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10 Amazing Recreational Lakes near Great Falls, MT

The Missouri River dominates water recreation in Great Falls. But the area also has lakes and reservoirs suitable for cold and warm water fishing, as well as boating, paddling, and camping.
itiswild.com Best Lakes near Great Falls Montana

For those who stay in Great Falls, the Missouri River is an obvious choice for water recreation. The city is known for dams, waterfalls, and the largest spring in the US.

Yet, the surrounding area has several lakes suitable for various water activities, including swimming, boating, kayaking, and fishing, as well as wintertime sports.

BLM manages access to some of the lakes and offers shoreline camping, which in some cases is free. In other cases, the state parks system provides developed facilities with campgrounds, marinas, and rentals.

The drawback here is that most of the lakes require a drive of between an hour and hour-thirty, but camping is usually available.

Learn more about the area and discover what Great Falls has to offer!

Lakes near Great Falls:

  1. Freezeout Lake
  2. Holter Lake
  3. Willow Creek Reservoir
  4. Nilan Reservoir
  5. Nilan Reservoir
  6. Lake Elwell
  7. Lake Frances
  8. Hauser Lake
  9. Lake Helena
  10. Canyon Ferry Lake
Lakes near Great Falls Montana Comparison Table
Comparison Table

1. Freezeout Lake

snowgeese lifting off (taking flight) from a lake in the Freezeout Lakes Waterfowl Management Area in West Central, Montana
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Freezeout Lake
  • Distance from Great Falls: 40 miles (45 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wildlife Watching, Photography

Located a little more than 40 miles northwest of downtown Great Falls, Freezeout Lake is a substantial body of water, averaging 2,596 acres, that plays an important role in maintaining wildlife and waterfowl. 

The lake is surrounded by the Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), land acquired in 1953 that includes Priest Butte Lake four miles to the north, and smaller ponds. 

While the lake is usually spelled “Freezeout,” the WMA leaves out an ‘e’ and is named “Freezout.”

Wildlife viewing along Freezeout Lake is possible. Raptors and game birds live in the area during winter, with waterfowl and shorebirds frequenting the area during the summer. 

The seasonal migrations of birds during spring and fall attract great interest. Some portions of the lake and WMA are closed during certain periods to allow distance for the migrating species. 

Snow geese numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and tundra swans in the thousands visit Freezeout Lake during their fall and spring journeys.

Those who fish in Freezeout Lake will find abundant numbers of rainbow trout. Other species found here include minnow, white sucker, and yellow perch. 

2. Holter Lake

Gates of the Mountains at Upper Holter Lake in Montana
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Holter Lake
  • Distance from Great Falls: 55 miles (1 hr)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Waterskiing, Tubing

Holter Lake is a 55-mile drive southwest of Great Falls. This west-central Montana lake is an impoundment of the Missouri River created after the construction of a dam that went into service in 1918. 

This reservoir averages nearly 3,600 surface acres and is a year-round fishery for yellow perch, rainbow trout, and walleye. 

Both motorized and non-motorized vessels are permitted in this reservoir, a location that Lewis and Clark traveled through more than two centuries ago. 

Visitors to Holter Lake enjoy opportunities for camping, hiking, water skiing, fishing, wildlife viewing, and bird watching. 

US Bureau of Land Management campgrounds include the Holter Lake Campground on the reservoir’s northeastern corner, as well as Log Gulch Campground and Departure Point Campground. Each of these sites has day-use recreation areas.

Fishing is a popular activity in this location. Kokanee salmon tend to stay in deeper waters near the dam. 

Other fish found in Holter Reservoir include burbot, sucker, northern pike, Utah chub, and many varieties of trout. 

A state record walleye, weighing 18.02 lbs., was caught here in May 2021.

3. Willow Creek Reservoir

Clear blue sky over a reservoir in Montana
Source: unsplash
  • Website: Willow Creek Reservoir
  • Distance from Great Falls: 60 miles (1hr 20min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Located a little more than 60 miles west of Great Falls, Willow Creek Reservoir sits along the eastern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. 

