Flathead Lake Information

Flathead Lake is in Flathead County, Montana, with the Flathead National Park flanking its eastern shores, and is surrounded by the Swan Range in the north, the Salish Mountains in the west, and the Mission Mountains in the east. The major population centers around the lake are Kalispell, Bigfork, and Polson, Montana. Flathead Lake covers approximately 128,000 acres, with 185 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 370 feet. Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48 states.

The PPL Montana and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) cooperatively operate Flathead Lake. The southern half of Flathead Lake is within the boundary of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Indian Reservation, where visitors must buy a tribal recreational permit. In the summer, roadside stands along the east shore offer a variety of locally grown cherries, apples, plums, and other fruits.

Several islands float in Flathead Lake, with Wild Horse Island being the largest. Wild Horse Island is a 2,165-acre day use state park accessible by boat. Melita Island is a 64-acre island on Flathead Lake, about one-half mile off the western shores and owned by the Boy Scouts of America. Uninhabited areas surround Flathead Lake, which is characterized by amazing mountainous flora and fauna. Access to Flathead Lake is via US 93 on the west, MT 82 on the north, and MT 35 on the east.

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History of Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake is a natural lake along the mainline of the Flathead River. Glacial damming of the Flathead River, which enters the lake below Kalispell, formed Flathead Lake. Construction of the originally named Kerr Dam began in 1938 and was completed in 1958. The dam lies within the Flathead Indian Reservation, which bought the dam in 2015, and renamed it the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam (say-LISH kuh-ZAHN-kuh kud-LEE-speh), which means People of the Standing Arrow.

The dam provides enough power for about 147,000 homes and more than $9 million in annual revenue for the tribes. The federally recognized tribe of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are the first tribes to own a hydroelectric dam. Glaciers carved the stunning landscapes of Glacier National Park and pushed their way down into the modern-day Flathead Valley and sculpted Flathead Lake thousands of years ago.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation are the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreilles (Kalispell) Native American tribes. They originally inhabited the region and followed the lifestyle of the Plateau Indians. They traveled the plains like the Plains Indians and followed the buffalo herds while living in tipis. One difference is that the CSKT nations had other reliable food sources from primarily salmon in parts of British Columbia, Canada, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

In a treaty with the U.S. government, the CSKT ceded most of their homelands to the United States government and were left with the Flathead Indian Reservation. The U.S. then forced most of these Native Americans to relocate to the reservation. Today, the Flathead Indian Reservation holds 1,317,000 acres of forested mountains and valleys. Contemporary Salish, Kootenai, and Kalispell live on this reservation that is a significantly smaller portion of their ancestral territory.

Although their native population is greatly reduced today, these native peoples have maintained their identity and adapted to their modern reality, while never forgetting their heritage, history, and culture. The People of the Standing Arrow invite visitors to learn their heritage, history, and culture at their museums and attend their annual powwows on the Flathead Indian Reservation, held annually in the southern region of Flathead Lake.


Fishing Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake’s predominant game species are lake trout, northern pike, yellow perch, and whitefish. Other species include largemouth bass, kokanee salmon, and bull, and brook, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. Lake trout is the most popular fish for anglers. The Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) jointly regulate fishing on Flathead Lake.

Catch and release restrictions on bull and cutthroat trout are in effect. If a bull trout does not have a black dorsal fin, it must be released. You can catch cutthroat trout as long as it has some black on it, with the motto being “no black, put it back.” Lake trout can weigh over 20 pounds and measure over three feet long, with the average sizes being three to eight pounds.

Size and Bag Limits

  • Lake Trout: 100 daily and in possession, only one over 36 inches, and all other fish 30 to 36 inches must be released.
  • Lake Whitefish: 100 daily and in possession. 
  • Northern Pike: 15 daily.

A fishing license consists of a conservation license, aquatic invasive species prevention pass, and a base fishing license. Cost is subject to change per FWP regulations, check with the FWP to confirm. A Flathead Lake tribal license costs $12.

Resident or Non-Resident License: Age 0-11: No license required and must be accompanied by licensed adult. Free fishing on Saturday and Sunday of Father’s Day weekend - no license required. 

For Non-Resident:

  • Conservation license: $10,
  • Aquatic Invasive Species permit: $7.50;
  • Base Fishing License: 
    • 2 consecutive calendar days: $25;
    • 10 consecutive days: $56;
    • Season, March 1st through Feb. 28th of the following year: $86.   

