kayaking on flathead lake
Paddle on up and stay a while. | Photo by Noah Couser
Paddle on up and stay a while. | Photo by Noah Couser

In Montana, You Can Go Island-Hopping in the Old West

Come for the raves, stay for the wild horses on Flathead Lake.

Usually when Montana comes up, the mind wanders to wide-open spaces: roaming bison, quivering grass in windswept plains, a couple of National Parks, and a fringing of magnificent peaks. They’re right there in the name, after all—derived from the Spanish montaña, or mountain.

But on this cool, foggy September morning, as I bob in a kayak just a few minutes outside of the city of Kalispell, I’m looking at a different kind of landmass—one that’s kind of unusual for the landlocked state. Here, on the crystal-clear glacially formed Flathead Lake (“the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi,” they say), there are islands, dozens of them, punctuating the 28-mile long waterscape. Some are dotted with sprawling properties—like one that’s currently home to the largest private estate in Montana. Others offer a refuge for wild horses and gigantic bighorn sheep. There are rentable Airbnbs with private docks, and even a castle steeped in scandal. And all are easily accessible by watercraft. (But maybe stay away from that last one.)

Wild Horse Island in Montana
This is not the largest private estate in Montana. It is an abandoned house. You'll find both on Flathead Lake. | Daniel Ruiz/ Moment/ Getty Images

I pull my kayak up to a particularly petite rocky mass not too far from the shore. I spot a few sprouts of trees and the iron-colored remnants of what appears to be indigenous pictographs on the side of a boulder. “We nickname it Gilligan’s Island because when you’re paddling out, it looks like the tiniest speck of land in this vast mountain view,” says my guide, Shelby Horton.

The more widely accepted name for said speck is Invitation Island, and Horton urges me to get out of my kayak and leap off of it. It’s what’s done here, apparently. “Since it’s pretty accessible, people throw raves and parties on it,” she says. “It’s a good place to go snorkeling because you find a bunch of stuff that people dropped in the water. I pulled up to a pontoon boat full of kids once—they found three watches.”

But while Invitation Island is relatively sparse, the jewel of the lake is an enclave about a two-hour kayak away: the 2,164 pristine acres of Wild Horse Island State Park.

The horses of Wild Horse Island definitely can't be broken. | Photo courtesy of Montana State Parks

Imagine a slice of Montana: native grasses and old-growth Ponderosa pine, apple orchards and sky-reaching trees, hiking trails and climbable boulders. And wildlife, of course—mule deer, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, yellow-pine chipmunks, and wild horses. Now picture it marooned in a gigantic body of water, bordered by miles of shoreline.

This is Wild Horse Island, the largest land mass on Flathead Lake, first occupied by indigenous inhabitants who brought the namesake horses there to keep them from being nabbed by unfriendly tribes. (For some transfers, the horses would swim from nearby Cromwell island. Paddling horses!) Today Wild Horse Island is a state park, mostly owned and managed by the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and within the exterior boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Camping overnight isn’t allowed, but you can day trip to your heart’s content.

Here, without any predators around, animals thrive. And that often means they grow really, really big: The largest bighorn sheep skull ever recorded was found on Wild Horse Island. It’s now in a museum, but you can still see some that come close to rivaling its status. Thanks to its protected status, Wild Horse Island is akin to an archaeological site.

“Since you can’t take anything off of the island, there are so many bones,” explains Horton, who regularly leads kayaking excursions to Wild Horse. “You can just see where a bighorn sheep or a mule deer found a nice little shady spot and passed away. And just looking off into the field, you can see living bighorn sheep and mule deer walking together.”

Just don’t get any big ideas about snagging a souvenir. “They microchip the really big skulls and bones so people don’t take them off the island,” says Horton. “There’s one underneath a tree close to the bathroom that I point out to groups. I know they’re not gonna take it back with them, because they’d have to put it in a kayak!”

morning on flathead lake
The lake is a dream for water sports. | Diana Robinson Photography/ Moment/ Getty Images

Montanans love their state parks; Wild Horse Island is just one of a whopping 55 around the state. Six others, each with their own personality, can be found around the perimeter of Flathead Lake, including the latest, Somers Beach State Park, which joined the fold earlier this year. In colder months along the north shore, the water dips and a sandy beach emerges for day-use recreational activities—meaning that, depending on the time of year, the size of the park fluctuates from 55 to 106 acres.

The other parks include Big Arm, with its pebble beaches, juniper trees, and mature ponderosa pines; West Shore, with glacially carved rock outcrops and secret pockets for camping; Wayfarers, laden with cliffs and wildflowers near Bigfork; and Finley Point, featuring camping and hiking a stone’s throw from Polson on the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which also owns and operates the hydroelectric dam on Flathead Lake.

Last but not least, there’s Yellow Bay, which deposits you right in the heart of Montana’s sweet cherry orchards. A summer visit to the lake would not be complete without tasting Flathead Lake cherries: Juicy varieties are grown in fertile soil around the lake and harvested mid-July through mid-August. Just look for the fruit stands, or find your own at one of the U-Pick orchards nearby.

woman in flathead lake
You might want to wait for the warmer months to try this. | Jordan Siemens/ Stone/ Getty Images

To book a tour with Horton at Sea Me Paddle (the season picks back up again in June 2023), base yourself in Kalispell, a city steeped in Western tradition with an eye toward Montana’s rapid growth. Drop your bags at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, dating to 1912 and the onetime haunt of cowboy painter Charles Russell, then cop some gear on Main Street at Western Outdoor, grab an egg cream at the old-school Norm’s Soda Fountain, and fling your peanut shells on the floor at pizza joint Moose’s Saloon (it’s okay—they tell you to do it).

And if you’re out there this month and feel the urge to lean into Spooky Season, keep an eye out for the notorious Flathead Lake Monster. The lake’s most mysterious resident traces its origins back to Indigenous lore, and today is so ingrained in the local culture there’s even a pizza named after it. Those who’ve seen the monster describe it as resembling everything from a large fish or serpent to an undulating creature with humps, responsible for creating foot-tall waves on the lake’s still surface. Horton, for one, claims to be among the witnesses. “A couple times, it’s been super flat water, no boats around or winds, and all of a sudden waves will come out of nowhere,” she says.

For her, it usually happens in the channel adjacent to Wild Horse Island. So perhaps those protected skeletons have some afterlife to them after all.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Catch her by Invitation Island, snorkeling for sunken treasure.