The Flathead is one of those rare places where you see the serious golfer and the serious backpacker in the same spot, sometimes in the same body. The golfing is excellent on several courses, and the backpacking, hiking, and fishing are even better. Fishing, boating, and yachting are popular sports for those who can afford to practice them. If your plans take you to one of the lakes or trails on the Salish & Kootenai Reservation, don't forget to buy a tribal permit.
Rentals and guided tours are available from Mountain Mike's, 417 Bridge St., Bigfork (tel. 406/837-2453).
With Flathead Lake being the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, you can bet that this is a big boating destination. Boat rentals are available at the Kwa Taq Nuk Resort in Polson (tel. 800/882-6363), and to the north at Bigfork Marina and Boat Center (tel. 406/837-5556), Bayview Resort and Marina (tel. 406/837-4843), and Marina Cay Resort (tel. 406/837-5861).
A sailboat excursion is available from Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge (tel. 406/837-5569) on two classic racing sloops designed by L. Francis Herreshoff. Fewer than a dozen of these 51-foot "Q-Boats" remain in the world. There are a couple of 2-hour cruises daily from late May to mid-October. Fixed-keel sailboats can be launched at the state parks around Flathead Lake. Big Arm, Yellow Bay, and Somers have fishing access. Because winds may blow hard during the afternoon, only ballasted boats are recommended on the main portion of the lake.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has designated a Flathead Lake Marine Trail, showing point-to-point campsites and landing points that a human-powered craft like a canoe or kayak can reach in 1 day. You can obtain a brochure on the trail from the MFW&P (tel. 406/752-5501; www.fwp.state.mt.us) or from the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau in Kalispell (tel. 406/756-9091).
Excursion cruises are a good way for visitors to check out Flathead Lake. The 65-foot Far West (tel. 406/857-3203) is one of the area's oldest, with daily scenic cruises and occasional Sunday brunch cruises. Pointer Scenic Cruises (tel. 406/837-5617) offers charter rides on high-speed powerboats that cruise to ancient pictographs viewable only by boat; this company also offers explorations of Wild Horse Island, dinner cruises, and custom tours. The Shadow cruise boat (tel. 406/883-3636) takes a 3-hour tour, leaving the Kwa Taq Nuk resort marina in the early afternoon and making a loop around Wild Horse Island before heading back. The boat also takes a shorter bay tour in the morning, or if it's a Montana sunset you're after, take a sunset cruise, departing in the late afternoon, and look west.
Fishing the southern half of Flathead Lake requires a Salish & Kootenai tribal permit, which you can purchase at stores in Polson or at the tribal headquarters in Pablo. The brochure Fishing the Flathead is available from the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau (tel. 406/756-9091). It provides information on 14 different fishing opportunities, as well as an outline of the licensing and catch-and-release regulations. This brochure includes information on Whitefish, Flathead, and Swan lakes, and several lesser-known lakes where you can catch fish but avoid crowds. To increase your odds of snagging something besides a log, contact Glacier Fishing Charters (tel. 406/892-2377). A-Able Fishing (tel. 406/844-0888; www.aablefishing.com) will also outfit a fishing trip with guides who know the area.
There are two golf courses -- one terrific, the other just pretty good -- overlooking the shores of Flathead Lake. In Polson, the 27-hole Polson Bay Golf Club public course is the pretty good one, situated just off the lake on U.S. 93 (tel. 406/883-8230; www.polsonbaygolf.com). A round of 18 holes is $30 to $40. The course is fairly short -- just more than 7,000 yards from the tips and about 6,000 from the white tees -- but it's very pretty and beautifully maintained.
The terrific course is Eagle Bend Golf Club (tel. 800/255-5641 or 406/837-7310; www.golfmt.com), a challenging Jack Nicklaus-designed track with views of Flathead Lake and the surrounding mountains, located in Bigfork just off the highway on Holt Drive. The 18-hole course is about 6,300 yards from the white tees, but it's extremely challenging. There are 27 excellent holes of golf here. Greens fees range from $35 to $92 for 18 holes, depending on the time of year. Golf Digest has called this one of the country's top 50 courses. Be sure to call ahead for a tee time.
There are several other courses in the area. Contact the Flathead Valley Golf Association (tel. 800/392-9795; www.golfmontana.net) for a free visitor's guide and information regarding all of the courses.
This is bear country, and hikers should work to avoid confrontations by making noise and being watchful. Don't surprise them and they won't surprise you.
Besides strolling by the lake at one of the marinas or state parks, the best bet for trekking is in the Jewel Basin, a designated hiking area north of Bigfork. More than 30 miles of trails make it a great place for day hiking as well as overnights. Before dropping into the actual basin, you'll get a great look at the Flathead Valley and Flathead Lake. For free maps of some of the more popular trails, inquire locally at one of the Forest Service offices in Kalispell (tel. 406/758-5200) or Bigfork (tel. 406/837-7500). To reach the head of the hiking area, take Mont. 83 from either Bigfork or Somers, turn north onto Echo Lake Road, and follow the signs.
A short hike, not far from Bigfork and about 45 minutes from the trail head, will take you to Estes Lake. Take County Road 209 out of Bigfork. Turn south at the Ferndale fire station. When the road forks, take the right fork, County Road 498. It's about a 7-mile drive from there to the parking area.
A slightly more ambitious, but still short, hike goes up to Cold Lakes in the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. Take Mont. 83 south to County Road 903. Turn right (west), then follow the road to the trail head. The hike is about an hour each way.
The Flathead Raft Company (tel. 800/654-4359 or 406/883-5838; www.flatheadraftco.com) runs half of its outfit from Polson at Riverside Park on U.S. 93 and half from Bigfork. Tours go down the South Fork of the Flathead River and include a swing through the Buffalo Rapids and Kerr Dam. Half-day white-water trips are $39 to $45, and full-day scenic trips range from $65 to $80. Meals and overnight trips are also available, as are guided kayaking expeditions.
The Blacktail Mountain Ski Area (tel. 406/844-0999; www.blacktailmountain.com) is working hard to make the Flathead Lake region a full-blown year-round resort area. There's an average annual snowfall of 250 inches, which ought to be enough. The area is on more than 1,000 acres of national forest, served by two double chairs, a triple lift, and a handle tow. The hill is excellent for beginner and intermediate skiers, with 1,440 vertical feet of drop. Beginner terrain makes up 15% of the runs, 70% are rated intermediate, and 15% are black diamonds. There are two restaurants, a lounge, ski rental, a ski school, and a terrain park. Lift tickets for adults cost $36 full day, $30 half-day; children ages 13 to 17 cost $25 full day, $21 half-day; ages 8 to 12 are $16 for full day, $13 half-day; seniors 70 and older are $16 half- or full day; and children 7 and younger are free. Lifts open at 9:30am and close at 4:30pm Wednesday through Sunday and holidays (closed Mon-Tues). The area is located 14 miles west of Lakeside on Blacktail Mountain Road.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.