Lasso the Lake

Breathtaking views, tasty brews and colorful culture
line the road around Flathead Lake.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Flathead Lake. It was the day I flew to Montana to make this place my home. From photographs in books, I had gleaned a cursory familiarity with Montana’s mountains and national parks, its famous trout streams and elk-filled forests.

Yet somehow, none of that prepared me for the view as our flight descended northward toward Kalispell: a vast, glinting, cerulean expanse, flanked by snow-capped peaks, mirroring the deep blue sky as far as I could see through the plane’s small window. It literally took my breath away.

Since that day, I’ve contemplated many spectacular vistas across my adopted state. Yet Flathead Lake — from roadside or airplane, from a sailboat skimming its surface or standing neck-deep in its crystal-clear waters — still holds a singular place in my personal list of natural wonders of the world.

Whenever friends visit from out of state I make sure that their itineraries include a circuit around Flathead Lake. Even by car, the 97-mile trip can fill a full day; yet nary a dull moment goes by.

I prefer to start the day on the west side of the lake, for reasons that will become vividly plain around sunset. From Kalispell, Highway 93 runs south straight to the town of Somers. The road then wraps around the northwest corner of the lake to my first favorite stop: the Flathead Lake Salmon Hatchery.

This state-run facility, which recently celebrated its centennial, offers a chance to get intimate with millions of young native gamefish — including kokanee salmon, westslope cutthroat and rare arctic grayling — while also learning about the history of Flathead Lake’s fishery.

Next stop is the small town of Lakeside, home of the Tamarack Brewing Company Alehouse & Grill — a great place for a hearty early lunch and (for your passengers, at least) samples of fine microbrews.

Just a few minutes south, West Shore State Park is a beautiful place for an easy hike through a wooded area along the rocky shoreline, and for great views of the Mission and Swan Mountains across the lake.

Wherever you decide to stop along the way, you’ll eventually reach Polson, Flathead Lake’s largest shore-side town. With its quaint downtown of mostly brick buildings and its lakeside parks, Polson is a fine place to grab a snack and stretch your legs before looping back northward along Highway 35 — better known locally as the East Side Highway.

With its higher peaks and generally steeper shoreline, the east side of Flathead Lake offers an even more dramatic experience of this singular landscape. The highway rolls and twists past scenic overlook after scenic overlook, with plenty of places to pause and gawk along the way.

The lake is hardly the only attraction here in springtime. After all, to many people outside this region Flathead isn’t a lake but a cherry. And in early May, the cherry orchards that rim the lake are in full bloom, creating a blanket of “snow” that makes entire hillsides shimmer in the sunlight. The small, secluded state park at Yellow Bay is a particularly great spot to stop in this season, when views of nearby orchards contrast with the deep blue of the lake.

A little farther north you’ll come to the lakeside cultural oasis of Bigfork. Take time to stroll along pedestrian-friendly Electric Avenue, home to art galleries, fine restaurants, the Bigfork Museum of Art & History and the Bigfork Summer Playhouse (whose excellent season of rotating productions starts mid-May). To cap off the afternoon, visit the tasting room at Whistling Andy Distillery, whose deliciously unusual hibiscus coconut rum won the 2011 platinum award at the Spirits International Prestige Awards. Then, fill up on delicious pub food and World Beer Cup award-winning brews at Flathead Lake Brewery’s pubhouse, located on Holt Drive.

By the time you finish your tour of Bigfork, the light should be getting long across the lake. Stick around. After all, you’re only a short drive away from home base in Kalispell; and there are few more remarkable moments than sunset across Flathead Lake. And there’s no better vantage than Wayfarers State Park, on the south edge of Bigfork.

You won’t want to forget your camera. But even if you do, you won’t forget the views at the end of this extraordinary day.

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