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Montana's Seeley Lake

Combine water, trees, fish, art, and wine. Mix gently and enjoy.

Image of canoeing on Montana's Seeley Lake
Photo caption
Rush hour traffic cruises through on Montana's Seeley Lake.

The typical visitor gives Montana’s Seeley Lake about four minutes—long enough for serious second-guessing. When travelers zooming between Missoula (50 miles southwest) and Flathead Lake (70 miles north) pass this blue spot in a mountain-rimmed valley, they wonder why they didn’t plan to stay a whole day. Or several.

The lucky few who do stop get a big payoff: views of the Mission Mountains and Swan Range, forest all around, and a thousand acres of air-clear water. (Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, built a cabin here with his father.) The town of Seeley Lake (pop. 2,000) isn’t a standard-issue speed bump—not with its galleries, resorts, and winery. Loggers and trappers of decades past would be shocked by the amenities. But the peaks and trees reflected in the lake would feel just right to them. “To describe the scenery here as God’s country is an understatement,” says Angela Everson as she builds a banana split in the Stage Station’s soda fountain.

Many travelers have been stumped by a sign on the Seeley Lake Historical Museum & Visitor’s Center: no caulks. “It’s pronounced corks,” says Cheryl Thompson of the local chamber of commerce. “They’re nail-soled boots worn by lumberjacks. They poke holes in everything.” Inside the building—a weathered barn—you can see an early two-man chain saw and signs commemorating the horse teams that once lived here. There’s a Norman Maclean exhibit and a stall devoted to pioneer Joe Waldbillig, a pack rat who hoarded hand tools, grizzly traps, and arrowheads.

But you won’t want to stay indoors. Residents and visitors alike tend to head for the water. The Clearwater River Canoe Trail starts four miles north of town; pick a craft at Seeley Lake Recreational Rentals and glide along a quiet 3.5-mile route past lily pads and willows. Western painted turtles bask on driftwood while belted kingfishers dive for darting cutthroat trout. On the lake itself, canoeists and kayakers mingle with water-skiers and jet-skiers. There are even beaches for anyone hardy enough to swim so close to snowcapped mountains.

“The lake brings a lot of good memories,” says Pam Rose, owner of Deer Country Quilts. “People say it reminds them of Bigfork [on Flathead Lake] in the 1950s.” Visitors to her shop—a log lodge bursting with eye-popping bolts of fabric—stroll aisles packed with batik, flannel, and Asian-inspired prints.

Down the street is the Stage Station, a large pavilion selling paintings, pottery, flowers, Pendleton blankets, and Montana Coffee Traders espresso. In these parts, art is an especially common commodity. This fall, the self-guided Alpine Artisans’ Tour of the Arts makes four stops in town, including studios showing works by basket weaver Jennifer Dyer and photographer Ken Dvorak.

At Littlebird’s Schoolhouse Café and Gallery, a tiny cabin filled with farmhouse tables and mismatched chairs, chef-owner Vicki Voegelin displays local paintings and prepares artful lunches and dinners—roast duck in huckleberry sauce with wild rice, say—using herbs and vegetables from her garden. She also hosts a Sunday produce and crafts market June through Labor Day.

The tasting room at Trail Creek Winery—five minutes from town—is the perfect spot to unwind with a glass of chardonnay. Savoring the views of Morrell Peak above the homestead buildings out back, you’ll be glad you didn’t beeline it elsewhere

Photography courtesy Angie Kimmel/Blue Yonder Photography

This article was first published in September 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.