Places to Paddle

My guidebook, Standup Paddling Montana, covers more than 70 paddles across the Big Sky State. If you want thorough details, maps, directions, paddling beta and more, grab a copy.

This list covers a small selection of standup paddling opportunities in Montana. It’s divided between western and eastern Montana (west of the Divide and east of the Divide) and further organized by skill level/water type. It’s intended to provide high-level info on some of the paddling opportunities in the state. Do your own research and check flow levels before you head out to paddle.

Check out my videos and photos for a bit more info on some of these spots and even a couple others that didn’t make it onto this list.

Western Montana – Beginner Paddles

Western Montana has great beginner options. Lakes dot the landscape and some rivers provide mellow paddling opportunities as well.

Seeley-Swan Chain of Lakes – The Seeley Swan Valleys provide great flatwater paddling. From south to north along Highway 83, check out the following options.

Salmon Lake – Put in at the State Park or on the northern end and poke up the Clearwater River.

Seeley Lake – Put in a Riverpoint Campground’s day-use area and paddle up and down the Clearwater River where it exits Seeley Lake. It’s pretty much flatwater and there are fewer boats. The northern end of the lake (north of the Seeley Lake Ranger Station) is technically wake-free, so it makes for good padding. There are a few wetlands on the north end of the lake that are accessible in the spring.

Placid Lake – Put in at the State Park Campground or, for a quieter experience, use the day-use area at the far end of the lake. Gets busy in the summer time, but great for early season or weekday paddles.

Lake Alva – This lake is entirely wake-free so any power boats should go slowly, making for nice paddling. It gets busy, but it’s a great spot for families. Watch for nesting loons on the island in the lake.

Clearwater Canoe Trail – This great paddle starts just north of Seeley Lake (there’ s a sign on Highway 83, marking the put-in). Paddle down the winding Clearwater to Seeley Lake and then across the north end of the lake to the Seeley Lake Ranger Station. From there, walk 1.5 miles back to the put-in, grab your rig and go get your boards.

Holland Lake – Lovely mountain lake on the Swan side of the Seeley-Swan Valley. Two Forest Service campgrounds provide lake access. A rustic lodge makes for a great post-paddle treat.

Swan Lake – Beautiful lake in the northern end of the Swan Valley. Put in at the day-use area, across Highway 83 from the campground. Explore the south end of the lake, which is a wildlife refuge, or paddle across the lake and up the slow-moving Swan River. Alternatively, put in on the Swan River off of Porcupine Road and paddle onto the lake. Watch for log jams and bears. The Swan River to Swan Lake paddle is probably better for more experience paddlers; beginners can paddle up the Swan River from the lake itself as far as energy allows.

Bitterroot Valley Lakes – Lake Como and Painted Rocks Reservoir are great flatwater options for beginners in the Bitterroot Valley. Watch for motorboats and wind on both. Use the Forest Service campground day-use to put onto Lake Como and the State Park day-use to access Painted Rocks Reservoir.

Clark Fork River – Kona Bridge to Harper Bridge is a nice, local Missoula run that’s pretty easy for beginners. Folks can also paddle from McClay Flats on the Bitterroot to Kona on the Clark Fork for a nice beginner float. There will be some smaller wave trains on this stretch. Parking at Kona is intense, especially on weekends, but both of these stretches make for a nice bike-shuttle option (use South Side Road for Kona to Harper and Big Flat Road for McClay to Kona).

Farther west, the run from St. Regis to Ferry Landing along Hwy 135 is safe for athletic beginners. A multi-use trail runs along the opposite side of the river from the Hwy and RR line, which could make for a nice mtn. bike shuttle for those interested. It’s not the easiest biking but it’s not super technical either. Note: There is a rapid downstream of Ferry Landing that should be scouted if you plan to paddle past Ferry Landing.

Flathead River – Above and below Flathead Lake, the main stem of the Flathead provides great paddling. Be sure to get a recreation permit from the CSKT to paddle the Flathead below the lake as it’s on the reservation (get permits online from FWP.) All of the river (save Buffalo Rapids, immediately below Kerr Dam) is suitable for beginners. Watch for wind and motorboats. The 40-mile section from Buffalo Bridge to Dixon is a great multi-day option and Sloan Bridge cuts in half, so you can paddle from Buffalo to Sloan in an overnight or from Sloan to Dixon in an overnight. The stretch from Dixon to Perma is lovely, but can get very windy.