Fishing for lake trout during most of the year requires a boat with trolling gear since they inhabit deep waters. Shore fishing is productive from May to June and October to November when the water is cool and they’re in shallow water to look for food. Look for steep to moderately sloping bottoms with lots of rubble. Productive fishing spots in the fall have been reported at Wayfarers and West Shore State Parks, Polson City Docks, and the bridge in Polson.

The CSKT and FWP encourage anglers to harvest yellow perch and lake whitefish, which have liberal bag limits. There are three fishing access points on the northern half of Flathead Lake, at Somers, Swan River, and Woods Bay. Three access points on the southern half are at Big Arm Bay, with two more at Poison Bay and East Bay.

Ice fishing is popular in the winter on Flathead Lake. Sheltered bays freeze most years and the entire lake freezes about every ten years. Ideally, ice anglers should use power augers, portable shelters, fish finders, and underwater cameras. Be extremely careful about ice conditions and make sure you are on an ice shelf that can support you and your gear. Ice fishermen and women go after target yellow perch, trout, Kokanee salmon, and northern pike.

Two marinas serve Flathead Lake, and the CSKT and FWB have two public boat ramps, and several other boat ramps are dotted around the lake in private and state parks. There are several boat rental services and plenty of expert guides at Flathead Lake. 

Find experienced local guides on our Flathead Lake Fishing Guides page.


Boating Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake is one of the largest lakes in the contiguous U.S. west of the Mississippi River. Pleasure boats of all kinds are popular on Flathead Lake. Besides the three marinas, there are sailing and yacht clubs, and boat rental services. Flathead Lake is water surrounded by mountains that is untouched, clear, and pristine. On a boat or raft, you can look down and see rocks and then look again, and realize the rocks are 12 feet beneath the water.

Flathead Lake has six state parks, and plenty of room for all kinds of water sports like parasailing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, diving, and hydro biking, which are favorites. Big Arm Bay is the jumping-off point for visiting Wild Horse Island. The CSKT and FWP maintain 13 public access parks around Flathead Lake with picnic areas. Sites that have toilets, boat launch, camping, swimming, and picnic facilities include Wayfarers, Woods Bay, Yellow Bay, Finely Point, Walstad Memorial, Big Arm, and Elmo state recreation areas.

The Harbor Grille, with live music and courtesy docks, is the only waterfront restaurant on Flathead Lake. Wild Horse Island, near the southwestern shore in Big Arm Bay, is a 2,165-acre state park. The park is accessible only by boat and is a public day use and picnic area only, with no overnight camping. There are many other islands to visit on Flathead Lake. On Flathead Lake, there is usually a snow-capped mountain in sight.

To the north, you can see the peaks from the 1.4-million-acre Glacier National Park. The Mission Mountains reach almost 6,000 feet high on the east. The mile-high Salish Mountains are to the west. The Swan and Flathead Rivers, fed by water from the snow-capped peaks on either side, empty into the lake near Bigfork along the northeast shoreline, and the result is clear, frigid water.

Explore our Flathead Lake Boat Ramps Map, and stay posted on the Flathead Lake Level. Find or sell a boat on our Flathead Lake Boats for Sale page.


Flathead Lake Marinas

Flathead Lake has several marinas located all over the lake, many offer fueling and other marine needs for a day of boating. Flathead Harbor Marina offers 86 boat slips, for boats up to 40 feet in length, and they are available for seasonal, monthly, weekly, and daily rentals. Hidden Harbor leases boat slips on renewable 99-year leases that can be re-sold or sublet and are 24 feet, 26 feet, and 32 feet in length.

The other marinas are Eagle Bend Yacht Harbor, and Marina Cay on Bigfork, Hidden Harbor on Woods Bay, Flathead Lake Marina at Polson, Big Arm Resort on Big Arm, North Flathead Yacht Club at Somers, and Dayton Yacht Harbor at Dayton. All the marinas have fuel, and the North Flathead Yacht Club is private.

Plan your trip to the lake by finding a marina on our Flathead Lake Marinas page.


Flathead Lake Real Estate

The Flathead Lake real estate is the largest market for lake homes and land in Montana. Typically, 40 lake homes and 20 lots and land listings on Flathead Lake are available. Flathead Lake homes for sale have an average list price of $3,049,000. Bigfork real estate market trends show homes at a Median List Price of $1,999,995 in 2021 in a tight market.

Bigfork is the largest town on the lake with restaurants, shops, and other city conveniences. Kalispell is just north of the lake, with more shopping and dining options along with the Kalispell City Airport and Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Less than two miles from the southern border in the Flathead Indian Reservation sits a Walmart.

