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This Precious Reserve: The Flathead National Forest

In 1898, John Muir advised readers of Atlantic Monthly, “If you are business-tangled, and so burdened with duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year, then go to the Flathead Reserve…Get off the track at Belton Station, and in a few minutes you will find yourself in the midst of what you are sure to say is the best care-killing scenery on the continent…Give a month at least to this precious reserve…the time will not be taken from the sum of your life.”  Muir’s words described what is now known as the Flathead National Forest, more than two million acres of spectacular scenery and outstanding recreational opportunities.

Located west of the continental divide and south of the Canadian border, the Flathead National Forest surrounds the Flathead Valley. It’s home to critters of all types, from the illusive bobcat and lynx to deer, elk and moose, and grizzly and black bear. The rivers, streams and lakes are populated with our native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, as well as lake trout, rainbow trout, kokanee, large-mouth bass, perch, whitefish and northern pike. The list of recreational activities also includes hiking, whitewater rafting, wildlife watching, photography, bird watching, picnicking, swimming, boating, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting,  snowmobiling and cross-country and Nordic skiing. Since this forest is even larger than its more famous neighbor, Glacier National Park, the list of activities and opportunities goes on and on.  Here are some of our favorites.

Cabins and camping: Campers can choose to “rough it” in one of the forest’s three wilderness areas, or camp closer to area communities in several campgrounds. In addition, the Forest Service has 14 cabins available for rent. Some of these cabins are in remote areas while others are closer to town. Most feature rustic accommodations with wood, propane or electric stoves for cooking and heating. Don’t expect indoor plumbing since most have vault toilets. Beds are usually a combination of double beds, bunk beds and twins. Most cabins have well water. All renters are asked to “pack it in and pack it out” reminding visitors to take everything they brought in back out with them. (And, yes, that includes the garbage.) For the safety of the wildlife as well as your pets, you should check with the Forest Service to see if you should leave Fido at home.

On the water: Fishing in the Flathead is not just a summer sport.  While rivers and streams are mostly closed to fishing from December through mid-May, the lakes remain open year-round. You’ll need a state fishing license which can be obtained online. Ask for the Flathead Convention & Visitor Bureau’s brochure “Fishing the Flathead” to learn more about the lakes within and bordering the forest.  Boaters can choose from lakes large and small including Hungry Horse Reservoir, Swan Lake, Holland Lake and Lindbergh Lakes. Most of the lakes feature day-use facilities including boat ramps, picnic areas and toilet facilities. A favorite activity in the summer and fall is rafting or floating the North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork of the Flathead River. Several commercial outfitters offer float trips. You can choose from a full-day, half-day or maybe even a paddle and saddle opportunity.

Hiking: The Flathead National Forest is a hiker’s paradise!  There are more than 2,240 miles of trails, many of which are designated for multiple use. That means hikers share some roads and trails with all-terrain (ATV) and off-highway (OHV) riders, horseback riders and mountain bikers. But other trails are hikers-only, including the Danny On Trail on Whitefish Mountain Resort (great for huckleberry picking in the summer) and the trails of the Jewel Basin Hiking Area. There are some slow and easy trails along with more than 1100 miles of trails in wilderness areas. In the winter, some trails are designated for cross-country skiers, snowshoes or snowmobiles.

Winter Activities: Two ski areas are located within the Flathead National Forest.  Whitefish Mountain Resort features more than 3000 skiable acres along with cross-country trails and a host of winter  Blacktail Mountain Ski Area overlooks Flathead Lake and the community of Lakeside and features a “top-down” ski area with 1000 skiable acres. In addition to downhill skiing, the forest provides 156 miles of designated snowmobile trails plus thousands of acres of open play areas. Those who like the slower pace on snowshoes will discover plenty of winter roads closed by snow as well as Nordic ski trails and some frozen lakes. And there are three areas offering groomed cross-country ski trails.

To learn more about the Flathead National Forest and all it has to offer visit the following:


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





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