Everybody OutdoorsFamily Tours & AttractionsNorth AmericaUnited StatesVacation Ideas

Montana Road Trip: From Billings to Flathead Lake Lodge

By October 28, 2019 6 Comments

It’s all just so open. Miles of flat grassland just end abruptly against staggering mountain peaks, as you cut down straight through the middle of the long, gray highway to nowhere. Well, it feels like nowhere, until all of a sudden you are downtown somewhere bright and charming, or whizzing past a crystal clear lake. Montana is grand and gorgeous, in a quiet, all-knowing way.

This quick trip landed me in Billings, then through a few towns as I headed north towards Glacier National Park. The ultimate destination was Flathead Lake!

What is Flathead Lake?

You’ll find Flathead Lake in the northwest corner of Montana, and it’s one of the largest and most clean bodies of water west of the Mississippi River. It’s biggest span reaches more than 25 miles long and covers nearly 200 square miles. Along its banks are gorgeous private homes, docks and plenty of space to explore all of Montana’s natural glory.

chair besides flathead lake montana

Originally, it was called Salish Lake after the Bitterroot Salish Native American group that lived in the area. On your way to the lake, feel free to stop at the People’s Center on the Flathead Lake Reservation to learn more about the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai tribes through a museum, gift shop and educational hub.

Stops on your Drive to Flathead Lake

Most people are in Montana to check out the big, gorgeous national parks – Like Yellowstone (which is mainly in Wyoming) and Glacier National Park. Obviously, hit those up for immeasurable beauty and enjoying some time in the great outdoors. 

Billings

A southwesten city in Montana, Billings is a great spot to start your adventure – especially as its airport offers many direct routes from other major U.S. cities. I was there for a travel conference, but was able to explore a bit of downtown and enjoy some charming haunts. As a big cider fan, the highlight was a tasting flight at The Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill. They have a full-fledged restaurant as well as a tasting room with a bunch of various apple blends, including dry ones that tasted a lot like the ones I loved in the U.K. too. Pub Station is a massive place downtown, great for bites and live music afterwards. Billings Depot is not open every night, but often hosts events in the city to get a taste of celebrated performing arts. It juts up to the train tracks, making for a lumbering and cool backdrop between cocktails and the evening’s festivities.

train tracks and black trian cars in billings montana

For a nightcap and the chance to get rowdy with locals, it’s worth purchasing a pint at the Hooligan’s sports bar. Or, try one of their whiskeys on the menu – I found a peanut butter flavor one that wasn’t nearly as offensive as it sounds!

Livingston

If you love sharing retro, quirky photos on the ‘gram, this is a good spot. And after you’re done getting the perfect pic of the old-school hotel, restaurants and shops, put that camera down and simply enjoy the ambiance of yesteryear. Livingston is one of the gateways to Yellowstone, tucked between the Crazy Mountains and Absaroka Mountains.

old hotel sign in livingston montanaBozeman

A quick stop in Bozeman was just enough to get a feel for this thriving mountain city and college town. We had a hearty breakfast-for-lunch at Jam! — which was totally jam-packed and worth the wait. It’d be a crime if you left without trying their homemade spreads, stacked sweet pancakes and endless omelettes.

omelette at jam in bozeman montana

Bozeman was wonderful for lunch, and also had some lovely little shops to pursue after our meal. I love to support local businesses and take home something small and special from each trip, which I easily found at Heyday. This sunny store had all the little things I can’t resist – with a Montana twist. Grab t-shirts with bison prints, candles that smell like bonfires and locally made jewelry. In fact, I took home a gorgeous turquoise, silver and agate ring made by Fly Free Design, based in Bozeman. You can purchase items online from both Heyday and Fly Free Design if you also want to take a little piece of Montana wherever you roam.

turquoise and agate ring from fly free design in bozeman montanaHelena

We’ve made it to the capital city of Montana, which is the ideal stop for an overnight.

cathedral of helena montana

There’s a few points of interest to explore, including the unusual Helena Civic Center that used to be a shrine temple, and taking a peek inside the gorgeous Cathedral of Helena. We stayed at the cozy Great Northern Hotel and were greeted with state-shaped sugar cookies at check-in, which was such a cute, personalized touch.

montana sugar cookie at great nothern hotel in helena montana Just next door I had one of the best meals in Montana at the Silver Star Steak Company. I was tempted to try the bison steak (I’ve only seen it prepared burger-style) but settled on some Thai mussels and baked brie. The lively atmosphere was exactly what charged us for the final leg on the road trip the next morning.

