Montana sits within the Rocky Mountains regions and is known for its contrasting terrain, which is made up of flatlands in the east and towering mountains in the west. It is the USA’s fourth largest state and one of its most sparsely populated as a result of its landscapes. Still, it is a beautiful state that is famed for its big blue skies, hence its nickname the ‘Big Sky Country’.
Montana is home to three major tourist destinations; the Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Combined these three sites attract millions of tourists each year. The rich river valleys are also a major draw, as are its massive amount of lakes. In fact, the state is home to over 3,000 lakes and reservoirs. Of those, these are the 15 best lakes in Montana.
1. Lake McDonald; Flathead County
The phenomenal surroundings alone are enough to make this the best lake in Montana, with Lake McDonald sitting right in the Glacier National Park. In fact, it is the park’s largest lake at 2,761 hectare.
Lake McDonald can be found at the west end of the national park at an elevation of 961 metres above sea level. The scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road skirts the east side of the lake, while one of the Lake McDonald Valley Trails sits along its west shoreline.
There are four camping grounds within the Apgar Visitor Center, which is on the very south end of the lake. Apart from fishing and scenic boat tours, no activities are offered, with the magnificent scenery being the main draw of the glacier lake.
2. Flathead Lake; Lake & Flathead Counties
At 51,000 hectare, Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. It lies just southwest of the Glacier National Park, providing some magnificent scenery.
Two scenic highways skirt the lake on the east and west side, while the southern half of the lake sits within the Kootenai and Confederated Salish Tribes Flathead Reservation. Flathead Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in the world for its size.
People come to Flathead Lake to enjoy the scenery or to enjoy picnicking, water skiing, sailing, fishing or swimming. There are also numerous camping grounds along the lake’s 260 kilometre shoreline, as well cabins and motels.
3. Saint Mary Lake; Glacier County
The second largest lake in the Glacier National Park, Saint Mary Lake sits to the northeast of Lake McDonald along the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road. The lake’s water has a cold temperature, as it sits at an elevation of 1,367 metres.
There are no recreational activities on the lake itself, but there are hiking trails along the south and west sides of the it. Two camping grounds sit along the shoreline of the 1,588 hectare lake, as well as a hotel and a visitor’s centre.
Saint Mary Lake is a haven for nature lovers that not only want to take in the scenery, but also want to catch a glimpse of some wildlife. Mule deer, elk, and black and grizzly bears are some of the wildlife that can be spotted while hiking around the lake.
4. Quake Lake; Madison & Gallatin Counties
Officially called Earthquake Lake, Quake Lake was created after an earthquake hit the area on August 17, 1959. Today, it is a popular lake for fishing for cutthroat and brown trout, which are stocked regularly.
Fishing is not the only reason to visit the lake; it is also very scenic. The lake is surrounded by numerous mountain peaks, with the Yellowstone National Park just to the east of it.
Quake Lake sits within the Gallatin National Forest along the Madison River. The Beaver Creek Campground lies on the northeast end of the lake and offers hiking, canoeing, swimming, picnicking and bird watching.
5. Swan Lake; Lake County
Swan Lake lies just to the east of Flathead Lake at the north end of the scenic Swan Valley. The lake sits at an elevation of 1,000 metres and is surrounded by the Flathead National Forest.
There are a few excellent camping grounds that sit around the lake, offering kayaking, canoeing, swimming, fishing, boating and water skiing. Tourists that would rather stay on land can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, berry picking and wildlife viewing.
Those that would prefer to stay in more comfortable accommodations will easily find lakeside cabins for rent. There are also a couple of lodges on the southeast edge of the lake.
6. Avalanche Lake; Flathead County
Also sitting within the Glacier National Park, Avalanche Lake was formed by meltwater from Sperry Glacier, which it still receives water from today. It is only accessible by hiking along the Trail of the Cedars.
It is around a three kilometre hike to Avalanche Lake, starting along the Trail of the Cedars and then hiking until the Avalanche Lake Trail. Along the way there is a beautiful waterfall that has carved its way through the rock.
Plan to spend an entire day here, as the hike itself takes around half a day to complete. It is a paved trail that is accessible to all, and well worth the trip for the scenery alone.
7. Hebgen Lake; Gallatin County
This man-made lake sits in Southwest Montana at the bottom of Hebgen Peak, just west of Yellowstone National Park. The 5,400 hectare lake was formed by the damming of the Madison River.
Hebgen Lake is one of the state’s premier still water fishing lakes. It also offers other recreational activities, including boating, hiking and wildlife viewing.
There are two campsites along the lake’s 105 kilometre shoreline, as well as numerous summer home developments. There are also cabins for rent both along the lake and in its surrounding area.
