Flathead Lake, MT

I hesitate to post this here because it’s not really wilderness, but this is the most appropriate section of p-net.

Any recommendations on where to paddle on Flathead Lake? It looks big enough that it wouldn’t be a one-day paddle. We are interested in doing either a circumnavigation (kayak camping) trip, or several day trips from one or more car camps. We do not want to do any shuttling.

Advice on camping, typical weather patterns from late spring through early fall, availability of food supplies, etc. would be appreciated.

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There is at least one person at that site that boats Flathead lake on a regular basis.


That is probably Shawn Baker
I have read many of his posts about building a S&G kayak, Greenland paddling, and even one or two about Flathead Lake.

Good tip–thanks!

Flathead Lake
First off, I have to admit I do 90% of my paddling (open canoe) on rivers, not lakes. But I do live 90 miles from Flathead, and there does seem to be a dearth of Montana paddlers on this sight. So, in case you don’t connect with the person mentioned in the other post, I thought I may as well share what I do know. You are right on a couple of counts. It is a big lake and it is not wilderness. In fact, it is not even on National Forest Land. There are 6 State Parks on the shore of the lake, the rest is private land (and some of the priciest land in the state; thus no one is going to “not mind” you camping on their beach.) The lake is 30 miles long and roughly 10 miles wide. I have seen the shoreline mileage listed anywhere from 120-180 miles. The south half of the lake is on the Flathead Indian Reservation. You will need a tribal recreation permit (available in most any sporting goods or convenience store on the rez) for paddling (or camping somewhere other than a Sate Park) plus a reservation fishing permit if you fish. As mentioned, this is a big lake, so the usual caveats apply regarding possible ocean sized swells, sudden storms, etc. Think long and hard about any open crossing more than a mile or 2.

Time of year? I would have difficulty recommending that you drive 700 miles to come in May, but if you were here already for some other reason it is possible to have nice weather, and there are a lot of cherry orchards on the east shore which are blooming in mid to late May. June can be beautiful some years, but other years it stays cold and rainy untill July. July and August are definitely your safest months. Sept. to mid Oct. can be wonderful (my favorite time); but you can get the occasional week long rainy period. The state forest fire season usually shuts down shortly after Labor Day with about a 4-5 day low pressure system bringing rain and mid 40s temps to the valleys and snow above 5000 ft. Fortunately this is often followed by “Indian summer” which is glorious. I guess I am skeptical of doing a full circumnavigation, given the relative lack of public camping (most of the campgrounds are relatively small, so if you get there late in the day and they are full, you are screwed). If it was me, I would probably basecamp at a couple of state parks and day trip from there. Wild Horse Island is a must see and can be accessed by a 2 mile paddle from Big Arm State Park; or a longer paddle from West Shore State Park. Another possibility which looks intrigueing from the map, but I have no first hand knowledge of, is Wayfarer Park. The north shore of the lake is designated as a waterfowl production area and I know it is very marshy around there. It should also be possible to paddle up the Flathead River from the mouth. The river is quite flat and slow moving and should have lots of bird life. Don’t confuse the Flathead mouth with the mouth of the Swan River near Big Fork, a couple of miles east. The lower Swan has a one mile stretch of class 5 whitewater about a mile upstream from the lake. Go in beauty.

Useful tips–thank you
We will probably just set up a basecamp and do a couple of daypaddles from there. Originally, we were thinking of making it a standalone vacation, but Flathead is far enough away that if we go this year, we’ll probably hit it on the way to or from another trip we have already planned.

Shawn Baker wrote a short article on Flathead for Wavelength magazine (available on-line) that looks helpful, too.

I was surprised at how many outfitters run kayak trips up there.

Our favorite lake…
Well I got into sea kayaking because I live 8 miles from the lake. Some helpful hints. We can have ice till mid May around the shores. I wouldn’t recommend a multiday trip until after the 4th of July, the weather is too variable. Problems: motor boaters don’t see you so carry a good horn; storms can kick up quick from the west (and sometimes south). Good news: there is a marine trail all around the lake; camp sites are reserved for boaters until 6:00; search Flathead Lake FWP marine trail for more info and maps; Silver Moon Kayak Company is at the north end of the lake (Sommers, MT) would have good advice and last minute items; motor boat traffic is much lighter during the week and is never really bad compared to other lakes in the country (except July 4 and Labor Day). Car camping and day trips from any of the state parks are fun and they’re all different. You can even launch for day trips from the city parks and fishing access points. I don’t know where you’re coming from but you may also want to kayak Hungry Horse Resevoir and Lake McDonald in Glacier Park. Bowman in Glacier Park is beautiful, remote, and make sure you’re carrying a spare for the car on that dirt road!

Thank you, too
We’d be up there either in late July or mid-August–no problems with 4th of July or Labor Day crowds.

I normally don’t carry an air horn on lakes but do own one and will make sure to bring it on this trip. The sound definitely carries better than a shout or whistle, as a group I was in found out on the water.

Flathead Lake Paddling
Raghorn is right about the dangers of Flathead Lake. Stay out of the very middle of the lake if you can as it can get very rough very quickly.

Also most of the power boaters are drunk ! One thing to note is that a tribal permit is not needed for the tribal end of the lake for boating or swimming. However a permit is needed if you want to fish, and a permit is needed for paddling all other waters of the reservation including The Lovely Lower Flathead River. Smallmouth bass and northern pike are the kings of this river ! I have seen pike jump out of the water for a bird at the swallows cliff ! I have also floated past bears, bighorn sheep and elk on the right bank. This lower stretch warms up into the 80 s in the summer and runs very clear in the spring due to the settling effect of the lake. Flathead Lake has monster lake trout and big daddy whitefish !