SWAN VALLEY - NORTHWESTERN MONTANA

North of Holland Lake, State 31 runs through the heavy Flathead National Forest of the Swan Valley, a wild land with fish and game, rude trails, and lookout stations. The road is poor with an average of 20 curves to the mile. There are only occasional glimpses of the majestic Mission Mountains (L) and Swan Range (R). The forest silence is broken only by the calls of wild things, the splash and gurgle of tumbling streams, and the sound, like surf on a far shore, of wind flowing smoothly through the tops of tamaracks and firs. Nevertheless occasional cabins beside the road indicate that a few hardy human beings attempt to live here.

Montana, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1939)

Sandwiched between the Mission Mountains Wilderness and the Swan Mountain Range is the north-south oriented Swan Valley. It’s a place of many waters. The Swan River flows north to Flathead Lake. The Clearwater River flows south to the Blackfoot River. Both are filled with cold mountain run-off from countless drainages. Timbering was once a mainstay of the local economy and from space you can still see the human imposed grid system of clearing timber—called checkerboard clear-cutting—across the width of the valley, stretching to the mountainsides.

A highway runs through the area—Highway 83—and in the summer that strip of asphalt shuttles vast schools of recreation and solitude seeking people to the chain of lakes and beyond: Salmon Lake, Seeley Lake, Lake Inez, Lake Alva, Holland Lake, and Swan Lake, to a name a few. Opportunities for fishing, hiking, backpacking and camping are scattered over millions of acres. To the east, the Scapegoat Wilderness runs to the Bob Marshall Wilderness which runs into the Great Bear Wilderness. From there Glacier National Park takes over and completes the stretch to Canada. These wilderness spaces, along with various National Forests, create a corridor all the way to Yellowstone National Park.

These upper stretches of wilderness have some of the greatest densities of grizzly bear in the lower 48 and they commonly traipse across the valley floor. Grizzlies need a lot of space. Valley and mountain visitors are wise to keep this in mind when backpacking and camping. Wolves, mountain lions, and black bear round out the top predator list—they all find space here, too.

The town of Seeley Lake has a population fewer than 1,700 folks year around, but swells substantially each summer with boat pulling, rod wielding, camera toting, backpack wearing tourists. Seeley Lake has groceries, gas, lodging, medical help, sporting goods and rentals, as well as a variety of restaurants and bars for all types. There’s also a golf course for folks who are either multi-faceted beyond my comprehension or simply cannot tolerate a landscape un-manicured by mankind. 

Twenty miles to the north is Condon, an unincorporated town. Its amenities include various lodges and B&Bs, mountain lakes, vistas, trails, campgrounds, wilderness access, forests, wildlife, the Swan River… you get the picture. 

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Montana State Guide Chris Chapman was born and raised in the fields of Indiana, spent time in Michigan, California, Washington and Maryland, but has called Montana home since the days before it had speed limits or open container laws. Now married with two young kids, he documents family friendly adventures: canoeing, fly fishing, hunting, hiking and camping, throughout the state. Chris’ Tumblr home is j-appleseed.tumblr.com. His other web home is ChrisChapmanPhotography.net.