For most of us Montana has one short season to enjoy, and it is almost here. Perhaps the crown jewel of this scenic state is Glacier National Park, but I found nearby Flathead Lake to be equally captivating. The scenery and recreation choices are out of this world. The north part of the lake could serve as a launching point for excursions into the famed park.
Driving north from Missoula, I was anxious to see how the geography that I had heard so much about would unfold. Well, about an hour or so to the north, the wonders started to appear with Flathead Lake. As we approached the southern shore, we could see all the way to the northern shore some 30 miles away. Imagine gazing out at Lake Tahoe 40 years ago, and you have the picture here: stunning blue water with forested meadows running down to the shoreline. Beyond this are the towering green mountains that make Montana famous.
This monster of a lake is the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. It is larger than Lake Tahoe, yet little development has taken place here. As we drove up the eastern shore, we found it to be largely rural with large ranches stretching from the road above down to the water through tall pine trees. About the only commercial activity here are the cherry stands, which I would highly recommend visiting.
Flathead Lake has over 180 miles of shoreline. While many use it as a gateway to Glacier National Park or Whitefish Mountain, you could easily spend a week on this lake alone. Another pleasant surprise was the altitude of only 2,900 feet. This allows for pleasant late spring and early fall weather.
Located on the northeastern shore of the lake, Big Fork is home to the Mountain Lake Lodge and a charming village. The lodge perches high on a hill overlooking Flathead Lake, with views to the south. They are breathtaking from all over this property; pine trees frame the blue pristine lake meeting green mountains on all sides.
Mountain Lake Lodge makes for very comfortable lodging and could be ideal for small groups or a Montana wedding. Most of the rooms look out over the pool area toward the lake. The spacious grounds give the sensation of living on a grand hilltop estate.
Two excellent dining choices are on property. For fine dining and a great view, try the Terra Steakhouse located upstairs in the main lodge. Terra also serves breakfast daily. For a more casual dining experience, guests can enjoy Riley’s Pub & Sports Bar. This choice is located downstairs in the main lodge with outdoor view seating available. We dined at Riley’s and found the food great.
The Mountain Lake Lodge has an infinity pool and spa area also overlooking the Lake. For more information visit mountainlakelodge.com.
The village of Big Fork sits at the mouth of the Swan River, one of two rivers that flow into Flathead Lake. This authentic Western town has developed world-class art galleries, live theater, shops, and restaurants. Recreational activity centers around this town, with numerous boat rental and white water rafting companies available. At the marina we saw photos of huge trout and bass caught at this 300-foot-deep lake.
Big Fork is also home to a great golf venue in Eagle Bend Golf Course. Here, golfers can enjoy a wide variety with 27 holes. The most recent nine holes course was designed by Jack Nicklaus Jr. and runs along Flathead Lake. The older 18 holes flow from a valley setting up into the gently rolling hills, offering great lake views. The course has been consistently ranked as one of the best in Montana, and we found it in excellent shape. Several other quality golf courses can be found nearby, including the highly acclaimed Big Mountain Golf Club in Kalispell and Meadow Lake Golf Club in Columbia Falls. Big Mountain is the newest in the area and was designed by two-time U.S. Open Champion Andy North.
Big Fork is about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Missoula. If you choose to fly in, there are now numerous options at Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell. This area is a great “base camp” for exploring Glacier National Park and all its wonders. The park entrance is less than an hour away.