The first thing that most visitors notice on their visit to this part of Montana is an unbelievably massive body of water that takes up almost half of the valley flanked by towering mountains. Welcome to Flathead Lake. With over 128 miles of shoreline, roughly 28 miles long and 15 miles wide, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the Western United States, and one of the 300 largest natural lakes in the world. Among those lakes, the water quality of the Flathead is one of the cleanest in the world. The reason of course is that the major tributaries of the lake flow directly out of Glacier National Park, and surrounding wilderness areas.
Formed by ancient glaciers, the lake is named after the Flathead (Salish) Indians who inhabited the area, and the southern half of the lake lies within the boundaries of the present day Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Indian Reservation. The shoreline is very irregular, especially on the west shore, and the lake contains several islands that cover a combined 5.5 square miles. The first wagon trails up the shoreline were so steep and hazardous that much of the early travel and trade was done by steamboat. Steamer routes along the lake connected Polson and Demersville up the Flathead River (present day south Kalispell).
One of the most fantastic aspects to experiencing Flathead Lake is the constant change. No two days on the lake are the same. With such a large surface area of water, the lake can quickly change its temper from a calm plate of glass to midnight black rollers topped by foaming whitecaps. The many colors of the lake include glacier greens in the spring to crystal clear blues in late summer, to reflecting snowy crimson alpenglow off the mountains on gray winter days.
If the idea of enjoying the lake is more than taking in the scenery, there is plenty action on warm summer days. Recreation activities include boating, fishing, water skiing, sailing, and just about any water sport you can dream up. With such a large body of water, the lake seems peaceful on even the busiest of days. Sport fishing includes native and non-native species, the most popular being the Mackinaw, or lake trout. The state record (Flathead Lake) for this sport fish is 42.5 inches and 42.7 pounds! One of the annual highlights on the lake is to watch the firework shows on the 4th of July. In addition to the large, professional shows, the shoreline all around the lake lights up from private shows as well.
Another aspect of Flathead Lake that is fundamentally unique is the overall lack of commercialization in the area. There are a few waterfront resorts and a handful of condo projects, but the vast majority of shoreline is privately owned properties. Given the fact that many of these properties are vacation homes and not occupied year-round, the lake is largely unused relative to other resort destination lakes in the West.
The larger towns on the shores of Flathead Lake include Bigfork (pop 4,300), Polson (pop. 4,500), and Lakeside (pop 2,700). Polson is the only incorporated town that borders the lake. Other waterfront communities include Somers, Rollins, Dayton, Elmo, and Big Arm. The shoreline of the lake varies significantly from towering cliffs to gravel beaches, and heavily wooded forests to open grasslands. Generally speaking, the northern end of the lake is more densely forested than the southern end with the transition around the Rollins area. With US Hwy 93 on the west shore, and State Hwy 35 on the eastern side, a drive around the lake makes for a great day trip.
In addition to the local restaurants, shops, and taverns along the shores of Flathead Lake, you can find three microbreweries (Tamarack Brewing – Lakeside, Flathead Brewing – Woods Bay, and Glacier Brewing – Polson) and Mission Mountain Winery in Dayton. There are also two incredible opportunities to enjoy golf in the area; Eagle Bend in Bigfork and Polson Bay Golf Course.
Real estate sales along the shores of Flathead Lake have not been immune to the real estate cycles across the country. In fact, it is typical for resort destination real estate like Flathead Lake to accentuate the highs and lows of the real estate swings. The peak of sales and prices was in the summer of 2007 with several multi-million dollar sales on the lake and lake-front land averaging close to $10,000 per linear front foot. The market bottomed out in 2009, and prices have begun to slowly climb off the bottom with prices now averaging $3,500 per linear front foot. There are still several great values on waterfront properties around Flathead Lake, but the inventory has decreased significantly over the past two years.
With its majestic beauty and endless recreation activities, Flathead Lake remains one of the best kept secrets of northwest Montana.