9 Fantastic Recreational Lakes near Billings, MT

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Although there are few lakes in the immediate vicinity of Billings, those willing to make day trips will discover beautiful places and great fishing spots. 

Some options on the list are managed by the state park system and offer a wide range of activities and excellent facilities. Other options are wild lakes with stunning nature and incredible fishing.

There is something for everyone here. Check out what Billings has to offer! 

Lakes near Billings:

  1. Lake Elmo
  2. Cooney Reservoir
  3. Deadman’s Basin Reservoir
  4. Bighorn Lake
  5. Buffalo Bill Reservoir
  6. Emerald Lake
  7. East Rosebud Lake
  8. Tongue River Reservoir
  9. Castle Rock Lake
Lakes near Billings Montana Comparison Table
Comparison Table

1. Lake Elmo

  • Website: Lake Elmo
  • Distance from Billings: 5 miles (12 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking

Located on the northern side of Billings, Lake Elmo offers a popular, multipurpose recreation destination. A 64-acre reservoir within the 123-acre Lake Elmo State Park, this day-use location is open throughout the year. 

Montana residents who have elected to pay a small parks fee when registering their vehicle get free admission to this and other state parks. 

Most of the activities at the park center around the lake. Canoeing, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, windsurfing, and fishing are enjoyed. 

Boats must run without motors. During the winter, the lake remains open for ice fishing. In addition to the lake, a popular gathering place for locals is the adjacent fenced-in dog park.

The lake includes both fish native to Montana and introduced species. Native fish species in the lake include channel catfish, codfish, sucker, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and some species of minnow. 

Among the fish introduced to the lake are sunfish, common carp, brown and rainbow trout, white crappie, and yellow perch.

2. Cooney Reservoir

Lake with picnic tables in Montana
Source: pixabay
  • Website: Cooney Reservoir
  • Distance from Billings: 54 miles (1h 5min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

A drive of 54 miles southwest of Billings with a net elevation gain of 1,000 feet brings visitors to Cooney Reservoir. 

This 733-acre lake sits within Cooney State Park. Busiest during the summer months, the park provides year-round access. 

Guests planning to visit the park during cooler months should plan in advance. Drinking water is only available on site from mid-May to the end of September, and weather conditions generally close docks between November and the end of April. 

Shoreline fishing is possible, as well as winter ice fishing.

Visitors come here to swim, hike, camp, hunt, water ski, and fish. 

Those unfamiliar with the local terrain should know that much of the area has rolling grasslands with few trees, except along the water and where Red Lodge Creek and Willow Creek meet the reservoir. This lack of forest cover may lead to strong wind gusts.

While admiring the snow-capped mountains in the distance, anglers can enjoy casting a line for lake chub, walleye, mountain whitefish, sucker, burbot, yellow perch, black crappie, and various trout species. 

3. Deadman’s Basin Reservoir

Lake kayaking with mountains backdrop
Source: pexels
  • Website: Deadman’s Basin Reservoir
  • Distance from Billings: 72 miles (1h 20min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping

Located 72 miles northwest of Billings, Deadman’s Basin Reservoir spans 1,954 acres. Constructed in 1941, this off-channel reservoir diverts some water from the Musselshell River for irrigation in the region. 

Aside from its agricultural value, this body of water offers recreation opportunities for people who visit the area.

Those traveling to Deadmans Basin should bring food, drink, and other supplies since few services exist in the area. 

A gravel road with a cattle grid along grassy, treeless terrain takes visitors to the reservoir. Primitive campgrounds and a boat launch sit along the southern shore. 

The shoreline has a muddy rather than sandy foundation, something to consider when selecting footwear since shoes may sink into the mud while walking. 

With few trees in the area, those out on the lake should prepare for strong winds as they cast their lines for tiger muskie, rainbow trout, and kokanee salmon. 

4. Bighorn Lake

bighorn lake and canyon
Source: depositphotos
  • Website: Bighorn Lake
  • Distance from Billings: 106 miles (1h 50min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing, Sailing

Approximately 100 miles south of Billings, Bighorn Lake offers an opportunity to enjoy great fishing and impressive canyons along federal lands within Montana and Wyoming. 

The lake falls within the boundaries of the 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, an area with extensive wildlife and diverse topography. 

The Bighorn River flows into the canyons at the northern end of the recreation area. The northern area of the lake differs little in appearance from the river but grows wider after crossing into Wyoming. 

Water levels at the lower end of the lake fluctuate seasonally, with levels higher after springtime snow and ice melts have occurred. 

A marina near the state line offers supplies for those who plan to fish for sauger, bullhead, trout, bass, walleye, and shovelnose sturgeon. Fly fishing for carp is popular. 

