The route from Kalispell to Bozeman took us along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. Jamie took all these shots as we drove along at 65 miles per hour. I can’t believe they turned out so unblurred and pretty.
I’ve always had it in my head that Flathead is the United States’ second largest natural freshwater lake (excluding Lake Michigan). Must have been something my Montana relatives told me when I was a kid, because very few people outside of Montana have ever heard of Flathead Lake.
So I Googled “largest lakes in the United States” just to see if it was true.
Not even close.
According to Wikipedia, an unimpeachable source, it ranks 30th. But if I do a little Flathead Lake Chamber of Commerce-like analysis, I can move it much higher on the list.
Of the Great Lakes only Lake Michigan lies completely within the United States, and we already said it was excluded. Then we can eliminate the Great Salt Lake because it’s not a freshwater lake. Let’s knock Lake of the Woods off the list because it lies mostly in Canada. Likewise, Iliamna Lake is in Alaska, not the continental United States.
By the time I was done whittling away lakes that aren’t freshwater, don’t lie within the contiguous United States, lie partially in Canada, or are man-made, we’re down to a very short list:
- Lake Okeechobee in Florida (662 square miles)
- Red Lake in Minnesota (427 square miles)
- Devils Lake in North Dakota (300 square miles)
- Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin (215 square miles)
- Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota (207 square miles)
- Flathead Lake in Montana (192 square miles)
- Lake Tahoe in California-Nevada (191 square miles)
So there you go. Flathead Lake is not the United States’ second largest freshwater lake (excluding Lake Michigan). But sixth ain’t bad. Especially when you realize it’s one square mile larger than Lake Tahoe.
Update: I just realized there is a completely different way to view the phrase “second largest lake.” I hadn’t considered the volumes of the lakes. After all, if you compare a very shallow lake with a large surface area to a smaller lake with much greater depth, the latter could have a far greater volume of water.
So I googled “largest American lakes by volume.” And sure ‘nuff, it gave me a completely different list. If I whittle away those results using the same filters as above we come up with:
- Lake Tahoe (California/Nevada) 122,160,280 acre feet
- Lake Pend Oreille (Idaho) 94,111,488 acre feet
- Pyramid Lake (Nevada) 23,660,000 acre feet
- Flathead Lake 18,788,243 acre feet
So we’ve managed to get Flathead Lake up to a respectable fourth largest natural lake entirely within the contiguous United States, but still can’t figure out how to get it up to the second spot.
And here are a few stock photos that make Flathead look like the fourth largest lake in the contiguous United States.