Beyond Hungry Horse Dam

South of Hungry Horse is a historic structure and a pristine stretch of forest that sees low visitation

By Micah Drew
The Hungry Horse Dam. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Stoppering up the South Fork of the Flathead River to form a 34-mile-long reservoir is the Hungry Horse Dam. Completed in 1953, the 564-foot high dam is the 10th highest in the United States. 

The U.S. Geological Survey began studying sites throughout the Flathead River Basin for possible dam sites to aid power production. An initial plan was proposed to raise the level of Flathead Lake, but opposition turned focus to the Flathead River. The U.S. entry into World War II increased pressure for new electrical power sources, and Congress authorized the Hungry Horse Dam project in 1944. 

The concrete arch structure is 2,115 feet long, with a top width of 39 feet and a bottom width of 330 feet. The dam has a morning glory spillway that drops water 490 feet, the highest in the world. At the time of its completion, the dam was the third largest in the world. 

When the project was completed, President Harry S. Truman flipped the switch to begin the Hungry Horse Powerplant and attended a dedication ceremony at Flathead County High School in Kalispell. 

The dam is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. The visitor center hosts exhibits about the history of Hungry Horse Dam and its importance to the Federal Columbia River Power System. Guided walking tours are also available. 

The Hungry Horse Dam. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Behind the dam

Hungry Horse Reservoir has roughly 170 miles of shoreline and several accessible islands, providing vast recreational opportunities managed by the Flathead National Forest. 

 Dozens of campgrounds and boating access points dot the reservoirs edges. For an extra secluded spot to sleep out, visitors can paddle their way to Elk Island Campground, located roughly halfway down the waterway’s length. 

On the far southern end of the reservoir the South Fork of the Flathead River flows out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness past the Spotted Bear Ranger Station to feed into the reservoir. Stop by the Ranger Station to pick up information on nearby hiking opportunities and take some time to walk across the swinging bridge that crosses the river. 

Accessed from the Forest Service road along the east side of Hungry Horse Reservoir is one of the Flathead’s most iconic mountains, Great Northern. The standard trail follows Hungry Horse Creek up the west side of the mountain, past treeline to the northwest ridge. Seeing mountain goats is all but guaranteed at the highest points of this Class 2/Class 3 talus-filled scramble. The hike is about six miles round trip with nearly 5,000 feet of vertical gain.