Land of Lakes and Mountains
The vast expanse of Flathead Lake, cradled by sky-high peaks, is one of northwest Montana's most iconic features. Families dot the beaches and boaters skim the water. On this roadtrip, join the watery fun or stay dry and savor Bigfork's well-helled culture, then cruise through rugged Clark Fork Valley to the rushing waters of Kootenai Falls.
THE ARTSY, WATERFRONT ENCLAVE OF BIGFORK
serves as your gateway to Flathead Lake, the West's largest freshwater lake with an astonishing 188 miles of shoreline.
Getting there is a breeze. After only a 30-minute drive from Kalispell, you’ll be at downtown’s Pocketstone Café, strategizing your trip over a cappuccino and eggs benedict. Start by choosing from a summer’s worth of outdoor activities—kayaking, swimming, fishing, rafting, hiking—then add in fine dining, gallery hopping and boutique shopping on Electric Avenue. Devote at least one evening to a Broadway-style performance at the 400-seat Bigfork Summer Playhouse, where the curtain has been raised every summer since 1959. Or attend a Sunday night Riverbend Concert in Everit L. Sliter Memorial Park, where the Swan River curves toward Bigfork Bay.
Since it’s hard to turn away from the mellifluous river, book a stay in the woodsy-chic Bridge Street Cottages, steps from the water, and a short walk from downtown. When evening falls, drop into Whistling Andy Distillery to taste small-batch pear gin and distilled bourbon made with locally sourced ingredients.
BACK TO NATURE
The next morning, work up an appetite by walking the Swan River Nature Trail and watching kayakers play in the river’s “Wild Mile.” Hit up Echo Lake Cafe for fresh-squeezed orange juice and big-as-your-plate buckwheat pancakes, then do what Flathead Lake visitors have always done: get out on the water. Rent a kayak. Book a sailboat cruise. Raft the Flathead River’s whitewater.
Catch a sunset from the shore at Wayfarers State Park. If you’re more of a landlubber, the Jewel Basin’s 35 miles of hiking trails lead to wildflower-filled meadows and trout-filled lakes. To the southeast, Swan Lake and adjacent Swan River National Wildlife Refuge offer birding opportunities—the refuge is an important nesting area for bald eagles and blue herons and a wintering spot for whistling swans. Don’t forget your binoculars.
When it’s time to leave Bigfork, make your way south along Flathead Lake’s eastern shore, passing dozens of roadside cherry stands on MT-35. The region’s cherry trees are heavy with masses of rosy white blossoms in May. By July, those flowers have transformed into luscious wine-colored fruits.
The drive along the lakefront brings you to Polson, where the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum is filled with Montana icons like Calamity Jane’s saddle (donated after she retired from performing as a saucy sharpshooter in Wild West shows) and a mounted 181-pound sturgeon—7. feet long—reeled in from Flathead Lake in 1955. Since Polson is cherry country and proud of it, Cherries BBQ Pit serves fall-off-the-bones ribs smoked over cherry wood. Nearby, Mrs. Wonderful’s Café bakes gorgeous organic breads and fruit galettes.
A few miles south, stop in Pablo at The People’s Center tribal museum or in Charlo at Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana to see a fascinating array of Native American artifacts and exhibits. The surrounding land and the southern half of Flathead Lake are part of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Gift shops sell locally made beadwork, moccasins, and jewelry. The National Bison Range, established in 1908, helps preserve the majestic American bison; the animals were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s. Drive through the reserve to spot the herd of almost 300.
GO FOR THE RUSH
Head west on MT-200 to Thompson Falls. In a valley along the Clark Fork River, this old logging town has reinvented itself as a visitor destination while keeping close to its heritage. Walk across the Gallatin Street footbridge to Island Park’s rocky shores, then marvel at the fish ladder, where bull trout make their way over Clark Fork’s dam. Thompson Falls High Bridge gives an eagle’s-eye view of the rushing river, while Thompson Falls State Park offers a family fishing pond plus bird-watching, hiking, swimming, canoeing and fishing. Grab a bite on the riverside patio at Big Eddy’s, then push on to the luxurious Lodge at Trout Creek, set on 90 tranquil acres—an ideal spot for a solid night’s rest.
On your last day, drive an hour north on MT-56 toward Troy, with a quick detour to Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area to stretch your legs among gargantuan 1,000-year-old cedar trees. Between Troy and Libby, the Kootenai River gains momentum, funneling its churning froth through a narrow gorge. Take an exhilarating walk across the Swinging Bridge, suspended across the river downstream from Kootenai Falls. The bridge does swing—enough to make your heart beat faster—but it’s safely tethered by steel cables.
As you head eastward back to Kalispell, stop in Libby for a farewell boating or fishing trip on Lake Koocanusa. Have a Sasquatch burger at the Venture Inn, then wave a wistful goodbye to northwest Montana’s land of lakes and mountains.