Arriving in Flathead Lake

montana valley driving through

 

Between Helena and Flatead Lake there’s plenty of scenic pit stop and endless miles of beauty. You’ll pass through and around the city of Helmville, the Blackfoot Valley and the Seeley-Swan Valley for starters. A few famous movies were inspired by this breaktaking area, including the classic A River RUns Through It. You’ll know you’re getting closer to Flathead when the valleys ive way to winding roads through wooded forests framed by small, blue bodies of water.

Flathead Lake Lodge, Montana

Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana is paradise. Located on the northern banks of the lake just outside Bigfork, this is a dude ranch oasis with a twist. Not only can you rope and ride, but you can enjoy nautical activities too, like sailing on vintage boats and kayaking.

red vintage car at flathead lake lodge montana

While the lodge welcomes all types of vacationers and travelers, families are the prominent clientele in the deep summer. However, during the shoulder seasons, Flathead Lake Lodge caters more to groups of pals, adult couples and those looking to get away for long weekends on a mountain adventure.

A typical day at the Lodge

The standalone cabins and lodges for guests are kept simple on purpose. You won’t find flatscreen TVs – rather handmade log furniture, welcoming deck space and local decor. It’s to help connect with the environment, and honestly, I didn’t miss anything in my own lodge, as I was outside all the time. I love the gentle nudge to embrace activities and experiences at Flathead Lake without distractions back at the room — although they do have Wifi throughout the accommodations, just in case. Upon arrival, sign up for which activities you’d like to try during the stay, then it’s time to tuck into some grub.

cathedral of helena montanaCowboy Breakfast

All meals are included at Flathead Lake Lodge, which begins in the morning. Meals are served family style, allowing for generous portions and second helpings. In between, there’s always something fresh to snack on, from fruity scones and chewy cookies to homemade lemonade and coffee.

Horseback Riding

horseback trail ride along flathead lake forest montana

Riding is the main draw to the lodge, as they have more than 50 horses on the property. You can do breakfast rides, afternoon trail saunters and the famous steakfry ride in the evening. Have a chat with any of the ranch hands for requests, from guidance on riding to history of the ranch. I loved the easy, breezy riding pace and Wester-style saddle — it’s a great change from the uptight English riding I grew up with at home! In the evening, stick around the stables, as sometimes they run the gorgeous horses from one paddock to another.

Sailing

sailboat on flathead lake montana

Flathead Lake Lodge has two vintage sailboats that were crafted in Marblehead, Massachusetts nearly a century ago. Preservation specialists came out to check on them a few years ago, deeming the pair in pristine condition, as they’re mostly made of wood. The highlight was a calm sail out of this crystal-clear lake, enjoying a bit of bubbles as the world floated by. You can do this every day if you like, bearing conditions are good.

Kayaking

 

kayak on flathead lake montana

Kayaks, paddle boards and canoes are available anytime of day for guests to use out on the lake. After a sail, I took a kayak out around the perimeter of the lake border. I was rewarded with incredible calm paddling. In many spots, you can see dozens of feet down to the bottom of the lake, as it’s so clean and clear.

Steakfry and Dinner

One evening, we were privileged to take the horses deep into the forest on lodge-owned property to be greeted with a fun outdoor steakfry. There were steaks provided over an open flame, cooked to order, with an array of sides and sauces. Beer and wine flowed while we were serenaded by traditional cowboy songs on acoustic guitar.

vintage fire truck ride through woods at flathead lake lodge

The best part? We didn’t have to saddle up again full of food! There were two vintage fire trucks waiting to provide a lift back. It was a blast to see the trees whip by and ride of these red beauties.