Western Montana – Small Creeks and Rivers

Western Montana is spoiled with small creeks and rivers that are perfect for SUP. This list offers some specific suggestions.

St. Regis River – Cool, smaller river in western Montana. Mainly a Class I / II run done as spring floods recede, before the water gets too low. It will get too low by June most years…Watch for wood up high and bridge pilings throughout. Put in at Deborgia, take out at Two Mile Exit on I-90. Use the Route of the Olympian as a great car-free shuttle option. There is access to the trail from both river access points.

Blackfoot River – The Blackfoot is one of the best SUP rivers anywhere. The run from Johnsrud to Angevine is great for early intermediates looking to boost their skills. The run from Angevine to Weigh Station is great for intermediates wanting fun Class II water. The run from Russell Gate to Roundup is for experienced/expert paddles looking for great Class II/III whitewater. It ends with Roundup Rapid, the Blackfoot’s largest rapid.

Clark Fork River – The Clark Fork from Turah to Sha-Ron in East Missoula or downtown Missoula is a great run with wood dodging, big wave trains, and cool scenery. The wood dodging is real…this isn’t a good float for inexperienced paddlers. Be sure to have a quick release leash (never paddle a river without a quick release leash properly set up). This stretch passes through Milltown State Park and past the confluence with the Blackfoot. If you go all the way to town, watch for Dog Park Rapids where the University of Montana is. Stay river right.

Bitterroot River – The Bitterroot provides great paddling for experienced paddlers, but it can be dangerous. Above and below Hamilton, dangerous diversion dams require attention. From Hamilton to Florence, the river has a lot of wood, sometimes blocking entire channels and locations change from year to year. The run from Stevensville to Florence is nice for solid intermediates who can avoid wood and get to shore quickly. The run from Florence to Lolo is one of my favorites. The Bitterroot is not a good place for leashes. There’s just too much wood. Leave your leash in your car or truck when paddling the Bitterroot.

Western Montana – Whitewater

Western Montana serves up great hardcore whitewater options for those interested. These paddles are for experienced standup paddlers with solid river reading and navigation skills. Beginners and even intermediates should stick to mellower water. Don’t sandbag your friends…

South Fork Flathead River – Amazing, wild river with some of the stoutest WW SUP paddling in the state. My write up for this river got cut from my guidebook, so follow this link for the full description.

Middle Fork Flathead River – Burly, half-wilderness, half-roadside paddle that will test gear, paddling skills, and more. Well worth the effort for those who choose to experience this amazing river. My write up for this river got cut from my guidebook, so follow this link for the full description.

North Fork Flathead River – Remote, cold, and scenic, the North Fork of the Flathead is popular for good reason. Paddlers can begin way up at the border and paddle to Polebridge in a long day. Watch for Kintla Rapids on this stretch. South of Polebridge, the paddling is great with big views of Glacier to the east. Watch for upper and lower Fools Hen rapids between Big Creek and Glacier Rim (they’re considered Class III at high water) and a tricky ledge rapid about 1 mile above Glacier Rim that has a dangerous recirculating hole at higher water. Below the confluence with the Middle Fork, the paddling is a bit easier, though a couple of rapids can still catch the unaware. Wood is a major challenge on all of the North Fork. It’s probably best to run this river without a leash.

Clark Fork River | The Gorge – Classic WW run about 40 minutes from Missoula. More than a dozen good rapids and lots of other paddlers watching you clean them all! The bigger rapids are towards the end, but they’re all big enough to toss inexperienced paddlers (and experienced ones too). Go with a group, have your skills and gear dialed, and definitely wait until the water comes down.

Eastern Montana – Beginner Floats

From mellow lakes to winding rivers, the waters east of the Continental Divide serve up the goods. These options should work well for beginning paddlers.

Wade and Cliff Lakes – Tucked into the southern end of the Madison Valley, Wade and Cliff lakes are great flatwater destinations. Cliff is the larger of the two and arguably more scenic. Aquamarine water, gorgeous mountain scenery, abundant wildlife….what more could you want? Both lakes have formal access points and nearby campgrounds.

Quake Lake – Also at the southern end of the Madison Valley, Quake Lake is a historic and unique paddling destination. It’s actually a natural reservoir along the Madison River that was created by a massive earthquake in the late 1950s. Learn about the earthquake in the nearby interpretive center and camp in nearby Forest Service campgrounds. Access is easy from the formal boat ramp. Watch for wind in the afternoons and fishing craft.

