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Chapter Eleven - Kayaking Stops In Montana

Route 90 in Montana takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery you will ever see. A few detours off the interstate will put you in the vicinity of some excellent flatwater kayaking. I headed south on the famous "Beartooth Highway" (Route 212) to Yellowstone National Park. I drove north on Route 89 following the Yellowstone River back to I-90. After traveling to Missoula, I drove north on Route 93 to Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park with many stops in between and had some of the best kayaking of my life in Montana. Montana offers much more than kayaking stops along Route 90. There are innumerable historical points of interest such as Little Big Horn and many interesting western towns such as Livingston and Bozeman.



Map of Route in Montana


Stop 1:  Cooney Reservoir, Cooney Reservoir State Park, Cooney, MT

Directions:  22 miles southwest of Laurel on U.S. 212, then 8 miles west of Boyd on county road.


Cooney Reservoir State Park

Joliet, MT




Getting to the Cooney Reservoir requires that you drive through the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The 68-mile Beartooth Highway, called the "most scenic drive in America" by the late Charles Kuralt, starts out as a two-lane highway west of Billings, Montana. With a posted speed limit of 70 miles per hour, you start out thinking, "How bad can this be if the speed limit is 70 miles per hour?" Well, suffice it to say that this drive is not for the faint hearted.

There were tall, skinny tree branches serving as the only markers for the right and left edges of the shoulder-less road. These branches stood out amazingly well against the blue sky and clouds. Moving at speeds greater than 15 miles per hour was unthinkable. The curves and switchbacks certainly kept me on my toes. Fortunately, there are pull-out areas where you can rest your white knuckled hands, stretch your legs and take stunning photographs. And what photographs you can take along this road! I have never seen anything quite like it. The snow-covered mountains and pine trees give way at around 9,000 feet to a strange, barren plains-like scene atop the Beartooth Plateau. The plateau still held around three feet of snow on the ground in July. The snow had been plowed from the highway but was quite visible everywhere else. Gazing at the Beartooth Plateau you almost forget you are on top of the mountains.



Heading up the Beartooth Highway



The wind was pretty ferocious at around 10,000 feet and I was glad I had purchased a second set of Yakima tie-down straps for my kayak at Big Horn Mountain Sports in Sheridan, Wyoming. The kayak and bicycle on the SUV rooftop took the winds very well. Big Horn Mountain Sports is a very friendly oasis in Sheridan, a very friendly town in and of itself.


Big Horn Mountain Sports in Sheridan, Wyoming


The staff at Big Horn Mountain Sports was so helpful during my stop there that I really felt at home in Sheridan. The told me of several great trips I could make in the area (if only I'd had more time!). The next trip will definitely include the Big Horn Mountains and the Big Horn National Recreation Area


The "Gone Kayaking" Sign at Big Horn Mountain Sports in Sheridan, Wyoming


The whole gang at Big Horn Mountain Sports was going on a 4th of July kayaking trip. That's what you'd expect an outfitter in this area to be doing.

Twenty-two miles southwest of Laurel, Montana on U.S. 212 (the Beartooth Highway), I entered Boyd, Montana. There I turned right onto Boyd County Road at the sign for the Cooney Reservoir. I drove eight miles down a narrow two-lane road to the north entrance of the Cooney Reservoir Recreation Area. The Cooney Reservoir is an irrigation reservoir and is one of the most popular recreation area in this region of Montana. According to the brochure Cooney Reservior was built in 1937 and contains 24,200 square-feet of reservoir storage. The dam and reservoir were originally constructed by the Montana State Conservation Board.


Cooney Reservoir with Absaroka Mountain range in the background


Attractions include fishing (walleye and rainbow trout), boating and picnicking. There are also 75 camping spots available on this large 289-acre site. The site offers both flush and vault toilets, a group use area, grills/fire rings, picnic tables, trash cans, drinking water, and coin operated showers. The Montana state self-pay system allows you to make a day-use payment by putting $5.00 into a small green envelope provided and dropping it into the slot in the fee box. You can also purchase an annual sticker which covers the entire state of Montana and eliminates the need to pay each time.


Boat ramp and dock at Cooney Reservoir


         I had my annual Montana State Park sticker displayed in the windshield of my SUV so I drove around to the west side of the reservoir to find the boat ramp situation in a very hot and unshaded area. It was 92 degrees and the heat was blazing in the sun. Putting in at the boat ramp would have been a bit difficult because of its steep grade so I used the grassy area on the edge of the boat ramp.


Kayak launch area at Cooney Reservoir


There were several people water skiing on the reservoir so I had to be alert to sudden wakes. The boaters were courteous enough but I found myself hugging the shoreline quite a bit given the amount of water skiing activity.


Water-skier at Cooney Reservoir


This is a very beautiful place to kayak mainly because of the view of the snow-covered mountains of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in the distance. The elevation at Cooney Reservoir is 4,240 feet.


Grassy shoreline at Cooney Reservoir


I ate my picnic lunch under the one shade tree that I could find on shore then loaded up the kayak and continued my journey up the Beartooth Highway. My destination for the evening was Cooke City, Montana near the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.


