Flathead National Forest Trails:

Flathead National Forest

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Flathead National Forest Overview

The instant you hit Flathead National Forest, you're surrounded by wilderness. Tucked into the northwest corner of Montana, this 2.3-million-acre chunk of wilderness is bordered by Glacier National Park, three other national forests, and a small piece of Canada at the north end. With so much protected land on its borders, how can the interior be anything but untouched?

Flathead National Forest delivers wilderness in a big way—one million acres of it, in fact. You can visit snowcapped peaks, alpine meadows, and high-altitude lakes without intrusion from noisy, motorized vehicles. Also tucked in this vast expanse of untrammeled land are 250 species of wildlife, including 22 varieties of fish and 50 birds. Hawks and eagles cruise overhead, while grizzlies and gray wolves patrol the grounds. And tons of other creatures, such as mountain goats, also make their homes here.

Of course, recreation opportunities abound, including hiking, paddling, and camping (there are 34 developed campgrounds) in the summer as well as skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Come prepared: This far north, nighttime brings chilling temperatures, even in the dry summer months of July, August, and September. Also, many of the high-mountain lakes do not open up until June, and even then you'll often find snow on the route in.

Hike Where Hikers Are King
Calling Flathead National Forest a hiker's dream come true would hardly be an exaggeration. Not only will you find 2,000 miles of hiking trails in and among the dense forests, alpine meadows, and craggy peaks, but also specially designated hiking areas where motorized vehicles aren't allowed. The Jewel Basin Hiking Area, at the north end of the Swan Mountain Range between Kalispell and Hungry Horse, is one of these: Its 15,000 acres are managed for foot travel only—not even horses are allowed in this basin full of lakes, streams, and summer wildflowers. It does get a bit crowded, but Jewel Basin is still spectacular, especially on top of Great Northern Mountain. This climb is an eight-mile, easy round-trip east of Hungry Horse Reservoir. Need more? Try the 45 miles of Forest Service trails in the Mission Mountains, which you might have to share with horses but not with mountain bikes, motorcycles, or snowmobiles.

Fish the Flats
Just because angling in Flathead is pretty much confined to lakes (since dense brush and windfalls make stream fishing difficult), the experience isn't diminished. Start on Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. But to really get away from everyone and everything, check out the "Bob," the Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the country's largest and best known wilderness areas. When put together with the Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness areas, it forms a contiguous wildlands complex of more than three million acres that straddles the Continental Divide. It also has great fishing far from the motorized crowds.

Ski a Truly Big Mountain
Two words define skiing in this little corner of Montana: Big Mountain (north of Whitefish). This area has become skier central in Montana, and with good reason. The resort has more than 3,000 skiable acres, ten lifts, and two high-speed quads that run you quickly to the top. From there you have your pick of 78 marked runs to choose from and 2,500 vertical feet to play on. Looking for something a bit less crowded and more laid-back? Try Blacktail Ski area, which gets 250 inches of snow each year. Cross-country options abound, too, of course. The forest serves up more than 15 kilometers of groomed trails for skiers and skaters alike. For more commercial operations, try the Glacier Wilderness Ranch or the Essex Trail Complex, near the Isaac Walton Inn.

Shoot Some Big Rapids
Whether it's an easy, scenic float you can take the kids on, or a screaming, Class IV, expert-only whitewater run, you can find it in Flathead. The Flathead Wild and Scenic River, a smooth-flowing favorite, runs from Canada down the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. Its glacial green waters take all levels of rafter through heavily forested terrain, offering Class I with occasional Class II rapids, along with great views of the high peaks in Glacier National Park. Looking to turn up the juice? Try the Middle Fork, which runs through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Make no mistake: You'll find very tough whitewater, especially at peak flows. We're talking Class IV rapids or better—only experts need apply.

Cruise Flathead Lake
This country is blessed with some magnificent and large inland bodies of water, but how many of them are surrounded by soaring, jagged peaks? Flathead Lake has scenery to burn, and one of the best ways to take in the sights is following the Flathead Lake Marine Trail, a route that provides point-to-point campsites and landing points that you can make in a day by canoe or kayak. Or take a sailboat excursion in a classic racing sloop called a "Q" boat—fewer than a dozen are left in the world—and cruise around the lake. Q boats leave from Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge.

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