Travelers who want to take a step into Montana’s past should take a trip to Wild Horse Island, a state park on the large island in Flathead Lake. The Salish-Kootenai once pastured their horses on this primitive island, and five wild descendants of those animals remain today, along with bald eagles, bighorn sheep, and other iconic North American wildlife.
With extensive trails, rare and beautiful plants, and a scenic shoreline, the 2,200-acre island is a must-visit for visitors to the Flathead Valley. Montana may be most known for nearby Glacier National Park, but Wild Horse Island is proof that there’s much more in the state deserving of your vacation time.
How to get to Wild Horse Island, Montana
Wild Horse Island State Park is exclusively accessible by boat. There are six designated boat landing sites (Skeeko Bay is the most widely used) plus public beach sites where boaters are welcome to pull up. All the island’s docks are private and cannot be used by day visitors.
Guests can either bring their own boats to Flathead Lake (remember that you’ll need to stop at the state’s checkpoints upon entry to Montana to check for hitchhiking invasive mussel species), rent a boat at various locations around the lake, or book a shuttle service from the nearby town of Big Arm to the island. Hiking and walking are the only ways to explore once you’re on Wild Horse Island; even bikes are prohibited.
When to go
Montana’s Wild Horse Island is open to visitors year-round; however, winter presents certain logistical challenges for access, including the fact that Flathead Lake is usually frozen over and boat rental and booking options are unavailable. The shoulder seasons are the best time to visit for balancing comfortable temperatures with reduced crowds, but summer remains the most popular time to go.
What to do on Wild Horse Island
This is a place to take in some of the rarest natural beauty in Montana, from plants to animals to scenic views. Note that camping and overnight visits to Wild Horse Island are not possible.
As the name suggests, this island is home to wild horses, but it’s also rich with other wild animal species. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and waterfowl are some of the other creatures visitors can expect to see. While some sources will claim the island has no bears, there have been sightings of at least one resident bear in the past few years, so do come bear aware. Remember: it’s illegal to approach within 100 feet of any wildlife, including the horses.
See rare plants
Wild Horse Island is home to one of the last short-grass prairie ecosystems in Montana, despite the non-native grass species introduced by homesteaders in the 1900s. There is also an old-growth ponderosa pine forest on the northern side of the island. In late spring, expect to see photographers out capturing shots of the bright yellow arrowleaf balsamroot and other vibrant wildflowers.
Go for a hike
Camping is not allowed in order to protect the wildlife, but visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the four miles of established hiking trails, though visitors can also explore off trail. The two main trailheads are near the Rocky Bar and Eagle Cove boat landing sites, and the trail system connects the two.
There is abundant opportunity for fishing on Flathead Lake, including from Wild Horse Island. Expect to catch lake trout, whitefish, kokanee salmon, and rainbow trout, among other species. Make sure to read up on current regulations for catch and release.
Fishing on Flathead Lake is managed jointly by Montana’s department of Fish Wildlife, and Parks, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, so visitors need both state and tribal permits to legally fish these waters. If you don’t plan to eat what you catch, consider donating them to local food banks or community kitchens. You’ll need to buy a tribal fishing permit in person at one of the many tackle shops around the lake.
Where to eat and drink
It’s best to bring your own provisions as there are no restaurants or food options anywhere on the island, and creating a fire of any kind is prohibited. However, visitors are free to forage apples or pears leftover from orchards planted on the island in the early 1900s. Fishing with the proper permits is also allowed, though catches will need to be cooked elsewhere. There’s a vault restroom along Trail 2.
Other things to do near Wild Horse Island
Visit Glacier National Park
Not too far from Flathead Lake is Glacier National Park, one of the most beloved and visited national parks in the country. Turquoise water, snow-capped peaks, and extensive trails through the jagged mountains are just the beginning of what this protected place has to offer. Grab a reservation to drive Going To The Sun Road or take a backcountry trip and get ready to experience the awesome beauty of Glacier.
Check out the other state parks
Flathead Lake has five other state parks beyond Wild Horse Island, each with something special to offer (and a unique vantage point of the lake). Finley Point State Park is a great place to camp overnight, while Yellow Bay State Park offers a sense of exclusivity and proximity to the Flathead’s famous cherries. Near Bigfork is Wayfarers State Park, which has great hiking and beaches.
Explore the town of Polson
There are plenty of charming small towns around Flathead Lake, but Polson is an idyllic lakeside retreat with a lot to see. On the lake’s southern shore, it’s the town from which many visitors launch their Wild Horse Island adventures.
The lakeside town has opportunities to swim, shop, visit museums, and, if the timing is right, enjoy the bountiful Flathead Cherry Festival. There’s also a weekly Farmer’s Market that makes a great place to stock up on snacks for your trip to the state park.
Where to stay near Wild Horse Island
Wild Horse Island is only open for day use, so visiting here means sleeping somewhere else.
State Park Campgrounds
Getting the full outdoor experience of Wild Horse Island is possible by camping nearby at any of the other five state parks around Flathead Lake. Travelers can make reservations for car and RV camping at Finley Point State Park near Polson, while Yellow Bay State Park is first-come, first-serve.
Flathead Lake Lodge
This comfortable dude ranch near Bigfork is a great way to get into the western spirit of Montana while remaining in close proximity to everything Flathead Lake has to offer. Guests can go horseback riding through their 2,000 acres of lakefront and Rocky Mountain landscape, or book water-based adventures like sailing, stand-up paddle boarding. They also work with a vendor to bring their guests on trips to Wild Horse Island, making it that much more convenient.
Big Arm Resort
This RV resort near Poison offers cabins, boat slips, and a restaurant, and even an on-site casino. The lakeside location is a comfortable and convenient launch point for a Wild Horse Island adventure, as well as being centrally located for explorations of Polson and other nearby sites.
The rugged beauty of Montana is unmatched, and that sense of ancient wilderness is present everywhere on Wild Horse Island. If you’re in the area, you won’t regret making a detour for a day to the picturesque island on the equally picturesque lake.