Rural Life in Wild Horse Plains Montana

Wild Horse Plains, Montana: the continuing series on the best sections of North America in which to pursue rural life, including population, jobs and crime, real estate and taxes, and education and health.


| November/December 1988



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Wide enough in spots to seem almost lakelike, the Clark Fork River is warm and serene enough in summer to make it a favorite for canoeing.


PHOTO: PHIL SCOFIELD

Cream of the country: Wild Horse Plains, Montana. The continuing series of the best sections of America to live a rural lifestyle.  

Rural Life in Wild Horse Plains Montana

YOU WON'T FIND "WILD HORSE Plains" on a Montana map, because that name for the lushly beautiful lower valley of the Clark Fork River, in what is now the southern half of Sanders County, is no longer used. Protected by the Cabinet Mountains on the north, the Bitterroot Range on the west and the Mission Range on the east, the valley's climate is almost Pacific maritime, causing some of its residents to complain during recent winters that they can't get their fill of cross-country skiing because there's not enough snow. For this reason, Native Americans wintered their horses on the valley's abundant bunch grass long before the first settlers arrived. Later, fur trappers of the Hudson's Bay Company did the same.

Horses, though not wild ones, still roam this rich land, and the name survives in the county's most pleasing town of Plains (pop. 1,090), known as Horse Plains until 1883, when the Northern Pacific Railway passed through, and the post office was moved into town from its location at the old Clark/Lynch Ranch, a former stop on the Pony Express. Cattle are still big business here, too. 

Land of the Shining Mountains 

Let me tell you some of my impressions of this special place. First of all, it's "Big Sky Country." Despite the impressive, often snow-covered peaks in almost every direction, there's never a closed-in feeling. You can stand on a sunny hillside alive with meadowlarks, look across an impossibly wide valley of waving grain and fruit trees to the silvery light of a rainstorm drenching a distant mountainside, and wait for the almost inevitable rainbows. The Clark Fork River (formerly called the Saleesh), which flows through the plains, is as wide in places as a good-sized lake, and the trees along its banks are frequently adorned with osprey nests. Spring snowmelt can make for fast canoe or raft rides, but the water gentles in summer, presenting dozens of fine beaches and swimming holes. (Otters and beavers commonly share the recreational opportunities!)

In addition, there are nearby lakes. Sailboaters and windsurfers are just an hour away from the very deep and magnificent 200-square-mile Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the western United States. Its sky blue water, bordered by the majestic Mission Range, is renowned to fishermen for its cutthroat and Dolly Varden trout, its Mackinaw and kokanee salmon. There are also excellent whitefish, bass in protected bays, and perch in fall and winter. Flathead Lake is a tourist destination, but even in midsummer, you might have one of the smaller fish-filled lakes in the north or just outside of the county practically to yourself. (Stay for the night, and you'll be serenaded by loons and great horned owls.)

renny hellickson
7/31/2008 12:17:21 AM

I loved your article. I grew up in Plains, Montana, and have traveled a great deal since then but I always find myself dreaming of those hot, dry summer days on the Clark Fork - jumping off the bridge next to the fairgrounds. If you want to find a deeper meaning of Wild Horse Plains, you need to interview folks like Randy Garrison at The Printery, or Rancher Keith Pilgeram, or former school teachers, Bob and Diane Johnston. You happened on a gem of a place but there is much more to be written. You did get one thing right, basketball is king in these mountains. Tales of the 1987 state championship team still are told late at nights in the local watering holes. Or what about the 1981 team that finally made it to the state tournament led by Don Cherry who is now the President of Glacier Bank? Or what about the 1988 team that averaged over 100 points per game and once beat poor Eureka by a tally of 149 to 48, which must be a record of some sort. And you have one thing wrong. Plains is too small to compete well in football - it isn't the laid back nature but rather a matter of numbers. Cheers to Wild Horse Plains - may you never lose your character! I am proud to say I grew up in Horse Plains, Montana.


nellie
2/26/2007 10:26:44 AM

Too bad some of the old timers were not interviewed on Paradise. All those interviewed are very new comers. There is a wealth of History in Plains and Paradise






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