Camping Without the Crowds

Summertime means camping under the stars among forested mountains and alpine lakes. Here are a few quiet getaways worth escaping to.

By Dillon Tabish
An angler paddles on Rainy Lake at dusk. Greg Lindstrom

Rainy Lake

This hidden gem sits along one of the hundreds of natural lakes in the Swan Valley. There are six primitive campsites for tent camping and a general parking area for up to eight vehicles. One vault toilet is onsite. Another great spot for fishing, check out the lake or hike up along Bertha Creek. Wake up to the majestic Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east and the Mission Mountains to the west. Just down the road, check out Lake Alva, which has a nice scenic beach to spend time while the family paddles around or plays in the water.

Directions From Kalispell — Travel roughly 80 miles south and take the Swan Highway, or Montana Highway 83, to Road 4357.

Backup Plan 

Big Nelson Campground

Drive a few more miles south along the Swan Highway and check out this quiet destination. There are six units for tents with a general parking area. There’s also a boat ramp to Coopers Lake. Any day on the water is a good one, especially at this quiet side-hill spot.

Pit Stop 

Hike to Turquoise Lake

Less a pit stop and more of an afternoon adventure, this wilderness trek is a can’t-miss for anyone in the area. Discover six alpine lakes nestled in a sweeping valley of breathtaking views and world-class trout fishing. From the Swan Highway, turn west onto Kraft Creek Road, or Forest Service Road 561, and the trailhead is about 11.5 miles away. Turquoise Lake trail 708 begins about 3 miles up Glacier Creek trail. The total hiking distance is about 6 miles with an elevation gain of 1,600 feet. Remember, this hike takes you into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Be sure to check fire restrictions.

Finger Lake. Greg Lindstrom

Finger Lake

This remote mountain lake is in the LeBeau Research Natural Area, which spans more than 5,000 acres of sylvan landscape at the north end of the Tally Lake Ranger District. It requires about a 1.5-mile hike to the primitive campsites, which sit in an area uniquely formed by intense glacial scouring. There’s also a dense forest of cedar and hemlocks, as well as Douglas firs. This is a historical old-growth area home to eight lakes ranging in size from 5 to 34 acres. The trail is open to non-motorized use such as hiking and mountain biking.

Directions From Kalispell — Travel north on Highway 93. Drive approximately seven miles north of the town of Olney and turn left just past mile marker 151. Cross the railroad tracks and follow the road around a hairpin bend to the parking area before the road drops down to Upper Stillwater Lake.

Backup Plan

Tally Lake Campground

This is a popular and oftentimes busy campground, but it’s large enough that there may be open spots if you get there early. This campground, about 17 miles northwest of Whitefish and situated on the lake, has 40 sites, a beach area, a boat launch and an open grassy spot for activities. The sites have fire rings and picnic tables, and there’s an RV dump site. This doesn’t necessarily get you away from the crowds, but it’s a worthwhile destination nonetheless. Enjoy the 1,350-acre lake, which is the deepest natural lake in Montana at 492 feet.

Pit Stop

Ray Kuhns Wildlife Management Area

This 1,530-acre public site offers exciting wildlife and bird viewing opportunities. Numerous bird species frequent this timbered valley, as well as a large lineup of animals, such as moose, muskrats and beavers. In fall, hunters love this area, and in spring and summer, hikers take over as the frequent visitors.

Red Meadow Lake. Dillon Tabish

Red Meadow Lake

This small but scenic campground is an enjoyable escape with the reward of a quiet lake tucked in the Whitefish Range. There are six campsites, and a vault toilet is available. On the weekends, get here early because the spots can fill up quickly. This campground, with trailer and tent sites lining the lake, is a good example of why camping in the Flathead National Forest is among the best in the West. Wake up early to catch the sunrise climbing over the horizon and you’ll wish you never had to leave.

Directions — Travel 41 miles north of Columbia Falls on the North Fork Road, then 11 miles west on Forest Service Road 115.

Backup Plan

Tuchuck Campground

The drive to this remote campground is an adventure in itself. Tucked near the Continental Divide about 50 miles north of Columbia Fallson NF-114, this 2-acre site has seven designated campsites and a vault toilet, as well as bear-proof storage containers for food. Bring your fly rod and enjoy some creek fishing.

Pit Stop

Polebridge Mercantile

Any journey up the North Fork demands a stop at the famed “Merc.” The Mercantile was built in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It remains a classic piece of Montana history. Make sure to get there early and snatch their famous huckleberry bear claws, cookies and other tasty items.

Cedar Creek campground. Greg Lindstrom

Cedar Creek Campground

The Swan Highway is a forested gateway into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. It enters into one of Montana’s most remote sections of landscape, where gas stations are as sparse as the cell service. While Glacier National Park receives more attention, “The Bob” is an even larger slice of protected wilderness, spanning more than 1.5 million acres. This remote labyrinth is an ideal getaway and a perfect place to unplug.

Cedar Creek Campground is not technically in the Bob, but it’s one of many campsites near the wilderness empire, providing views of towering peaks and relaxing sections of Swan River to cast a fly and kick back. Cedar Creek encompasses 2 acres with primitive, unmarked sites. Toilets and drinking water are provided, and pets are welcome. Bring your fly rod and cast after Swan River trout, which regularly measure 12 inches and occasionally much larger. Montana state recreation use licenses are required. This site is open June 1 through Oct. 30.

Directions — Head 12 miles south of Swan Lake on Highway 83, then half-mile west on Fatty Creek Road.

Backup Plan 

Point Pleasant Campground

This is a popular spot, especially on weekends, but if you can land one of the 12 tent sites or 12 trailer sites, you’ll be happy you did. This forested refuge is also near the banks of the Swan River. There are five primitive sites in a wooded area. This is a great spot for fishing or an afternoon horseback ride.

Pit Stop

Rocky Mountain Roadhouse

This watering hole along the Swan Highway is a classic Montana bar and grill. Satiate your thirst or enjoy a juicy hamburger in this A-frame destination.

Editor’s note: This story was featured in the summer issue of Flathead Living magazine. Find more stories in the online e-edition or pick up your free copy on newsstands. 

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