This reservoir took shape after a dam completed in 1911 impounded a section of the Willow Creek flowing from the Rockies before it merged with the Sun River, approximately one mile away.

Those who visit Willow Creek Reservoir will enjoy the solitude of fishing in a generally quiet location. 

A decent fly-fishing spot for rainbow trout, this 1,313-acre body of water attracts anglers who enjoy fishing in a place that has few visitors but an abundance of fish. 

People who come to this reservoir should be fully prepared before getting to the area. Augusta, the nearest town that is approximately seven miles south of the reservoir, has very few services. 

Winds blowing across this lake make this a better destination for boats than canoes or kayaks. 

Species found in Willow Creek Reservoir include lake chub, white sucker, brook trout, and rainbow trout.

4. Nilan Reservoir

  • Website: Nilan Reservoir
  • Distance from Great Falls: 62 miles (1hr 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Sixty miles west of Great Falls, Nilan Reservoir is another body of water near the Front Range. Seven miles west of Augusta, this reservoir is an easy drive along Benchmark Road. 

Water enters the reservoir through diversions that flow from the Rocky Mountains into Smith Creek and Ford Creek.

Two dams create this impoundment that averages 520 surface acres, though snowmelt and irrigation drawdowns lead to seasonal water-level fluctuations. 

The earthen dam on the east end, near the fishing access site, reconnects with Smith Creek, while the dam on the northern end connects with Willow Creek. 

Both of these soil and rock barriers were put into place in 1951 to maintain water levels. 

Those who visit Nilan Reservoir will enjoy picturesque mountain views while casting a line. Species found here include rainbow trout, brown trout, and white sucker. 

5. Bynum Reservoir

Lake with mountains in a haze
Source: unsplash
  • Website: Bynum Reservoir
  • Distance from Great Falls: 65 miles (1hr 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Bynum Reservoir is located 65 miles northwest of Great Falls. Blacktail Creek flows into this 3,205-acre body of water on its downward journey from the Rockies. 

A dam constructed in 1926 contains this significant reservoir for irrigation purposes, with surface levels changing as agricultural interests withdraw water during the growing season. 

The state offers opportunities for fishing and camping at the Bynum Reservoir State Fishing Access Site along its eastern shore. 

A few campsites are found near the shoreline, along with a boat launch that functions when water levels are sufficient. 

Fish found in this reservoir near the wind-swept plains east of the Front Range include brook stickleback, brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, mountain whitefish, yellow perch, white sucker, and Kokanee salmon. 

6. Lake Elwell

a reservoir on a plain in Montana
Source: unsplash
  • Website: Lake Elwell
  • Distance from Great Falls: 91 miles (1hr 30min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Waterskiing, Tubing

A drive of 90 miles north of the city allows visitors to experience Lake Elwell. 

Also known as Tiber Reservoir, this impoundment of the Marias River was completed in 1956, with a modification to raise the dam finished in 1981. 

Originally created for irrigation and flood control, the subsequent creation of recreation facilities near this 14,842-acre reservoir has increased its popularity. 

Lake Elwell has a marina and locations where visitors can launch boats into this large reservoir. With approximately 181 miles of shoreline, there are many vantage points to enjoy the water or find a quiet location to cast a line. 

In addition to camping, picnicking, and summertime swimming, winter sports are enjoyed by those who come to this reservoir during colder times. 

A wide variety of fish are found here. Warm water species are black crappie, channel catfish, carp, walleye, flathead chub, sucker, and northern pike. Cold water species include burbot, lake trout, mountain whitefish, and rainbow trout.

7. Lake Frances

A tree in front of snowcapped mountains
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Lake Frances
  • Distance from Great Falls: 85 miles (1hr 15min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Waterskiing, Tubing

Lake Frances became a Pondera County fishing destination in 1909 after diversions connected a lower portion of land with Dupuyer Creek. 

