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Hungry Horse Dam (Montana)

Hungry Horse Dam

Have you ever visited a new place and thought, “Wow!”?  When passing through Montana, Hungry Horse Dam is one of those places. Hungry Horse is what legends are made of – a pair of prodigal horses breaking loose from the pack just before the first significant snowfall in early 1900 gave this small Montana town its name.

Hungry Horse Dam is one of America’s largest concrete arch dams – 564 feet tall – and offers explorers the rare opportunity to drive or walk across it. The Columbia River Power System, including the Grand Coulee Dam downstream to Washington, was built in 1953 to store massive amounts of water. The Hungry Horse Dam is the first dam on the Columbia River Power System.  The Bureau of Reclamation maintains the Dam and Visitor Center.

Explore Hungry Horse Dam

The Hungry Horse Dam Visitor Center is a great first place to stop. This visitor center offers detailed information about the dam’s history, and its construction, plus free guided tours of the dam crest.  You can see some of the equipment used when clearing the trees and building the dam in the town of Hungry Horse.


Boating, swimming, fishing, hiking, and camping are common interests at Hungry Horse Reservoir. The Forest Service maintains many campgrounds and fishing sites throughout the coast and guide you to the highest viewpoints.

Why is it called Hungry Horse Dam?

Two freight horses (Tex and Jerry) working in the Flathead River’s South Fork area gave the dam its name. During the harsh winter of 1900-01, they walked away from their logging shed. These gaunt survivors were nicknamed the “Mighty Hungry Horses” by stunned loggers.

How long does it take to drive around Hungry Horse Dam?

Access to Hungry Horse Dam’s head is excellent, the reservoir is encircled by a scenic and mostly well-maintained gravel road. This road is long, completing the circle will take roughly 3 to 4 hours. Numerous campgrounds and boat launches can be found along the route.

Core Construction Cause of the Dam

The Hungry Horse Dam was not built for irrigation like many other restoration dams. It provides water storage to increase hydropower generation at the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams downstream. Morning-Glory Spillway, with water flowing over the rim and falling from a height of 490 feet – it is one of the tallest in the world. The dam plays a vital role in flood control and recreation in the Flathead Valley. Hungry Horse Dam, its reservoir, and the four massive generators, generate one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, power the surrounding area and beyond, including Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls.


Hungry Horse offers more than merely a Dam!

The dam is located upstream, 34 miles into the Hungry Horse Reservoir from the Bob Marshall Wildness, surrounded by 25 majestic mountain peaks. This remote lake and mountain area is covered with lush vegetation and undergrowth including the infamous Huckleberry, and abundant native wildlife. While the vast reservoir is filled with water sports enthusiasts, the Hungry Horse Reservoir has a relatively unknown presence. A seldom-heard of drive around the entire reservoir is possible via a gravel road, with access to numerous boat launches, campgrounds, and trailheads.

Activities to do in Hungry Horse Dam

The Hungry Horse Reservoir behind the dam is roughly 34 miles long and offers many recreational facilities and campgrounds. There are islands within the reservoir that are only accessible by watercraft.  Camping, boating, and many other activities on the Hungry Horse Reservoir are popular with locals. In the summer months, you can see campers reaching the islands or stand-up paddle-boarders moving over the lake surface. Motorboats are also popular, as there are miles of wilderness and inlets to explore. Dwellers collect wild morel mushrooms and huckleberries for personal use or to sell at local marketplaces. When visiting Hungry Horse Reservoir, do not forget to bring a camera, a plant identification guide, and a container for your berries!


The Great Northern hike is an 8-mile outback trek through the woods and along goat trails.  For this hike, you’ll need to be well-conditioned, but the scenery is breathtaking.

Park your car in the visitor center and set your feet down for trek across the dam. Witness where industry and wildlife meet and decide which is more spectacular, the majesty of the mountains above the reservoir or the magnificence of the Dam itself.

For more adventure, make your way to Glacier National Park, truly a hiker’s paradise.

Whitewater Rafting

The South Fork Flathead River offers excellent paddling, and there is plenty of Class I river rapids to navigate. Other parts of the South Fork Flathead River offer Class II, III, and IV Rapids for those who want to experience a fantastic adventure in Montana. However, before you tackle Meadow Creek Gorge’s Class IV (V+) Rapids, you should know expert skills are required and some rapids will need to be portaged around.


Fishing in the Hungry Horse Reservoir will reward you with plenty of trout and, best of all, a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Cutthroat and whitefish fishing is most significant from May to November.


You may access the lake from numerous boat ramps on the Hungry Horse Reservoir, and you can even boat into several of the campgrounds surrounding the reservoir. If the water level is low, attempt launching at the Abbot Bay ramp, the longest on the east side. On the west side, Lost Johnny Point has a long ramp for low water.


A thriving valley that boomed in the late 1940s and early 1950s will lead you to the Hungry Horse Dam, an impressive 564 feet tall, retaining the water in the Hungry Horse Reservoir.  Albeit the water is a little chilly, many locals enjoy swimming in some of the many bays.


The reservoir is a popular summer destination among the locals. However, it is easy to find secluded hideouts for a wilderness picnic, a refreshing swim, or a great trout catch.

Since there is so much surrounding wilderness, this area is a great place to find more elusive Montana wildlife. A high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle will get you over the rougher parts of the unpaved road as you venture deeper in. Or you can walk over the dam, head south, and scout for small creeks flowing into the lake.

However you decide to explore the Hungry Horse Dam, you won’t be disappointed.