Shoshone National Forest


The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone draws crowds, eager to see the river's waters tumble over its famous falls. As the river flows north into Montana, it opens into the serene Paradise Valley, with fishing enthusiasts floating the waters and retreats for the wealthy lining the banks.

These are the stretches that have made the Yellowstone River famous. But venture east out of the park and you will find a hidden gem of the Yellowstone River, the Wild and Scenic Clarks Fork.

Status: Designated a Wild & Scenic River for 20.5 miles
Location: Northwestern Wyoming
Features: Narrow granite gorges, 1,200 foot canyons, numerous waterfalls and Class IV-VI rapids
Activities: Hiking, kayaking, scenic driving, fishing

The Clarks Fork carves a path between the Beartooth Mountains to the north and the Absaroka Range to the south. Its headwaters begin just east of Yellowstone National Park, flowing southeast, then curving through a deep canyon to head northeast into Montana and its convergence with the main channel of the Yellowstone near Billings.

Early on its way just south of Cooke City, Montana, the river runs through narrow granite gorges, its waters plummeting over frequent waterfalls that make the river itself virtually impassable. Eventually it opens into a broader valley with long stretches of smooth water, but here the river is only teasing. Again the gradient steepens and the stream carves the Box, the sheer-walled canyon that earned it Wild & Scenic status. Solid granite walls tower 1,200 feet above the river in a spectacular gorge.

The river corridor offers something for everyone from the passive sightseer to the thrill-seeking daredevil. Those seeking magnificent views of the canyon can travel the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway along its southern bank. Along the northern bank, hikers can enjoy a trek into the backcountry for several days of solitude. And on the river itself, the quieter stretches bring blue-ribbon trout fishing and the whitewater offers a rollercoaster, one for serious kayakers only!

The trail along the north side of the Clarks Fork is great for anything from a long day hike to several days of camping. Along the way, hikers will encounter spectacular canyon vistas, varied ecologies, and forested river bottom.

The trailhead starts from Highway 296, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, about 5 miles from where the road begins off Highway 212. The Hunter Peak Campground of the Shoshone National Forest is on the right heading south; the trailhead is on the left. Hikers out for the day can explore the land along the Clarks Fork Canyon rim. For 8 miles the trail gently wanders through the benchland above the river. Short cross-country walks to the rim yield awesome views.

Backpackers out for a few days can descend to the canyon bottom. The trail drops down just beyond Table Creek and follows the canyon bottom for a couple of miles to Thief Creek. Beyond this latter stream, the path reascends and heads further east along the high benches above the river.

Backpackers can retrace their route to Hunter Peak Campground, or if they have arranged transportation, keep going. The one way hike ends at the Morrison Jeep Road, about 8 miles beyond the ascent from Thief Creek. The Jeep Road is on the north side of the river. Hikers could also be picked up on Highway 296, but beware of the river crossing to the south side. It can be harrowing and local forest service officials should be consulted before planning it.

The Clarks Fork trail offers a great wilderness experience which relatively few hikers have discovered. But unlike many backcountry experiences in Wyoming, it is not through officially-designated wilderness. Although hikers are unlikely to be seriously disturbed, ATVs are allowed in the area and horsepackers frequent the route.

River running on the Clarks Fork is for the serious and the experienced. The river drops steeply, with narrow gorges, frequent waterfalls, and many portages. Even at low water levels, some stretches are not runnable and others require hurdling through Class V and VI rapids. The falls and portages make sections suitable only for kayakers. Rafts will not let you run these sections.

On the other hand, expert kayakers will learn why the Clarks Fork is a Wild & Scenic River. The 20.5-mile Wild & Scenic section through the Box will challenge even the most skilled. Only a handful of kayakers run it each year and they must wait for low water. They hurdle through numerous Class V and VI rapids, but they also carry over nine mandatory and difficult portages. This is definitely a run for the passionate!

Here's a section by section rundown:

Upper Reaches down to Pilot Creek: Inaccessible for floating, with a narrow granite gorge and several Class VI waterfalls.

Beartooth Highway to Chief Joseph Highway at Muddy Creek: A calm stretch through an open valley. Very scenic with only Class I and II water. The river is accessible from both highways.

Muddy Creek to Crandall Creek: A popular stretch for kayakers, but a bit too technical for rafts. The river cascades through granite gorges, dropping over many small waterfalls. The whitewater is Class IV and some portages are required.

Crandall Creek through the Box: This reach is the famous Box that earned the Clarks Fork its Wild & Scenic designation. As noted, this run is for expert kayakers only. It is rated Class V and VI even at low water and very few try their hand at it. Once committed to the canyon, there is very limited access until you complete the run. A jeep road connects with Switchback Road (Forest Road 119/120).

Lower Clarks Fork below the Box: The most popular kayaking section begins where the jeep road hits the river below the Box. The whitewater is still Class IV and not really suitable for rafts. The common float is from the 4WD track to a takeout on BLM lands at the mouth of the canyon. The canyon scenery remains spectacular through this section.

Lower Reaches: The river opens up again on BLM lands, with Class I and II water suitable for rafting and canoeing.

Scenic Driving
The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, Wyoming 296, runs along the south bank of the Clarks Fork. The route starts from the Beartooth Scenic Highway (US212). It follows the river southeast, offering panoramic views of the Reef, a horizontal band of sandstone south of the river. Vistas of the canyon and its 1,200 foot granite walls are outstanding.

The road passes through scenic Sunlight Basin before leaving the river and heading up Dead Indian Pass. Once over the pass the highway hits Highway 120. Head south to Cody or north into Montana.

The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is part of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Chief Joseph's band of the Nez Perce Indians traveled this route on their 1,200 mile odyssey from their Oregon homeland to the Bearpaw mountains of northern Montana.

Besides wild whitewater, the Clarks Fork also offers a Class I Blue Ribbon trout fishery. The upper reaches just below Cooke City receive some fishing use. The lower reaches where the river emerges from the Box onto BLM land is prime fishing territory. The river is not known for record-breaking size, but its trout can give fly fisherman a real run for their money.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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