Paddle the Crown of the Continent.
Paddle the Crown of the Continent. (Cheney Gardner)

SUP Montana’s Crystal-Clear Lakes in Glacier

Grab a wetsuit and a paddleboard, and hit the little-visited lakes on the park's western edge

Paddle the Crown of the Continent.

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I grew up in New Orleans and learned to SUP on the bayous that carve through southern Louisiana. For the past year, though, it’s the waters of landlocked Montana I’ve most wanted to explore, after a friend in Missoula told me about a chain of lakes in the westernmost part of Glacier. They are said to be sacred to the Blackfeet, clear pools carved out over thousands of years by glaciers dipping to about 250 feet at their deepest. Last October, I grabbed a friend, a wetsuit, and a paddleboard, and headed north.

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As you approach from Missoula, Glacier lies behind the Flathead Range, hidden until you gain elevation and the world opens up into more than a million acres of coniferous forests, glaciated peaks, and wildflower meadows. George Bird Grinnell, right-hand man to Teddy Roosevelt, led the charge to make it a national park in 1910, dubbing it “an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent.”

Pulling through the entrance gates, we were the only car to turn off the main road that connects West Glacier with East, following the Flathead River into the North Fork Valley. Down a rutty dirt road, past the century-old red clapboard Polebridge Mercantile, which still serves its famous huckleberry bear claws, and past the abandoned cabins of Glacier’s only homestead lie Quartz, Bowman, and Kintla Lakes, tucked so deep into the bowls between peaks that they seem to spring straight out of the granite.

Bowman is the closest of the three, sitting a half-hour from the Merc and drawing the biggest crowds. (There were eight of us on this unseasonably warm Saturday, with one canoe on the lake.) As we took our first strokes, the water was so clear that we could see rocks 40 feet down, and little flecks of gold danced on the glassy surface as the light hit the surrounding hillsides of deciduous larch. Paddling back to shore hours later, we collapsed on the rocky sand, rousing ourselves only to pitch a tent and finish a six-pack, clinking cups under a big sky.

The next morning, we headed an hour down the road to Kintla, a boomerang-shaped pool sitting in the shadow of Parke and Long Knife Peaks, a half-hour hike from Canada. The rangers and tourists had already packed it in for the season, so all six miles of the lake belonged to us—a welcome surprise until the sky darkened, the water started churning, and reality set in that the closest warm bodies were likely working their way through bear claws. Kintla is about a half-mile wide, and we could have paddled to shore and dragged the boards back to the car. Still, the remoteness was daunting—not quite an unmapped corner, but close.

After a strained hour slamming to our knees as the wind kicked up, the clouds started to lift, revealing the mountains towering above. Cold, snow-dusted prisms, they wrapped around the lake, crowning the golden hillsides. I took a long look, trying to commit every peak and valley to memory, then dug the paddle back into the water and headed toward shore, hoping the Merc sold beer.

Access + Resources

When: Shoot for warm weather in late summer, or avoid the crowds in early fall.

How: Missoula, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the park, offers direct flights from Denver and Atlanta. Kalispell’s Glacier Park airport, 25 miles west of the park, is closer but pricier.

Play: Bring your own inflatable paddleboard, or rent one from Glacier Guides in West Glacier ($45).

Stay: On the drive from Missoula, spend the night in Whitefish at the Garden Wall Inn and stick around for the gourmet breakfast. Bowman has the most developed campground of the three lakes.

Eat: Don’t miss the huckleberry bear claws at the Polebridge Mercantile in Glacier’s North Fork Valley.