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Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge is easy to distinguish from other dude ranches. The key to its difference is right there, conveniently tucked into its name — unlike its competitors, the lodge is located on a lake. And Flathead Lake is no ho-hum body of water, either. The biggest freshwater lake in North America west of the heartland, Flathead offers Montana locals and visitors a place to kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, sail and cruise.
There are 13 public access sites to the lake, but otherwise, its 185 miles of shoreline is privately owned. This means that the sparkly waters hugging the lodge’s land rarely feels crowded. During our stay, my partner and I kayaked through the expanse as though we were charting undiscovered waters. And, in a hushed tone, a friend of mine shared how she had the lake all to herself during a sunset paddle.
But the lake is hardly a secret — there’s just so much to do at the lodge. There are exceptional horseback riding classes (where instructors customize the lesson based on skill level) and a range of scheduled trail rides on the lodge’s private land, including its very own 500-acre Elk Preserve. Those looking for variety can spot elks on guided Elk Preserve tours; sign up for guided walks to the nearby Swan River and escorted hikes in the surrounding mountain ranges; and while away the hours at the lodge’s on-property tennis court, sand volleyball court, basketball court and lakefront swimming pool.
The property’s loaner mountain bikes are useful for getting around the lodge, but also for riding into downtown Bigfork, which is about 10 minutes away. Flathead Lake Lodge’s close proximity to the town is another differentiator; though Bigfork is a small town, it does offer a few restaurants, gift shops, a distillery and occasional festivals. During my visit on Memorial Day weekend, Bigfork hosted its annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival, and lodge staffers offered to drive guests into town to watch the festival as well as enjoy late-night festivities at a local backyard-style bar.
Like everything at Flathead Lake Lodge, the protocol for arranging this spontaneous field trip was casual: Jason St. Clair, director of sales and marketing for the property, walked into the lodge saloon, announced he was heading to a neighborhood bar and asked if there were any takers. Staff members also drive guests to trailheads for hikes in the area as well as into town to buy booze, which bartenders will hold and serve at the saloon for no additional charge (the lodge is all-inclusive but does not serve its own alcohol). Trip highlights for me included getting behind the bar to serve myself a beer (and hiking in the Swan Mountain range with a staffer and her puppy).
Unlike other dude ranches, Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge is on a lake and is able to offer a number of water sports. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
One of the evening highlights is a sunset cruise around Flathead Lake. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Guestrooms have a cabin feel, and some overlook Flathead Lake. // © 2017 Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge
Volleyball, sailing, horseback riding and biking are among the many activities offered at Flathead Lake Lodge. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
The property has a bring-your-own-booze policy; staffers will drive guests into town to purchase alcohol, which is then stashed at the bar. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Doug Averill, who took over the lodge from his father Les, has now passed on the responsibility to his sons. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Guests can take horseback riding lessons and watch roping demonstrations at this fenced area by the barn. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
The property offers several guided trail rides on private land, including in its elk preserve. // © 2017 Joshua Fhima
In addition to three meals a day, the all-inclusive price includes all-day access to baked treats, fruit coffee and tea. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Guests can expect to hear live music throughout the week. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Most guests take a day trip to nearby Glacier National Park. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
End the day around the bonfire with a favorite drink, s’mores and new friends. // © 2017 Joshua Fhima
There’s definitely a novel, open-door vibe at Flathead Lake Lodge, which can make you feel like you’re visiting a relative’s home. This familial sensibility trickles down from the top. Les Averill founded the property in 1945, and his grandsons have recently taken the reigns from their dad. But even more significant is the fact that more than half of the lodge’s yearly guests are repeat clients — sometimes including parents and grandparents who want to take little ones to where they rode their first horse, hiked with their own parents or met their spouse (the latter happens quite often, according to staff).
The right client will love this casual, yet inclusive vibe — here dubbed “Western hospitality” — though it might not be ideal for high-maintenance families who demand around-the-clock attention. Guestrooms are cozy but not decked out beyond authenticity, something a travel agent told me she appreciated. Guests feel like they’re staying in a cabin no matter what room they choose, and families will certainly appreciate the different configuration options.
During the summer, the property enforces a seven-day stay to encourage that familial feeling, but days are far from repetitive. The property is less than an hour’s drive to Glacier National Park — a must-visit — and guests can expect nightly surprise events such as sunset cruises, roping demonstrations, s’more bonfires and the “Steak Fry,” a cookout complete with live music in a wooded area of the Elk Preserve. Many evenings are accompanied by local musicians, who lather on the ambiance with quirky ballads, twangy folk songs and loads of cowboy charm.
These homey outings, as well as the homecooked meals inside the main lodge and at picnic tables by the lake, offer guests an opportunity to get to know each other. During my visit, I sighted a rare species — device-free kids and teens — engaging with their natural surroundings. A group of young boys instantly took to the lakeside — not for the watersports, but to collect flotsam to make a fort; there, they passed countless hours throwing rocks, inventing scenarios and laughing hysterically.
Many guests experienced something new for the first time. My partner, for instance, fulfilled a childhood desire to horseback ride. I, on the other hand, found something that has long evaded me. Lured by the pull of a clear night, good company and a craft beer or two, I lingered longer than usual around the bonfire. After some time, a wispy white line appeared in the black sky. It began to move before my eyes — as though an invisible pianist figured out how to play the sky’s keys.
I was taken aback by the northern lights’ unscheduled performance, but I shouldn’t have been. At Flathead Lake Lodge, happy surprises are always around the corner.
Travel Agents Explain Why Flathead Lake Lodge Is Special to ThemAngela Pierson of Wallace Pierson Travel: “This was the first trip with our kids that I was completely relaxed and happy to let them explore on their own. It was very impressive to me that with two groups on property at the same time, everyone mixed and mingled at meal times and during activities. Typically, when I travel with a group … especially for business … the group is separate from the rest of the people on property. It was also very refreshing that the owner was almost always present at meal times, etc. This is something I see typically only for VIP, not for all guests. The food was exceptional, especially for a buffet at breakfast and lunch. Probably the most unique thing about the lodge versus most other dude ranches is that it’s located on a lake. Many dude ranches offer rafting or fishing, but they are located off-property. Having all the watersports included is a great value.”
Julia Slatcher of Inspire World Travel: “Flathead Lake Lodge combines the romance of a dude ranch vacation with the beauty of Montana lake activities; you can go straight from a gorgeous horseback ride to a cowboy pancake cookout to kayaking around a state park. The staff made everyone feel like part of the family. It is the perfect place to reflect and recharge, and the kids had an absolute blast riding bikes around the property.”
Lauren Goldenberg of The Family Traveler: “My favorite part of Flathead Lake Lodge is that it is reminiscent of my summer camps days … it’s no wonder that it was built to be a boys’ camp. Cabin accommodations, group dining, congenial staff, a lakefront setting, being surrounded by nature, a variety of activities to enjoy and evening campfires give it that authentic camp feel. I know many of my family clients would enjoy sharing that experience. And the sticky buns really brought it all home. The cowboy culture and the property’s 120 horses give it a nice twist!”
Patricia Monahan of Our Whole Village: “The lodge is one of those places that make you feel right at home. The genuine and laid-back family vibe is captivating. I also really appreciated the lakefront location. Not just for the incredible views and bonfires with s'mores at sunset, but for the possibilities it opens up. It makes it much easier to please the whole family when you can offer a wider range of activities, from horseback riding to kayaking.”
Yannette Edwards of Valerie Wilson Travel: “The lodge is the real deal. In an industry where everyone is trying to deliver a unique product or experience, this is authentic. It’s a dude ranch for people who want experiential travel in the Old West!”