Here’s the write up on the South Fork of the Flathead River that didn’t make it into my guidebook.
Along with the Middle Fork of the Flathead, the South Fork is considered one of Montana’s premiere wilderness paddling trips. Rising at the southern end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the South Fork flows through sprawling mountains for about 40 miles before entering the Meadow Creek Gorge. After the 4-mile long gorge section, the South Fork flows another 16 miles before it’s impounded by the Hungry Horse Dam. When the river exits Hungry Horse Reservoir, it flows another 5 miles before meeting the main stem of the Flathead a few miles south of where the Middle Fork and North Fork converge at Blankenship Bridge.
All told, the South Fork is about 98 miles long, including the roughly 34-mile-long reservoir. It starts where Danaher Creek and Youngs Creek converge. Getting to this spot requires an overland journey of 20 or 25 miles depending on where you start. Floating from the headwaters to the first take out at Mid Creek (river mile 60) takes a few days and a day-long shuttle effort. All of this makes standup paddling the wilderness portion of the South Fork a significant challenge. It’s too far to hike with camping gear, food, and boards unless you are super-human, so hiring a pack-train is about the only option. It might be possible to find an outfitter willing to shuttle your gear for less than it would cost to shuttle gear and ride along. However you slice it, getting to the confluence of Youngs Creek and Danaher Creek ain’t easy.
The upper 40 miles of the South Fork are mostly Class II water. The river here moves quickly across colorful cobbles and the fishing is superb. Mountains rise in the distance and plentiful campsites make for easy camping. Charismatic mega fuana like grizzly bears, elk, mountain lions, and bald eagle are thick in this wild corner of Montana.
Below Mid Creek, a walk-in, river-right access site at river mile 60, the South Fork constricts into the extremely tight Meadow Creek Gorge with numerous Class III and IV rapids. The rapids come fast; scouting and portaging are very difficult due to the tight canyon walls, and mistakes can turn disastrous quickly. A few spots are less than 10 feet wide, so narrow that most rafts can’t even sneak through. The Forest Service counsels against paddling Meadow Creek Gorge, but that hasn’t stopped the run from becoming increasingly popular with whitewater kayakers and packrafters. Standup paddlers would be wise to avoid this stretch, though I have heard of a few standup parties that have successfully navigated the gorge.
After the gorge, the river mellows a bit as it flows out of the Bob and through the Flathead National Forest for about 17 miles. Two Forest Service roads follow the east and west sides of the reservoir and river. The East Side Road runs to the Spotted Bear Campground, which sits at roughly river mile 47 and makes for a good basecamp. The West Side Road follows the west side of the reservoir and continues along the river all the way to the Meadow Creek Trailhead, a few miles south of the Cedar Flats Access Site and mid-point of the gorge, making access to this stretch easier than the remote, hike-in, wilderness section. The bridge at Meadow Creek Trailhead is worth a visit if you’re in this area as it swings a few hundred feet above the gorge and offers a glimpse of this powerful stretch of whitewater.
At river mile 39, the South Fork slows down and enters the Hungry Horse Reservoir. This sprawling body of water is surrounded by conifer-clad mountains that rise from its 170 miles of shoreline. Plentiful camping opportunities serve up loads of flatwater paddling opportunities in a scenic, mountain landscape. While the Hungry Horse Dam is considered an engineering marvel, it pales in comparison to the free-flowing river it transforms into a slack-water basin.
The South Fork continues its gravity-fueled push for another 5 miles past the foot of Hungry Horse Dam. By now, the river is wide and tamed by the upstream dam. Riffles and wood are the only real obstacles in this stretch, and intermediate river paddlers could test their skills on this final stretch of the South Fork.
Like its siblings, the South Fork of the Flathead is best for intermediates and experts. The 40-mile-long wilderness section is experts-only, even though the paddling isn’t as technical as the Middle Fork. Log jams sit around almost every bend; sharp, fast turns lead into strainers and sweepers; just-submerged boulders make catching a fin likely. Navigating a fully loaded board through this type of water is not for the inexperienced. In addition to rock-solid paddling skills, trips like the South and Middle Fork require a backcountry camping resume full of multi-day trips in remote, grizzly bear country. In other words, you have to have your skills and gear fully dialed for a trip like this.
