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Whitewater Rafting

Updated: August 18, 2020


Big Sky Country offers some of the most exciting white water rafting and scenic river trips in the nation. From Montana's snowy peaks and the Yellowstone Plateau, pristine waters converge and flow through spectacular valleys and canyons. Experience the thrill of whitewater on a raft trip down the Alberton Gorge, near Missoula, or the tranquil beauty of the scenic and remote upper Missouri, near Fort Benton, as you quietly paddle your canoe into the sunset.

Rivers have played a special role in the history of Montana. In the early days the rivers carried Indians in bull boats and French trappers in their pirogues. The Lewis and Clark expedition navigated Montana's rivers as they explored the Louisiana Purchase and opened up the great American frontier. Later, the rivers brought miners, cowboys, sod busters, merchants, and soldiers and, until the coming of the railroads in the 1880s, were the lifeblood of the state.

You can explore Montana's rivers in many ways. Guides offer half-day to seven-day trips on rowboats, rafts, and kayaks. In a rowboat you can sit back, relax, and take in the scenery as the guide maneuvers the boat with two large oars. On the other hand, if you want to take part in the action, you'll want to try a paddle raft or kayak adventure. Inflatable kayaks are the latest whitewater craze. These small, stable, one-or two-person crafts make for an unforgettable ride. For those of you with a taste for adventure, complete instruction, wetsuits, and helmets are available from experienced whitewater specialists. Outfitters and guides receive extensive training and your safety is their primary concern.

Overnight trips are available for those who want to combine exceptional rafting and camping for an extended adventure. An average day's float is about 15 miles through spectacular scenery and Class II, III, and IV rapids with names like "Bone Crusher," "Fang," and "Tumbleweed."

Trips begin by meeting your guide and learning how to pack for the trip. Then you'll shuttle to the river where boats are loaded and launched. Before embarking the guide will give a complete safety talk and explain the paddling command system. Finally, it's "all aboard" and you're on your way. As you float, your guide will point out scenic highlights and wildlife of all types. Merganser ducks and osprey are common. After a lunch break, the day's float will end in the early afternoon, allowing you time to angle for native cutthroat trout, take a pre-dinner hike, or go for a dip in the snow-fed river. While you are relaxing your guide will set up the kitchen and prepare a delicious meal. The day will end around the campfire where you can stargaze and swap river stories with your guide and fellow rafters. Night finds you "under the stars" or tucked away in a tent and sleeping bag, while the river sings you to sleep. The next morning you'll wake to the smell of breakfast cooking while the sun comes up over snow-capped peaks or prairie vistas. "All forward!" You're ready for another breathtaking day on the river.

Here are some fun places to whitewater raft in Montana:

Big Hole The amber waters of the Big Hole flow a 150 miles through southwest Montana in the shadow of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Floating begins in high alpine meadows about 10 miles north of Wisdom. The water is particularly warm in late summer and the Big Hole makes an ideal spot for a family float.

Blackfoot This is Missoula's backyard river, with good whitewater less than an hour from town. There are three fun runs, superb open canoeing and after high water, fair fishing. Rafting is popular in the Johnsrud Park to Bonner section.

Clark Fork The Alberton Gorge is about 40 miles west of Missoula, with big water effects, and at the right levels, some fine surfing. A popular stretch with day-tripping opportunities and, if you're looking for a guided outing, some of the most enjoyable white water found in Montana. Run ten exciting rapids including "Fang," "Tumbleweed," and "Boateater."

Gallatin (Yellowstone Area) The Gallatin River springs from the snow-clad peaks of the Madison and Gallatin mountain ranges. Frequent whitewater rapids alternate with deep green pools in the Gallatin Canyon. Whitewater trips are available on the lower stretch of the Gallatin.

Middle Fork of the Flathead (Glacier Park Area) Known as Montana's wildest river, the Middle Fork provides premier two- or three-day wilderness trips and guided fishing trips along the southern edge of Glacier Park. You can also find wonderful half day and full day trips that are perfect for families, first time rafters and non-swimmers. Serious adventure seekers might want to try the 30-mile multi-day version from the Great Bear Wilderness put-in at Schaeffer Meadows. This "Wild and Scenic" river has heavy whitewater at higher flows.

Lower Flathead, Buffalo Rapids A short run below the outlet of Flathead Lake near Polson. The water is dam discharge, blissfully warm and plentiful throughout the season. You must have a tribal permit.

Smith River The remote and spectacular Smith River offers the floater an exceptional rafting and fly-fishing adventure along the Big Belt Mountains of Central Montana. The Smith is the only river in Montana with a limited number of launches, so plan ahead.

Yellowstone River The Yellowstone, the nation's longest free-flowing river outside of Alaska, starts in Yellowstone Park. The river presents a 103-mile, mountain section from Gardiner to Big Timber that offers good family floating.

Updated: August 18, 2020

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