The largest shade tree at Cooney Reservoir with picnic table


After leaving Cooney Reservoir I passed by beautiful hay fields on the road leading back to Route 212. The snow-capped mountains in the distance made a nice contrast to the hot, shadeless area I was driving through.



Hay in the fields near Cooney Reservoir


The drive was a beautiful pastoral scene with hay mounds resting in the fields. The road crossed over a small creek on an old wooden bridge near the junction of Route 212. I could have spent a lot more time at Cooney but it was time to head up the Beartooth Highway.


Stop 2:  Beartooth Lake, Yellowstone National Park

Directions:  Off of U.S. 212.  Beartooth Lake (9,022 feet)


The stunning scenery along Route 212 (the Beartooth Highway) just got better and better the higher in elevation I went. There were pull-out areas so frequent stops were essential for picturing taking and general gazing. The air was so crisp and fresh and filled with pine aroma that I couldn't imagine ever being able to leave this area.



Entering Custer National Forest


Once you reach Rock Creek Vista Point at elevation 9,190 feet there is plenty of parking and a semi-paved path (a short 800 feet walk from the parking lot) to a fantastic panoramic view. It's a perfect photo op spot with a large "Custer National Forest, Rock Creek Vista Point" sign.


View of Custer National Forest from Rock Creek Vista Point Overlook at Elevation 9,190 feet


I was so lucky to have blue skies and sunshine throughout the entire drive on the Beartooth Highway. The pine trees at the Rock Creek Vista Point Overlook smelled delicious. I wish I could have lingered at this spot a little longer but I still had 2,000 feet to go to the summit and wanted to get to Beartooth Lake on the other side of the summit to kayak.


View  from Rock Creek Vista Point at Elevation 9,190 feet


It is difficult to convey the scale of things in the West. The mountains are higher than the ones I'm used to seeing in the East. The slope on the southern view at Rock Creek Vista Overlook was gigantic.


View of the Beartooth Highway from Rock Creek Vista Point at Elevation 9,190 feet


When you look down from the Rock Creek Vista Overlook viewing platform you see the beautiful valley below which was made by a huge river running through it years ago. This view has to be one of the most majestic I have ever seen. As you near the summit you start seeing the unusal Beartooth plateau which momentarily makes you forget that you're in the mountains. I drove this road in early July and there was lots of snow around.


Beartooth Plateau


The summit has a nice area to park so you can get out of your car and romp around in the snow near the West Summit sign. The tall poles you see in the background mark the edge of the road. There are no guardrails in places at this elevation so caution is required as you gawk at the extraordinary views while driving.


West summit of the Beartooth Highway in the Shoshone National Forest - Elevation 10,947 feet


After a nippy and very breezy stroll around the summit sign I headed down the other side of the mountains toward Beartooth Lake and Cooke City, my destination for the evening.


Beginning the descent


The glacial lakes are numerous and beautiful along the Beartooth Highway, but the lake I had been looking forward to kayaking in for over 2,000 miles finally came into view while descending on the other side to 9,022 feet — Beartooth Lake. It was great to be able to check the altitude on my Garmin 76S GPS all along the Beartooth Highway. Before I left New York I had programmed waypoints into the Garmin of the location of every place I wanted to kayak. The GPS was a huge help finding my way to these points.


Beartooth Lake


Reaching Beartooth Lake was a big thrill after seeing its waypoint dot approaching on the GPS for so long as I slowly made my way along the curvy road. It's hard to describe the exhilarating, scary and awestruck feeling you have as you drive the Beartooth Highway, but it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Before I reached Beartooth Lake I passed several small glacial lakes that were not quite large enough for kayaking but whose pristine water were very inviting.


Glacial lake near summit of Beartooth Mountains


Beartooth Lake is a small body of water next to the Beartooth Campground. The first thing you see upon entering the parking area is a sign that says, "This is grizzly bear country." I was happy to see two other boaters at the site, and between us we made enought noise to alert any grizzly of our presence. The couple had just finished taking out their inflatable kayak from Beartooth Lake. They looked pretty cold and told me that it was great kayaking, but that the water was very cold. They were dressed in hats and winter jackets. I added a few more layers and unloaded my kayak and gear. In addition to the boat ramp the launch area has a lovely grassy area where I managed to launch without getting my feet too wet, for which I was grateful given the water temperature and howling wind. The sun had also ducked behind some clouds.


Sandy launch area at Beartooth Lake


The scenery from the water was more beautiful than I could have imagined. I kayaked along the shore of the lake taking care to watch for large boulders. The north end of the lake empties into a stream so I avoided getting too close to that action as the wind started kicking up. Although it is not a large lake, for breath-taking beauty and sheer mountain scenery this has got to be one of the best kayaking spots on the planet. The wind was blowing quite a bit but the lake itself was fairly calm.


West end of Beartooth Lake


The west end of the lake should be avoided as it empties into a fast-flowing stream. However, the rest of the lake offers spectacular scenery and flatwater. I didn't kayak here too long because I had a fairly aggressive itinerary for the day and still faced a 4,000 feet descent from the Beartooth Highway into Cooke City.


