Swan River and Flathead River

Bigfork, Montana is a quaint little waterfront village built on a small bay of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. At just under 200 square miles of surface, Flathead Lake is a sight to see.  It houses various kinds of fish including our native Westlope Cutthroat Trout and Bull Trout and non-native Lake Trout(Mackinaw), Yellow Perch, and Rainbow Trout. The lake hits its max depth at 370 feet leaving plenty of room for The Flathead Lake Monster.

While the origin of the name Bigfork remains unknown, some believe the name is referring to the “Bigfork” created by the Swan and Flathead Rivers. These two are the lake’s largest tributaries and surround our area with fishable water. Some folks speculate that the name is actually interpreted from the Salish name for the area. Regardless of its namesake, the small town is rich in history.

Native American History

Several tribes of Native Americans lived in the area for hundreds of years, but many were nomadic and traveled seasonally. The Salish, also known as the Flathead, and the Kootenai spent much of their time near Flathead Lake. Over generations, they had learned the best routes over the mountain ranges and summits. They created a network of hunting trails and camps throughout the Swan and Mission Valleys. The location of Bigfork was also a well-used camp by the Salish. 

Everett Sliter's Legacy

In the late 1800s, Everett L. Sliter, a Michigan-born man, was living in Helena, MT. He was working for the railroad when he decided to take a trip north. When Sliter arrived, he found that the lakes and rivers were full of healthy trout and the mountains with endless amounts of game for hunting. Everett Sliter had just discovered the Flathead Valley and his new home. He purchased 140 acres on the north end of Flathead Lake for just shy of $1,400 and married a woman named Lizzy Osborn. Together they planted an orchard of 500 various kinds of fruit trees, later growing to 4000. The pair then built a 15-room hotel, a general store, and a post office where Sliter served as the first postmaster. He filed a plat with the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell in 1902 for 11 blocks and 94 lots, creating the charming town we live in today. 

Around the time that Sliter was establishing Bigfork, another man named Lafayette Tinkel had dreams of creating a hydroelectric power plant. He planned on using the Swan River to power two 180-watt turbines to produce electricity. This was virtually unheard of at the time and many thought his ideas were out there. He built the initial power plant even before the downtown bridge was built.  It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1911, that it was constructed, another huge feat accomplished as it still stands today. The energy generated from the turbines ran into makeshift power lines along what is now appropriately named Electric Avenue. Nowadays the energy created by the river flows right into the grid.

Montana's Logging Boom

Coinciding with the growth of Bigfork, numerous loggers started to arrive in the area. They began harvesting timber and taking advantage of the bountiful forests covering the valley and mountains.  They would fall the trees and then use the Swan River to float the logs out to Flathead Lake. Where steamboats would transport the logs to the Somers Lumber Company sawmill on the north end of Flathead Lake. This was the biggest sawmill in the Flathead Valley in 1910, producing 30 million board feet of lumber every year. There are still many sawn logs sunk to the bottom of the Swan River. 

Flathead Lake Steamboats

By the late 1880s, steamboats were regularly used to transport supplies and people to the upper Flathead Valley. The first steamboat on Flathead Lake was named the Swan and it would take about a week to travel the length of the lake, about 30 miles. By 1910, the industry reached its peak at 20 steamboats operating on Flathead. That same year automobiles were arriving in Kalispell and 60 residents were proud owners. A reported 2000 automobiles were owned by 1919 and used mainly for recreation.

Small Town Charm

Over the years Bigfork has grown but has kept its unmistakable charm. There is a feeling of stepping back in time while strolling the streets of Bigfork. You can walk past Sliters Park, then cross the Swan River on the downtown bridge stopping to look at the powerhouse. Up the hill towards Osborn Landing, then stroll down Electric Avenue. Many shops and businesses stand where the Salish once sharpened arrows and skinned hides. 

Keeping Montana Tradition Alive

Many ambitious and hardworking men and women shaped the history of our hometown. We are thankful to continue the tradition of hunting and fishing the same lands that drew Everett Sliter here nearly 150 years ago.

Swan River
Swan Range
Flathead Lake
Swan River


A-Bar Montana is the epitome of a downhome Montana bar. With above-average bar food, spectacular views of the Swan Range, and tooth-cracking cold beer, be sure to check this place out if you are in Bigfork!

Directions to A-Bar Montana

Taco Mexico is hands down our favorite Mexican joint in the Flathead Valley. Family owned and operated.

Directions to Taco Mexico

The name says it all. The treasure states motto means Gold and Silver and that is what you get at this fun and funky Mexican restaurant in downtown Bigfork. It has an incredible patio with delicious margaritas and food. Definitely check this place out!

Directions to Oro Y Plata


A ground floor condo located right in downtown Bigfork, The Wild Mile Retreat is the perfect rental. River views out one door and downtown out the other. Be sure to check this place out if you are planning to stay in Bigfork. 

This private farmhouse is located just outside of Bigfork. It faces east toward the Swan Range making for a spectacular sunrise while you sip your coffee. A minute drive from a favorite local breakfast and lunch joint, The Echo Lake Café, and excellent proximity to many hiking trails. 

Adorable cottages on the Swan River. These accommodations are in the perfect location, just a short walk and you are in the heart of downtown.


A family-run business that keeps busy year-round! By water and bikes in the summer months and dog sleds and skis in the winter. The owners Samantha and Mark and knowledgeable and confident in multiple areas in the outdoor world.

Lots of hiking options around. Check out Jewel Basin or the National Forest website.

Montana is famous for its big sky in our northwest corner of paradise we’re known for the abundance of water. Bent Fly Fishing offers guided fly fishing and conventional spin fishing trips. Book your trip now to get out on some of Montana’s pristine waters.