“Mummy and Daddy, you told us we wouldn’t see the sea this holiday? Well, that sure looks like a sea to us!”, our daughters exclaim once they stand on the shore of Flathead Lake. This comparison does make sense as the size of the lake is enormous. Millions of years ago, this lake was formed as a result of glacial activities and now measures an impressive 500 km2 with, at some places, a depth of over 100 metres. It is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
The lake can indeed be called impressive, but it is the assortment of log houses surrounding us on the lakeshore that completely takes our breath away: Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge. We are lucky to have visited so many unique places for the Topwithkids project. And nearly all of these places hold, in one way or another, a special place in our hearts. It is this beautiful lodge, however, that stole our hearts a bit more. The Averill family has been hosting guests here ever since 1945. By now, Doug, Maureen, Nikkie, Laine and Chase took over as the second and third generation of this institution. It is only fair to call it that after all those years. Or, as owner Doug explains: “This place is frozen in time. It’s what people conjure in their mind as an idyllic log cabin getaway that’s simple, friendly and in a beautiful setting”.
To start with the latter: the surroundings are truly magnificent. The lodge is located in Bigfork, a charming and authentic town in the western part of the state of Montana. We drive up there from the neighbouring state of Wyoming. En route, the scenic beauty of the region gets more and more beautiful by the mile. It is high summer and all the fields are still in full bloom. Vast forests offer a varied view with the ever-present mountains as a familiar backdrop.
Slightly intoxicated by all the breathtaking scenery, we arrive at the Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge. Imagine an authentic ranch and that’s exactly what it looks like up here. After parking the car and having walked up to the lake, we step into one of the traditional lodges where in front of a huge open fireplace – the largest one we’ve ever seen – Doug and Chase are about to start their introduction. Just like most of the other guests, we’ll be staying here for a week and the list of activities is long and varied. There is an abundance of activities and honestly, we can’t quite grasp what they are all saying as there are so many options. Fortunately, we find a booklet listing all the activities later on in our cabin. Glancing around the lodge during the introduction shows that this truly is a place for families. Many of the quests have been visiting this place for years or sometimes even for decades. There are, for example, grandparents treating their children and grandchildren to an exceptional week and who came here when they were children themselves. So, it’s only natural that everybody is excited for the adventure to start.
With more than 100 horses, it is no wonder that horse lovers find everything their heart desires at the Lodge. Carson, one of Doug and Maureen’s sons, leads a group of friendly wranglers who make sure that all rides on horseback are safely guided. There are horseback rides for all availability levels and different riding classes for children depending on their age. For the ones wanting to enhance their equestrian skills, the Lodge offers private lessons. And so, one of the wranglers takes Angela and Tess out galloping very fast around the corral. Even our youngest daughter Wende proves to be a competent rider and boldly joins the other kids on several long rides while her sister and we enjoy rides of our own.
For children, the Lodge organises the ‘Junior Wrangler Programme’ where kids get to do all sorts of chores and activities in the stables every day of the week. Our girls help feeding the horses, sweep the stables, paint (!) horses, stroke foals and so on. At the end of the week, the children get to show all their newly acquired skills during the ‘Kid’s Rodeo’. Cheered on by the grown-ups, the children ride as if they have been doing it for years.
There is enough space for all these activities as, apart from the Lodge’s own large piece of land, the whole ranch measures no less than 2,000 acres! You can ride for hours on end without even leaving the terrain. The view, especially when you climb a bit, is superb. The lake is always nearby and, particular in the summer sun light, the reflection of the mountains on the water is spectacular. A mere 500 acres of the area is preserved for the Rocky Mountain Elk, a subspecies of elk found in the Rocky Mountains and adjacent ranges of Western North America. A unique animal species that, until only recently, was threatened to become extinct.
In addition to the regular morning and afternoon rides, there are special rides that include a meal. For example the breakfast ride, after a relaxed ride awaits a delicious breakfast with pancakes, eggs, bacon, coffee and tea. And what about the lunch ride that takes us to a remote cabin high up in the mountains that can also be rented for a romantic private evening. Highlight is probably the Mountain Steak Fry ride, a tradition where everybody gathers around a large BBQ at a beautiful spot in the forest. For the ones not wanting to get there on horseback, transportation can be arranged in classic open-top fire trucks. No less than three trucks are ready to take us there that evening. The children are over the moon and whoop with joy when we hit the road while the fire truck is honking all the way up. Upon our return, the fun gets even bigger when water cannons are aimed at the kids. Further on in the week, another fire truck is mobilised to get an ice cream with the kids. Our daughters are still talking about it!
