The Flathead Valley
The Flathead Valley includes roughly 500 square miles of farming, ranching, forest and residential land in the Rocky Mountain Trench, rimmed by 6,000- to 7,000-foot mountains and bounded on the north by Glacier National Park and on the south by Flathead Lake (elevation 2,893 feet above sea level). The total valley population is about 100,000. Principal towns are Kalispell, the Flathead County seat; the ski and lake resort town of Whitefish; the timber and industrial town of Columbia Falls; and the lake resort villages of Bigfork, Somers and Lakeside. Bigfork, an unincorporated community, is located on the Swan River at the northeast corner of Flathead Lake, which at 195 square miles is comparable to California’s Lake Tahoe. An ancient encampment site for the Salish and Kootenai people, it was settled by Europeans starting in the late 19th century as a lake steamboat and logging landing and an apple and sweet cherry orchard center.
Bigfork was founded in 1901 and has evolved over the years into an arts center, a gateway to outdoor recreation, a retirement community and a hideaway for the rich and famous. The village is home to the Bigfork Summer Playhouse (featuring Broadway musicals); the Whitewater Festival (June kayak races on the Wild Mile of the Swan River); the Bigfork Festival of the Arts (first weekend in August); the renowned Eagle Bend Golf Course; and the Christmas festival of lights, among other local attractions.
More than a dozen restaurants offer fine dining, and excellent libations are available at the Flathead Lake Brewing Company and Whistling Andy’s Distillery. Sweet cherry orchards have replaced apples around Flathead Lake and are harvested in late July and early August. Fishing guides take visitors in search of lake trout (mackinaw) on Flathead Lake or on fly-fishing trips to mountain lakes and streams.
Outdoor Recreation Areas
Surrounding the Flathead Valley are the forests and mountains of one-million-acre Glacier National Park and the 2.3-million-acre Flathead National Forest. Just east of Bigfork is the alpine lake-studded Jewel Basin Hiking Area atop the Swan Range. Northeast of Bigfork is Echo Lake at the foot of the Swan Range, and southeast are 12- mile-long Swan Lake and the Swan Valley, bordered on the west by the Mission Mountain Wilderness and on the east by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, a wilderness as large as Delaware. West of Bigfork just across Flathead Lake is the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area above Lakeside, and the Tamarack Brewing Company. An hour north is the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort above Whitefish.