Lake Elwell is a large reservoir that sits out in Montana’s vast northern plains. The reservoir provides many recreational activities, from fishing and boating to camping and swimming. If you’re looking for a spot to enjoy some time outdoors, Lake Elwell is a great option.
We tend to venture into the mountains because it’s more scenic among the peaks, but it was still early in the summer, so we stuck to the lower plains for some warmer weather. We packed up our camping gear, fishing poles, and kayaks and headed out to the reservoir.
Getting to Lake Elwell
Lake Elwell sits not too far off I-15 near Shelby. The shores have many access points, so the route you take depends on where you want to visit. Service can be spotty, so download maps or have a good idea of where you’re headed before you venture out.
A couple of the most common places to stop are on the far east end of the lake at Tiber Marina and campground and spots near Tiber Dam because there are multiple campgrounds and places to launch watercrafts in the area.
There are also several other access points, boat ramps, campgrounds, and dispersed sites around the lake. The roads leading to the shores of Lake Elwell are gravel. Many of them are well-graded, making access to the lake doable with a camper or boat trailer. But some of the side roads to dispersed sites are rocky, steep, and may require a high-clearance vehicle. Note that even the well-maintained dirt roads can get rutted, muddy, and difficult to drive after rain.
We headed to the northern shoreline from Great Falls and camped at a dispersed spot a little ways away from Willow Creek Campground. Before our first visit, we looked at a satellite map and pinned some pull offs we could see that looked like good options for camping. Some were inaccessible in our car, but we ended up finding a secluded one on a hillside just above the shore.
The Bureau of Reclamation manages Lake Elwell. There are no fees to visit the lake or use the campgrounds or day use areas.
Note that you may need to obtain licenses beforehand for fishing, boating, etc. for which fees may be required.
Activities at Lake Elwell
There are various ways to enjoy Lake Elwell that we’ll highlight below. Click here to access the Bureau of Reclamation brochure of the campgrounds, boat launches, picnic sites, and more in the area.
Fishing is quite a popular activity at Lake Elwell. The reservoir is known for pike, walleye, and trout. People also come out here in the winter to ice fish.
If you want to fish, you need to obtain permits for each individual aged 12+, which include a fishing license, Angler Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass, and a conservation license. The annual cost for an adult Montana resident is $31 USD, but the price varies for children, seniors, non-residents, short-term passes, etc. Find pass details and other fishing info here. We buy our licenses at Scheels, but they can also be purchased online or at these other retailers.
As mentioned above, there are many spots to camp around Lake Elwell. A big plus is that it’s free! Sites are first-come, first-served, so if you want to secure a spot at a specific campground, it is best to arrive early during the summer months.
The majority of the sites are primitive and do not have hookups or potable water. The campgrounds around the lake have a vault toilet. Tiber Marina offers the most amenities of the facilities in the area with a handful of hookup spots, gas, bait for sale, a boat ramp, etc.
While driving away from the campgrounds to dispersed spots, we noticed many concrete fire pits with grates set up on hilltops and along the shore. With the wind, use caution when building campfires and always check fire restrictions beforehand.
See the Lake Elwell brochure for more details on camp regulations and site amenities.
Hanging out on the Shoreline
There are various day-use spots to enjoy at Lake Elwell. Bring a picnic and take a dip! There are only several covered picnic spots around the lake, but plenty of other picnic tables and other places to hang out.
Many of the shores are fine gravel and rock and there were some nice, flat spots to set out our chairs and towels while we were in the lake. We went swimming near our campsite and the water was pretty chilly. But in the heat of the summer, we imagine it would feel pretty nice!
With over 17,000 acres of water surface, Lake Elwell is a great place to take out the boat. Water sports like wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing are popular. There are also many inlets and places to explore by kayak or paddle board.
There are several boat ramps around the lake, but note that there are no slips.
Notes on Visiting Lake Elwell
As you drive through Montana, you may see watercraft checkpoints along the roads near various bodies of water in the state. If you have a kayak, boat, raft, etc., you must stop if you see one to get it checked to prevent the spread of invasive species.
Being out in the wide, open plains, Lake Elwell is often very windy. We had no shelter from the wind at our campsite, which wasn’t ideal in a tent. This would be less of an issue if you have a camper or vehicle or camp below the dam at Sanford Park Campground where it is a bit more sheltered among the hills and trees. The wind is also something to keep in mind when heading out on the water.
There is also little to no shade here because there aren’t many trees in the area. There are a few spots with sheltered picnic tables. Other than that, you’re pretty exposed, so bring along the sun protection!
Even with the wind and cool temperatures, there were still so many bugs. Our campsite was teeming with spiders, wasps, ants, beetles, various flies, and more. We also had a really bad tick season that spring. This was definitely one of the more buggy spots we’ve camped at in Montana, so pack some bug spray.
Around Lake Elwell, you may see hawks, eagles, various other birds, deer, antelope, snakes, rodents, coyotes, and other inhabitants of the plains.
You don’t have to worry about bears as much way out here in the grasslands. It’s still always good practice to store your food properly. There are mice and other critters that may try to get to it.