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Weekend Getaways

What is the largest artificial lake in Montana?

Montana is the fourth largest state and the 44th most populous state in the United States of America. The state borders South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and North Dakota. Montana is so mountainous that its name comes from the Spanish word for mountain. The state boasts vast deposits of natural and mineral resources, but that’s not the only reason people call it the treasure state. For those who enjoy the great outdoors and water, Montana also prides itself on its multiple bodies of water, including Fort Peck Lake, the largest man-made lake in Montana. Read on to learn everything you need to know about this lake, including its location, size, and the animals that live there.

Location and size of the largest man-made lake in Montana

At 245,000 acres, Fort Peck Lake is the fifth largest man-made lake in the United States. It is the largest reservoir in Montana.

©Beets Productions/

Fort Peck Lake is located in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge in the small town of Fort Peck. The lake was created by the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, the largest earth-filled dam in the world.

Covering 245,000 acres, this lake is the fifth largest artificial reservoir in the United States. Fort Peck Lake is approximately 134 miles long and has 1,520 miles of shoreline. It has a maximum depth of about 220 feet. Despite its vast shoreline, the lake is completely secluded and receives very few visitors. This is because it sits on the Missouri River in one of Montana’s most remote locations. It is approximately 140 miles east of Great Falls and 120 miles north of Billings. The Missouri River, Musselshell River, Fourchette Creek, Timber Creek, Hell Creek, and Dry Creek all flow into the reservoir.

Fort Peck Marina is near the west side of the causeway. It offers direct access to the reservoir. The Fort Peck Dam, which is 250.5 feet high and 21,026 feet long, keeps the water in the reservoir in check.

Fort Peck Lake and Dam are part of the vast Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. It is the second largest national wildlife sanctuary in the United States and the largest in Montana. The refuge is of paleontological importance as it is the site of some interesting fossil finds. In 1988, scientists found fossils of a reasonably complete Tyrannosaurus rex (Devil Rex) at this sanctuary. In late 2000, paleontologists discovered a 70-million-year-old specimen of the Tyrannosaurus Rex known as “B-Rex.” In each case, the fossils were in good condition, with pieces of soft tissue preserved.

History of the largest artificial lake in Montana

Fort Peck Lake in Montana - Largest artificial lake in Montana 1
Native American tribes such as the Sioux, Crow, Assiniboine and Blackfeet once inhabited the land that now occupies Fort Peck Lake.


The area where Fort Peck Lake is currently located was once inhabited by native tribes such as the Sioux, Crow, Assiniboine and Blackfeet. The Corps of Discovery Expedition led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark first explored the area in 1904.

During their initial exploration of Fort Peck, Lewis and Clark were amazed at the area’s all-natural surroundings, particularly the stretch of the Missouri River at the site. The Missouri River was the primary means of travel in and out of Montana and other small settlements in the area. Commercial activities in this region were built around the river and the access it afforded. Due to repeated flooding, ships stopped using the lower Missouri River between the 1880s and 1903, greatly reducing trade.

In the 1920s, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana joined forces to advocate for the development of the upper Missouri River by exploring building massive dams on Missouri.

construction of the dam

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. Roosevelt transferred the state to the United States Army Corps of Engineers by executive order in 1933. This happened after the Great Depression of 1929 when high unemployment became a serious problem. In addition to creating jobs, the dam would generate electricity, control flooding, and create enormous reservoirs for commercial activity.

The community of Fort Peck turned into a veritable boomtown during construction, as thousands of people were employed to build the dam. Thousands of people from across the country moved to Montana in search of work during the Great Depression. Over 7,000 men and women volunteered to work on the dam. In 1936, about 11,000 dam workers were employed, and many more flocked to Montana to start businesses.

In addition, recreational facilities such as campgrounds, smaller ponds, day-use areas, and information sites have been developed around the dam. The reservoir and dam were constructed between 1933 and 1937, making it the first dam in the upper Missouri River Basin and Montana’s largest man-made lake.

Animals at Fort Peck Lake

Cisco (Coregonus)
When Cisco joined Fort Peck Lake in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of species in the reservoir increased.

©Michaela Holubova/

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Fort Peck Reservoir is home to about 50 different species of fish, some of which are endemic to the Missouri River system, such as suckers and paddlefish.

Two major types of bait – spottail shiner and cisco – were introduced to Fort Peck Reservoir in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This increased the number of species in the reservoir including walleye, smallmouth bass, pike and a few more.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, home to Fort Peck Reservoir, is home to a variety of wildlife including mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, buffalo, pronghorn, sage grouse, ducks and bald eagles. Hundreds of moose gather at the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area each fall, creating a spectacular sight.

Recreation at Fort Peck Lake Park

A large North American bull moose standing in an open meadow
Hunting is common at Fort Peck Lake and one of the hunter species there is the moose.

©Tony Campbell/

Fort Peck Lake offers a variety of outdoor adventures due to its massive size and remoteness from major urban centers. Hiking, fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor activities are available at the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge.

  • Hunting: It is common to see guests hunting around Fort Peck Lake. The nature reserve offers good hunting opportunities for highland birds, deer and elk.
  • Fishing: Since there are more than 50 different species of fish, fishing is a very popular hobby. Walleye fishing is particularly popular at Fort Peck Lake. The lake also hosts the annual Governor’s Cup Fishing Competition, which attracts anglers looking for big walleye.
  • Boating: Boating is one of the most popular activities on the Missouri River and Fort Peck Reservoir. However, due to the windy conditions, this activity can be dangerous for smaller boats. Boating on Fort Peck Lake requires a powerful and stable boat.
  • Camping: Numerous campgrounds on Fort Peck Lake in Montana offer free camping activities. There are around 100 campgrounds and two main campgrounds around the lake.
  • Hiking: There are numerous hiking opportunities along the Missouri River trails, including the Beaver Creek Nature Trail and the Hell Creek Trail. Hikers will enjoy the scenery along the shores of Fort Peck Lake. The back roads connect Fort Peck Lake to the rest of the refuge.

Visitors to the lake can access the area via a paved direct access road directly to Fort Peck Marina. There is also a gravel and gravel road leading to Hell Creek Bay and another road at the southern fork of Rock Creek Bay just 10 miles west of Highway 24.


Fort Peck Lake is not only the largest artificial lake in Montana and site of the first dam on the Missouri River, but also a tourist hotspot. Fort Peck Lake and the National Wildlife Refuge are managed by three agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the State of Montana, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Several state parks and recreation areas have been established within the sanctuary, and there are multiple wildlife viewing and photography opportunities throughout the sanctuary. Hiking, horseback riding, ATV riding, and general exploration are some of the popular activities near Fort Peck Lake.


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