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Bigfork, Montana Area Chamber of Commerce

Fishing, Floating and Family Fun

Crystal clear waters surrounded by towering mountains and forests. If they were located anywhere else, these would be destination lakes.  But because they are within just a few miles of our famous Flathead Lake, some smaller jewels are sometimes overlooked. They shouldn’t be.  Because these sparkling clear mountain lakes (and one reservoir) contain promises of pure watery delight.

Just south of Bigfork, Swan Lake is at the northern edge of an area often referred to as “Montana’s Lake Country”. Here the Swan River runs north from the Mission Mountains into the valley creating a delightful finger lake before it moves on, gathering speed before it tumbles into Flathead Lake at Bigfork. The lake created by this river is about 7 miles long and less than a mile wide. The clear waters are home to kokanee, rainbow trout, westslope cutthroat, bull trout, northern pike and yellow perch. In addition, the lake is perfect for boating, especially if you prefer a slow paddle in a canoe or kayaks. Water skiers and those who like the speed of a personal water craft will find that this is an uncrowded lake with plenty of room for any speed of craft.  Swan Lake Village and the Swan Lake Campground and Day Use Area with campsites, picnic tables, boat launch, roped off swimming area and a nature trail are tucked along the southern shore.

Just south of the village, the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise. There are more than 1700 acres of flood plain for nesting and migrating birds. This is home for about 170 species including Canada geese, great blue herons and various varieties of ducks and teals. Humans aren’t the only fishermen attracted to Swan Lake. Circling overhead, you will often spot a bald eagle or osprey as they search lake and river waters for their dinner. Moose, white-tailed deer, elk, coyote, black bear, beaver, and other animals also roam the refuge.

During a very severe winter in 1900/1901, two sturdy horses wandered away from the logging area and their freight sleigh. After struggling for a month in belly-deep snow, they were found so starved and weak that it took months of care and feeding to nurse them back to health. As the tale of these two survivors was told and re-told, the name Hungry Horse eventually was given to a mountain, a lake, a creek, a town and a dam – all located just a few miles north and east of Bigfork.

Fifty years later work began on the Hungry Horse Dam. Completed in 1953, this huge concrete structure is Montana’s highest and the eleventh largest concrete dam in the U.S. It spans the South Fork of the Flathead River in a deep, narrow canyon surrounded by mountains, creating a 34-mile long reservoir. In addition to providing a steady supply of power and relief from spring floods, this dam and reservoir offer excellent fishing (cutthroat trout, bull trout and whitefish), boating, water skiing and swimming.

The surrounding mountains are home to plenty of game, making this a favorite hunting spot every fall. Above the reservoir, tiny alpine lakes serve as the headwaters of many of the streams and tributaries that eventually create the mighty Flathead River system. Throughout this area, many locals know just where to go for some great huckleberry picking when those luscious berries are ripe.

Echo Lake is a perfect lake for families new to the water. This little gem is just outside of Bigfork in the shadow of the Jewel Basin. It’s only 725 acres, but the curving shoreline provides numerous coves and bays with quiet waters for play. This is a spring-fed lake, with additional water coming from small creeks flowing from the surrounding Swan Mountains. Because it’s fairly shallow (maximum depth is less than 100 feet), this lake is warmer than most mountain lakes. Swimmers can take to the water earlier and enjoy these waters through early fall.

Fishermen love this lake. It’s one of the best lakes for largemouth bass. There are also northern pike, trout, perch and sunfish. Because of the shallow depth, Echo Lake usually freezes early every winter which also makes it a popular location for ice fishing.

Rising above the valley, the Jewel Basin hiking area is a 20,000-acre gem with more than 30 miles of hiking trails and 20 crystal clear lakes. This is backcountry.  No motorized vehicles allowed.  Not even horses, llamas or mountain bikes. The Jewel is true to its name — it is a hiking area.

To reach these lakes you’ll have to put on your hiking boots, strap on your pack and take to the trails. As Montana mountains go, the Swan Mountains aren’t as high as those of Glacier, but the altitude is high enough that only a very few swim in the cold waters of these crystal clear lakes. But the fishing is excellent! Most of the lakes are home to cutthroat trout, some as large at 16 inches. The average size is usually 10 to 12 inches. Depending on the snowpack, the Jewel is only accessible for a few months every year, which makes a day (or several days) alongside one of these lakes truly memorable.

Swan Lake, Echo Lake, Hungry Horse and the Jewel.  Four great reasons to spend more time in Bigfork.

To learn more about Bigfork and the surrounding area, visit  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at 406-837-2061.

Listed in Outdoor Recreation

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