Rocky shoreline of Beartooth Lake


The boulders along the shoreline are plentiful so you should keep a watchful eye out while kayaking. There are lots of grassy landing areas around the lake.


Sign for Beartooth Lake at elevation 9,022 feet


There is a nice campground at Beartooth Lake in the Shoshone National Forest. The pines smelled wonderful all around the Beartooth Lake area.


Shoshone Forest near Beartooth Lake


Rising above Beartooth Lake is the Beartooth Butte. There was a good amount of snow on the butte even in July. If I had had more time I would have landed on the opposite shore and climbed up the grassy slope to the base of Beartooth Butte. It looked very inviting. It would probably have been worth camping here for the night just so I could have had more time in this area.


Beartooth Butte rising above Beartooth Lake


The photograph below shows the smooth waters of Beartooth Lake on this particular day. I'm sure the weather can change suddenly here so it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on the clouds and sky. The grassy launch area can be seen in the foreground of the photograph.


Landing site at Beartooth Lake


The Beartooth Highway weaves back into Wyoming but I have included this kayaking stop in the Montana section.



Stop 3:  Yellowstone River, MT

Directions:  Off of Route 89.


Yellowstone River

Gardiner, MT


Gardiner, Montana is located at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, with the Yellowstone River running right through the middle of town. It was founded in 1880 and is the only year-round entrance to the park. With the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the north, Yellowstone to the south and the Gallatin Wilderness to the west, Gardiner makes great location for the adventurer's base camp. The Yellowstone River can be dangerous and swift in many areas and caution is advised. The most popular stretch of the Yellowstone River in Montana is from Gardiner to Livingston where the river flows for about fifty miles of twists and turns. The first part of this stretch from Gardiner to Corwin Springs is fairly swift and narrow. Below Corwin Springs the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon which is deeper and faster moving water. It is very difficult water to navigate, and should be done by only experienced guides.

Downstream from Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone River flows past the towns of Miner, Emigrant, Pray, Pine Creek, and Brisbin before entering Livingston. The stretch from just below Pray to Livingston is a wonderful and famous stretch. The beautiful scenery makes this an excellent part of the river. This section provides very nice kayaking and floating opportunities. The section from Gardiner to Livingston is followed by Route 89.

US Route 89 outside of Gardiner, has a posted speed limit of 70 mph and runs all the way north to Livingston, Montana. I didn't drive at that speed because there was so much to look at on both sides of the road.


Yellowstone River


It was the first time in two days that I had driven over 20 miles per hour (because of driving through Yellowstone and the Beartooth Highway). The Yellowstone River runs along US 89 and is made accessible to rafters, kayakers and fishermen at the many named fishing access points. Having these points named makes it very easy to remember a great spot to access the river once you locate your favorite one. There were many people rafting and floating the Yellowstone River along US 89 on this beautiful day I drove Route 89 towards Livington.


People floating the Yellowstone River


One of the best places I found for launching a kayak is the "Point of Rocks" fishing access point. The current was not too strong so I was able to easily return to the spot from which I launched after exploring for a time.


There are many excellent kayaking outfitterss that run river tours along the Yellowstone River. They will drop you off and pick you up at designated areas if you wish. You don't have to choose the whitewater tours if you simply want to kayak some flatwater sections of the river. Some of the best are:


Adventures Big Sky

47200 Gallatin Road

Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730


Geyser Whitewater Exp., Inc.

46651 Gallatin Road

Gallatin Gateway, MT 59730


Katherine Howe

Sun Raven Guide Service

73 Chicory Road

Livingston, MT 59047


Montana Whitewater, Inc.

P.O. Box 1552

Bozeman, MT 59774



Yellowstone Raft Company

P.O. Box 46

Gardiner, MT 59030



This wonderful stretch of road between Gardiner and Livington offers excellent scenery, fishing and kayaking. Route 89 hooks back up with Interstate 90 in Livingston.


Yellowstone River, north of Gardiner, MT


Stop 4:  Cutler Lake, MT

Directions:  23 miles north of Gardiner, MT on US 89.

GPS: N45.15142 W110.82828


Cutler Lake was on my list of places I wanted to kayak when I researched Route 89 prior to starting out of my trip. However, it turned out to be one of the hardest places to find, but also one of the most remote and beautiful areas I visited. Below is a topo section which shows its position relative to the Yellowstone River which runs along Route 89.


Topo map showing Cutler Lake


Driving north from Gardiner on Route 89, look for mile marker 17. Then take a left on Tom Miner Creek Road, a fairly good-sized dirt road. You will cross the Yellowstone River then head up a hill. Keep left making sure you stay on Tom Miner Road. You will then cross Tom Miner Creek.


Tom Miner Creek


After crossing Tom Miner Creek I passed several beautiful horses who looked on curiously at the kayak on my SUV roof.


Horse near Tom Miner Creek


At the next fork in the road you go left on the road that does not go up the hill. The narrow road winds quite a bit, but eventually climbs up above the Gallatin Valley to Cutler Lake.


