If there was ever a destination that was made for scenic drives, it’s northwest Montana. No matter which direction you look, there are stunning mountain ranges, snow-fed rivers and lakes and lush farmlands. As the hub of the Flathead Valley, Kalispell is an ideal location to base your vacation and explore the area’s scenic road trips and routes.
While you could direct your car in any direction and find a stunning scenic drive, there are a few must-see routes that will take you to some of Montana’s most stunning places, complete with sweeping views, rushing waterfalls and small communities with treasures like restaurants, coffee shops and stores.
1. Swan Lake
The Swan, as it’s referred to by locals, is a scenic corridor along Highway 83 southeast of Kalispell. Within this narrow heavily forested valley are numerous lakes, abundant recreation and jaw-dropping views of the Mission Mountains and the Swan Range. Grab a picnic lunch at Montana Coffee Traders in downtown Kalispell and head for Swan Lake. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife that like to frequent the roadway. Visit the lake’s day-use area and make use of the picnic tables and beach. As an added bonus, the Seeley-Swan Valley is one of the best places to see the changing colors of tamarack trees (also known as western larch) during fall.
Drive time: Approximately 40 minutes from Kalispell
2. Hungry Horse Reservoir
An often-overlooked destination on the way to Glacier National Park, Hungry Horse Reservoir should be on your scenic drive list. At 564 feet high, Hungry Horse Dam is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the U.S. and its morning-glory spillway is the highest in the world. The aptly named Hungry Horse Reservoir is 34 miles long and surrounded by towering mountain peaks. Once at the reservoir, you can hike, fish, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, boat or swim in the waters. During the summer, the Hungry Horse Dam Visitor Center offers free guided tours and is open daily from May – September.
Drive time: Approximately 20 minutes from Kalispell
3. Loop the Lake
A drive around Flathead Lake offers breathtaking views, diverse landscapes, tasty brews and colorful culture. Start your drive around the western side of the lake by traveling south on Highway 93. Along the way, you’ll pass small towns like Somers, Lakeside, Dayton, Big Arm and Polson, each with their own distinct offerings, as well as state parks.
Once you reach the southern half of the lake, you’ll arrive on the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. If you plan to recreate on Flathead Indian Reservation, be sure you purchase a permit.
From Polson, head north toward Bigfork and Kalispell on the east shore of the lake on Highway 35. The road on this side of the lake hugs the shoreline in several places and offers expansive views of fruit orchards, forested terrain and sailboats cruising the waters of Flathead Lake. Take in the sunset from an overlook or the town of Bigfork before returning to Kalispell.
Drive time: At least four – six hours round-trip