Tell Me About Bigfork, Montana

My wife and I were both raised in the SF Bay Area, and with any luck we plan on retiring in about 5 years somewhere else in the Western US.

We started our seach and already eliminate California (too expensive), Arizona (too hot) and Oregon (not as pretty as we thought it would be). We have narrowed things down to Montana, Wyoming or Colorado. We’re planning a trip in June to take a look at Western Montana. Particularly around the Flathead Lake area, from Polson up through Bigfork, up to Kalispell.

My wife and I really enjoy the mountains, would like to live on (or near) a lake or river, and don’t mind some snow. I’m hoping to become a serious fishman someday. I know that Bigfork is a really small town, but has anyone ever lived there or near there? I would like to hear what it’s really like so I have some idea what to expect when we visit this summer. I know that it’s mainly a vacation area, but that’s not necessarilly a bad thing. Tell it like it is… freezing cold winters, bugs the size of Buicks during the summer… whatever. Let me know what you think!


I actually read that as “Bumfuck, Montana” and thought, how apropos.

Alas, it was not to be.

Sorry for the intrusion. :slight_smile:

I have no personal experience with Bigfork but I asked a good friend who lives in Missoula. He says you can’t go wrong there. Great golf courses, beautiful location between two lakes. Very artsy community. No oversized bugs. Oddly, he didn’t comment on the winters though.

Not much info, but I hope it helps.


Don’t know anything about Bigfork, but if you start looking into Wyoming - E-mail me - I’ve lived in 5 different locations in the state and can help.

(With what you are describing, consider Saratoga, Wyoming.)

Not an expert on Bigfork, but I went to college in Bozeman, Montana.

It’s a great town and the large university presence there makes it more cultural and liberal than a lot of other towns in the state.

It’s nestled between a bunch of mountains, plenty of places to fish and hike. The nearby natural hot springs are heavenly. No gianormous bugs.

The winters are intimidating – and so are the occassional August snowstorms!

Send me a private message if you’d like me to shill some more.

Small town Montana life is WAAAAAY different than city life. Do you never want to go to a club or a nice restaurant ever again? No Broadway musicals stop in Big Fork (or anywhere in MT). There are no art museums. The stores close at 6pm, and stay closed all weekend. Yes! It’s true!

My dad had a cabin in Seeley Lake, MT, and the highlight of the social calendar was when some hockey guy brought the Stanley Cup to the Town Hall so people could view it and take pictures. (My dad has pictures.)

And the winters are very long. Snow on the ground at Halloween. Snow on the ground at Easter.

Don’t do it! This is your last warning.


I’ll basically ‘second’ this emotion, and also the Bozeman endorsement. Bozeman would have access to all the good things you’re interested in, plus the comforts of modern life.

It’s not just Broadway musicals and art museums, it’s being able to choose from more than one doctor & dentist, getting your car fixed & your laundry ironed, basic stuff like that. Plus getting a good cup of coffee or an ethnic dish.

This is about 8 parts BS and 2 parts true.

I grew up in Montana and spent summers across the lake from Big Fork. My parents have a summer house on the Lake and live there in the summers. I go back every year. Here’s the Straight Dope on Big Fork:

Flathead Lake is about 30 miles long by 15 miles wide. It’s the largest natural fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi. The major towns on the Lake form a Christian cross – Somers at the north end of the Lake, Polson at the south end, Lakeside about a third of the way down the Lake on the west shore, and Big Fork across the Lake from Lakeside on the east shore.

Lakeside and Somers are basically wide spots in the road. Polson is the biggest town on the Lake, but is in the less desirable and less touristy south end (and on the rez). Big Fork is smaller than Polson, and is the wealthiest most touristy town on the Lake. There is a very nice downtown with boutique shops, restaurants, and galleries. There are several very nice developments, the largest of which is Eagle Bend, a Jack Nicklaus designed golf-course community. There are no clubs (AFAIK), but there are numerous very nice restaurants, though many are only open seasonally. As for “Broadway shows” – Big Fork does have a very well-regarded summer-stock theater right downtown. Beauty and the Beast is playing this year. Being summer stock, its play list tends to be heavy on musicals and light comedies, with few if any dramas or heavy stuff. There are no art museums, but there are bunches of galleries. There’s also a summer concert series.

The “streets roll up” analysis isn’t really weekday/weekend as much as seasonal. Big Fork goes full-bore in the summer and slows down a ton in the winter. There is a vibrant year-round community as well, though it is much more working class. This is changing as well as more people retire to the area. (Eagle Bend has a whole neighborhood of houses with Prevost garages – multi-million dollar homes with oversized garages for million dollar RVs.)

Kalispell, MT, a town of 20,000, is 17 miles away. Missoula, the university town and IMO the nicest town in Montana, is 90 miles away. Glacier National Park is 25 miles away. Whitefish and the Big Mountain alpine ski resort is 40 miles away. And, not incidentally, the Flathead Valley is freakin’ gorgeous – some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S.

In terms of flavor and economy, I would compare Big Fork to Sisters, Oregon, or Sedona, Arizona, if you’re familiar with those towns, though Big Fork is geographically the prettiest.