View of the Yellowstone River from Tom Miner Road


This lake is very secluded and has a launch area, one fire ring and parking near the launch site. Only four-wheel drive vehicles should attempt to park close to the lake at Cutler Lake. The drive should be taken pretty slowly.


Tom Miner Road


This was a pretty narrow road in some places after crossing Tom Miner Creek.



Another View of Tom Miner Road


At an elevation of about 5,200 feet, Cutler Lake is surrounded by bullrushes and reedy vegetation. Cutler Lake itself is very sedgy with grasslike marshy plants near the shoreline. The lake is very calm and makes for quiet kayaking with spectacular scenery.


Cutler Lake


I had the entire lake to myself except for a brief visit by a couple in a pickup truck. It was so quiet while I was out on the lake that the brief interruption provided by the couple's argument seemed extremely loud and obnoxious. The man who was clanging something around in the truck bed, completely oblivious to me and my kayak out on the lake, started screaming at the woman in the passenger seat, "I ain't gonna take no orders from a woman!" I gulped hard, readjusted my fancy Eastern feminist sensibilities by saying to myself, "You're in Montana now" and kayaked on. I was glad when they moved on and I had Cutler Lake all to myself.


Cutler Lake - out in the middle of nowhere


Watching closely for rattlesnakes as the sun was really blaring down, I packed up my kayak and gear and started the rather tedious drive back down to Route 89.


Fire ring near launch area at Cutler Lake


The launch site was nice for either a canoe or a kayak.


Launch site at Cutler Lake


The launch area had a nice place to park and turn around.


Launch area at Cutler Lake



Some of the best views appear as you head back to U.S. 89 and overlook Paradise Valley.


Paradise Valley



This was a nice Montana scene along Tom Miner Road heading back from Cutler Lake.


Tom Miner Road to Cutler Lake


Click here for a Quicktime panorama I took of Cutler Lake.


Stop 5:  Missouri Headwaters State Park, MT

Directions:  Three Forks exit off Interstate Route 90, East on Route 205, 3 miles north on Route 286.


Missouri Headwaters State Park

1400 South 19th St.

Bozeman, MT 59715

(406) 994-4042



The 530-acre Missouri Headwaters State Park sits where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers converge to form the 2,300-mile Missouri River. Lewis and Clark anticipated these important headwaters all the way up the Missouri River. The Missouri Headwaters State Park is an undeveloped park that provides outdoor interpretive signs, picnic spots, short hiking trails and a small campground.


Children wading in the Jefferson River

Headwaters State Park


The Class I waters are good for paddling and powerboating. Many canoeists recreating the journey of Lewis and Clark come through the park. If the water levels are high the Jefferson River makes the easiest river to kayak as the access is by far the best.


Grave marker at Headwaters State Park


Again you will want to be alert for rattlesnakes in the hot sun. There are signs posted everywhere to remind you of this.


"Beware of Rattlesnakes" sign at Headwaters State Park


Stop 6:  Jefferson River, Cardwell, MT

Directions:  Exit 256 off Interstate Route 90 - Three Forks – Put in at Cardwell Fishing Access Site, 1 mile south of Cardwell on Route 359. Take out anywhere along MT 2. These are Class I waters.



Cardwell Bridge Fishing Access site is located on the Jefferson River at river mile 36. Mayflower Bridge is the next access site up stream from Cardwell Bridge. Lewis & Clark Caverns is the next site down stream from Cardwell Bridge. Cardwell Bridge is one of 11 managed sites on the Jefferson River and provides an excellent port of entry into the Jefferson River very near Interstate 90.


Fishing Access sign at Cardwell Bridge


This section of The Jefferson River provides an easy trip for beginning kayakers. There are no rapids anywhere on the river and the current moves slowly for most of its length. The fastest flows, which aren't especially fast, are found in the upper section between Twin Bridges and Cardwell. Low water can be a problem for kayakers especially on the last twenty miles of the Jefferson River.


Evidence of beavers along the Jefferson River


There is a nice sandy area for launching a kayak or canoe at the Cardwell Fishing Access site.


Launch area at Cardwell Access Point along the Jefferson River


When the water is low you may scrape the bottom launching here. You can head under the bridge you crossed on Route 359 to start your trip.


Bridge leading back to I-90 crossing the Jefferson River


Looking the other way you can see the railway bridge.


Railway bridge looking upstream from the Jefferson River


This is the view from the Jefferson River on a beautiful summer day. There was not a cloud in the sky and only a slight breeze so it made for very pleasant kayaking.


The Jefferson River


The landing sites are easily spotted from the river and have bathroom facilities and parking.


Landing site along the Jefferson River


The water is very clear and there were many birds along the shoreline.


Shoreline of the Jefferson River near Cardwell, MT


This is the view looking downstream.


Downstream on the Jefferson River


There was a nice changing facility at Cardwell.


Changing facilities at Cardwell Fishing Access point along the Jefferson River


Stop 7:  Lake McDonald, MT, Glacier National Park

Directions:  Glacier National Park



Kayaks are allowed on all park lakes in Glacier National Park. There are rental concessions at several locations throughout the park and 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.

From the kayak launch site the mountains towering over Lake McDonald are excellent navigational fixtures. The mountains reflected in Lake McDonald make this kayak stop a memorable one.


View of Lake McDonald


Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park and is located on the west side of the Continental Divide. Lake McDonald is approximately 10 miles long, over a mile wide and 472 feet deep. Lake McDonald lies at an altitude of 3,153 feet and is on the west side of the Continental Divide. The Going-to-the-Sun Road parallels the lake along its southern shoreline.


Launch site at Lake McDonald


The lake is home to numerous native species of trout and other game fish. Grizzly bears, black bear, moose, and mule deer are found near the lake but are most common on the north shore. The lake is surrounded by a dense coniferous forest dominated by spruce, fir, and larch. At the westernmost section of the lake in Apgar, a visitor's center and a few lodging facilities rent canoes and rowboats.


Family canoeing at Lake McDonald


There is a nice launching area next to the dock at Lake McDonald. It is made up of small pebbles and allows you to easily slide into the lake.


Fellow kayakers launching next to boat ramp at Lake McDonald


Way out in the distance you can see a blip of a kayak. The moutains make a wonderful backdrop here a Lake McDonald. The winds can kick up since it is a large lake so you should be careful to watch the sky and always keep yourself at a comfortable distance from shore.


Kayaker in the distance on Lake McDonald


The shoreline is full of pine trees and nice areas for landing and stretching your legs.


Lake McDonald shoreline


I was very lucky to have excellent weather on the day I kayaked here. There was not a cloud in the sky and hardly any wind. The water is so clear that you can see for through it to the many rocks below.


Launch site at  Lake McDonald


The boat dock and ramp are well maintained and give you easy access to the lake. Across from the boat ramp is ample parking and restroom facilities. You should plan to spend a long morning or afternoon here as there is much to explore along the shoreline and many birds and other beautiful sounds to absorb as you paddle.


Boat dock and ramp at Lake McDonald


Stop 8:  Swiftcurrent Lake, MT, Glacier National Park

Directions:  Glacier National Park

Elevation 4,878 feet

Looks up to Mount Wilbur 9,321 feet


Swiftcurrent Lake is the center of activities in the Many Glacier valley of Glacier National Park. It is the gateway to the famous Grinnell Glacier. Trails lead around the lake and boats carry visitors to backcountry trailheads for a climb to the glacier. The Many Glacier Hotel which is the largest hotel in the park sits on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake and provides great access to many hiking trails.


Sign for entrance to Glacier National Park


As you enter the east side of Glacier National Park you will see the entrance sign. Driving toward Many Glacier you see astonishingly beautiful scenery. My brother and his son flew up to Kalispell to join me for this section of the trip and we spent several wonderful days exploring Glacier National Park. We stopped quite a lot to take photographs on the road to Many Glacier. The water color is an indescrible blue.


Along the road to Swiftwater Lake


We selected the Swiftcurrent Lake trail which is a lovely trail that goes around the entire lake. There are many other trails which branch off from this trail so it makes a good starting point.


Swiftwater Lake shoreline


You can see the turquoise-colored clear water of Swiftwater Lake in the photograph below. The lake bottom is covered with large rocks. The launch area is near the hotel and give easy access to the lake. They also rent canoes and kayaks at the hotel.


Swiftwater Lake shoreline


This was an absolutely glorious day to be in Glacier National Park. It was early July and the sky was clear and blue all morning. Afternoon clouds rolled in and the wind picked up but it was still near-perfect conditions.


Swiftwater Lake shoreline


The water color never ceases to astonish me in Glacier National Park.


Torquoise water of Swiftwater Lake


Jackson Lake came out of nowhere as we hiked down the Swiftwater Lake trail. All of a sudden to our right there was this beautiful scene with the tourist boat taking passengers out on the gorgeous lake.


Jackson Lake near Swiftwater Lake


The view of mountains and large pine trees was spectacular from Jackson Lake.


Jackson Lake shoreline

Jackson Lake shoreline


We left Jackson Lake and headed back to the trail around Swiftcurrent Lake. Everywhere you looked you got these amazing views of mountains and crystal clear water.


Swiftwater Lake


"There is a great abundance of a species of beargrass which grows on every part of these mountains...but the horses will not eat it." wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 15, 1806. There was a lot of beargrass along the Swiftcurrent Lake trail and the white flowers grew large out of the green stalks.


Beargrass along Swiftwater Lake


Below are various views of Swiftwater Lake from the hiking trail on a beautiful July day.


Swiftwater Lake shoreline

Swiftwater Lake

Swiftwater Lake shoreline

Swiftwater Lake



Stop 9:  St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, MT

Directions:  Glacier National Park

Elevation 4,484 ft.


St. Mary Lake is the second largest lake in Glacier National Park. It is located on the east side of the park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road parallels the lake along its north shore. Located at an altitude of 4,484 feet, St. Mary Lake's waters are very cold and lie almost 1,500 feet higher in altitude than Lake McDonald. Here the great plains end and the Rocky Mountains begin in an abrupt five thousand foot altitude change. Little Chief Mountain looks out above the west end of the lake.


