With summer just around the corner, the pressure is on to start trip planning for the warm weather season. This float tour of Montana checks off all the summer essentials combining warm sun, beautiful waterways, mountain backdrops, and outdoor adventure.
“Floating” is a local slang term describing the activity of launching a small watercraft into a lake or river, and letting the current take you down the waterway. Exploring Montana by float is an awesome way to experience the beauty this state has to offer and is a staple summer pastime for both locals and visitors.
The state truly is a floating paradise, from Missoula’s downtown urban area to the wild waters of Glacier National Park. This journey below is a northbound route starting in West Yellowstone and traveling towards Glacier National Park. They can be explored individually as day trips, or linked together into a state-wide summer road trip.
What you need to bring
A sturdy watercraft is essential on a float trip. Something like an inflatable paddleboard, kayak, or small boat. A tough innertube will work as well.
Cheap floaties designed for the pool or very light use will most likely end up getting popped by the rocks or branches you encounter along the way and you will be stranded without floatation. Also keep in mind that though the water is warmer in the summer, a lot of these locations are still glacier-fed, meaning the water is still uncomfortably chilly. You will want to get out of the water to warm up, and a quality float will help you stay lifted out of the water enough to enjoy the experience goosebump-free.
In addition to floatation devices, multiple paddles are also helpful to steer yourself down the river. This is especially true for larger groups, if you’re headed towards a boulder or obstruction, you need to be able to steer the floats to clear water. Also getting around is nearly impossible without a paddle in a lake or a slow-flowing river.
Good quality footwear should also be on your essentials list, don’t make the mistake of leaving your shoes in the car before a trip. There may be shallow stretches where you need to get out of your float and walk or carry your gear to the next deeper section. Most of Montana’s rivers have a rocky bottom and fumbling around on flip-flops will probably leave you with some bruised toes and make it tough to walk safely.
Pack your fly fishing gear if you want to try out float fishing during your time on the river. Fly fishing for trout is popular all over Montana in the summer and you will probably encounter fishing parties along your river route. To fish in Montana, you will need to purchase a fishing license and carry it with you, as well as checking the catch regulations for the area you plan to fish.
Water, snacks, and sunscreen are always a good idea to pack for your trip. Please be cautious when packing your supplies — put them into a dry bag and tie everything down properly to avoid polluting these beautiful places, especially with easy to lose items such as empty cans.
The best floating spots in Montana
Cliff Lake and Wade Lake
The lakes Cliff and Wade are located just outside of West Yellowstone and feature some of the bluest waters Montana has to offer. Set in a pine forest, the lakes have white sand bottoms which contribute to their blue color and are surrounded by natural rolling hills.
Cliff and Wade are close enough to each other that you could see them both in a day if desired, however, they are also quite large, and you could easily spend several hours paddling around exploring their islands and shorelines to make a longer trip. It’s worth keeping in mind that there is no current, so you will have to paddle back to the boat ramp where you began to get back to your vehicle. Boats are allowed on the water, but they must follow a no-wake speed limit, which maintains a very peaceful atmosphere on the lake and is safe for paddle-only crafts and swimmers.
In addition to paddling, visitors can hike, birdwatch, or fish on the lake. Some visitors even scuba dive here, made possible by the clarity of the water. Local wildlife is also a treat, look out for bald eagles, trout, and river otters during your paddle, and deer and moose during hikes. There are two minimalist campgrounds (no power, vault toilets, drinking water only) on-site that fill up quickly if you want to camp close by. The weekends are more crowded, and sites are first come first serve, so plan accordingly. If you roll in late in the afternoon, you may not be able to get a spot. On the plus side, camping fees are currently a very reasonable $15 per night, cash or check only.
The first flowing river to mention is Gallatin River located near Big Sky. This trip is not a lazy river or a relaxing summer afternoon jaunt and you will need to book a guided trip to enjoy it safely.
The Gallatin is a white water river, with rapids varying in intensity along its course. That means dangerous boulders, big waves, and currents to contend with. The river is most famous for its most perilous section, ‘The Mad Mile’. White water rapids are classified by level of difficulty on a scale from Class 1 (easy) to 6 (expert) and ‘The Mad Mile’ is rated as a Class 4, making it an exceptionally long stretch of turbulent whitewater. If you’re ready for an adrenaline-filled afternoon, booking a guided trip is the safe way to explore this wild river. Local company Montana White Water offers trips of varying intensities to suit your group’s needs. They provide all the gear, shuttles, and most importantly, experienced paddle guides to ensure you have a fun, safe trip on the river.
