My Experience Kayaking Montana’s Legendary Whitewater Rivers

Yellowstone River Montana

Yellowstone River, Montana

Montana is a beautiful and mountainous state in the Northwestern United States. Although known mostly for it’s scenic mountain views and rolling hills, Montana also has a number of great opportunities for kayakers and anglers alike.

Montana has many lakes to explore from the comfort of your kayak, but for me, it’s all about the thrills of whitewater kayaking! If you’re like me, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than tearing down some class IV+ rapids with nothing but you, your kayak, your trusty paddle, and nature.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Montana over the years, and I’ve learned to love it. The only downside when it comes to whitewater activities in the area is that Montana can get quite cold, even in the spring time which is generally the peak season for river kayaking. If you’re used to warmer climates, be warned – you may get a bit chilly out on the waters of this great state.

Montana is home to parts of the legendary Yellowstone National Park. A lot of the most scenic river kayaking opportunities in the state span areas of the Yellowstone River, so that’s where we will start in this guide. Below you will find descriptions of my personal favorite places to kayak in Big Sky Country. If you have a favorite spot not listed here, I’d love to hear about it!

The Beginner-Friendly Yellowstone River

For beginner & intermediate kayakers, families, and those who would rather enjoy a fun but easy cruise down a beautiful river, there’s nowhere better in Montana to be than the Yellowstone River. The best place to start is near the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. From there, you can enjoy a ½ day to 2 day trip through the fun but beginner-friendly class II and III rapids.

This is the closest whitewater run to the National Park, so if you’re on a limited schedule this is a good choice. It’s also an incredibly beautiful ride, and since you don’t need to be constantly focused on surviving that next class V drop, you can actually take some time to enjoy the stunning views. Along the Yellowstone you can spot jaw-dropping views of the surrounding Absorokas and Gallatin mountain ranges. This stretch of water is also pretty enjoyable regardless of the water level, so it’s easier to plan a trip around than some of the more technical rivers.

The Not-So-Beginner-Friendly Gallatin River

For thrill seekers, the best rapids in the Yellowstone area are found on the Gallatin River. Offering mostly class III and IV, and the occasional IV+ depending on the water levels, the Gallatin is a very fun river for intermediate to advanced kayakers. There are stretches that are easy enough for beginners, but with the nearby Yellowstone River offering excellent beginner training grounds, I only recommend the Gallatin for more skilled paddlers.

The Gallatin River is located between Bozeman and Big Sky. It’s another beautiful river flowing through Montana’s legendary mountain ranges. Unfortunately the quality of the rapids on the Gallatin are very dependent on water levels and seasonal weather patterns, so I recommend that you check the river conditions before planning a trip.

The Scenic and Conveniently Located Blackfoot River

Conveniently located near the awesome town of Missoula, Montana, the Blackfoot River offers some very enjoyable recreational kayaking. It’s a relatively mellow river, so it’s great for beginners through intermediates – highly experienced kayakers/thrillseekers might find it a little slow. Most years there’s nothing above a class III on the popular stretches of the Blackfoot.

On the other hand, the Blackfoot River is absolutely gorgeous. Snaking through Montana’s beautiful landscape you will be awe-inspired on this river. Plus, it’s very near the town of Missoula, which is one of my favorite places in the US.

Kayaking Alberton Gorge

The Alberton Gorge, located on the Clark Fork River, is another favorite of mine. Here you can enjoy a perfect mix of exciting class II-IV rapids and beautiful mountain and canyon scenery. There are sections that are very easy and mellow, so it’s a great place to take your family. The only downside I can see is that Alberton Gorge is a pretty popular place to kayak and raft, so you may find it crowded during peak season.

This area of Montana is also great for nature and wildlife lovers. All the various river outfitters and tour companies promise their guests the chance to spot bears, mountain lions, deer, moose, and a variety of birds of prey. Personally, I have only spotted eagles, osprey, and deer, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the list isn’t out there somewhere! Regardless it’s a scenic and fun run to take, so I recommend it to just about everyone!

The Secluded Smith River

smith river montana

Kayakers at Smith River

For those who like to get out into the “real” nature, far away from civilization, the Smith River is a great choice. I consider it to be a hidden gem because both times I have been I’ve basically been alone on the river. The Smith offers fantastic mountain views, a truly secluded and serene nature experience, and some of the best trout fishing in Montana (sorry bass fishing kayakers).

The downside? It’s a permit-only river. And getting a permit is not easy. In fact, you have to apply the year before you want to go, and you’ll be entered into a lottery. If you’re lucky enough to win the lottery, you will be permitted to boat this beautiful 59-mile stretch of river. And if you think you cna sneak in, think again – there is only 1 public put-in and 1 public exit for the entire stretch. We suggest playing by the rules and learning more about applying for a Smith River permit.

Generally the Smith River is a 4-day float, so obviously you need to bring camping gear. It’s not a particularly rapid or intense river, but it does have a good number of fun little rapids. It’s great for families and solo trips alike. Be warned – many bears frequent this area, so be “bear aware” and keep your food well away from camp, don’t bring food into your tent, etc.

If you’re dying to float the Smith but you don’t get approved for a permit, you have two options. You can call the Smith River Reservation line at 406-454-5861 to see if there have been any cancellations you can take over for. The other option is to go with an approved Smith River tour operator.

It may seem like a lot of hoops to jump through, but trust me, it’s worth it! I’ve kayaked this stretch once and rafted it once, and both times I had an amazing time. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing than being out in untouched nature. If you’re like me, I couldn’t recommend the Smith River more!

I have given you the tools you need – now get out there and enjoy the water! If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask. Also, I’d love to hear about your personal favorite spots to kayak in Montana!