Dramatic sky over St. Mary Lake


The lake is 7 miles long and several hundred feet deep. The waters of the lake rarely rise above 50 degrees F. The lake often is frozen completely over in the wintertime with ice up to four feet thick.


Launching at  St. Mary Lake


The water is extremely clear at St. Mary Lake, as are all lakes at Glacier National Park. It is deceptive to look down at the stones on the bottom and think that they are closer than they really are.


Rocky bottom and clear glacial water of St. Mary Lake


I was extremely lucky to have such excellent weather to kayak St. Mary Lake. After a morning hike on the Otokomi Trail near Rising Sun I put in around 2:00 in the afternoon and had several hours of beautiful kayaking.


Shoreline of St. Mary Lake


I headed west to Wild Goose Island which has become a symbol of St. Mary Lake in marvelous sunset photographs. These photographs are usually taken from the Going-To-the-Sun highway but I wanted to get one from water level in my kayak.


Heading west on St. Mary Lake


St. Mary Lake has a very beautiful shoreline with pine trees on one side and rock and brush on the other.


Tree-lined shoreline on the south shore of St. Mary Lake


There were many areas to land a kayak and stroll around the shoreline. I stopped several times just to stretch my legs and take in the view.


Kayak landing area on the south shore of St. Mary Lake


I launched at a very nice launch area next to the boat dock on the lake. The bottom was very rocky and I had to be careful not to hit large bolders while heading out, but once on the lake it was smooth going.


St. Mary Lake near Rising Sun


I was very excited to approach Wild Goose Island by kayak. It was very rocky and covered with logs and debris so landing was not an option. I enjoyed just being that close to the island without actually having to set foot on it.


Approaching Wild Goose Island


Wild Goose Island up close looked very small but the two tallest trees on the island were quite tall.


Wild Goose Island


After rounding the island I headed back east. The wind was kicking up a bit but it was still very easy paddling.


Heading east on St. Mary Lake


The launch area near the boat dock provides lots of space to unload and launch. There is a large parking area where you can park after you unload your boat.


Kayak launch area near the boat dock at Rising Sun


Boat tours run from the dock at St. Mary Lake. The boat tours provide photo and wildlife viewing opportunities. The early morning cruise offers superb lighting and calm waters for photography. On every cruise you'll see waterfalls, rugged cliffs, and ancient forests as well as Sexton Glacier and Wild Goose Island. An optional 15 minute walk to Baring Falls is offered on their 10:00, 2:00, and 4:00 cruises


St. Mary Lake boat dock near Rising Sun


I camped at the Rising Sun campground and walked through this beautiful meadow on the way from the campground to the Otokomi trailhead.


Meadow at Rising Sun along the shore of St. Mary Lake



Stop 10:  Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park, MT

Directions:  Glacier National Park



Two Medicine is located in the southeastern region of Glacier National Park. From the period starting in the late 1890s until the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, Two Medicine was one of the most visited sections of the park.


Boat dock at Two Medicine Lake


The region is a starting point for many trails and tourboats that take visitors out on Two Medicine Lake, where the steep south face of Rising Wolf Mountain towers above the lake.


View of Two Medicine Lake


The region was considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes including the Blackfeet. Vision quests were performed here. Aside from Chief Mountain, the Two Medicine area is the most sacred section of the park to the Blackfeet.


Two Medicine Valley


Several hiking trails lead west and north from the area. Three lakes dominate the area, including Lower Two Medicine Lake, which is also on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Two Medicine Lake, which is the location of the campstore and the scenic boat rides, and Upper Two Medicine Lake which is a 4 mile hike from the trailhead. The view from the road into the Two Medicine area is really spectacular. There are lots of places to pull over and take photos.


Two Medicine Lake


You can rent kayaks an canoes at Two Medicine Lake. It is good to arrive early in the morning because the afternoon weather can be a bit unpredictable. The view from the water is not to be missed.


Canoe and kayak rental at Two Medicine Lake


The water is clear and deep. You can see lots of large stones beneath the surface. There are lots of little coves and areas to land and look around which makes for a pleasant kayak.


Clear glacial water of Two Medicine Lake


The wind can be fierce at any time in Glacier National Park so you don't want to take any unnecessary risks. If you can't kayak on the lake you can always hike around it or on one of the many trails nearby.


The wind kicking up at Two Medicine Lake


There is a nice kayak launching area near the boat dock at Two Medicine Lake.


Kayak launch area at Two Medicine Lake


Stop 11:  Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park, MT

Directions:  Glacier National Park


I drove north of Kalispell, MT to Polebridge, a remote village near Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park. The only access to Bowman Lake and Polebridge is via an unpaved road out of Glacier National Park. The Camas Road at Apgar in Glacier National Park is paved for the first 11 miles. Then the unpaved, rough and narrow North Fork Road takes you the rest of the way to Polebridge. I drove very slowly, making sure my kayak didn't bounce around too much. The 25-mile drive took me two hours. My kayak and I arrived in one piece, but we were a bit dusty.


Road to Bowman Lake



The forest fire of 2001 devastated this section of Glacier National Park and it was good to see signs of life amongst the ruin.