The cuisine at Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge is highly recommendable. Every day, the kitchen brigade prepares a creative and nutritious meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing fancy, but good authentic dishes that taste even better by being outdoors the whole time. It is possible for the children to eat in a separate room or, if the weather allows it, at long picnic tables so the parents can leisurely share the experiences of the day with each other and the other guests. The easily approachable guests make our stay even more special. The daily happy hour in the Saddle Sore Saloon is the perfect time and place to get to know each other with a beer or a glass of good wine. There are no other guests from Europe during our stay and many are interested in what we do and what we think of the US. Vice versa, it gives us many new insights into this beautiful and sometimes also to us incomprehensible country.
At the end of the long day, there is a lot to talk about as there are so many other things to participate in apart from horseback riding. Also here, most of the activities are inclusive. Of course, there is the lake. Although a bit fresh, there’s nothing like having a good splash around. The water is crystal clear which enables you to look into the endlessly deep water. For the brave ones among us, there is a high watchtower at the end of a wooden jetty from which you can jump with or without a somersault. More of a warm water lover? Then relax with a book in one of the lounge chairs by the fenced swimming pool, spectacularly situated near the lake, while the kids are frolicking in the water.
Soon we decide to undertake some water sports. Every afternoon, you can go water skiing or wake boarding. We simply write our names on a clipboard and a little later we hang behind a speedboat. If you prefer a slower pace, there are plenty of small sailboats, motorboats, canoes and kayaks. Use all these as much as you like, because almost everything is inclusive at the Lodge.
And so we fill our days with horseback riding and all sorts of water sports. Not before long, we know most of the other guests and also the staff. They enjoy this magical place as much as we do and treat us as if we are close relatives. And so Jason St. Clair – Director of Sales and Marketing – takes us for a sailing trip on one of the historic sailing yachts. The Questa and the Nor ‘Easter were built in 1928 and 1929 as prototypes for Americas Cup boats. Sailing such a boat is a unique experience, but the strong wind that afternoon makes it even more special. Together with a few other guests and an experienced crew, we get on board and it doesn’t take long before we race the lake. We hike so hard that it seems we are defying the laws of gravity. Although we need to hold on to anything within our reach, we shriek with laughter. With every wave that hits us, our daughters laugh even harder.
One week is too short for the wide range of activities. You can easily spend two or three weeks here. Next to the activities mentioned above, the ranch has around 50 mountain bikes and an experienced mountain bike guide who can take you on one of a number of thrilling bike rides. Together with Tess, we go on a guided bike trip that takes us to a scenic wilderness area within 20 minutes. What’s more, tennis lovers can enjoy a good match on one of the two professional tennis courts.
For the younger guests, there is an Arts & Crafts centre where an enthusiastic staff member works with the children on fun and creative projects. Perfect for parents who want to go horseback riding or enjoy a relaxing afternoon on their own. Teens are bound to have a great time above the stables in the Game Room with Ping Pong, a Pool Table and Shuffleboard. And if a Game Room, water skiing and mountain biking are not enough, the teens are bound to have a great time with a game of Mountain Laser Tag. Guests head out to a mountain course where teams compete on real rugged terrain with laser guns.
After spending such fun days at the ranch, we almost need to be forced to leave the terrain. Fair enough, the ranch offers an endless range of fun activities but there is also lots of beauty to admire in the ranch’s surroundings. And so we drive in no more than an hour to the scenic Glacier National Park. Although crowded with tourists, it is an absolute must. The views take your breath away. Or what about some white water rafting, a lesson in fly fishing or a clay pigeon shooting class? No time to get bored here!
And after all these adrenaline boosts, it is just bliss to sit on the porch of your own cabin and read a good book. The cabins are cosy and rustic. Not particularly luxurious, but it caters to all your needs. Our cabin has a spacious living room, a separate bedroom, bathroom and an extra bedroom in a maisonette. For guests who need more space, there are also 3-bedroom cabins and large families can rent one of the historic lodges.
It is always nice to finish a review by mentioning a highlight, but in this case that’s practically impossible. Even after having returned home for quite some time now, not a day goes by without thinking about our amazing stay at the ranch. Horseback riding was of course pretty special, but so was the sailing trip on the yacht, the great conversations with the staff and other guests, the dance evening with a band in the barn or was it the small gesture from Doug when he gave our daughters a special medal as a souvenir. Of course, we had read beforehand about Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge being rated in the top 2% best family vacation spots in America together with numerous other awards and nominations. Experiencing and being able to affirm this ourselves is something different altogether. Don't know enough: view the video they made during the week:
We feel very honoured that we could be part of this unique place and hope to experience this much more.
# The enormous range of activities where almost everything is all-inclusive. Moreover, it is all within reach so there’s enough to anyone’s liking and so very suitable for (larger) family groups.
# This is a real family business. They all have fun doing their jobs. In only half a day, every guest is greeted by his name and their interest is genuine and sincere. They are all proud of what they’ve achieved here – and with reason.
# Montana is probably one of the most beautiful states in the US. Its vastness made a huge impression on us. Where else do you spot on your ride a huge deer, that later turns out to be a bear standing fully upright on its hind legs?