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 lake monsters and giant bighorns.

Usually when Montana comes up, the mind wanders to Big Sky, wide-open spaces, and multiple magnificent peaks. They’re right there in the name, after all—derived from the Spanish montaña, or mountain. But this landlocked state is peppered with an unexpected attraction: islands.

Dozens can be found on the glacially-formed Flathead Lake near the city of Kalispell. The largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, it is massive at 30 miles long, 15 miles wide, and 220 feet deep. Relatively calm waters replenish at an astonishing rate of every three years, creating a crystal-clear playground for swimming, fishing, kayaking, and, yup, island-hopping. Some islands are home to sprawling estates, others to wild horses and gigantic bighorn sheep. All are easily accessed by watercraft.

Don't talk to Flathead Lake before she's had her coffee. | Photo by Donnie Sexton

On an idyllic September morning, I pull my kayak up to a petite rocky mass not too far from the lake shore. There are a few sprouts of trees and iron-colored remnants of indigenous pictographs—or at least what looks like it—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 kayaking guide Shelby Horton.

The more widely accepted name for this tiny speck is Invitation Island. “Since it’s pretty accessible, people throw raves and parties on it,” says Horton. “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.”

While Invitation Island is relatively sparse, another island on Flathead Lake boasts the largest and most expensive private residence in Montana. Another has a castle-like mega mansion with an owner steeped in scandal. Some islands you can rent on Airbnb, with private docks and 360-degree views. But the jewel of the lake is arguably the 2,164-acre Wild Horse Island.

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, 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.

Without any predators around, animals on Wild Horse Island thrive. Often that means they grow really, really big: the largest bighorn sheep skull ever recorded was found here. It’s now in a museum, but you can still see some of the competition.

“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 then 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!”

The lake is a dream for water sports. | Photo courtesy of Montana State Parks

Apart from paddling around the islands, a summer visit to Flathead Lake would not be complete without tasting coveted Flathead Lake cherries. These juicy varieties are grown in the 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.

Come Halloweentime, get your shivers with tales of the notorious Flathead Lake Monster. The lake’s most mysterious resident traces back to indigenous lore, and today is so ingrained in the local culture there’s a pizza named after it. Sightings range from a large fish or serpent, to an undulating creature with humps, responsible for creating foot-tall waves on the lake’s still surface. “A couple times it’s been super flat water, or winds coming from one direction, and all of a sudden waves will come out of nowhere,” Horton says.

Kalispell will cast a spell... on you. | Photo by Andy Austin

And no matter what time of year you visit the lake, a trip should include a stop to nearby Kalispell, a city steeped in Western tradition with an eye towards the rapid growth of Montana. Drop your bags at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, built in 1912: the haunt of many a cowboy including painter Charles Russell, chronicler of the American West. Cop some gear on Main St. at Western Outdoor (cowboy boots emblazoned with the American flag? They’ve got that, in their over 2,500 pairs). 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 (they tell you to do it).

Finally, feast on steak pappardelle and cocktails at the recently-opened Mercantile Steak, located in an 1892 building that once housed the first Kalispell City Hall. It still boasts some original fixtures—plus some animal heads on the wall. This is, after all, Montana.

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