Find Your Firsts on Flathead Lake

I thought I had done a little bit of everything in my travels – but Flathead Lake Lodge surprised me with a few new things. This is the perfect spot to try something outside your comfort zone and truly embrace the natural wonder of Montana.

Flyfishing

flyfishing rod in flathead lake montana

Fishing had always been my jam. Ever since I was a kid vacationing on Lake George in new York and later trying Halibut deep sea fishing in Alaska. Flyfishing is new to me, and super relaxing. You can take a lesson from a pro at the lodge, using their high-end rods to master the special flick and cast movements. The lodge will happily arrange a fly-fishing excursions to the nearby hotspots if you really fall in love.

Skeet shooting

Gun and ammo skeetshoting at flathead lake lodge montana

Real firearms is not something I come in contact with often. But when the opportunity presented itself to learn more about how hunting is a pivotal part of Montana life for many people, I thought it important to experience. Another wonderful instructor took a half-dozen of us out to the range to practice shooting clay targets that are launched in the air. We learned about hunting licenses, gun safety and different types of shotguns that are used for practice and hunting.

Flathead Lake Lodge Gives Back

The lodges has a rich history and will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year. To commemorate, the lodge is welcoming families with critically ill children for a seven days of fun. “A Week of Hope” is just one more reason why The Flathead Lake Lodge is something special to experience and support in Montana.

More things to to in Bigfork and beyond

I really worked on relaxing and immersing in life at Flathead Lake Lodge. However, I did take a peep at what else was happening nearby.

Glacier National Park

Glacier-National-Park-Montana-Photos-Guide-06

Glacier National Park by Trimm Travels

I wish I had more time to properly experience Glacier National Park. It’s sprawling tapestry of snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers and even the occasional mountain goat. Here’s my friend Heather’s full guide on Glacier National Park.

Bigfork

Bigfork is a nice change of scenery to see if you’re staying at Flathead Lake or driving through to Glacier National Park. There’s a few breweries, whiskey tasting rooms, live music and farmer’s markets to try, depending on the season.

Kalispell

If you fly directly home from Flathead Lake Lodge, this will be the closest airport city, about 20-30 minutes away. If you’d like to checkout a few things in the are before heading out, they have some amazing museums and galleries, including Montana Modern Fine Art. Or, stop by the Kalispell Creamery fro fresh ice cream, milk and eve seasonal products such as cold brew.

Whitefish

A scenic ski town less than an hour from Flathead Lake, with a large ski resort and fun downtown. It’s great any time of year though, so feel free to read up on more things to do in Whitefish.

Thanks very much to Tbex, Visit Billings and Visit Montana for the inspiration to visit! And special thanks to the Flathead Lake Lodge for hosting. While the stay was complementary, views and options are always my own.

pinterest pin with flathead lake lodge vintage car, road and sailboat

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Twitter @Crooked_Flight

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Juliann says:

    Your pictures are stunning! I wish I’d had more time in Montana to explore the northwest corner and try fly-fishing. I did drive through Livingston, but didn’t spend much time there. Maybe I should have! Like you, I enjoyed the breweries and nightlife spots in Billings. Fun bars and great beers. Billings was my gateway into Montana, and now I’m hooked! I’ll go back. 🙂

  • Bell says:

    Love the touch of the state shaped cookies too!! The steakfry sounds like both a delicious and fantastic night out in the wilderness and chance to have a fun break from the city. All these spots just look so peaceful and calm!

  • I remember the first time I saw Flathead lake heading up to Whitefish from Missoula. It was so beautiful, sparkling like a gem. Flathead Lake Lodge looks like a beautiful property with lots of fun ways to enjoy Montana.

  • Sarah says:

    What a lovely trip you had! I remember your photo of the Flathead Lake Lodge from instagram so it was great to read a bit more information. It sounds like you could spend weeks exploring Montana – at least I could because I love a lot of the activities you mention like fishing and sailing!

  • I’ve only ever driven through Montana and that’s so regretful. I can’t wait to go back and see more of it. I’d love to just road trip for a month and take my time. Also, I LOVE that ring!

Leave a Reply

411 Shares
Share10
Tweet
Pin401
Share
Reddit