Paddling Central Montana

Central Montana offers paddlers of all interests and abilities world class paddling. Whether you embark on a week-long trip through the scenic and historic White Cliffs region of the Upper Missouri Breaks or a relaxing paddle on the cool blue waters of a glacier carved lake; a day on the water in Genuine Montana will be the highlight of any trip.

Suggested Itineraries:

Mountain Palace

Mountain Palace portion of Missouri River from Craig to Hardy Bridge (3 hours for All Abilities)

Just 30 miles south this scenic flat water section of the Missouri River winds through rock-lined canyons offering incredible fishing and wildlife watching. Floaters will routinely see bald and golden eagles, osprey, loons, and white pelicans. Bighorn Sheep also frequent the Hardy Creek area in the mornings and evenings and are sometimes seen from the river. The river keeps a good pace throughout this float making paddling optional and a Class I rating makes this stretch comfortable for all ages and abilities. The State maintains frequent free put ins and takeouts along the river, some offer camping. We suggest putting in on the Craig Frontage Road at the Stickney Recreational Area and taking out at Tower Rock State Park on Old Highway 91. Rental equipment can be arranged through Bighorn Wilderness Supply 406 453-2841 and Montana River Outfitters 406 761-1677.

Paddling Great Falls

Downtown Great Falls Broadwater Bay to West Bank Park (40 minutes for All Abilities)

Lewis and Clark spent several days camping and fending off grizzly bears on this short stretch of river. Paddlers today need not bring bear spray, but they may be startled by the occasional splash of a beaver tail. This quick downtown paddle is perfect for an evening jaunt. A section of quick water under the Central Avenue Bridge provides just enough excitement at the start of the adventure. After that this float is mellow and enjoyable. Those in good paddling condition might enjoy paddling beyond the floating dock at West Bank Park to explore the abundant bird populations on the islands downstream. This will require either a brisk but not overly difficult paddle upstream for ¼ mile or a similar portage along the sidewalk back to parking. Rental equipment can be arranged through Bighorn Wilderness Supply 406 453-2841 and Montana River Outfitters 406 761-1677.

Lewis and Clark Overlooking the Missouri River

Great Falls Lewis and Clark Paddling Trail
(2 Hours All Abilities) Printable Trail Guide

In 1805 and again in 1806, the Corps of Discovery spent several weeks camping along the Missouri River near downtown Great Falls. As they prepared to portage the falls, the crew hunted buffalo, attempted to build an iron boat and had several exciting encounters with grizzly bears. This 6.25 mile paddle trail visits a number of these historic sites and the accompanying trail guide tells the stories that occurred at each location taken from the actual journal accounts.

2 Medicine Lake

Upper Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park (any duration for All Abilities)

If paddling along the jagged peaks of a glacier-carved lake is your idea of a great day on the water, head to the marina at Upper Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park. The cool blue waters of the lake offer one of the most breathtaking views in the park as you paddle past the awe-inspiring cliffs of Painted Teepee Peak or Sinopah Mountain. Cache your kayak at the dock 3-miles across the lake to access several hiking trails including a short hike to Twin Falls. Those arriving early in the morning might be treated to a moose viewing along the lakeshore. The Glacier Park Boat Company offers rentals at the marina.

St. Mary's Lake

St Mary Lake, Glacier National Park (any duration for All Abilities)

Experience Glacier National Park like no one else. If you enjoy the beach not even the Caribbean can compete with the cool, clean and vibrantly blue water of St Mary Lake. On a warm day, the water will be even more refreshing than a tropical beach too. Glacier is deservedly known for some of the best hiking in the US; however, grabbing a kayak at the St Mary’s Lake boat launch opens up a whole world of added adventure. Skip the tour boat, pack your bear spray and paddle across the lake to hunt for animal tracks as you coast along the remote south shore of the lake. With no road or trail access, this side of the lake is virtually untouched by the park’s many tourists. Stop for a picnic on one of the incredible remote beaches where you can swim while soaking in some of North America’s premier alpine scenery. Snow laced peaks offer the backdrop to a invigorating day on and in the water.

