maintains 27 with several tent sites located next to The Lake for visitors arriving by boat, and one ADA approved campsite. Next to the park is Harry Horn Day Use area. Wayfarers is open year-round with limited services and is available May through September offering full services.
Bigfork hosts many world class art galleries, fine dining, a 27-hole golf course, live theatre and ample unique shops. Bigfork was also chosen as "One of the 50 Great Towns of the West" as well as "One of the 100 Best Small Art Towns of the Nation." Bigfork is known as the Village by the Bay, as it is resides in a sheltered bay on Flathead Lake, where the Swan River meets Flathead Lake. Bigfork is also known as a major arts community in Northwest Montana. Bigfork’s population is growing at about 24% with urban refugees. In summer the population swells with visitors who have come to enjoy its art galleries, live theatre, sidewalk cafes, and restaurants. There are no shopping malls and few franchise businesses, rather unique food establishments and galleries. Bigfork is built on a western art theme, including many excellent sculpture pieces, supported by two bronze foundries in the region. Local artwork can be found in non-traditional venues through the village and the Bigfork Festival of the Arts the first weekend in August is worth the time to see.