Big Fork is not Seeley Lake. Seeley Lake is a very nice little town, but it is still very working class (work hard, play hard, hunting, fishing, drinking) and not nearly as sophisticated or tourist-based. Big Fork has all the amenities tourists demand – at least seasonally.

This is true. But people who like winter sports love it, and the summers are gorgeous, though of course not as warm as Cali. Flathead Lake is glacier-fed and cold year round.

As someone raised in Montana and vacationing in the Flathead Valley my whole life, I would love to live in the Valley. I intend to retire there myself, once I’ve made my little pile. :slight_smile: But I freely admit I’m biased; I love it entirely. When I die, I want my ashes spread on the beach at my parents’ lake house – that’s how much I love it.

Feel free to e-mail me if you have any further questions. :slight_smile:

ETA: If you’re going up there in June, you’d better start planning now. This is a high-density tourist destination and things like rental cars and hotel rooms book up fast.

You also might want to look at the Bitterroot Valley (Stevensville, Hamilton, Darby), which is also becoming a real retirement destination spot in Montana.


And to reveal some Montana bias, in the interest of full disclosure:

The true rivalry in Montana is Missoula (U of M) versus Bozeman (Montana State). Those are the two univesity towns, generally thought to be the nicest towns in the state. People who like Missoula tend to love Missoula and not like Bozeman; people who live in Bozeman tend to love Bozeman and not like Missoula.

I went to U of M and lived there for almost eight years. I love it. I lived in Bozeman for a year early in my career and I don’t like it nearly as much. But people who are touting Bozeman and telling you that Big Fork doesn’t have a dry-cleaner, for crying out loud, simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

First, don’t even think about eastern Montana. Two-thirds of the state by land area (that is, all of it that isn’t in the Rockies) looks nothing like what you think Montana looks like and you will likely consider it a waste of geography. There are no mountains, the weather is brutal both hot and cold, and the towns are small, sad, and far between.

Second, Montana doesn’t have the population density California does and it doesn’t have any world-class cities. Most of Montana is pretty much dead, culturally speaking, and very little is going on in most towns on most days or nights. Big Fork isn’t a small town and it’s well within the sphere of influence of a very rich, touristy region, so this will hit you much less than if you were looking into Havre or Great Falls.

Third, travel time is a real killer and there is no public transit outside of the really big cities. (I know Missoula has intramural buses and I think Bozeman might.) Going five hours between cities is about average, and you can easily go hours without seeing so much as a house. Sometimes, and this will impact you more if you live near Missoula (Big Fork is very near Missoula), roads get snowed out and you effectively can’t get certain places until the weather changes. Owning a car is essential unless you know you only want to travel within a given town.

I’d advise visiting there a few times, spread throughout the year. Make sure you can take it both summer and winter, and make sure you aren’t likely to get bored when certain seasonal sports aren’t available. Aside from that, you’re a God-damned Californian who will buy up all the hunting land and fishing streams and not let good, native Montanans hunt and fish there anymore. :wink:

So my wife and I visited Spokane, Northern Idaho and Northwest Montana a few weeks ago. All I can say about Montana is wow. We have mountains and trees and lakes in California, but miles upon miles of unspoiled acreage is really what makes it different. The population denisity is so low that you can drive for hours during the middle of the day on a major highway and see only a few cars.

We had planned to spend some time down in the Bitterroot Mountain area but were so taken by the beauty of the Bigfork Valley we changes our plans and spent almost the entire week in and around Bigfork. We were looking for some lots of sale and stumbled across the Swan Lake area. While close to Bigfork and Kalispell, Swan Lake seemed remote enough for us and we found a development that we really fell in love with. It was land that had been developed by the local timber giant Plum Creek and we made an offer on a 6 acre, lake view lot. Even if we don’t end up building a house we still think this is a sound investment given the increasing land values in the area.

While we were there the locals we ran into were all very nice. We immediately identified ourselves as being from California and nobody said anything negative (at least to our faces). I can tell you, though, that there is a growing sentiment that outsiders are buying up “all the land” and inflating prices far above what the locals can afford. Of course if the locals didn’t offer to sell their land to the highest bidder people wouldn’t be buying it.

We hope to retire someday there, if everything works out as planned…

Give Chattanooga a serious look.

I don’t live there, but I used to, & it really is a charming, livable city, set in the mountains, & with plenty of wild country in easy driving distance.

Mild climate.

TVA hydroelectricity.

Clean environment.

Low crime rate, last I checked.

Swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, hunting. Theatre, social clubs. Lots of things to do.

I’m so glad you liked it! :slight_smile: I just got back from Flathead Lake myself, having spent the July 4 week there, and the only downside to my trip was that it has left me completely homesick. I think you will find that a land purchase is a good investment, regardless of whether you end up in Montana or not. I do think that before you solidify retirement plans you should spend a winter there as a renter. It’s so beautiful in the summer that it’s easy to overlook just how cold and snowy it can be in the winter; it’s quite a different experience. But I’m thrilled to hear you were so impressed; as I said, this area is my favorite place on earth.

Big Fork, huh? I’m guessin’ “not so big.”

I’d be concerned with culture shock. Some folks can do it (my sister in law could be air-dropped to a farm in Nowhereville and be happy as a clam). Me? I like my little house in the big woods but I seriously don’t like being more than an hour away from a city; and it’d better be a BIG one!