Bigfork Superintendent Schools, Lakeside Elementary School, Poison Elementary School, and Somers Elementary and Middle Schools serve Flathead Lake’s educational needs. Kalispell Schools are nearby on the northern border of Flathead Lake. There are a few restaurants and nightclubs around Flathead Lake, which lies in a rural, natural wonderland.

To find your dream lake home, explore our Flathead Lake Homes for Sale page.


Flathead Lake Cabins and Vacation Homes

Vacation homes for rent ring Flathead Lake of continuously increasing size and elegance as more and more individuals from outside Montana build exotic homes on the lake. No shortage of private lodging exists on Flathead Lake. Real estate on Flathead Lake’s shores is high-end and expensive. Privately owned cabins also dot the lake, with typically one or two bedrooms, but large parties can find cabins from three to ten bedrooms. It is best to look for and book your vacation home or cabin rental in advance.

Find the perfect vacation home on our Flathead Lake Cabins page.


Camping at Flathead Lake

It takes at least two hours to drive the around the entire periphery of Flathead Lake without stopping. Each of Flathead Lake’s six state parks offers different amenities from beaches to camping to day use picnic areas. Finley Point State Park is a popular place to camp and can be reached via boat or car, so be sure to book ahead, especially if you want to reserve one of the boat camping slips for the dock. This park has four boat camping docks with electricity.

Yellow Bay State Park is located on the southeast side of Flathead Lake and puts you in the middle of the cherry orchards. It is only 15 acres and has a few campsites. This park has toilets, picnic tables and shelter, grills, fire rings, boat launch, parking, and is is  ADA accessible. It has 23 sites for RVs under 40 feet and seven sites for tent camping only, along with sites available for hiking or biking in that cannot accommodate a car. It has toilets, water, showers, a parking lot, grills, a dock, a boat launch, a playground, bear resistant storage, trash removal, lockers, picnic shelters, and firewood available for purchase, plus pets are allowed.

Wayfarers State Park lies in a thickly wooded area and some of their campsites have their own secluded beaches. It has 30 sites, and seven of which are designated for tent-use only. There are also some only available for hiking or biking in that cannot accommodate a car. At sites where RVs and trailers are permitted, the vehicle can’t be longer than 40 feet.

West Shore State Park is a private, quite place with a mature forest, a rocky beach and public camping.

Check out our list of campgrounds and RV parks for your family adventure on our Flathead Lake Camping page.


Trails at Flathead Lake 

Flathead Lake State Park West Shore Loop hiking trails offer mature ponderosa pines, juniper trees, and spectacular views of the Mission Mountains. It is a 1.5-mile loop with an elevation gain of 360 feet and used for hiking, walking, and nature trips, and is good for all skill levels.

Wayfarers State Park Loop is a 1.8-mile lightly trafficked loop trail located near Bigfork, Montana, that features the lake and is good for all skill levels. This trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, and nature trips. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on leash. The trail winds along the rocky shoreline and up to the cliffs of the park, where you will find a jaw-dropping view of Flathead Lake.

The Flathead Lake Interpretive Trail #77 is a short 0.4-mile trail with a steep decline down to an excellent view of Flathead Lake and the western skyline, and is a fairly easy hike.

The Flathead National Forest on the eastern border of Flathead Lake has 2,249 miles of trails that access mountain lakes, peaks, valleys, and wind along river bottoms. The variety of users that enjoy the Flathead Forest trails include hikers, bikers, horseback riders, ATV and OHV riders, snowmobilers, and motorcycle riders. Many of the trails are multiple use, with hikers, riders, and bikers using the same trail.

Some of the forest’s trails are designated for specific uses, such as the Danny On Trail and the Jewel Basin Hiking Area, which are for hikers only. The Flathead National Forest has trail maps available for sale at the Supervisor's Office, at all District Offices, and on-line via the United States Geological Survey Store.

The Forest's trail crews and partners that help keep the trails open for your use and clear the tails as soon as they are snow free. At any time during summer, trail conditions can change due to wind events, fires, and slides. Please check the Flathead National Forest's website alerts prior to planning a hiking trip on the Flathead National Forest’s trails. 


Flathead Lake Hunting

The Flathead National Forest offers opportunities for hunters with a valid Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks permit to hunt from a vehicle. The hunting locations are limited, and the Forest has certain requirements. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are permitted on WPAs according to Federal and State regulations.

