The largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, deep-blue Flathead Lake is a magnet for outdoor recreation in western Montana. US-93 winds along the lake’s hilly western shore, passing through a number of state parks and small resort communities that enjoy grand views of the Rocky Mountains to the east and the green foothills of the Flathead National Forest to the west.
Along US-93 at the north end of the lake, Somers is a neat old timber town with some well-preserved turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, including an old train depot. From Somers, you can detour east onto Hwy-82 for a trip along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, where you can enjoy the upscale resort town of Bigfork and the acres of cherry orchards that line the lakeshore, flowering in spring and offering delectable treats in early summer.
The southern half of Flathead Lake is surrounded by the Flathead Reservation, home to a mixed population of Flathead Salish and Kootenai peoples as well as nonindigenous people, who make up around 80 percent of the reservation’s population. The large reservation covers a 1.3-million-acre area, roughly 35 by 65 miles, hemmed in by the Mission and Cabinet Mountains. Apart from a few small towns, it’s mostly prairie and riverside wetlands.
The largest of these towns, Polson, at the bottom end of the lake where the Flathead River flows south, is a predominantly white retirement community, with 24-hour gas stations, the area’s only ATMs, a Safeway supermarket, and chain motels. Polson is also home to the deluxe lakefront Best Western KwaTaqNuk Resort (49708 US-93 E., 406/883-3636, $72 and up), owned and operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, with two pools, an on-site casino, a boat dock, and direct access to the lake.
Miracle of America Museum
Just two miles south of Polson along US-93, the bizarre but fascinating Miracle of America Museum (406/883-6804, daily, $10), which calls itself “Western Montana’s Largest Museum,” displays kitchen appliances, toys, antique motorcycles, tractors, armored tanks, and framed newspaper clippings to give a unique, to say the least, view of America’s industrial, military, and cultural history. If you’d enjoy things like a motorized toboggan or a collection of tractor seats, count on spending an hour at least—twice that long if you also like music, because the museum doubles as the Montana Fiddlers Hall of Fame.
South of Polson, US-93 has been realigned and widened in an eco-sensitive wetlands-friendly fashion, with native plantings, wildlife crossings, and a new name: the Peoples Way.
St. Ignatius and the National Bison Range
The wildly angular Mission Mountains, rising to the east of the Flathead Reservation, were named for a Roman Catholic mission established in the 1850s at St. Ignatius, a small town midway between Polson and Missoula. Like most reservation communities, it’s a poor and fairly depressed place, worth a look for the imposing St. Ignatius Mission church (daily, donation), just east of US-93. Built by Flathead laborers in 1891, the church holds over 55 religious frescoes painted by Joseph Carignano, the mission cook.
West of St. Ignatius, 18,500 acres of natural rolling prairie have been set aside since 1908 as the National Bison Range, protected home of the 500 or so resident bison (a.k.a. buffalo), along with deer, elk, pronghorn, and mountain goats. Allow around two hours to drive a complete circuit of the park; the entrance and visitors center are on the west side of the reserve, off Hwy-200, six miles west of the crossroads town of Ravalli. At the southern edge of the Flathead Reservation, Arlee hosts an annual 4th of July Powwow, one of the most popular Native American gatherings in Montana.