Montana's Classic River Trips

Montana Montana: Simply Epic
by Brian French Mar 26, 2009
From flatwater to class V, Montana has incredible rivers and stoked communities of paddlers. Local boater Brian French leads us down some of the classic Big Sky runs.

This article has been created in partnership between Matador and our friends at the State of Montana.

As the last snowstorms leave their mark on the western Montana landscape, thoughts of rivers and boating begin to dominate my mind. Soon the enormous accumulation of snow nestled in the high country will find its way to area creeks and rivers, creating the opportunity for something truly remarkable — exploring the northern Rocky Mountains by boat.

I have been exploring the waters of western Montana for seven years now. I typically paddle well over 100 days in any given year and I try to commit to exploring at least a few new rivers or creeks every season.

I am a kayaker at heart, so I tend to prefer stretches that are a little more difficult in terms of whitewater. There is plenty of difficult water in Montana and plenty of opportunities for first descents. There are also plenty of opportunities for rafters, canoeists, touring kayakers, tubers, and pretty much all manner of folks who enjoy days on the water.

Whether you are looking for a full-on Class V nightmare with arduous portages or a crystal-clear, slow moving mountain stream with fishing that can only be described as “blue ribbon,” Montana has something for everyone.

Following are brief accounts of some of my favorite river trips in the state of Montana. I have included very basic logistics for planning trips on these stretches. For more detailed information on boating opportunities in Montana and the surrounding area, visit my blog, Montana eddy hop.

Have fun out there and remember: safety first!

Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Montana (Wilderness Section)

Originating in the heart of the Great Bear Wilderness, the Upper Middle Fork flows north through one of the most pristine canyons around and then forms the southern boundary of Glacier National Park.

Needless to say, the scenery on this river is unimaginable, and the water is perhaps the most crystalline blue water in the country. There is also great whitewater on this stretch, and difficulties vary dramatically with flows.

In order to run this stretch, you have to get yourself to Schaffer Meadows, either by plane, backpacking or horse packing. I highly recommend taking the flight from Kalispell with Red Eagle Aviation – although somewhat costly (about $350 per plane, enough for about two people plus gear), the folks who fly you in are super friendly and the flight is out of this world.

The flight to Middle Fork of the Flathead

You fly over the Flathead Valley, through a notch in the mountain crest, and then through the middle of the Great Bear Wilderness, looking south into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and north into Glacier.

When combined, these wilderness areas comprise the second largest roadless area in the lower 48 – take the flight, it’s worth every penny.

If you haven’t yet made this journey, you should really find a way to do so – the flight into Schaffer and float out on the Middle Fork is an ultra-classic Montana experience.

There’s no other feeling in the world like a multi-day float trip. Middle Fork of the Flathead.

M.F. Flathead logistics: Class IV (IV- at low flows – below 6000 cfs at West Glacier, but solid IV at all others).

The water never really stops moving on this stretch, making it really fun and continuous. Rafters in your crew need to be pretty experienced as the upper part of the stretch can be very tight and technical.

The Spruce Park series contains the best and most difficult whitewater, and is towards the end of the trip. The put in is Schaffer Meadows, where the river is but a small mountain stream, and the standard takeout is Bear Creek access east of Essex on U.S. Highway 2.

You can also keep paddling past Bear Creek and take out at Essex in order to pass the Goat Lick – a popular gathering area for mountain goats.

Blackfoot River, Montana

Canoeing the Blackfoot

The Blackfoot River was the first stretch of water I really got to know in Montana. Made famous by Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, this river is in Missoula’s back yard and is a wonderful place to spend a lazy day on the river.

I personally prefer to canoe the Blackfoot. It has a great, 18-mile Class II stretch of water that is perfectly suited for canoeing. Rafters, kayakers, and even tubers in the summer enjoy this stretch as well.

Just like the majority of other large rivers in Montana, there are numerous potential stretches to run on the Blackfoot, and the majority of the water is Class II or lower.

The fishing on the Blackfoot is outstanding, and I have encountered more wildlife on the Blackfoot than on any river anywhere. Bear, elk, mule and whitetail deer, moose, mountain lion, bald and golden eagle, numerous species of waterfowl, river otter, and countless other critters call the Blackfoot corridor home. Having this river so close is one of my favorite things about living in Missoula.

Blackfoot logistics: Class II (III- at high flows).

Multiple stretches are possible, but the standard put in is located at Roundup off Highway 200 northeast of Missoula. The take out is at Johnsrud Park, or you can easily take out at the Ledge just upstream to avoid the Johnsrud mayhem (take 200 towards Great Falls from Bonner east of Missoula, you can’t miss the Blackfoot corridor).

