Flathead River Rafting

Rafting: Flathead River, Montana
Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Montana (Donnie Sexton/Travel Montana)
Flathead River Rafting at a Glance
Price: $$
River Rapid Class: Upper Fork: II-III; Middle Fork: II-IV+; South Fork: II-III+
Trip in Miles: North Fork: 58 miles; Middle Fork: 15 to 38 miles; South Fork: 8 miles
Trip Duration: Upper Fork: 1 to 3 days; Middle Fork: 1 to 3 days; South Fork: 0.5 to 1 day
Season: North Fork: May-August; Middle Fork: May-September; South Fork: June-August
Raft Types: Paddle Raft, Oar Raft
River Sections: Middle Fork: Essex to confluence with North Fork; South Fork: Kerr Dam
Nearby Towns: West Glacier (MT), Columbia Falls (MT), Whitefish (MT)
Gateway City: West Glacier (MT)
Driving Times: Kalispell (MT): 1 hour, Missoula (MT): 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on section

"Whether it's an easy, scenic float you can take the kids on, or a screaming, Class IV, expert-only whitewater run, you can find it in Flathead National Forest. The Flathead Wild and Scenic River, a smooth-flowing favorite, runs from Canada down the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. The river's Wild and Scenic designation includes the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork above Hungry Horse Reservoir. Its glacial green waters take all levels of rafter through heavily forested terrain, offering Class I with occasional Class II rapids, along with great views of the high peaks in Glacier National Park. Looking to turn up the juice? Try the Middle Fork, which runs through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Make no mistake: You'll find very tough whitewater, especially at peak flows. We're talking Class IV rapids or better—experts only need apply.

The Middle Fork is known as the wildest river in Montana—that's pretty wild. This is a river for which you gotta know what you're doing. It flows through a glaciated valley, surrounded by forceful peaks, studded with huge boulders. The best time to float the river is between early June and mid-July. May is the heavy melt season, and the river gets too rambunctious (and cold!) for all but the most adventurous paddler. The upper reaches of the Middle Fork are roadless, reachable only by foot or pack animal. Shaefer Meadows, about 25 miles upriver from Bear Creek, has an airstrip and is the most frequent starting point for wilderness trips. If the river is running high and fast, you can make this stretch in a day. Most people overnight it though, floating Bear Creek, taking out on U.S. Highway 2. Between Bear Creek and take-out you'll pass Goat Lick, a cliff on the north side of the river that's oozing mineral salts that the mountain goats are fond of. This is one of the few wild rivers where you can regularly see mountain goats.

The North Fork of the Flathead is a little tamer. A little. This is a glacier-born river. Because of high silt content, it's waters are a distinctive emerald color. And they're cold, cold, cold. Floats begin at the Canadian border, and continue southward into Montana for 58 miles. The best time to run this river is usually mid-July to mid-August. The heavy runoff period for this river is generally late May to late June. This is considered an easier river than the Middle Fork, but it's no joke. Besides bucking rapids and narrow channels, the river can have the occasional snag. The hardest part of the river—Big Creek to Glacier Rim—follows immediately after the easiest part—Polebridge and Big Creek.

Permits to float both these rivers are handled by Flathead National Forest, which is on the west bank of these rivers."

Published: 4 May 2011 | Last Updated: 25 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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