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Flathead Lake, Mont.

Some places grow on you, some feel comfy right away.
And then there are the spots that instantly send your heart soaring.

sailboat on Flathead Lake, Mont.
Photo caption
A sailboat slips along on Flathead Lake, a body of water known for its clarity.

As you crest the hill on Highway 93 near the south side of Polson, Mont., the biggest expanse of freshwater between the Great Lakes and the Pacific comes into view: blue and more blue, with wooded islands strewn against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks. Suddenly, whether you’re from Missoula or Medicine Bow, the drive to Flathead Lake seems worthwhile. But to really appreciate the place, you have to find something that floats, perhaps a sailboat rented from the Dayton Yacht Harbor or the 50-passenger Princess cruise ship departing from Polson’s Kwa Taq Nuk Resort. You can even throw your buoyant self off Polson’s public swimming dock. Just get out on the lake—and look down. The water here is nearly the color of air, and floating on it can feel a lot like flying. Fed by snowmelt from peaks in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Flathead is a pristine mountain lake with 160 miles of shoreline, more than twice as much as the vaunted Lake Tahoe. The water’s cleaner, too.

"This is one of the neatest lakes in the world," says Jack Stanford, an ecologist who’s worked here since 1971. "People are stunned that they can look down through 20 feet of water and see little rocks on the bottom. It’s a magical setting."

That’s the scientific view. Flathead visitors fill postcards with their own observations. The lake and environs can be exhilarating, relaxing, rustic, or extravagant—or all of the above. A warning, though. Whether you’re hoping for a tent site or a luxury suite, always book ahead. There’s plenty of lake for everyone, but sleeping spots fill up fast in summer.

If you do manage to visit between late July and mid-August, you can definitely add "sweet" to your heaps of praise. That’s when roadside stands start selling dark red Flathead cherries picked from orchards on the lake’s east shore. They’re irresistible, even after your tenth handful.

The cherries owe their ripeness to the lake itself, which is large enough to shape the area’s climate. Summer warmth trapped in its waters prevents killer freezes in winter—a so-called lake effect that also permits rain and snow to nurture the south and east shores. Golf courses in Polson stay green into autumn, and the country between Polson and Bigfork (elevation 2,900 feet) feels like a slice of western Oregon moved 400 miles inland, complete with ferns, giant firs, and abundant orchards. The west shore, in contrast, still feels like rural Montana—a relatively dry land of grass and pines. Not coincidentally, the west shore also has typical Montana towns: unassuming places such as Elmo, Lakeside, and Rollins.

Weather shapes the lake, too. When strong winds roll in from the west, waves can reach frightening heights. That’s why Bill Myers keeps an eye on the sky no matter what the forecast. Owner and operator of Pointer Scenic Cruises in Bigfork, the mustachioed "Captain Bill" has been taking guests on his nine-passenger powerboats for a dozen years. But he won’t go up against a Flathead thunderstorm.

Blessed with a voice that rises above his outboard’s growling, Myers enjoys detailing the region’s geologic history: the glaciers that sheared 7,000 feet off the mountains above Bigfork, the inland sea that once covered much of the land, and the ice-age retreat that created the lake.

Passengers design their own tours. They can ogle over-the-top beachside homes on the east shore or study ancient pictographs (accessible only by boat) on the cliffs near Rollins on the west shore. But 2,100-acre Wild Horse Island State Park in the southwest corner of the lake is the favored destination. One of 22 Flathead islands, Wild Horse offers easy hiking trails, 360-degree views, grassy meadows, old-growth ponderosa pines, and, yes, wild horses (three, to be exact) along with herds of mule deer and bighorn sheep. The view almost always cooperates, but the wildlife can be elusive. "It’s nature, not a zoo," Myers says.

It can, however, be a fine dining spot. With a little planning, Wild Horse Island visitors can picnic on fresh salmon cakes with horseradish aioli. With several top-notch cafés and bistros on the lake, catered picnics and dinner cruises are a popular indulgence. For Myers and others, uncorking bottles of wine and carving racks of lamb are just part of the job.

Wherever meals are served, they often showcase local flavors. At Riley’s, the casual eatery at the Mountain Lake Lodge near Woods Bay, wood-fired calzones are filled with smoked chicken and Flathead cherries. Menus elsewhere feature Montana huckleberries, morel mushrooms, and whitefish fillets. You ordered elk steak? Wash it down with White Cap Pale Ale from Bigfork’s Flathead Lake Brewing Company or local pinot noir from Dayton’s Mission Mountain Winery.

Of course, chefs aren’t the only ones devoted to Flathead fare. Guides are eager to help visitors troll for 40-pound lake trout in deep water or fly fish for trout on the tranquil lower stretches of the Flathead River.

To see the region’s flashiest fish, you have to stalk them in their habitat: Eric Thorsen’s gallery of bronze sculptures in Bigfork. Part sculptor, part magician—his trout shimmer and his bear cubs look downy enough to stroke—Thorsen is just one of dozens of sculptors, painters, and potters who have turned Bigfork into an art hot spot. Creative energy, along with plenty of music and food, will be in full spark during the Bigfork Festival of the Arts in early August.

Throughout the season, performing artists take center stage at the intimate Bigfork Summer Playhouse, a theater that attracts talent—and fans—from around the country. This summer’s offerings are The Pirates of Penzance, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Hello, Dolly! and Big River.

The musicals regularly earn ovations, but the best entertainment will always be outdoors. Kids find pretty rocks on the beaches, adults soak up the sun and the scenery, and everyone swims. If doing cannonballs into 70-degree water doesn’t get your adrenaline flowing, jet-skiing and waterskiing offer petroleum-powered thrills. Or if you’d rather ride the wind, try cruising on the Nor’Easter or another sailboat at Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork. No matter how you spend your time, that first view of the lake—vast, clear, and bountifully blue—never feels like false advertising.


This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.