You can glance at the bighorn sheep that live along the canyon and take a trip to Devil’s Canyon Overlook for an impressive view of the lake below. 

5. Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Buffalo Bill Reservoir
Source: depositphotos
  • Website: Buffalo Bill Reservoir
  • Distance from Billings: 118 miles (2h 5min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

Those interested in a weekend getaway or a trip that leads to Yellowstone National Park should take the 115-mile drive to Buffalo Bill Reservoir. 

Ten miles west of Cody and less than 50 miles from Yellowstone’s entrance, this reservoir couples phenomenal views with great camping and fishing. 

Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a showman and promoter of the “Wild West,” came to the area in the 1870s and led irrigation efforts in the region. 

Federal efforts to create a dam along the Shoshone River began in 1905. The Buffalo Bill Dam opened five years later and was the world’s tallest dam at the time. Looking east, visitors can glance at the river 280 feet below them.

On the western side of the dam, Buffalo Bill State Park provides access to nearly 9,000 acres of the reservoir. 

Opened as a Wyoming State Park in 1957, this location offers year-round day-use and some camping, though most services are reduced from late fall until the spring. 

Fish often caught include walleye, perch, carp, and lake and rainbow trout. 

6. Emerald Lake

Moose in a mountain lake
Source: unsplash
  • Website: Emerald Lake
  • Distance from Billings: 84 miles (1h 50min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking

Eighty-four miles southwest of Billings, Emerald Lake offers forest, hill, and mountain views that remind some visitors of Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of the state. 

Located on a section of land managed by Custer Gallatin National Forest, the 28.5-acre lake is regularly stocked by the state of Montana. 

Brown trout and mountain whitefish are popular catches, and visitors sometimes see moose searching for their meals in the lake, as well. 

Free and open year-round, the scenic mountains in the region offer a relaxing aesthetic for those who enjoy lakeside fishing in a remote, quiet setting. Kayaking is also popular. 

At 6,396 feet in elevation, the area has longer winters than Billings. The US Forest Service Roads providing access to Emerald Lake may be difficult to navigate during periods of sustained snow and ice or other bad weather. 

Facilities are limited at this location, so plan to bring essential items needed during a visit. 

7. East Rosebud Lake

Lake with pines in Montana
Source: unsplash
  • Website: East Rosebud Lake
  • Distance from Billings: 86 miles (1h 50min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking

East Rosebud Lake is a scenic destination in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, approximately 85 miles from Billings. 

Accessible only by rough US Forest Service roads, extensive flooding in June 2022 has damaged these pathways and some cabins near the lake. 

Access may be difficult into 2023 or later, so those planning to visit East Rosebud Lake should contact officials to learn of current road repair and access conditions. 

The lake offers impressive views of the surrounding mountains. A nearby US Forest Service campground (currently closed due to flooding) offers a place for overnight stays. 

Visitors should note that much of the land surrounding the lakeshore is private property. Shoreline fishing is not available, and services are far away. 

When the small boat and canoe access resumes, those visiting East Rosebud Lake can cast a line for mountain whitefish, longnose sucker, and a variety of trout. 

8. Tongue River Reservoir

Tongue River Reservoir
Source: wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Website: Tongue River Reservoir
  • Distance from Billings: 120 miles (1h 55min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Camping, Hiking, Biking, Wakeboarding, Water Skiing, Tubing

A 120-mile drive southeast of Billings brings visitors to the open prairies and Tongue River Reservoir. With abundant fish stocks, many “state record” fish have been caught in these waters, part of Tongue River Reservoir State Park

Wildlife viewing along the prairie and nearby forests lead to sightings of antelope, deer, and a variety of birds. 

In addition to outstanding fishing, this park, which is open throughout the year, also offers great boating, camping, and summertime swimming possibilities. 

The 12-mile-long reservoir within the 642-acre state park offers ample opportunities to fish for northern pike, crappie, bass, catfish, and walleye. 

Fly fishing by the dam is a popular attraction. Winter visitors will enjoy ice fishing. 

9. Castle Rock Lake

Sunset and fog over a lake in Montana
Source: depositphotos
  • Website: Castle Rock Lake
  • Distance from Billings: 122 miles (1h 55min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking

A 122-mile drive east to the northern end of the city of Colstrip brings anglers to Castle Rock Lake. Owned by a local power plant, this lake has recreation and conservation easements that include trails and a boat ramp area. 

Considered a “best-kept secret” by locals, year-round fishing includes ample catches of bass, pike, and walleye. This 154-acre lake offers easy access for ice fishing. 

An adjacent park on the lake’s eastern shore contains nature trails, picnicking, and other facilities. No gas-engine boats are permitted.