Montana literally means mountain in Spanish, so naturally the state is among the top destinations for hiking and outdoor activities in the United States. Many of the more popular hikes within the state can be found within Glacier National Park, a paradise for adventure seekers with over seven hundred miles of hiking trails that pass through glacier carved valleys, alpine meadows, and scenic mountain ridges. Many of the attractions within the park are linked via the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a scenic mountain route often listed among the most beautiful drives in the world.
Montana is also home to Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States located west of the Mississippi River. Flathead Lake is renowned for its beauty, both because of the water’s incredible clarity, and the location between the Mission Mountains and Salish Mountains. This calm lake is ideal canoeing, sailing, swimming, or even just relaxing along the tree-lined shores. Another popular activity and possibly the top thing to do when visiting Flathead Lake is to hike to the top of Wild Horse Island, the lake’s largest land mass. Wild Horse Island is named for the captured horses brought there by the Salish Indians who pastured them there to prevent rival tribes from stealing them. Today, there are less than ten horses on the island, but they graze alongside local wildlife like bighorn sheep and mule deer, both of which are more abundant.
Getting to Wild Horse Island requires some sort of watercraft, so there are several boat rental and charter companies at towns like Bigfork, Woods Bay and Lakeside along Flathead Lake. There are a broad range of boating options available from a leisurely and scenic kayak ride to a speedy journey via jet-ski. Fishing charters are also popular since many visitors to the area simply want to catch fish and drink beer. Visitors to Wild Horse Island can land their craft anywhere along the shore, but there are actually five designated landing sites. The most popular of these is Skeeto Bay since several trails that lead to the summit of the island start here.
While there are a few rocky and steep surfaces, most of Wild Horse Island rises at a gentle gradient. These slopes are covered in various species of prairie grass and seasonal flowers, and there are also some remnants of the old growth pine forest that once covered the island. The combination of these tall trees for roosting and clear water for hunting fish means that Wild Horse Island is an important breeding ground for birds of prey like ospreys and bald eagles. Their nests are easy to spot in the sparse trees, and with a little patience it is possible to see one of these majestic raptors swooping down to pick up fish with their sharp talons. Many waterfowl are also common in the area including several sea birds that migrate seasonally from the Pacific Ocean or the Arctic region.
On the steepest rocky slopes leading to the three peaks of the island, the meadows give way to lichen covered rocks and the more recent trees are replaced by older ponderosa pines. The tallest peaks on the island are 3,745 feet above sea level, just a little higher than the surrounding Flathead Lake’s altitude of 2,916 feet. The surrounding water means that there’s a picturesque view in every direction. Even the distant peaks of mountains in Glacier National Park are visible on clear days, while Flathead State Park can easily be seen in the east.
The high points of Wild Horse Island are ideal for having a picnic amidst the cool breeze and warm sunshine. Not only because of the beautiful view, but also because it is one of the few places in Montana for enjoying the wilderness without having to worry about mountain lions or grizzly bears.
Ultimately, Montana is home to both Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park, two of the top hiking destinations in North America if not the world. Even so, there is something special about taking a watercraft across a large lake and then hiking to the tallest point of the largest island in that lake and enjoying a cold beer. A laid back experience that sums up the saying; “It is not the Destination, It’s the journey.”