Roundup to Johnsrud is about 18 miles, or you can easily put in at the Whitaker Bridge to cut the distance in half and access most good whitewater. This river is well worth exploring.

Montana’s Northwest Corner Classic Duo: Kootenai River and Yaak River

Kootenai Falls

The northwest corner of Montana contains one of the most unique ecosystems and incredible watersheds in the state. The Yaak River corridor is a mini-rainforest that contains a remote canyon with one of the best stretches of whitewater around that rafters and kayakers both enjoy.

The Yaak flows into the Kootenai River, which is a beautiful large volume river that is slow-moving and mellow in all places but Kootenai Falls, an amazing canyon that contains arguably the rowdiest big water in the state of Montana.

With simple, roadside logistics and a wilderness feel, the Yaak River winds its way down a canyon filled with old-growth western cedars and lichen-covered rock formations. The water is continuous, fun Class III/IV with a couple solid Class IV rapids thrown in the mix.

This is a classic Montana adventure that is always worth the drive. You are almost guaranteed to have this stretch to yourself, and there is excellent camping at Yaak Falls – an impressive waterfall that is the put-in for the run.

Stomping at Kootenai Falls

The Kootenai Falls section of the Kootenai River is less than 30 minutes from the Yaak and is a stomping stretch of Class IV+ big-water that is basically a playboater’s pipedream.

Beginning with a very straightforward 18-foot waterfall, the Kootenai drops more than 100 vertical feet in the next mile, which is a gradient more common of low volume creeks than rivers with over 15,000 cubic feet per second of volume.


This stretch has enormous waves and holes. Right after the falls is Superwave, probably the rowdiest wave in Montana that is truly huge and very intimidating. As is said in the Montana Surf guidebook, the Kootenai River is as close to the Zambezi as you’re going to get in Montana, and is an incredible boating experience.

Yaak River Logistics: Class IV-V.

To find the put-in, look for Yaak River Road west of the town of Troy on U.S. Highway 2. Follow this road up to Yaak Falls campground and put-in at the base of the Falls (you can run the Falls at lower flows, but you better stick your line or you’re slamming directly into a rock wall).

There is a parking area at the Highway 2 bridge over the Yaak, right above the confluence with the Kootenai.

Kootenai River Logistics: Class IV+ (big, pushy water).

Located on U.S. Highway 2 just east of the town of Troy. There is a nice rest area and trail to the river at Kootenai Falls (clearly marked), or paddlers may want to find the road that drops in about a half-mile to the east of the rest area that follows the tracks.

If you park here, it’s a much shorter walk to the river and you can put-in and take about three paddle strokes before getting launched over the Falls…good way to lively up yourself!

Once a paddler you can never look at water the same; you’re always scouting.

Yellowstone River, Montana

The Yellowstone River originates in Yellowstone National Park and is America’s longest free-flowing river. The Yellowstone watershed contains runoff from the Beartooth Mountain Range, which contains Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point at over 12,000 feet.

The Yellowstone River flows through some of the most spectacular scenery in Big Sky country, and has some of the best fishing in the state as well.

From the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner to the confluence with the Missouri River, the Yellowstone has countless stretches of enjoyable water that draw rafters, drift-boaters, kayakers, and canoeists.

Putting on or taking out, a good river trip = joy.

It is hard to imagine a more beautiful river than the Yellowstone – this is the old favorite of many water enthusiasts in the state and for good reason. It is hard to focus on anything but peace and serenity when floating past the cottonwoods and amongst the white pelicans of the Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone River logistics: Countless stretches are possible on this river.

Starting at Gardiner north of Yellowstone Park, the upper Yellowstone generally has more difficult whitewater than the lower reaches. There are two world-class canyons within Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and the Black Canyon, that are fabled to be incredible runs and are unfortunately illegal because of Park Service policies prohibiting paddling in Yellowstone Park.

The middle and lower Yellowstone reaches, from around Livingston down, contain very scenic, mellow stretches with great fishing and amazing playboating features at higher flows. Rafters and drift boaters from all over the country flock to the Yellowstone during the warm months of the year.

Community Connection

Interested in learning more about Montana? Check in with our local Montana experts, including Montana Expert N. Christine Olson, who has put together an Angler’s Guide to Spring Fly Fishing in Montana.

Always been interested in learning how to paddle but never tried? Check out our Step by Step Guide to Getting into Whitewater Paddling. Learn how there is a whole new world out there when you see it from the river.

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