Jefferson River – The Jefferson winds through lovely scenery and is slow enough for athletic beginners to safely enjoy. The only hazards are the occasional logs and a few diversion dams that can be portaged easily. The Jefferson was my first SUP overnight – we did 60 miles in two days over a mid-July weekend and saw three other parties. The section from Silver Star to Parson’s Bridge runs between the Tobacco Root and Highland Mountains. The section from Cardwell Bridge to Sappington Bridge flows through a scenic canyon and past Lewis and Clark Caverns (a strenuous hike is required to get to the caverns from the river, not recommended).

Missouri River Headwaters State Park – Just outside of Three Forks, Montana is the Missouri River Headwaters State Park. As advertised by the name, it’s where the three forks of the Missouri River meet to form the longest river in the U.S. Each of them, the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin provide mellow floating opportunities and fairly easy access. Grab a map and plan a day or weekend of floating all three. Be sure to float through the confluence.

Hauser Lake and Upper and Lower Holter Lakes – These three reservoirs on the Missouri are close to Helena and provide nice paddling for beginners. Watch for wind and motorboats (and algae later in the summer). On Hauser, consider paddling up and down Prickly Pear Creek, a large body of flatwater accessed from BLM-managed White Sandy Campground. Upper Holter Lake provides access to the stunning Gates of the Mountains and shouldn’t be missed. Use the marina for lake access (small fee for launching boat). Lower Holter Lake is actually farther north than Upper and is the end of the Gates of the Mountains section (roughly 16 miles from Upper Holter). Good camping and easy access make it another good option.

Eastern Montana – Rivers

Madison River – The stretch of the Madison from Raynolds Pass to near Ennis, Montana is known as the Fifty-Mile Riffle for good reason. It’s bouncy and fast, especially the five or six miles immediately below Raynolds, which is solid Class II paddling that requires fast paddle work and lots of boulder dodging. Put in at the Lyons Bridge to avoid this section. Good public access opportunities make for nice day-trip options or overnights if you plan well. Lovely scenery, good fishing, and fun but not overwhelming paddling are all on tap on this section of the Madison. Watch for wood as you get closer to Ennis.

Yellowstone River – Montana’s longest free-flowing river, the Yellowstone is unparalleled. From Carbella to Livingston, the Yellowstone flows through the Paradise Valley. Great day and overnight options abound on this stretch. East of Livingston, the river becomes quieter and flows through prairie country. Wave trains, big riffles, and wind are the biggest safety concerns on the Yellowstone, but competent paddlers should be ok. As with any river in Montana, watch for wood throughout.

Dearborn River – For a great, early season float with fast turns, fun small waves, and a couple of real-deal rapids, check out the Dearborn from Highway 287 to the confluence with the Missouri. Best done as a long (25-ish) mile day trip in late spring / early summer, this is a classic Class II river. It’s easiest to take out at Mid Canon on the Missouri, though there is a takeout near the confluence as well.

Eastern Montana – Whitewater

Yellowstone River | Yankee Jim Canyon – Yankee Jim is a great WW float. The rapids are spaced well enough apart that it’s easy to recover from a spill. They’re fun, big drops, that require solid skills and high-quality gear. Put in at Joe Brown and take out at Carbella or extend the run with some flatwater and take out at Point of Rocks. The section from Gardiner to Corwin Springs (above Yankee Jim) is also fun Class II water with boulder dodging galore. Wait for water to come down later in the summer before trying either of these.

Gallatin River – Personally, I wouldn’t want to SUP much of the Gallatin. It’s big, fast and burly. But I did write about it for the guide book. Unfortunately, it was cut for space. Here’s the full write up for those interested.

Madison River | Bear Trap Canyon – Bear Trap Canyon on the Madison is a Class III/IV run that challenges rafters. It sounds terrifying to me, but I am intrigued by the lower section of the run, which paddlers can access by hiking up Bear Trap Canyon with their boards and gear. The paddling “looks” easier below where Bear Trap Creek enters the Madison, which is three or four miles up the trail. Definitely wait for water levels to drop.

I hope this list provides some options for folks. For loads more paddling options, specific directions to put-in and takeout locations, float-specific information and more, check out my guidebook Standup Paddling Montana.

%d bloggers like this: