The best lakes in Montana range from enormous reservoirs to bodies of water formed by glaciers, and they all perfectly capture the state’s untamed and rugged landscape. In Montana’s mountainous western half, close to major cities like Missoula, Bozeman, and Helena, are many of the state’s best lakes. Despite being in the state’s eastern region, Fort Peck Lake is the largest lake in Montana.
Flathead Lake, Whitefish Lake, and Seeley Lake are just a few of the lakes that highlight western Montana’s natural beauty. These lakeside vacation spots offer campgrounds, lodging, dining options, and boat rentals close to the water. Lakes like Holland Lake, Dickey Lake, and Browns Lake in western Montana are more remote but still easily accessible.
Some of the best lakes to explore can be found in Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent in northern Montana. Both Lake McDonald on the west side and St. Mary Lake on the east side of Glacier are incredible lakes. The hike-in-only Avalanche Lake is another notable lake in Glacier National Park.
See our ranking of the top Montana lakes for more suggestions on where to go for a day by the water.
1. Lakes In Montana: Flathead Lake
The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River by surface area, Flathead Lake spans nearly 200 square miles. Highways 93 or 35 both lead to Flathead Lake, which is known for its crystal-clear water. Both roads ring the entire body of water and connect to one another. Along with six units of Flathead Lake State Park, there are numerous public access points along the shore of Flathead Lake. Additionally, you can find some of Montana’s top campgrounds near the water.
On Flathead Lake, all types of boating are welcome. Restaurants, hotels, and marinas can be found lining the shore in towns like Bigfork and Polson. On Flathead Lake, a notable lodging option is the Bigfork Mountain Lake Lodge.
During the spring and early summer, the orchards surrounding Flathead Lake offer delicious U-pick Flathead cherries. The lake’s largest island, Wild Horse Island State Park, is a popular destination for hikers and wildlife enthusiasts. Missoula, Montana’s nearest large city, is just over an hour’s drive away from Flathead Lake.
2. Lakes In Montana: Whitefish Lake
Whitefish Lake, located near the ski slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort, is another reason to visit the city of Whitefish in northern Montana. The lake, which is approximately 5.2 square miles in size, is popular for fishing, boating, and swimming. Cannonball enthusiasts beware: the majority of the year, this glacially carved lake remains shockingly cold.
Whitefish Lake State Park on the southwest shore has a boat ramp, boat rentals, and overnight camping. Whitefish City Beach, which is also on the lake’s south shore, is a popular summer swimming destination. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake is one of the best lake resorts in the area, with historic Western charm and stunning water views.
3. Montana Lakes: St. Mary Lake
The views while driving along Glacier National Park‘s 10-mile-long St. Mary Lake are a defining sight for many visitors. The forested area surrounding the lake, at the base of dramatic mountain peaks, is a prime habitat for wildlife such as elk, bighorn sheep, and bears. Several hiking trails traverse the area, and two of Glacier’s best campgrounds are located near the shore.
Throughout the summer, guided boat cruises on St. Mary Lake are available. The nearby St. Mary Visitor Center provides park information as well as a location to pick up the free Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttle. During the warmer months, wildflowers bloom throughout the park, adding to the scenic appeal of St. Mary Lake.
In Glacier National Park, St. Mary Lake ranks second in size. Lake McDonald, to the west, has a larger surface area and a pebbly shore to explore. Avalanche Lake, one of Glacier’s most popular hiking destinations, is a 4.5-mile round-trip hike away.
4. Montana Lakes: Seeley Lake
Only a one-hour drive from Missoula, Seeley Lake in western Montana is a picturesque lake encircled by the impressive mountain ranges of the Seeley-Swan Valley. The large Bob Marshall Wilderness is not far from the lake, which has a surface area of more than a thousand acres. The entirety of Seeley Lake serves as the park’s entrance. A popular spot for boating, fishing, and enjoying the picturesque shoreline is Seeley Lake.
Along with accessible boat rentals and open boat ramps, Seeley Lake has a number of great places to stay near the water. The forest service manages three different campgrounds that are close to the water. The Seeley Lake Campground has 29 campsites, a beach, and a swimming area.
5. Montana Lakes: Holland Lake
Holland Lake, a stunning alpine body of water with a variety of activities available throughout the day, is located north of Seeley Lake along Highway 83. The Flathead National Forest is home to a popular campground and a day-use area for Flathead Lake that are both provided by the forest service. To see the spray of Holland Falls, one of Montana’s best hiking trails passes by the lake’s edge.
The roughly 400-acre lake is a popular place for boating, and pursuits like water-skiing, kayaking, and boating are all aesthetically pleasing due to the Swan Mountains’ surrounding landscape. At Seeley Lake, trout and salmon fishing are also very popular, especially on weekdays when there are fewer boaters.
6. Fort Peck Lake
The largest lake in Montana is Fort Peck Lake, which was created when the Missouri River was dammed up in eastern Montana. Over 1,500 miles of shoreline make up the 134-mile length of this enormous artificial reservoir.
On Fort Peck Lake, people enjoy boating, swimming, and fishing in particular. A well-liked location for water access is the Fort Peck Marina, which is situated immediately west of the Fort Peck Dam.
The lake is surrounded by the enormous Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. There are numerous opportunities to hike, camp, and explore this designated wildlife refuge throughout the complex.
7. Lake Koocanusa
This massive reservoir, located in Montana’s far northwest, stretches for 90 miles into British Columbia. Along Highway 37, which runs the entire length of the lake’s eastern shore in the United States, there are several opportunities to enjoy the water. Lake Koocanusa has boat ramps, campgrounds, and day-use areas that are ideal for outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, and water sports. The Libby Dam is open for tours throughout the summer.
The area is also rich in wildlife due to Lake Koocanusa’s wild and remote location, which is surrounded by national forest. International visitors frequent Lake Koocanusa, but its waters are still primarily explored by locals.
8. Hebgen Lake
Hebgen Lake, located in southwest Montana near West Yellowstone, is a two-hour drive from Bozeman and has a long history as a resort and vacation destination, despite the fact that a devastating earthquake in 1959 damaged many homes in the area. Since then, this man-made lake has seen an increase in tourist traffic. Today, Hebgen Lake is an outdoor playground for boaters, skiers, swimmers, and fishermen.
Hebgen Lake’s relatively small shoreline is lined with access to various fishing spots. The forest service also manages a number of campgrounds in the area. Marinas dot the shoreline and rent out boats such as canoes, kayaks, and stand up paddleboards. Quake Lake, located five miles north of Hebgen Lake, provides an opportunity to witness the long-lasting effects of the 1959 earthquake.
9. Canyon Ferry Lake
Canyon Ferry Lake, a massive reservoir on the Missouri River, is a popular recreation destination. Canyon Ferry Lake’s popularity stems in part from its location approximately 20 miles east of Helena, the state capital. Canyon Ferry Lake is also well-known for its massive size of 35,000 acres. Hiking, camping, boating, and fishing for trout and walleye are popular activities at the lake.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates several recreation sites around Canyon Ferry Lake. Picnic areas, boat ramps, swimming beaches, and campgrounds that allow tent and RV camping are among the amenities available at these locations. Canyon Ferry Lake also has three marinas that provide boat rentals, gasoline, and groceries.
10. Lake Elmo
This 64-acre lake is surrounded by its own state park in Billings, Montana’s largest city. Lake Elmo is only accessible by non-motorized boats, making it a popular spot for canoes, kayaks, and swimmers.
Fishing is also popular at Lake Elmo, with summer fishing at Roger’s Pier and winter ice fishing. A paved hiking trail circles the entire lake, and the western shore is home to the city’s only dog park.