Flathead National Forest

Jewel Basin in the Flathead National Forest of Montana
Jewel Basin
Flathead National Forest, Montana

Flathead National Forest is comprised of about 2.3 million acres of land running down the western side of the Rocky Mountains: dropping down from the Continental Divide, across the valley and then back over the top ridges of the Salish Mountains to the valleys of the Tobacco and Little Bitterroot Rivers to the west. Of that 2.3 million acres, about 1 million are designated wilderness.

The mountains here are essentially all fault-block in origination and heavily sculpted by glaciation over the millenia. To the north is Canada, to the north and east is Glacier National Park, to the east is Lewis & Clark National Forest, to the south is Lolo National Forest and to the west is Kootenai National Forest. This is a heavily forested countryside with deep, rich soils in the valleys rising to sheer rock faces high up. Lush green countryside, big trees, abundant wildlife, lots of flowing water - sounds like one version of heaven to me...

Big Salmon Lake, Bob Marshall Wilderness
Big Salmon Lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

There are parts of 3 wilderness areas on the Flathead:

Within the Forest are more than 270,000 acres of state and private lands: 3 Montana State Forests plus a checkerboard of scattered tracts of private land, most owned by Plum Creek Timber Company.

Flathead National Forest is also home to the Flathead Wild and Scenic River. The Middle Fork, North Fork and parts of the South Fork sections of the Flathead are all part of the designated National Wild and Scenic River Sysytem. There are a few commercial outfitters who offer floating excursions on the river, but the river is also open to private use and no permits are required for float trips (although you do want good equipment, a knowledge of the river in question and some good experience dealing with whitewater).

Jewel Basin Hiking Area is a 15,349-acre area set aside exclusively for hiking and camping (no horses, no mechanized/motorized vehicles allowed). This property is located east of Kalispell in the northern end of the Swan Mountains (east of Echo Lake and west of Hungry Horse Reservoir). It's a very popular area that sees heavy human use all through the summer months. With more than 20 lakes stocked on a regular 3-year rotation, Jewel Basin is also a favorite among the angling set. Primary access is from Camp Misery on FS Road 5392, just east of Echo Lake. From the east you can reach trailheads by taking the Westside Hungry Horse Reservoir Road #895 to Wheeler, Clayton, Graves or Wounded Buck Creeks.

Another special area on the Flathead is the Coram Experimental Forest: 7,460 acres of outdoor research laboratory with some trees (western larch) more than 500 years old. 800 acres are further designated as the Coram Research Natural Area. Coram is networked with roads but there is no on-site staffing and the area is uninhabited. The Coram Experimental Forest was set aside in 1938 and is now a designated United Nations Biosphere Reserve.

Flathead National Forest, Montana

Flathead National Forest offers some 2,600 miles of hiking trails, 200 miles of that total being designated National Recreation Trails (which usually means they see more maintenance and have better signage).

The non-wilderness regions of the Flathead offer about 1,700 miles of road open to motorized vehicles. Most of these roads see little in the way of regular maintenance and never see a snow plow. They may also be closed at different times of year to reduce damage in inclement weather and to protect natural resources.

If you are into huckleberries: this is probably the best area of Montana to pick your fill - no permits are needed but adults are limited to 10 gallons each. Huckleberries tend to be ripe from about mid-July to the beginning of October.

The main camping season on the Flathead is from Memorial Day through Labor Day. You can camp almost anywhere on the Forest but you might also like to try one (or more) of the 34 developed campgrounds that are available. The developed campgrounds offer varied accommodations and access so you might do a bit of research before jumping in your vehicle and heading out to the wild.

Fishing and hunting are under the purview of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. To do either you'll need the appropriate license from them, and it must also be the proper season. Licenses and information are available at their offices and from most local sporting goods stores.
Upper photos of Flathead National Forest courtesy of the National Forest Service
Photo of Ducharme Lake in the Mission Mountains Wilderness courtesy of Brent Shultz.
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