Water World

Take a day trip and enjoy these six rivers, lakes and waterfalls

By Dillon Tabish
A hiker walks across the suspension bridge at Kootenai Falls near Troy. Beacon File Photo

This corner of Montana stands out from space. Among the lush, green forests of the soaring Rocky Mountains, a great blue lake stretches high and wide. Our proud landmark — Flathead Lake — has put this valley on the map, literally and figuratively. It’s the lifeblood of an entire ecosystem and, in many ways, the local economy.

Flathead is symbolic of a wild, hilly interior filled with prominent and beloved bodies of water, more than 500, that color the landscape.

Whether it’s maneuvering a kayak, casting a line, stand-up paddleboarding or revving up the motorboat, there are boundless scenic opportunities on the water in this region.

Remember: All boaters must stop at inspection stations. Montana law requires everyone using a boat, even a kayak or canoe, to stop and undergo a quick check for aquatic invasive species that could severely damage rivers and lakes.

Also, all boaters must have proper safety gear, including life jackets.
Among a list of many ideal sites to visit this summer, here are six rivers, lakes or waterfalls that make a worthwhile day trip.

Flathead Lake
This one’s a no-brainer. Our great grand lake is well known as a world-class destination. It’s the 79th largest natural freshwater lake in the world and one of the cleanest. Despite its largeness, Flathead has relatively few public access sites with five shoreline state parks — Finley Point, Wayfarers, Yellow Bay, Big Arm and West Shore — and one public island, Wild Horse. There are also a few county access sites along with Volunteer Park in Lakeside. The average surface temperatures range from 56 degrees in June to 68 degrees in August. There are many unforgettable experiences to enjoy on the lake, but one particular unique afternoon activity involves renting a sailboat or a cruise with Far West and exploring the vast waters at sunset.

Swan River
Grab your inner tube and enjoy a calm afternoon float along the meandering stretch of river in Ferndale. The Swan River Fishing Access Site on Rainbow Drive is the top put-in spot and the most common take-out is near the Clay Cliffs across from a wide parking section off Montana Highway 83. This float only takes an hour during summer but it’s worthwhile as a refreshing and relaxing ride. Be sure to respect parking restrictions at the access site.

Kootenai Falls
When filmmakers for “The Revenant” were scouting for a mighty river that exemplified the power and grandeur of the outdoors, they arrived at Kootenai Falls near Libby. The largest undammed falls in Montana made it on the big screen in the Oscar-winning film that premiered late last year. This scenic destination offers breathtaking views and a prime fishery. The river drops 300 feet over only a few hundred yards, creating the awe-inspiring falls. The Kootenai tribe considers the falls a sacred site and the center of the world, where tribal members can commune with the spiritual forces that give direction to the tribe and to individual members.

Yaak Falls
Jump in the car and make the trip to Yaak Falls Campground, where a scenic camp setting includes the nearby idyllic falls on the Yaak River. This is a great swimming hole and picnic area and the campground has seven sites with tables and fire rings on a first-come, first-serve basis. The campground is 16 miles northwest of Troy on Yaak Hwy 508. From Kalispell, it’s a 124-mile trek, but it’s worth it.

Holland Lake
A favorite among many locals, this scenic destination offers 40 campsites in the quiet setting of the Swan Range. At an elevation of 4,050 feet, the campground sits among tamarack, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees with a scenic trail winding around the 416-acre lake into the forest. The 1.6-mile trail climbs 750 feet, following the shoreline of Holland Lake to the base of Holland Falls waterfall. From Kalispell, this site is only 74 miles south along the Swan Highway. Perhaps best of all, this site is out of cell service, so you can fully disconnect and relax.

North Fork
One of Montana’s quintessential wild streams, the North Fork is the largest tributary of the Flathead River. It’s scenic waters trace the western edge of Glacier National Park and offer ample fishing, paddling and floating opportunities. Primarily fed by snowmelt, this river is typically ice cold, but it’s still a beloved recreation destination. It’s relatively tame for most of the float, although there are a few places to watch out for, primarily “The Shelf” near the Glacier Rim takeout. This hydraulic feature regularly causes serious trouble for boaters. Stay river left to avoid trouble.