The largest island on Flathead Lake is a state park rich with history and wildlife. Wild Horse Island State Park, named after the native Kootenai Indians who pastured their herd on the island to protect them from rival tribes, is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, songbirds, waterfowl and bald eagles. Visitors can also enjoy rare plants and scenic views.
The 2,000-acre park is accessible via boat only and offers plenty of opportunities for hiking trails, fishing and wildlife viewing. Visitors are asked to be mindful of private property along the perimeter of the park and to keep a safe distance from wildlife, especially horses.
Visiting the island on a day trip is the best way to experience it. Overnight visits are not permitted. The park is open year-round, but the best times to visit are in spring and fall when temperatures are cooler and fewer people are on the island.
A picnic area is available on the north end of the island, and the trails wind past a homestead site with a modest house and barn dating back to 1910. A few other structures are scattered about the island, including a corral and root cellar. The horse herd remains on the island today, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) manages the park to ensure their safety and the preservation of the land and its natural resources.
Though the island is named for the herd, the name of the park is rooted in its early history. The earliest inhabitants of the area reportedly kept their herds on the island for protection from rival tribes, and the horses are still here, five in all, grazing on the grasses that cover the island. For the animals’ health and welfare, FWP asks visitors to keep their distance from the horses and not to feed or touch them.
After the Pend d’Oreille people moved away from the island in 1854, a homesteader named W.A. Powers built a house on the island and planted fruit trees and other crops. He and his family lived there until 1913, when they moved to the mainland. In 1943, another owner of the island, New Jersey native John Burnett, a colorful heir to the family’s roller-bearing fortune, purchased the island and started an Arabian and Thoroughbred breeding operation.
FWP has managed the island since the late 1970s, and the state’s five other state parks near Flathead Lake also offer camping opportunities and unique vantage points for the mountains, forests and waters. The nearby town of Polson is also a destination in its own right, with opportunities to swim, shop and savor Flathead County’s bountiful cherries at the annual Cherry Festival or to take in the spectacular scenery on a sailing cruise around the lake. Polson’s weekly Farmer’s Market is another place to stock up on snacks for your day at Wild Horse Island. wild horse island flathead lake