If this description does nothing but pique your interest, plan for at least 6 days (more if you have the time and can bring enough food). Packing in can take a full day depending on your horse-riding experience, and the paddling takes another 3 or 4 days, depending on river levels, amount of scouting and portaging required, inclement weather, and how long you paddle each day. Late July or early August are the best times to float the South Fork; water levels are low enough to reduce the danger, yet high enough for paddling. In addition to a few cans of bear spray (mandatory for almost every Montana float) I would pack extra fins, both short and super short, an extra paddle, an extra pump and patch kit, foul weather gear, extra food, and a robust first-aid kit along with high-quality camping and paddling gear. A satellite phone, SPOT Device, or Garmin InReach is a good idea as well.
Unless you live in the Flathead Valley, just getting the shuttle set can take a day or more. Shuttle services in the Flathead will take your car to the Meadow Creek Trailhead (67 miles and at least two hours from Hungry Horse town), the closest road access for this section, but they’re expensive and you still have to drive to Kalispell, Columbia Falls, or Whitefish, drop your car with the service, and then drive back to the trailhead to begin your pack in.
Truth be told, I have only packrafted this section of the South Fork, hiking in over Lodgepole Pass, which is north of small town Ovando way down in the Blackfoot River Valley. It was glorious and well worth the effort. We pulled out at Mid Creek and hiked the 3.5 miles to Meadow Creek Trailhead, thus avoiding the Meadow Creek Gorge section. At the time, I determined that, in addition to expert skills and bomber gear, standup paddling the South Fork would require hiring a pack-train, 6 or 7 days on the river and slow, methodical paddling that emphasized safety above all else.
In the summer of 2019, I was invited on a South Fork standup paddling trip, but prior commitments prevented me from joining. That crew included some of the best whitewater paddlers in the country. They hired a pack train and took 8 days, so I wasn’t too far off when I first considered standup paddling this amazing stretch of water. They also paddled the Meadow Creek Gorge, though they hired a pack train to take their gear so they could paddle unencumbered. They also hired a local guide who knew the gorge and could help located the make-it-or-die eddies and portage routes. Paul Clark, aka, SUP Paul, made an excellent video about the trip, including their trip through the gorge where they portaged many of the big rapids, requiring arduous and somewhat technical climbing on steep rocks. Visit www.suppaul.com to watch the video.
While expert paddlers experienced with expedition-style paddling in a wilderness can handle the upper South Fork, all but the best, most prepared paddlers willing to risk their lives should avoid the Meadow Creek Gorge. It’s simply too dangerous and rescue is extremely difficult.
At Cedar Flats, the paddling mellows and intermediates can float the South Fork. Here, the river is wide and meanders through thick conifer forests en route to the reservoir. Riffles, submerged boulders and occasional wood make for the biggest challenges on this 17-mile section. Banging 50 or 60 miles up the rutted dirt road from the town of Hungry Horse to the access sites is an entirely different challenge and one that merits a good car with a full-sized spare tire. Paddlers will be rewarded with a relatively quiet float in a lovely mountain setting.
Cedar Flats is the first access site below the gorge; it’s on the left side of the river, just below river mile 56, and is accessed via the West Side Road. Plan to hike a quarter mile or so to the river from the road access. From there, it’s about 9 miles to Spotted Bear, a campground, patrol cabin, and trailhead with walk-in access on river right. The South Fork Access Site is a half-mile or less downstream of Spotted Bear and provides an undeveloped boat ramp and camping if Spotted Bear is too busy. The Billy Garrett Memorial Bridge connects the West Side and East Side roads at river mile 44.5, another 2 miles or so downstream from the South Fork Access Site. It’s a popular takeout spot for paddlers starting at Cedar Flats, providing a nice 12-ish-mile float, and camping is allowed here as well.
