Great Drives: Flathead Lake Loop, Montana

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Flathead Lake, the largest natural fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi River, sprawls oceanically across 184 square miles between the Salish and Mission mountains. Sophisticated travelers call this stunning body of water in northwestern Montana a "Cowboy Lake Como." With shoreline vistas taking on the gauzy overtones of a Maxfield Parrish painting, the area is fully the equal of the famed northern Italian lake region, but with a western American flare all its own.

Start at Kalispell and head south on Highway 93, with the Salish Range to the west and the lake appearing in the east like a great inland sea. First up is the booming hamlet of Lakeside, with enough quirky restaurants and bars to end any further progress for the day. (Try The Montana Grill for homestyle breakfasts overlooking the lake.) Next is one-year-old Blacktail Ski Resort, America's newest ski area. Hike its slopes, then a few miles south pull into West Shore State Park (one of five parks on the lake), with grass campsites, boat ramps, swimming areas and fishing for everything from feisty rainbows to lunker lake trout. (You'll need a state fishing license and, in certain areas, a permit from the Flathead Indian Tribe, whose reservation includes the southern third of the lake.)

Continue on Route 93 to Polson, popular for its 18-hole golf course and the 112-room KwaTaqNuk casino hotel. From Polson pick up Highway 35, which heads east before it bends north—running so close to the Mission Mountains that you can see their ragged profiles mirrored in the lake.

After driving 12 miles north on Route 35, take a break in the funky rural community of Yellow Bay, where there are boat rentals (sailboats, canoes, runabouts), and a clutch of clapboard restaurants and taverns. Yellow Bay's real attraction: gorge-till-you're-ill cherry stands.

The road hugs the lake as it heads north to busy Woods Bay, bristling with six-figure sailboats and cabin cruisers, as well as small weekender outboards used for trolling and sight-seeing. Stop by the Sitting Duck bar, a classic boat-up bistro that Steinbeck would have loved. This eastern shore is full of elegant log-and-stone lakeside estates with wide green lawns rolling down to the water.

The Flathead region is Montana's fruit basket, full of commercial cherry orchards, crab-apple groves and pumpkin patches. Don't miss the huckleberries, a local specialty, at Eva Gates, a fruit shop and confectionery in Bigfork, at the north end of the lake. Natty Bigfork also boasts one of Montana's best golf courses and pricey shops that showcase antler chandeliers and custom log beds.

From Bigfork, continue north to Columbia Falls and its amusement park. On the drive back to Kalispell, you'll find yourself practicing phone excuses out loud about why you'll be a few days late returning to the office.

Drive Length 80 miles (from Kalispell around the lake) to 200 (including Glacier National Park).

Drive Time 2-4 hours (Montana doesn't have any daytime speed limits, but you won't need a heavy foot. The pace is leisurely.)

Try To Avoid Windy days on the water. It can be dangerous, with huge whitecaps à  la Lake Michigan, plus drifting trees and other ruinous, hard-to-spot flotsam.

Don't Miss Glacier National Park, with its magnificent mountains, wildlife and ice-fields along the Going-To-The-Sun Road, less than an hour (35 miles) northwest of Bigfork.

Get Out Of Your Car At Dayton on the west shore to rent a boat and go to Wild Horse Island, named for the Indian ponies that ran across the winter ice to the island (and are still abundant there). Pointer Scenic Cruises in Bigfork also takes tours to Wild Horse.

Contact Flathead Valley Tourism Bureau, (800) 543-3105;