In addition to the Gallatin River, the town of Big Sky has many beautiful areas for outdoor hiking and exploring. The Beehive Basin trail as well as the Lava Lake trail are quintessential alpine summer hikes and are worth checking out while you’re in the area.
Heading north toward the city of Bozeman comes the next river float on the list, Madison River. This river is frequented by groups of floaters, and has a nice slow pace, making it a great beginner-level float to practice your river skills. It also stays deep enough to float all summer long, and the only obstacles to avoid are the occasional large, obvious boulder.
The entire float takes about 2-3 hours, or you can extend the time by hopping out on the little islands dotting the river. This float follows a highway for most of its route beginning at the Warm Spring Boat Launch and ending at the Black’s Ford fishing access point. Both points are usually very busy, and you may have to wait for a parking spot to open up to start your trip.
Float groups will shuttle between the two points by leaving a car at the endpoint and then driving back to the start point with all of their gear. However, if you only have one car, you can probably catch a ride on a busy day back to the start point with another group of floaters.
If you’re interested in a pre-planned float trip, local company Madison River Tubing offers float packages that include all of the gear you need as well as the shuttle ride between trip points.
Clark Fork River
After tackling the Madison River, head to Clark Fork River in Missoula. The entry point for this river is the Sha-Ron river access point right outside of town. This popular river passes right through the town of Missoula, by the University of Montana’s football stadium as well as a riverside off-leash dog park.
Even though this is a more urban river, it’s still flowing through wild Montana, so watch for river otters on the shores and bald eagles overhead during your trip. Expect this float trip to take around 2-3 hours as well.
This option is very beginner-friendly, with little to no obstacles to dodge during the trip, however, it does end in a rather surprising way at a human-engineered white water section called Brennan’s Wave. This artificial wave gives kayakers and surfers white water rapids conveniently located in downtown. The wave was built in honor of a local man, Brennan Guth, who sadly passed away while kayaking in 2001, and it has since grown into a Missoula attraction. Make sure you hop out before this section if you’re not an experienced swimmer or paddler.
Clearwater River Canoe Trail
Next up on the map is the Clearwater River Canoe Trail. This float is completely different from all of the others on this list because of its location in a willow marsh. It is a shorter trip, about 3.5 miles long, but the scenery is amazing.
The willows grow on either bank of the skinny winding river, creating a tunnel effect. The water here is very clear and turtles and fish can be spotted swimming under the surface and the willow marsh provides a habitat for an abundance of bird species.
When you are planning for this trip, consider bringing a kayak, paddleboard, or some type of small paddle craft instead of a tube. The river is very slow flowing and paddling is much easier than trying to keep a tube moving in the slow currents.
At its endpoint, the river empties into Seeley lake, and you will need to paddle on a short distance to reach the parking lot at the ranger station.
Another great thing about this float trip is that it can easily be done with only one vehicle. A one-mile nature trail connects the start point and the endpoint, making it a breeze to take a quick hike back to fetch your vehicle from where you began.
Middle Fork Flathead River
The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is located outside the town of West Glacier and forms the Southwestern Boundary of Glacier National Park. This river is a little more challenging than others previously mentioned. Expect to encounter a few obstacles such as downed trees, or shallow points, but the effort, in this case, is worth the payoff.
The glacier melt that feeds the river influences its color, the waters are a bright blue. This is caused by minerals and sediments released from the ice as it melts and gets deposited into the river. This float even has a little bonus canyon section towards the end where the river has eroded its banks into a small slot canyon.
The whole float takes about 2.5-3 hours, longer with breaks added in to swim or explore. The put-in location is at the West Glacier river access boating site and is also used by the various guided river trips. The area is a large pebble beach, which helps to eliminate congestion during busy times.
The take-out location is also a pebble beach and shoreline, large enough to allow for camping right by the river. This spot is the most convenient free camping near Glacier National Park, so there are usually many campers here preparing to explore the park and enjoy its many outdoor adventure opportunities.