8. Canyon Ferry Lake; Lewis and Clark & Broadwater Counties
Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest lake in Montana, at 14,200 hectare. It lies along the Missouri River and was created with the construction of the Canyon Ferry Dam.
Canyon Ferry Lake boasts a 122 kilometre shoreline that is home to boat ramps, day-use areas, camping grounds and marinas. There are also places to go swimming and fishing.
In the winter, the lake is a popular spot for iceboating. In fact, it holds numerous ice boat races as well as iceboat world speed record challenges.
9. Swiftcurrent Lake; Glacier County
Swiftcurrent Lake lies within the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. In fact, the park’s largest hotel sits along the lake’s eastern shoreline (Many Glacier Hotel).
It is a magnificently beautiful lake, with the mountains rising 910 metres above it. Water is replenished to the lake thanks to the Grinnell Glacier, which sits in the heart of the national park.
The Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail loop encircles the entire lake, which starts either at the Many Glacier Hotel or from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. The trail is completely flat and is the best way to really enjoy the beauty of the lake and take in its surrounding scenery.
10. Bowman Lake; Flathead County
Like many of the other best lakes in Montana, Bowman Lake sits within the Glacier National Park. It is one of the lesser visited lake’s in the park due to its remote area, which is part of its charm.
There is a small campground at the south tip of the lake that is quiet and uncrowded. Day trippers can also use the campground as a spot for a picnic lunch or for access to the lake for going fishing.
Bowman Lake is accessible by an unpaved road from the small town of Polebridge. Once here, there are numerous hiking trials that run along the shore of the lake as well as to other nearby bodies of water.
11. Georgetown Lake; Granite & Deer Lodge Counties
This 1,140 hectare lake is a popular recreational lake that sits at an elevation of 1,932 metres above sea level. It is easily accessible by road, making it a great option for tourists that want to get their feet wet.
There are picnic areas, camping grounds and resorts along the lake’s shoreline, making it available for day use as well as for those wanting to stay a few nights.
Fishing is one of the more favourable things to do here, as it is a Blue Ribbon fishery. In fact, it is rated as Montana’s most abundant lake.
12. Echo Lake; Flathead County
This small 277 hectare lake sits in the Flathead Valley at an elevation of 914 metres above sea level. It is a picturesque lake with the Beartooth Mountains as a backdrop that is filled by warm spring water.
The warm temperature of Echo Lake makes it a popular destination for motor boaters. Visitors will also see plenty of jet skis, especially in the summer months.
Much of Echo Lake’s 25 kilometre shoreline is dotted with private lakefront properties, many of which are vacation rentals. There are also a few fantastic hiking trails nearby.
13. Lake Koocanusa; Lincoln County
Lake Koocanusa is shared between Montana and British Columbia in neighbouring Canada, with slightly more than half of the reservoir sitting within the state. It was named after the river and the two countries that it sits in by the winner if a reservoir naming contest.
The lake was formed in 1972 by the damming of the Kootenay River; a project that was shared between the USA and Canada. It is accessible by driving along the 108 kilometre Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway or by hiking along the Pacific Northwest Trail.
The lake is a prime recreational destination, offering swimming, boating, picnicking and fishing. There are also a few camping grounds that sit around the lake’s shoreline.
14. Iceberg Lake; Glacier County
The spectacular scenery is reason enough to visit Iceberg Lake, which lies in the Glacier National Park at an elevation of 1,857 metres. The Iceberg Peak towers over 900 metres above the lake, as does the Mount Wilbur and the Continental Divide.
Iceberg Lake is only accessible by hiking along the 15.6 kilometre long Iceberg Lake Trailhead. The trail starts at the Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District, which is a built-up area of the national park.
Because of the towering mountains that encircle the lake, it gets very little sunlight. This results in ice and snow building up on the water and the surrounding cliff walls, with the result being picture perfect scenery.
15. Fort Peck Lake; Valley, Petroleum, Fergus, Garfield, Phillips & McCone Counties
Fort Peck Lake is located in the eastern prairie region of Montana, stretching across six different counties. It is the fifth largest artificial lake in the country, having a surface area of 99,000 hectare.
There are 27 recreation areas surrounding the massive lake that offer a wide range of water sports. Hiking, picnicking, and camping are popular land-based activities that tourists can enjoy while visiting the lake.
The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge surrounds the entire lake, making it a haven for nature lovers. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, bighorn sheep, coyotes, white-tailed deer can often be spotted, and the endangered black-footed ferret, pallid sturgeon and mountain plover can also sometimes be seen.