The rock and soil earthen impoundments along the northern and eastern ends of this body of water have created a reservoir that averages 3,618 surface acres. 

An 85-mile drive northwest of Great Falls, Lake Frances sits at a similar latitude as Lake Elwell but is approximately 32 miles west of the larger Tiber Reservoir/Lake Elwell, as the eagle flies. 

Accessible throughout the year, Lake Frances receives cold mountain-fed waters and offers impressive views of the Rockies in the western distance. 

Summer visitors enjoy water skiing, jet skiing, windsurfing, and swimming. During colder months, those who like ice fishing, snowmobiling, and ice skating come to the lake. 

Anglers enjoy fishing for a variety of species. Fish commonly caught here include burbot, longnose sucker, yellow perch, northern pike, walleye, and rainbow trout.

8. Hauser Lake

A campsite set up at the shore of Hauser Lake Montana
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Hauser Lake
  • Distance from Great Falls: 93 miles (1hr 30min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Waterskiing, Tubing

Located 93 miles southwest of Great Falls and 14 miles northeast of downtown Helena, Hauser Lake is an impoundment of the Missouri River created by the construction of the Hauser Dam in 1911. 

This structure, designed for hydroelectric generation and flood control, created a 3,200-acre recreation area popular for boating, fishing, water skiing, hiking, camping, swimming, ice fishing, ice skating, and wildlife viewing. 

Located on the northern portion of the lake, Black Sandy State Park provides year-round access in a portion of Hauser Lake, near where Lake Helena flows into it. 

The Clark’s Bay Day Use Area Shelter offers great views of the “Devil’s Elbow.” Riverside Campground sits along a stretch of the Missouri River, south of the widest portion of Hauser Lake and less than a mile northwest of the Canyon Ferry Dam. 

Hauser Reservoir and adjacent Lake Helena offer excellent opportunities to fish for yellow perch, trout, and walleye. 

The state record for Kokanee salmon, a fish weighing 7.85 lbs., was caught within the Hauser Reservoir in 2003. 

9. Lake Helena

A pastel sunset above Lake in Montana, USA
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Lake Helena
  • Distance from Great Falls: 87 miles (1hr 20min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics

Lake Helena formed in an area where Prickly Pear Creek once flowed into the Missouri River. 

After the construction of the Hauser Dam, the flooded section of this creek transformed into a 2,072-acre body of water, with an expanded section of the creek now flowing into Lake Hauser.

Although these bodies of water are connected, they have different ecosystems. Lake Helena is generally more shallow, especially in the marshlands at its western end.

Lake Helena’s turbid and shallow waters warm faster than deeper areas of Hauser Lake, which frequently leads to algae blooms.

With 157 acres near the shoreline, the Lake Helena Wildlife Management Area offers a location for waterfowl to gather, along with some recreation and hunting opportunities. 

Year-round bird watching is popular in this area, along with fishing for trout, Kokanee salmon, longnose sucker, yellow perch, rainbow trout, northern pike, and mountain whitefish. 

10. Canyon Ferry Lake

  • Website: Canyon Ferry Lake
  • Distance from Great Falls: 105 miles (1hr 45 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Sailing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Wakeboarding, Waterskiing, Tubing

A drive of approximately 105 miles southwest of Great Falls, Canyon Ferry Lake is immediately south and upriver from Hauser Lake. 

Created by the Canyon Ferry Dam, this reservoir, which averages 33,500 acres, is located about 50 miles from where the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson Rivers come together as the Missouri River. 

With 76 miles of shoreline, a variety of recreation facilities provide access to this reservoir. Marinas, campgrounds, picnic and day-use areas offer ideal locations to cast a line for walleye, perch, trout, and many other fish species. 

Located 20 miles east of Helena, this reservoir was the spot where an angler caught a state-record 2.39 lbs. Utah chub in March 2022.

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