Montana’s rivers are rapidly dropping, but there are still some fun places across the state to get your face wet while rafting, canoeing or kayaking. Here are a few of my favorite whitewater runs. Remember to always wear a life jacket, have a throw line in case someone falls overboard, use caution, and don’t push beyond your capabilities as a paddler or oarsmen. When in doubt, walk around.
Yankee Jim Canyon: This stretch of the upper Yellowstone River has a couple of big waves that during high water can flip a raft. Luckily the water is dropping, but the waves will remain, just not at such a scary height. The canyon is beautiful with steep rock walls and easy to access from Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishing access sites. Gardiner is home to two rafting companies that can take you down the river if you don’t own a boat or have a friend who owns one.
Beartrap Canyon: The Madison River just below Ennis Lake courses through a dry canyon that has impressive waves like “The Kitchen Sink.” The shuttle for this trip is long, since you have to drive through Norris (which has a hot springs!), but is worth the extra effort. Large pools allow boaters to pull over to scout the big rapids. Outfitters on the Gallatin River run trips on this section.
Alberton Gorge: It’s hard to beat the Alberton Gorge for big waves, fizzy aerated pools and a couple of nice beaches. This was the first place I ever riverboarded, which is still an option through the local outfitter. Try it out and surf a wave, it’s unlike anything else. Of note is that upstream winds can stall a raft in the river’s slow stretches, so don’t be in a hurry. The best beach is where Trout Creek enters.
Stillwater River: This smaller river can still provide some big waves, especially at Beartooth Drop, also known as Mad Max. There’s also Mr. Bubbles that can spike your heart rate. Outfitters provide guided trips, including on inflatable kayaks that can be a blast in lower flows.
Middle Fork of the Flathead River: You’ll be dodging guide boats on this popular stretch, but it’s well worth it as the easily accessed river provides some great waves. If you have the time extend your trip below West Glacier for the more placid stretch of the river, or take two days to explore this stream. You won’t be disappointed by the beauty.
Blackfoot River: Like the Middle Fork, the Blackfoot sees a lot of traffic. If possible, try a weekday float to beat the crowds. I like the upper sections of the river, which also tend to see fewer boats. Pretty much from Johnsrud upstream to Russell Gates Memorial fishing access site are easily accessed sections of water that provide some whitewater.
Seasonal floats: Early season floats on the upper Stillwater River, above Cliff Swallow fishing access site, are a hoot. The Gallatin River has some fun whitewater and is easy to access, just make sure you don’t run into House Rock and knock your dog overboard, like I did. The Dearborn River provides some fun rocky sections, but it’s a long shuttle. There are even a few waves on the Big Hole River, just downstream from Wisdom.
To get the lowdown on streamflows, contact outfitters or log on to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Montana streamflow chart. There are also books that detail some of Montana’s whitewater sections, including the aged “Western Whitewater” and a bible to some, “The Floater’s Guide to Montana.”