Road to Bowman Lake



There were beautiful wildflowers all along the road to Bowman Lake showing how resilient nature is in such a short time period.


Wildflowers along the road to Bowman Lake



Fireweed typically grows in areas after a forest fire and there was lots of evidence of the plant along the road to Bowman Lake.




After quite of bit of bumping along I was very happy to see the sign for Polebridge


Sign for Polebridge in the Flathead National Forest


At last the welcome sign for Polebridge, Montana.


Welcome to Polebridge Sign


I parked my SUV in Polebridge, MT in front of the legendary Northern Lights Saloon. Polebridge is where the serious adventurers hang out and have a hamburger after having spent the last few days in the backcountry, on the river, or on the lakes around Polebridge.


Parked at Polebridge, Montana in front of the Northern Lights Saloon


The Northern Lights Saloon also serves cold beer and rainbow trout. You can eat that delicious trout outside at one of the picnic tables out front, or in the wood-paneled, propane-lamp-lit interior.


Northern Lights Saloon


I stopped in at the Polebridge Mercantile, an old store with a surprisingly wide selection of food and supplies, including freshly baked cookies and pastries (which were amazing). Polebridge seems to be a required stop in these parts, and the place was buzzing with about twenty people in the whole town, which is more people than I had seen the entire day. The Polebridge Mercantile is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. It is open seven days a week throughout the entire year. The "Merc" is a U. S. Post Office in addition to carrying groceries, freshly ground coffee, home baked danish, bread, cookies and other treats. They also carry propane and fishing tackle.


Polebridge Mercantile


Continuing on from Polebridge I still had a ways to go to get to Bowman Lake. The burnt trees reminded me of the area near the northeastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park which I had just driven through. The devastation seems to go on for mile after mile.


Forest along the road to Bowman Lake


Looking south I could see the mountains near the interior of Glacier National Park in the distance.


Along the Road to Bowman Lake


I continued down the dusty road enjoying the fresh air and sunshine and looking forward to kayaking in Bowman Lake.


Road to Bowman Lake


After quite of bit of bumping along I was very happy to see the Bowman Lake sign and especially happy to see that I had only six miles left to go.


Sign for Bowman Lake


I stopped to take a photo of this cute little cabin on the road to Bowman Lake. With the red poppies in front and the tall pines behind the cabin the scene looked to me to be the quintessential Montana cabin scene.


Cabin and Poppies

The rugged trip to Bowman Lake was well worth the effort it took to get there. Bowman Lake is a large glacial lake surrounded by extremely gorgeous mountains and pine trees. The water is so clear that the depth is deceiving. It looks as if the bottom is very close as you look down at the rocks. However, when you dip your paddle straight down you don't touch the bottom.


Bowman Lake


It was 83 degrees and very sunny when I launched at the boat ramp area. The launch area is made up of small pebbles and is not very steep. Several very tame deer were grazing near the shoreline and didn't seem bothered in the least by my kayak launch.


Launching at Bowman Lake


I paddled Bowman Lake for two glorious hours in solitude and when I returned to the launch area to land some very nice kayakers who turned out to be from Helena, Montana were just launching. One of them was originally from New York Ciyt. She started talking about how she and her husband had come out to Glacier National Park twenty years ago. They ended up liking it so much that they moved out to Helena. I kayaked with them for a while and she was kind enough to use my digital camera to take a photograph of me on Bowman Lake.


Kayak launch area at Bowman Lake


The water was perfectly flat when I launched and remained calm for about an hour. As the afternoon rolled around the wind grew a bit more intense. I couldn't stop taking photographs from my kayak cockpit so I ending up stopping every few seconds to record yet another amazing scene.


Kayaking on Bowman Lake


Although this is bear territory I did not see any signs of bears. On the drive back however, a mountain lion crossed the dirt road in front of me. He moved on quickly, as did I.


Bowman Lake Shoreline


The smooth water surface in this photograph makes it look retouched or 'painterly' but it is really an untouched photograph of the scene.


Bowman Lake


The sign reads: "Caution - Sudden Storms May Occur - Life Preservers Required." It is best to be cautious here because it is very isolated and you might not see anyone for hours. You would have to pretty much plan to depend on yourself and your own kayaking skills to get you out of a jam here.


Sudden Storms sign on Bowman Lake


The smooth water reflected the mountains, tree and big Montana sky.


Bowman Lake


This is the gently sloping launch area at Bowman Lake.


Launch area at Bowman Lake


I took this photograph just before launching and it has quickly become one of my favorite from the entire trip. The peace of this place is really reflected in the photograph.


Launching at Bowman Lake


As I paddled further out towards the mountains it seemed as if they would never get any closer no matter how long I paddled. The distances were difficult to estimate.


Bowman Lake


I liked the contrast of my yellow Dagger Meridien-SK against the background of these spectacular mountains.


Kayaking on Bowman Lake


I finally made it down to the little bend in the lake.


Bowman Lake


It's no wonder I didn't make it to the eastern tip of the lake as I kept stopping to take in the views and photograph everything all around me.


