Nestled into a valley between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges in western Montana, Seeley Lake is one of the more scenic spots in a spectacular state. The Mission Mountain Wilderness is on one side, the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the other, and a chain of lakes runs through it.
The snow has melted off all but the high peaks by now, but it’s exactly the right time to start planning next winter’s adventures.
The lake itself is a sylvan-lined beauty. Its 1,025 acres host boaters and swimmers in the summer, and skaters and ice-fishermen and women in winter. Seeley Lake is connected to other lakes running up and down the Seeley Swan Valley.
Seeley Lake, the town, sits on the eastern shore of the lake and is home to around 1,700 people. There are enough coffee stops and gift shops to keep tourists happy, but not so many that it’s obnoxious.
There are plenty of things to do in Seeley Lake year round, but here are my top five choices:
Snowshoe opportunities abound if you are adventurous. The area is surrounded by National Forest. From snow-covered logging roads to steep mountain trails to Nordic ski trails (walk to the left of the groomed trail), anyone who wants to strap some paddles to their feet can find the right place to walk.
We like to snowshoe right around the lakeshore. Start at the Big Larch campground on the north end of town. From there walk north as far as you like. You can also walk out on the lake, but may find that snowshoes are overkill on the ice.
For a wilderness experience with many of the comforts of home, rent the historic, and restored, Monture Guard Station from the Forest Service. It’s one mile from the parking area to the cabin, and from there you can snowshoe out in any direction.
Check in at the Forest Service visitor center for up to date conditions and maps before heading into the woods. The book, Seeley-Swan Day Hikes by Alan Leftridge, is another good starting point for snowshoe trails in the area.
In late fall and early winter the lake freezes, but the winds haven’t whipped the water and ice into bumps and waves, yet. If you can get there at just the right time, smooth, clear ice stretches from the south end of the lake to the north and miles of great ice skating conditions are available.
Locals spend hours gliding around the lake, surround by conifers at the lake’s edge and mountains rising above. The ice skating season doesn’t last long, so check in on the Seeley Lake Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS) for updates on when conditions are best.
The ice wasn’t right for skating while we were there, but we had a blast walking out on the frozen lake, nonetheless. Only a six months earlier we had been swimming in this very spot. The kids loved slipping and sliding on the ice, rolling rocks, and laying on their stomachs to examine the patterns.
In January, a group of dedicated locals host the Seeley Lake Pond Hockey Tournament, a fundraiser for local charities and a weekend to bolster local commerce in Seeley Lake.
The Seeley Creek Nordic Trail system has reliable snow, impeccably groomed trails, a cozy warming hut, and trails for all interest levels and abilities. The trails were designed to host ski races, as well as families wanting to stretch their legs and take advantage of Montana’s long, snowy winters.
Ski and biathlon races are held throughout the winter, and there will be more in the future. The community is looking to build more trails at a World Cup-level in hopes of attracting more skiers and turning Seeley Lake into a truly world-class venue.
We loved skiing the rolling trails through the trees, with occasional glimpses of the mountains. It was a perfect course for our family. The less enthusiastic could peel off after a few kilometers, while the more motivated could keep going on longer loops. And the rolling hills add to the fun. As soon as we were tired of skiing uphill, we start an exciting decent.
As for cost, the Seeley Lake Nordic Trails website says, “there are no user fees charged for our trail system. If you enjoyed your ski and are feeling generous, there is a “metal ranger” at the trail head where you can leave a donation of your choice. Or, if you’re feeling a little light in the wallet, no problem, you can catch us next time. All donations go straight to the grooming fund helping us provide western Montana with the ultimate in cross country skiing.”
It’s really the sled dogs that draw my family to Seeley Lake in winter. The Race to the Sky, 100 and 300-mile dogsled races, usually start in Lincoln, Montana and end in Seeley Lake. But, in poor snow years such as 2014-15, it starts and ends on a Forest Service Road in Seeley Lake.
Spectators gather at the start of the race to meet the dogs and mushers, learn about the sport of dogsledding, and cheer the teams on. You can track the teams on the website and arrive at the finish line for additional cheering and congratulations.
There are lots of places to stay in Seeley Lake, but we choose the Double Arrow Ranch. Why? The cabins with lofts fit our family’s needs (kids and their junk upstairs, mom and dad downstairs), there’s a pool to burn off kid-energy, and onsite snowshoe and ski trails help mom burn off excess energy.
Great food is just steps from the cabin. To get to Seasons Restaurant, you walk through the cozy, Western atmosphere in the lodge. We like to linger here, have a drink from the fully supplied Stirrups Bar, and play board games with the kids. Get here at the right time of the year and you can take a sleigh ride before your meal.