Lake McDonald

Lake McDonald Glacier National Park (any duration for All Abilities)

Kayak rentals are located a few hundred yards from shore in the village of Apgar and set out on the icy blue water of Lake McDonald. Float this surreal landscape under the snow-capped peaks. For the more adventurous, the mouth of the McDonald creek is nearby next to the Lake McDonald Motel. The river can be floated for several miles to the first bridge. There is a small parking lot where a shuttle car or bike can be stored next to the bridge. The dirt road leads up to the trail that leads to the Apgar lookout; the horse stable is also on this road. There is also a paved bike trail near the horse stable that leads back to Apgar. It’s about 3 miles to Apgar via a paved bike path.

White Cliffs
Rafting

White Cliffs of the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River (Multi-day Intermediate Trip)

If you are a paddling enthusiast this trip is probably on your bucket list. You will find only flat water with an occasional boulder or tree to avoid; however, the rivers remote location and limited access require a multi-day commitment.

Segment 1: Decision Point. The shortest segment of 42 miles begins at Fort Benton, MT and exits the river at Coal Banks Landing. To enjoy a 42 mile paddle, an overnight stay is necessary. Primitive camping is allowed along the river. This is the section of river traversed by Lewis and Clark and four of their camp spots are located along the river. BLM maintains an interpretive stop at Decision Point which is the location where Lewis and Clark correctly discerned the main Missouri River from a tributary.

Segment 2: White Cliffs of the Missouri. A unique and incredibly beautiful stretch of river, the portion of the Missouri from Coal Banks Landing to Judith Landing is 47 miles of paddling bliss. The river runs along 300 foot tall white cliffs throughout this stretch providing great river edge hiking opportunities. The famous Hole-in-the-Wall is located along this portion of the river. BLM maintains several designated camps along this section of river.

Segment 3: The Missouri Breaks. The float from Judith Landing to Kipp Recreational Area is 61 miles. The remote and undomesticated landscape of this section of the river make it a unique wilderness paddling opportunities in the United States. Solitude is easy to find along this stretch of the river other than the bighorn sheep and elk that are often seen riverside.

Montana River Outfitters (406-761-1677) offers shuttle services and guided trips.

Rafting

Smith River (Two to Four Day Intermediate Trip)

Another epic float in Central Montana, this trip requires a special permit. This easiest way to take this trip is with one of the commercial outfitters that are licensed to be hired. The Smith winds through the cliffs, meadows, and vistas of the Little Belt Mountains southeast of Great Falls. The float is renowned for both scenic beauty and trout that see very few fishermen. Find more details here http://stateparks.mt.gov/smith-river/smithRiverFAQ.html

Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake in Lewistown (All Abilities)

If you are looking for a relaxing day on the water head to Crystal Lake outside Lewistown, which is about two hours from Great Falls. You won’t find prettier water or a better location for an afternoon swim. Enjoy a relaxing float around this small lake then take a four mile hike to the Grandview Trail Lookout #403. Crystal Lake has a US Forest Service Campground with restrooms and a picnic area. It’s best to paddle Crystal before mid-July when its waters are lowered for irrigation.

Holland Lake

Holland Lake (Easy)

An amazing paddling destination lies just 23.4 miles north of Seeley Lake, MT. About a three hour drive from Great Falls. Holland Lake offers amazing blue waters with a shallow boat put in. The lake allows motorized boats but is small enough to limit the traffic to smaller craft. On the east shore of the lake, paddlers can view the 100+ foot cascading water of Lower Holland Falls. There is also some fun areas to explore around the stream at the bottom of the falls. A large rope swing can be found along the southeast corner of the lake. If you are looking for a surf and turf adventure, hike the easy 3.3 mile roundtrip up to the falls for a better look and scenic views of the lake from the top of the 485 foot trail. There is also a National Forest Service campground and small beach area. Make sure to call ahead to the Holland Lake Lodge for a diner reservation. This rustic log lodge on a small peninsula offers great food and a few rental cabins. They also rent kayaks and canoes.

Waterton Lakes

Waterton Lakes (All Abilities)

Just north of Glacier National Park are the sapphire blue waters of Waterton Lakes National Park. Waterton offers several incredibly scenic lake paddles.

Middle Waterton Lake to Upper Waterton Lake: Floating either of these lakes offers crystal blue water surrounded incredible mountain scenery. However, one fun water-based itinerary is to float between the two lakes via the small gap known as the Bosporus. Both paddle powered and motor powered boats are available for rent onsite in the village of Waterton. This is a large lake that can be windy at times.

Cameron Lake: A smaller, unmotorized option, Cameron Lake is also sheltered by high peaks around the lake. The boat rental operator, Cameron Lake Boat Rentals offers most types of unmotorized rentals.