Nestled into a valley between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges in western Montana, Seeley Lake is one of the more scenic spots in a spectacular state. The Mission Mountain Wilderness is on one side, the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the other, and a chain of lakes runs through it.
Winter is the perfect time to take advantage of the recreational opportunities and cabin-coziness of this town.
The lake itself is a sylvan-lined beauty. Its 1,025 acres host boaters and swimmers in the summer, and skaters and ice-fishermen and women in winter. Seeley Lake is connected to other lakes running up and down the Seeley Swan Valley.
Seeley Lake, the town, sits on the eastern shore of the lake and is home to around 1,700 people. There are enough coffee stops and gift shops to keep tourists happy, but not so many that it’s obnoxious.
There are plenty of things to do in Seeley Lake on a winter weekend getaway.
“So many things and so little time,” said Cheryl Odom Thompson of the Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, back country skiing, shopping, quilting classes, drinks around the fireplace, ice skating, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, playing at the playground, sleigh rides, shopping for a vacation cabin, shooting, racing, contests, watching sports, playing pinochle, listening to live music, attending local events, nature walks…”
Snowshoe opportunities abound if you are adventurous. The area is surrounded by National Forest. From snow-covered logging roads to steep mountain trails to Nordic ski trails (walk to the left of the groomed trail), anyone who wants to strap some paddles to their feet can find the right place to walk.
One favorite is snowshoeing around the lakeshore. Start at the Big Larch campground on the north end of town. From there walk north as far as you like. You can also walk out on the lake, but may find that snowshoes are overkill on the ice.
For a wilderness experience with many of the comforts of home, rent the historic, and restored, Monture Guard Station from the Forest Service. It’s one mile from the parking area to the cabin, and from there you can snowshoe out in any direction.
Check in at the Lolo National Forest Service visitor center for up-to-date conditions and maps before heading into the woods.
In late fall and early winter the lake freezes, but the winds haven’t whipped the water and ice into bumps and waves, yet. If you can get there at just the right time, smooth, clear ice stretches from the south end of the lake to the north and miles of great ice skating conditions are available.
Locals spend hours gliding around the lake, surrounded by conifers at the lake’s edge and mountains rising above. The ice skating season doesn’t last long, so check with Seeley Lake Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS) on Facebook for updates on when conditions are best.
If the lake isn’t smooth enough for skating, walk out on the frozen lake. Kids love slipping and sliding on the ice, rolling rocks and laying on their stomachs to examine the patterns.
In January, a group of dedicated locals host the Seeley Lake Pond Hockey Tournament, a fundraiser for local charities and a weekend to bolster local commerce in Seeley Lake.
“In Seeley Lake we are a very small community and because (the tournament) has been going on for six years the people in Seeley have really bonded with these players that come from all over,” said Megan Lindemer, tournament organizer. “The players look forward to coming back to Seeley and playing hockey, but I think they are just as excited to come stay and hang out at the local bars, restaurants and shops. I think that’s what makes our tournament special.”
The upcoming tournament is Jan. 6-8, 2017. Check out: seeleylakepondhockey.com.
The Seeley Creek Nordic Trail system has reliable snow, impeccably groomed trails, a cozy warming hut and trails for all interest levels and abilities. The trails were designed to host ski races, as well as families wanting to stretch their legs and take advantage of Montana’s long, snowy winters.
Addrien Marx has lived in Seeley Lake for more than 30 years.
“The Seeley Lake Nordic trails cannot be taken for granted. They have standards set for homologation and passionate skate and classic skiers are working on an additional system that has the possibility to attract competitive opportunities in addition to Nordic skiing at its finest level. Be it serious or recreational Nordic skiing – Seeley Lake has the best I have experienced.”
Ski and biathlon races are held throughout the winter, and there will be more in the future. The community is looking to build more trails at a World Cup level in hopes of attracting more skiers and turning Seeley Lake into a truly world-class venue.
While these trails may be Montana’s best kept Nordic secret, there are plenty of other cross-country trails around Seeley Lake.
“If I were to choose the one outing that surfaces to the top of so many great times – it would be a full moon ski on Seeley Lake – in frigid temps, but warmed by the zillion countless crystals that guided the smooth surface that met the swoosh of my skis,” Marx said. “Looking up, I could see reflected diamonds – but they are brilliant and countless stars that shine on the wild peaks to the east and the west. Those high peaks and ridges were clothed in that bluish winter white and stark white against the black sky. Wilderness remote – yet in view.”
If you are a dog lover, Seeley Lake in winter is the place to be. The Race to the Sky, 100- and 300-mile dogsled races, usually starts in Lincoln and ends in Seeley Lake. But, in poor snow years it starts and ends on a Forest Service Road in Seeley Lake.
Spectators gather at the start of the race to meet the dogs and mushers, learn about the sport of dogsledding and cheer the teams on. You can track the teams on the website and arrive at the finish line for additional cheering and congratulations. This coming year the dogs run from Feb. 10-14, 2017. For more information, check out racetothesky.org.
With more than 365 miles of groomed trails and the ability to ride from town to the mountains, this full-service community has riding for just about everyone. The Seeley Lake Driftriders Snowmobile Club maintains the extensive trail network. There are also countless miles of secondary trails and off-trail riding. Bring your own sled or rent in town. You can hire a guide or ride on your own. Get the latest grooming reports at driftriders.org.
Kelly Gorham from Bozeman recalls attending snowmobile races in Seeley Lake as a photographer.
“I got the opportunity to do some snowmobile drag racing after the official competition ended,” he said. “That was a different experience than I’ve had snowmobiling in the mountains because it was smooth and fast. Lot’s of fun!”
There are lots of places to stay in Seeley Lake, including the Double Arrow Ranch. The cabins are spacious, there’s a pool to burn off kid-energy and a hot tub to soak weary muscles, and on-site snowshoe and ski trails.
Great food is just steps from the cabins. The Seasons Restaurant is tucked inside the cozy, Western lodge. Linger here and have a drink from the fully supplied Stirrups Bar, and play board games or reminisce about your day in the snow. During winter months, dinner guests can take a sleigh ride through open meadows below towering mountains before the meal. For more information, check out doublearrowresort.com.
This story originally appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.