Flathead Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) are restricted to hunting with archery equipment, shotgun, traditional handgun, muzzleloader, or crossbow only. Only approved non-toxic shot may be used or possessed when hunting upland game birds and waterfowl. Legal big game species include black bear (spring and fall), bison, mule and white-tailed deer, elk, mountain lions (winter), moose, mountain goats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Early season hunting camps are at Strawberry Creek and Big River Meadows in elk and deer District 151 in the Flathead National Forest. The Bob Marshall Wilderness in the Forest is home to one of Montana’s largest big game herds. The Strawberry Creek Camp is on a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on Gateway Creek. Big River Meadows is on a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on Gateway Creek. Big River Meadows is an impressive open park.

Montana's Block Management Access (BMA) program aims to help hunters and landowners during the hunting season in coordination with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). The Meuli BMA (BMA Region 1 & 2) is located along the eastern border of Flathead Lake and offers deer and elk hunting. Parking for the Meuli BMA is located on the southwestern edge of the Meuli BMA.


Things to Do At Flathead Lake

Take a Sea Me Paddle kayak or paddle board excursion on Flathead Lake in Lakeside, Montana. Tours are available on board the Far West, which docks in Lakeside on the northwestern border of the lake. Flathead Lake Boat Tours offers a 1-hour and 45-minute tour every day at 1:00 pm and at 7:00 pm Sundays through Wednesdays during season. Reservations are encouraged.

Restaurants are located around the northern half of Flathead Lake, with some serving libations, and they are open seasonally. Kalispell, Montana, has a variety of dining options from bakeries to breweries and farm-to-table restaurants, which like to feature locally grown huckleberries and Flathead cherries.

Local craft breweries produce over 40 varieties of ales and lagers that are made with Montana-grown malts, hand-picked local hops, and the huckleberry and Flathead cherry flavors of the area. You will also find local distilleries that serve up small-batch spirits including handcrafted absinthe, gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey.

There are four golf clubs and courses north of Kalispell, and a disc golf course. Throughout Kalispell’s downtown district, there are many places to shop, from art to furniture and clothing to jewelry.  Western Outdoor, a downtown Kalispell anchor, is located underneath what used to be an opera house that dates back to 1896. You will find over 2,500 boots and 1,500 hats, and western-inspired attire at this store.

Step back in time with historical Kalispell buildings that date back to the late 1890s and early 1900s, like the Conrad Mansion Museum, the Hockaday Museum of Art, Kalispell Grand Hotel, and the Northwest Montana History Museum.

In Polson, Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Sandpiper Art and Gift Gallery, A Fine Arts Corporation, is a non-profit (501c3) organization. This All Volunteer Member Artist Cooperative was founded in 1971 by a group of artists. Many of their founders have passed away but remain involved today through their heir’s efforts to carry on and give with their generous donations. 

Plan your next trip with our What To Do At Flathead Lake page, and our Flathead Lake Event Calendar.


Flathead Lake Weather & Climate

Flathead Lake sees an average of 21 inches of rain, with 74 inches of snow, and 151 days of sunshine per year. The winter low in January is 16 degrees, with a summer high in July of 80 degrees. June, July, and August are the most comfortable months for this region. December and January are the least comfortable months.

Keep an eye on the skies with our Flathead Lake Weather Forecast page.


Flathead Lake Zip Codes

Flathead County: 59845, 59901, 59903, 59904, 59911, 59912, 59913, 59916, 59919, 59920, 59921, 59922, 59925, 59926, 59927, 59928, 59932, 59933, 59934, 59936, 59937.


Flathead Lake Flora and Fauna

Black and grizzly bears, elk, Rocky Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, and wolves are the larger critters seen around the Flathead Lake region, but you’ll also find gophers, beavers, porcupines, and woodchucks. This area is very mountainous and densely forested. You can find yourself surrounded by old growth cedars, huge ponderosas, tall larch trees, groves of aspen, or mixed coniferous forests depending on which habitats or alpine zones you are visiting.

Flathead Lake Email Updates


 

Flathead Lake Current Weather Alerts

There are no active watches, warnings or advisories.

 

Flathead Lake Weather Forecast

Saturday

Partly Sunny

Hi: 91

Saturday Night

Mostly Cloudy

Lo: 56

Sunday

Mostly Sunny

Hi: 83

Sunday Night

Mostly Clear

Lo: 56

Labor Day

Sunny

Hi: 80

Monday Night

Clear

Lo: 53

Tuesday

Sunny

Hi: 81

Tuesday Night

Mostly Clear

Lo: 57


Flathead Lake Water Level (last 30 days)


Water Level on 9/3: 2892.70 (+4.70)



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