Visit the stunning islands of Flathead Lake

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Usually, when Montana presents itself, the mind wanders to Big Sky, wide open spaces, and multiple magnificent peaks. They are right there in the name, after all, derived from the Spanish montaña, or mountain. But this landlocked state is dotted with an unexpected attraction: the islands.

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

Don’t talk to Flathead Lake until she has her coffee. | Photo by Donnie Sexton

One idyllic September morning, I pull my kayak up to a small rocky mass not too far from the shore of the lake. There are a few tree shoots and iron-colored remnants of native pictographs – or at least what looks like them – on the side of a rock. “We call it Gilligan’s Island because when you paddle it looks like the smallest patch of land in that expansive mountain view,” says my kayaking guide Shelby Horton.

The most widely accepted name for this little stitch is Invitation Island. “Because it’s quite accessible, people have raves and parties there,” says Horton. “It’s a good place to snorkel because you find a bunch of things people have dropped in the water. Once I stopped on a pontoon full of children, they found three watches.

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

The horses of Wild Horse Island definitely cannot be broken. | Photo courtesy of Montana State Parks

Imagine a part of Montana: native grasses and ancient ponderosa pines, apple orchards and trees reaching for the sky, hiking trails and climbing rocks. And wildlife, of course: mule deer, bighorn sheep and wild horses. Now imagine it stranded in a gigantic body of water, bordered by miles of shore.

This is Wild Horse Island, the largest land mass in Flathead Lake, first occupied by native inhabitants who brought the horses of the same name there to prevent them from being caught by hostile tribes. (For some transfers, horses would swim from nearby Cromwell Island. Paddle horses!) Today, Wild Horse Island is a state park, primarily owned and managed by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and within limits parts of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Overnight camping is not allowed, but you can take a day trip at your leisure.

Without any predators, the animals of Wild Horse Island thrive. Often that means they’re getting really, really big: the largest bighorn sheep skull on record has been found here. He’s now in a museum, but you can still see some of the competition.

“Since you can’t take anything from the island, there are so many bones,” says Horton, who runs kayaking tours regularly at Wild Horse. “You can just see where a bighorn sheep or mule deer found a nice little shady spot and died. And then, just looking across the field, you can see live bighorn sheep and mule deer walking together.

Don’t have big ideas about hanging a keepsake. “They micro-power the really big skulls and bones, so people don’t take them off the island,” says Horton. “There’s one under a tree near the bathroom that I point out to groups. I know they are not going to bring it back with them because they would have to put it in a kayak!

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

Besides paddling around the islands, a summer visit to Flathead Lake wouldn’t be complete without tasting the coveted Flathead Lake cherries. These juicy varieties are grown in the fertile soil around the lake and harvested from mid-July to mid-August. Just look for the fruit stalls or find yours at one of the nearby U-Pick orchards.

Come Halloweentime, get your chills with the stories of the infamous Flathead Lake Monster. The lake’s most mysterious resident dates back to native traditions and today is so steeped in local culture that a pizza bears his name. Sightings range from a large fish or snake to a rippling creature with bumps responsible for creating waves a foot high on the still surface of the lake. “A few times there has been very flat water or winds coming from one direction, and all of a sudden waves will come out of nowhere,” says Horton.

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

And regardless of what time of year you visit the lake, a trip should include a stop near Kalispell, a town steeped in Western lore with an eye on the rapidly growing Montana. Put down your suitcases at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, built in 1912: the haunt of many cowboys including the painter Charles Russell, chronicler of the American West. Cop on Main St. at Western Outdoor (American flag cowboy boots? They have them, in their over 2,500 pairs). Grab some old-school egg custard at Norm’s Soda Fountain and throw your peanut shells on the floor at Moose’s Saloon Pizzeria (they tell you to).

Finally, feast on steak pappardelle and cocktails at the recently opened Mercantile Steak, located in an 1892 building that once housed Kalispell’s first town hall. It still has original lights, as well as animal heads on the wall. It is, after all, Montana.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Editor. Catch her near Invitation Island, snorkel in search of sunken treasure.



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