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Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake is a Primitive Wilderness Paradise

For decades, the largest island on Flathead Lake had a private owner with big plans. But those plans never fully came to fruition, and now Wild Horse Island is a primitive 2,160-acre State Park open for day use only that’s home to osprey, bald eagles, deer and a herd of five wild horses.

One of the more intriguing stories is that Native Americans used the island to pasture horses to keep them safe from neighboring tribes, including the Blackfeet. The herds grew to more than 70 before the Pend d’Oreille tribe sold the land in 1854 to J.C. Penwell, a wealthy man from Minneapolis looking to make the island a western “dude ranch.”

But he was the first of several entrepreneurs who tried but failed to capitalize on Wild Horse’s potential. One such unsuccessful occupant, a photographer named Herman Schnitzmeyer, spent the winter of 1913-14 on the island and recorded his experience in a series of harrowing photos that remain among the earliest examples of a Montana wilderness photo essay.

When Bourke MacDonald, a multigenerational lumber operation owner from Butte, bought the island in 1961, he had a different vision. He platted the island with lakefront lots, put in roads and thinned many of the trees, hoping to turn it into a recreational paradise for people who loved the area’s wildlife and history.

He also wanted to keep the island public, and he hoped to preserve the natural environment while encouraging recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and hiking. “He was really a conservationist at heart,” says Paddy O’Connell MacDonald, the daughter-in-law of the late MacDonald and a former Missoula lawyer.

A deal was hammered in the 1970s wherein the MacDonald family donated much of the island to the state. It’s now a State Park, and the only privately owned portion of the island is a small sliver along the southern edge.

Today, the State Park is a popular destination for those with an interest in nature and history, as well as for those who enjoy canoeing, kayaking and hiking the trails. The park is open year-round, but the best time to visit is between May and September, when the weather is most temperate.

The island is located in the Big Arm section of the lake, a region dominated by parks, lake resorts, outdoor gear outfitters and tour operators. The best place to access the island is at Skeeko Bay, a public boat landing on the north shore of the island. This spot provides the easiest paddle to the main trail head on the island. It’s a good choice if you want to avoid the summer crowds at other launch sites, like Walstad Park. A natural point and kayak landing on the island, Driftwood Point, is another option. You’ll need to bring your own provisions and make sure you have proper fishing and hunting licenses, and it’s not allowed to create fires on the island. However, you can forage for apples and pears that remain from orchards on the island. wild horse island flathead lake


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