Horse News

Wild Horse Island: A real treasure in state park system

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 Horses graze on a ridge of Wild Horse Island high above Flathead Lake earlier this summer. Photo Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
DAYTON – Wild Horse Island State Park on Flathead Lake is one of the real treasures of Montana’s state park system.

To make a perfect summer day, you can sail or kayak to the massive, mostly undeveloped island and swim, fish, hike or watch wildlife to your heart’s content. The island is three miles long, but is very hilly and the landscape alternates between grassland and forest.

At 2,164 acres, Wild Horse Island is the largest freshwater lake island west of Minnesota. Salish and Kootenai Indians are thought to have used the island to keep their horses from being stolen by other tribes. Today, a population of about five wild horses, a herd of mule deer and about 100 bighorn sheep inhabit the island.

Since it was sold to the state in 1978, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has managed the animals to keep the population of horses and sheep at a level the habitat will support. The island is managed as a primitive area and overnight camping, firepits and pets are not allowed. Groups of 15 or more must get a permit, and a state-tribal fishing license is required from the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The state has six sites it recommends for public boat landings: Skeeko Bay, Eagle Cove, Rocky Bar, Driftwood Point, Osprey Cove and East Shores. All the docks are privately owned. There are 52 private, circle-shaped lots on the island. There is a public, unisex solar-powered composting toilet at Skeeko Bay.

Wild Horse Island map

The waves on Flathead Lake can turn surprisingly big in open water, and weather can change unexpectedly. Almost every year, boaters without life vests die on the lake. Anyone traveling to the island should have life jackets and, if possible, a partner.

There’s just one trail on the island that connects Skeeko Bay to an old homestead. An old stone fireplace is all that is left of the three-story Hiawatha Hotel that was torn down on the east side of the island in the 1990s. It’s also a fantastic trip in the spring and summer when there aren’t as many people around.


Location: The island – at 47.84715 latitude, -114.23458 longitude – is located near Big Arm State Park on the western shore of Flathead Lake. It is most easily accessible by boat from any public dock along U.S. Highway 93. Dayton is a good place to launch.

Distance/duration: Depending on wind conditions and your endurance, a kayak trip to the island from Dayton can take 45 minutes, sometimes much longer.

Difficulty: Getting to the island is easy, as long as you wear a life jacket and are aware of any dangerous weather conditions that might arise. Always check the forecast, and be sure to pack out any garbage you bring. For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov/wild-horse-island.

9 replies »

  1. Hmm. This is a state managed park with 5 horses and 100 sheep, both introduced to the island. It would be interesting to learn more about how these animal populations are managed, something not mentioned in the article at all.

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  2. Isn’t it weird that the habitat can support 100 game animals and 5 horses? Right. Biodiversity aside, I’d think the historic & touri$m value of a secret island where Native Americans hid their horses would have far more appeal to the general public.

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  3. We hired a guy with a boat to take us out there a few years ago. We hiked the trails and saw big horn sheep and some real nice big bucks but of course the horses were in hiding. The pinto horse in the picture was actually born on the island. They moved some BLM mares out there and unknown to them one of them was already pregnant! It was a suprise to all but nice added color to the herd.

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