Wild Horse Island - A Jewel In Montana's Famed Flathead Lake

The Wild Horses of Wild Horse Island


Wild Horse Island is a real “jewel” that shines among Montana’s State Park system.  It is the largest island in Montana’s beautiful, pristine Flathead Lake and lies within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation between Missoula and Kalispell.  It is one of the 3 great attractions of western Montana, along with Glacier National Park and the National Bison Range (also within the Flathead Reservation).  

Skeeko BayI must confess, I have lived in the Mission Valley 20 years, and although I have been by it many times by boat, I only visited the island this year – big mistake.  I had originally wanted to go in May, when the island is covered in blooming Arrowleaf Balsamroot.  However, the weather had other ideas, and it took till late August to finally make it.  I am already planning a return visit later in the fall when the skies clear.  It is one of the best places to watch big horn sheep rams duel during their rut.  

The park is noted for its wildlife including bighorn sheep, mule deer, songbirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, osprey, falcons, and, of course, its remaining five wild horses.  Also, bears are seen from time to time, swimming to the island!  The most popular landing spot is Skeeko Bay on the northwest side, but there are 7 designated landing areas around the island – each with self-guided interpretive trails. 

The island's scenic shoreline is a favorite of hikers, boaters, swimmers and sailboat enthusiasts. Trails weave through mainly old growth ponderosa pines and Palouse Prairie grasslands, where the observant can find rare and endangered plant species.  These trails take the visitor up 850 ft to the highest point on the island.  The views are stunning, especially those of the Mission Mountains to the southeast.  This is a day-use only park; camping and pets are prohibited. Activities on and around the island include:  hiking, wildlife viewing, bird watching, photography, picnicking, boating, kayaking, sailing, swimming and lake fishing.

It is a 2,200 acre island wilderness waiting to be explored and appreciated by all.  However, it is only accessible by boat.  The good thing is, boats can be rented in Big Arm or Polson and passenger service is available out of Big Arm.

Apart from a handful of privately owned summer cabins scattered around the island's several miles of shoreline, most of the island is undeveloped public land. Its future is now secure.  However, this was not always the case, as its history is long and checkered.  

WHI mapSince the horse made its way to western Montana, the Salish and Kootenai Indians reportedly used the island to pasture horses to keep them from being stolen by other tribes, such as the neighboring Blackfeet.  Later, at the beginning of the 20th Century, many acres of land on the Flathead Reservation, including Wild Horse Island, passed from tribal ownership to private.  First attempts made were to use the land for subsistence farming and ranching, but these ultimately failed.  Later, in the middle of the 20th Century, wealthy entrepreneurs from the east tried to make it a western “dude ranch” destination, with similar results.  Finally developers platted the shoreline and sold off several sites for summer homes before the State of Montana finally gained ownership of the rest of the island in the late 1970s.   Relics of these earlier times can still be seen as one explores the island. A visit there will definitely not disappoint!

Wild Horse Island is managed as primitive area. Groups over 15 must have a permit. Permits will only be issued for activities related to educational, interpretive or administrative activities. Contact the Park Manager for further information.

Here are some useful links for more information:

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Donna Diamond David (not verified) , Fri, 06/14/2024 - 09:48
Fantastic article, Aunt & Uncle had a cabin on the main land with a perfect view of Wild Horse Island many years ago. We would boat around the lake every day we were there. Absolutely beautiful part of Montana.
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