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Kayaking In Montana – The Best Kayak Places in Big Sky Country

Mark Armstrong
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Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day surrounded by epic landscapes or you’re after a scenic multi-day adventure, Big Sky Country could be the place. We’ve made a list of some of our favorites for you to check out.

A view on Missouri river at autumnPin

7 Best Places To Kayak In Montana

1: Smith River

A kayaker on a fast muddy Smith riverPin
Courtesy: Bitterroot on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Smith River can be one of the most scenic places to paddle in Montana. Located within Smith River State Park, this is a multi-day river trip that should take around four days to complete. However, you do need a permit before you paddle.

This is a 59-mile trip through a remote canyon, so it can be important to load up on supplies before you set off. The launch is at Camp Baker, where you can camp overnight before your trip.

The only take-out is at Eden Bridge but there are many campsites along the route. Kayak and canoe rentals are available in Great Falls.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I to II (easy to moderate)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Camp Baker, Smith River Road, White Sulphur Springs, MT 59645.

2: Missouri River

Kayak on a bank of Missouri river on a stormy dayPin
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Upper Missouri River is a National Wild and Scenic River that flows from Fort Benton to the James Kipp Recreation Area, where there’s a take-out. There are several places to launch onto the 149-mile stretch of river.

One launch spot is at Coal Banks Landing, where there’s a visitor center and a campground. Launching here can be a good place for a two or three-day paddle through the White Cliffs.

There are many places to stop for a break and camp overnight. You can even camp at the same spots where Lewis and Clark camped during their expedition in the early 19th century.

Kayaks can be rented in Fort Benton.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Coal Banks Landing, 5901 Virgelle Ferry Road N, Loma, MT 59460.

3: Noxon Reservoir

The Noxon Reservoir sits within the Kootenai National Forest. It’s 25 miles long and features stunning mountain and forest scenery all around. It can be an ideal place for kayak fishing, with largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as northern pike to be found.

You can launch in Trout Creek, where you’ll find limited services nearby. There are also no places to rent kayaks.

This is a flatwater location with inlets and creeks to explore. There are also campgrounds, including Marten Creek Campground where there’s a boat ramp.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Trout Creek Boat Launch, 3084 MT-200, Trout Creek, MT 59874.

4: Flathead Lake

Boats and kayaks on a bank of Flathead lakePin
Courtesy: Calamity_sal on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Flathead Lake can be a great place to paddle for all skill levels, with fantastic scenery, flatwater, and plenty of small islands to paddle around. It features 185 miles of shoreline to explore, with several access points for launching kayaks. You’ll also find many campsites and services around the shores.

A good place to launch is at one of the state park boat ramps. Big Arm can be easy for paddling out to Wild Horse Island State Park. The island is only accessible by boat but is limited to day use only.

Kayak rentals are available in several locations, including in Lakeside.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Big Arm/Flathead Lake State Park, 28031 Big Arm State Park Road, Big Arm, MT.

5: Clearwater River

The Clearwater River features a three-and-a-half-mile canoe trail that can be a short, easy paddle through a willow marsh. This can be a great place for viewing wildlife, particularly birds, so you may want to pack your binoculars.

The trail winds through the Lolo National Forest and runs into Seeley Lake, where you’ll find the landing at the ranger station at the northern end of the lake.

You can also paddle along the shores of Seeley Lake if you want to extend your trip. Kayaks can be rented in the town of Seeley Lake.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

3583 MT-83, Seeley Lake, MT 59868. Launch is at the end of Forest Road 17597, off Elaines Way.

6: Jefferson River

The Jefferson River flows from Twin Bridges to Three Forks, where it enters the Missouri River. A dedicated canoe trail runs along the entire 85-mile stretch. You can also fish for trout.

The canoe trail begins at the launch at Jessen Park, in Twin Bridges, next to the campground. This launches you into the Beaverhead River but a two-mile paddle will bring you to the Jefferson River.

This can be great for viewing wildlife, with moose, eagles and various other species to be seen. The river offers several campsites along the route, as well as historic sites that were visited by Lewis and Clark. This can be a six-day trip to paddle the route, ending at Shoshone Landing.

You can rent kayaks in Three Forks.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Jessen Park/Bike Camp, 2829 MT-41 S, Twin Bridges, MT 59754.

7: Lake McDonald

Canoeing on a calm McDonald lakePin
Courtesy: GlacierNPS on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lake McDonald is surrounded by some of Montana’s most spectacular scenery and was formed by glacial carving. At 10-miles long, it’s the largest lake inside Glacier National Park and features incredibly clear water. One thing you might notice is the colored rocks (rainbow rocks) under the water close to the shoreline.

This beautiful lake can be ideal for all skill levels, with flatwater and plenty of places to stop for picnics. There are also several campgrounds around the lake.

A good place to launch is in Apgar, at the southern end of the lake. You’ll also find kayak and canoe rentals in the village, along with lodgings and a visitor center.

Class of Rapids rating:

Class I/Flatwater (easy)

Where to Launch & How to get there:

Apgar Boat Ramp, Apgar Loop, West Glacier, MT 59936.

What Are The Montana Kayak Laws?

US Coast GuardPin

We’ve included a few of the main laws but it’s best to research them for yourself.

  • PFD is required for each person on a kayak or canoe.
  • Children under 12 must wear a PFD while on any moving vessel.
  • Registration is not required for kayaks unless you add a trolling motor.
  • Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) is illegal.
  • white light is necessary for night paddling.

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around MT

If you don’t have a boat, there are many places to rent one or take a tour. However, some of the more remote locations may not always have rentals available, such as Noxon Reservoir.

Final Words

Montana is known for its wild landscapes and wildlife. And paddling can be one of the best ways to explore, just like Lewis and Clark did on their expedition 200 years ago.

There are so many paddling locations to choose from so if your favorite isn’t on our list, let us know. Feel free to share to let others discover Montana’s waterways.

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