6 unforgettable Montana water adventures

By: Jen Ambrose

Swiftcurrent Lake. Photo: Visit Montana

Here in Montana, the water is as clear as the mountains and high plains are dramatic. The state’s rugged wilderness is home to nearly 170,000 miles of rivers and some 3,200 lakes, meaning you couldn’t run out of places to paddle, fish, and swim if you tried. Bonus: The limited cell service in the backcountry will keep your boss at bay.

Plan a trip to Big Sky Country, and you’ll be planning an exploration of some of America’s most scenic rivers and lakes. Where to begin? Start with these six unforgettable adventures, perfect for any summer trip.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Visit Montana.
Kayaking never boxes you in: lazy lakeshore paddles or adrenaline-pumping whitewater runs, one-hour outings or multi-day camping trips. Whatever size learning curve you’re down for, you can paddle its bends in a kayak on Montana’s waterways.

Where to go: In Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, the Bighorn River has carved an absolutely stunning path through the surrounding landscape, and you can kayak it. Put in at the Ok-A-Beh Marina near Fort Smith, at the northern end of Bighorn Lake. Or, if you’re a serious paddler, the whitewater of the mighty Gallatin River might be more your speed.

What to expect: Limestone and sandstone walls hundreds of millions of years old encase you in Bighorn Canyon, and the lake is massive — guided tours are the best way to go. As a signature whitewater run, the Gallatin gets busy with rafting groups in the summer, but it’s popular for a reason.

What you need: For multi-day trips, you’ll need all your normal camping gear. The catch is that it has to fit in the kayak, so this isn’t the time for glamping comforts. Go minimal, and definitely save space for a life jacket — Montana state law requires having one accessible (even if you aren’t wearing it).

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Paddling Montana’s rivers can be a tranquil reprieve — or you can make it a heart-pounding escapade. If the latter is what you’re going for, join a whitewater rafting trip, and be prepared to relinquish control to the water (and your guide, of course).

Where to go: If you’re basing yourself in Missoula, you’re in luck — nearby Alberton Gorge has some of the state’s very best whitewater. If you’re coming from Yellowstone National Park, get on the rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon.

What to expect: Alberton Gorge is created by a dramatically narrow 16-mile channel along the Clark Fork River, and with towering rock walls lining the water, the view’s always up and ahead, not all around. Yankee Jim Canyon, on the other hand, is wider and more open, with grassy rolling hills visible beyond the banks.

What you need: Unlike calmer paddling trips, whitewater rafting definitely requires a life jacket (worn at all times) and helmet — but your outfitter will provide them and all the other necessities. All you need to bring is a sense of adventure.

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If you spend your working life at a desk, vacation should be about stretching your legs. Stand-up paddleboarding (SUPing) puts you on a slow-motion, 360-degree ride on Montana’s most serene lakes and rivers.

Where to go: With calm water and views of Big Mountain, Whitefish Lake is one of Montana’s best paddleboarding spots. Or you can SUP down a river instead, as long as it has a mild current and minimal rapids. For a gentle river float — on the mighty Missouri no less! — put in your board at the Fort Peck Dredge Cuts fishing access and take it all the way down to the School Trust fishing access, a paddle of a few miles.

What to expect: Whitefish Lake is popular on summer weekends, so be prepared to share the water with swimmers, jet skiers, and flyboarders, but the views are fantastic and well worth sharing. On the Missouri downstream of the Fort Peck Spillway, you’ll be nice and removed from all the motorboats up on Fort Peck Lake, and accessing a paddling spot that’s still little known, even by locals.

What you need: Rental SUPs are usually on the wider side, which are easier to balance but slower to paddle than narrower boards. You’re not in a rush anyway, right? A paddle should be included, and some SUPs come with a leash, although it’s not a necessity.

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The relatively recent advent of the packraft has opened up new possibilities for backcountry water adventures. Load a packraft in your backpack, hike to a remote river, and paddle waters that were once inaccessible.

Where to go: You can go packrafting wherever a trail leads to a body of water. However, Montana has one particularly iconic spot for this adventure: the South Fork of the Flathead River, located in the beloved-by-locals Bob Marshall Wilderness.

What to expect: Packrafting is usually a multi-day, “hike in, paddle out” expedition, with overnights along the river. Unless you’re a fast hiker, consider spreading the trek to the South Fork over two days and set up camp in “the Bob” along the way. It’s massive and remote, so you’ll want the time.

What you need: Cut ten pounds from your normal hiking and camping gear to make space for the raft, and be sure your pack will fit on the raft once it’s inflated. Don’t forget your life jacket, paddle, and the inflation bag that should come with your purchase or rental.

Set near Missoula, A River Runs Through It is easily one of the most famous stories about the state. A coming-of-age tale about two boys who learn to fly fish from their father, it’s inspired many a fishing trip to Montana. Maybe a young Brad Pitt will inspire yours?

Where to go: The river that “ran through it” was the Blackfoot, and that’s where most head first. The Big Hole River is another spot that’s long been popular — like since-the-1800s popular — and it’s still one of the most rewarding.

What to expect: With fishing accesses just outside Missoula, the Blackfoot is as convenient as it is iconic. Both rivers have plentiful fish stocks, although the lower section of the Big Hole between Melrose and Twin Bridges is one of the very best places to fish for brown trout.

What you need: If you’re just catching and releasing, all you’ll really need (in addition to a valid fishing license) is a rod and some flies to lure your catch. Most Montana rivers are pretty chilly even in the summer, so get yourself a pair of waders, too.

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While kayaks have gotten sleeker and more technical over the years, most modern canoes still resemble their earliest predecessors, which were typically hand-carved from a single tree trunk. If you want a water adventure that gets back to basics, a canoe is the closest you can come to a time machine.

Where to go: One top canoeing route can be found in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in central Montana. Begin at Fort Benton, and 149 miles of nationally recognized Wild and Scenic River later, you’ll have paddled all the way to the Fred Robinson Bridge at US-191. Otherwise, head to the Bitterroot Valley and Lake Como, bordered by mountains and punctuated by a small waterfall.

What to expect: A third of the way through the national monument, the terrain surrounding the river changes from serene grasslands to badlands, canyons, and the scenic White Cliffs. Plan to stop at Eagle Point Campground and hike through the Neat Coulee slot canyon. If you’re heading to Lake Como, calm water and jaw-dropping alpine scenery await. It’s a popular swimming spot on warm summer days, so paddle away from the shore for more tranquility.

What you need: Unless you’re spending a week on the Missouri, canoeing requires little, and that’s part of its appeal. Just rent a canoe and make sure paddles and life jackets are included. Pack your basics like sunscreen and water, and you’ll be on your way. Otherwise, like in the Missouri’s case, be prepared to camp at primitive sites along the river.

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This post is proudly produced in partnership with Visit Montana.