Roughly 2 miles downstream from Billy Garrett is the only rapid in the section from Cedar Flats to Hungry Horse Reservoir, a Class II wave train that’s not too hard to avoid or paddle through. Upper Twin Creek Access site is located on river right, a mile or so below the rapid and about 4 miles downstream from Billy Garrett Bridge. The final access point above the reservoir is at “Log Landing” a spot off the West Side road that’s located just downstream of river mile 39.
Below the dam, the South Fork runs for 5 miles before meeting the main stem of the Flathead River. Access is limited to one undeveloped, “locals-only” spot a couple of miles below the dam, but it’s an easy after-work option for locals in the Flathead Valley or a nice short float for visitors. Take out at the Highway 2 Bridge or keep floating to the House of Mystery take out on the main stem of the Flathead, another few miles downstream of the confluence. This section is suitable for intermediates, and even beginning river paddlers willing to drop to their knees when the water gets bouncy will be ok on this section. Dam releases can change water levels quickly and dramatically, so be aware of that potential.
The South Fork of the Flathead holds a special place in the heart of Montana paddlers. Access is difficult regardless of where you put on, and many Montanans find that appealing rather than discouraging. Expert paddlers with the gear and know-how can put together a once-in-a-lifetime, multi-day adventure on the upper 40 miles. Intermediates can sample this wild waterway by braving a long, bumpy drive through a remote mountain landscape that’s just far enough from major population centers to remain relatively quiet. Even the final few miles offer fun paddling that is often overlooked by locals and visitors.
Details and Logistics
- Access – The South Fork headwaters are deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. A minimum 17-mile hike or horse pack is the shortest route to paddleable water for the 40-mile wilderness section. Longer hikes may be required to find enough water to paddle safely. Road access begins at the Cedar Flats Access Site, 50+ miles from the town of Hungry Horse. From there to the Hungry Horse Reservoir, several access sites provide river access, but all require long drives over rough dirt roads. The upper 40 miles have no access besides hiking in or out. Mid Creek is the typical, and recommended, take out for the wilderness section. The take-out is marked by a small sign on river right and requires a 3.5-mile hike to the road at the Meadow Creek Trailhead. Downstream of Cedar Flats, Spotted Bear, South Fork, Billy Garrett Bridge, and Upper Twin Creek and Log Landing provide good access to the river.
- Length of run – Forty miles from the headwaters to Mid Creek. Meadow Creek Gorge is about 5 miles long, though NOT RECOMMENDED, even for experts. Seventeen miles from Cedar Flats to the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Thirty-four miles of reservoir paddling. Five miles (though only three are accessible) from the foot of the Hungry Horse Dam to the confluence with the main stem of the Flathead.
- Level of difficulty – Intermediate to expert. Experts-only from the headwaters to Mid Creek. Intermediate from Cedar Flats to the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Intermediate and advanced beginner from the foot of Hungry Horse dam to the confluence with the main stem of the Flathead.
- Best time/flows to float – Upper section: mid-summer (mid-July to mid-August depending on the year and water flows). Lower section: after peak run-off (late-June) through October.
- Safety equipment – Helmet, PFD, sun protection, quick-release board leash, extra food, dry clothes, high-quality river shoes. Pads, helmets, rescue equipment, bear spray required for upper river.
- Hazards – Remote setting, wave trains, cold and fast water, sharp turns, log jams, long swim potential, headwinds, submerged logs and boulders, sweepers and strainers, headwinds, and lack of cell service.
Key Access Points along South Fork Flathead River
Access Point………………………………………………………………………..(River Mile)
Big Prairie………………………………………………………………………………(96) (pack-in)
Mid Creek take-out…………………………………………………………………(62) (pack-in)
Cedar Flats……………………………………………………………………………..(57) (walk-in)
South Fork Access…………………………………………………………………..(47)
Upper Twin Creek Access………………………………………………………. (42)
Crossover Boat Access on Hungry Horse Reservoir………………… (39)
Gauging Station……………………………………………………………………….(3) (walk-in)
Teakettle FAS…………………………………………………………………………..(2 miles on the main stem Flathead)