Glacier-Waterton National Park

Boating and Paddling
Swift Current Lake, Glacier National Park
Swift Current Lake, Glacier National Park (courtesy, National Park Service)

Two great float rivers lend their banks as boundaries for Glacier National Park: the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead.

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 then is just too rambunctious. 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, its 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 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 many logjams. 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.


Paddle craft and sailboats are allowed on all park lakes. There are rental concessions at several locations in the park, so don't worry if you don't want to pack the boat.

As for motorboats, there are public boat launches at Apgar for Lake MacDonald, Rising Sun for Lake St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Goat Haunt for Upper Waterton Lake. Motorboats are permitted on Bowman Lake and Two Medicine with a limit of ten horsepower or less. Lake McDonald and Lake St. Mary do not have horsepower limits.

Jet skis and the like are not allowed anywhere in the park.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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