Kayaking on Bowman Lake



Stop 12:  Big Arm State Park, Flathead Lake, MT

Directions: 14 miles north of Polson on U. S. 93

Big Arm State Park

Big Arm, MT



Driving north of Missoula, Montana on US Highway 93 to Polson I saw the beautiful Mission Mountains on my right the Salish Mountains on my left and eventually Flathead Lake stretched out before me. Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River and is 28 miles long and about 15 miles wide. Two scenic highways parallel the lake. On the west side, US Highway 93, and Route 35 on the east wind along the curving shorelines.


Sign for Flathead Lake


Map of Flathead Lake


I had one of the nicest campsites of my trip at Big Arm State Park in Big Arm, Montana. My campsite was right on the shore of Flathead Lake so I could literally step out of my tent in the morning and get in my kayak.


My campsite at Big Arm State Park right on the lake


My little North Face Slip Rock tent served me well throughout my trip being very easy to set up and tear down and being very light. It did well in the wind and rain.


My North Face tent at the water's edge at Flathead Lake


My campsite neighbors had two kayaks and enjoyed paddling along the shoreline of Flat Head Lake.


Kayaks on the shore of Flathead Lake


My other neighbors had this nice catamaran at their campsite. They were happy when the kicked up on the lake.


My camping neighbor at Big Arm State Park


The drive along Flathead Lake is spectacular.


View from the east side of Flathead Lake



I got up early in the morning and did a 9-mile paddle out and back to Wild Horse Island. The water was very smooth and crystal clear at 6:30 a.m. when I left.


6:30 a.m. launch from my campsite

Flat water on Flathead Lake at 6:30 a.m.


I made it back to camp just as the wind was really whipping up and white caps were forming. The water had been so smooth when I set out early in the morning. Flathead Lake is a paddler's dream but, as on other large lakes, conditions can change quickly.


The wind kicks up Flathead Lake


Wild Horse Island is Flathead Lake's largest island and is a wildlife refuge for more than 75 species of birds, mule deer, bighorn sheep, badgers, porcupines, coyotes and bear. The legend has it that the Salish Indians used this island to protect their horses from raids by their northern neighbors the Blackfeet.


My Destination - Wild Horse Island


I took this sunset photograph of Wild Horse Island from my campsite at Big Arm State Park.


Sunset on Wild Horse Island


I was a bit disappointed to find no wild horses near the shoreline, only a mule deer and her two fawns along the shore of this large island in Flathead Lake. The winds picked up from the east just about the time I arrived at Wild Horse Island so I couldn't spend much time exploring the shoreline.


Nearing Wild Horse Island


Wild Horse Island



The view from my kayak cockpit as I looked out over the hills on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake.


View of Flathead Lake from my kayak


There is a nice launch area and dock at Big Arm State Park.


Kayak launch area at Flathead Lake


There was a small sandy beach area on the western shore of Flathead Lake near Big Arm State Park.


Landing area on western shore of Flathead Lake


Since Flathead Lake caters to large boats there is a waterside gasoline station directly opposite the Big Arm State Park.


Waterside gasoline stop at Big Arm on Flathead Lake


Big Arm State Park has a nice beach area and a dock near the kayak launch area. There is a place to park near the launch area so it makes loading and unloading easy.


Beach at Big Arm State Park on Flathead Lake


A small fishing boat was out in the middle of the lake as I kayaked nearby.


Small fishing boat on Flathead Lake


I enjoyed an early evening kayak on Flathead Lake on my first night there.


View of Big Arm State Park from the water



Stop 13:  Lake Mary Ronan, MT

Directions:  East of Route 93, 7 miles out of Dayton, MT

Season: April 1 - February 28; campground closes 9/30 Fee: $4 day use; $12 camping

Telephone: 406-752-5501



I drove north on Route 93 to Mary Ronan State Park and kayaked in Lake Mary Ronan, a smaller, calmer and more secluded lake than Flathead Lake. After the turnout for Lake mary Ronan (which is clearly marked from Route 93) I stopped briefly at a small convenience store which turned out to be the last one for quite a while. They were well stocked and had about everything you would need for an excursion to Mary Ronan State Park.


Montana State Parks Fee Schedule Sign at Lake Mary Ronan


It is just seven miles west of Flathead Lake and felt very much off the beaten path. The drive to the lake was lined by Douglas fir and western larch.


Road to Lake Mary Ronan


There were only three other boats in the water and two of them were kayaks. I didn't kayak long at this beautiful spot because the clouds were blocking the sun and it felt 10 degrees cooler than Flathead Lake and I wanted to get to Kalispell.


Kayaker on Lake Mary Ronan


There is a very nice boat ramp and kayak launch area at Lake Mary Ronan.


Boat ramp and dock at Lake Mary Ronan


There were several marshy areas of the lake that were great for viewing birds.


South end of Lake Mary Ronan


The boat ramp at Lake Mary Ronan is next to a nice floating dock.


Concrete boat ramp at Lake Mary Ronan


There is a nice dock at the lake and to the right of the dock is a small area for kayak launching.


Dock at Lake Mary Ronan


The small stoney area next to the dock makes the best kayak launch area. There is ample parking near the dock so loading and unloading is make easy.


Kayak launch area next to dock at Lake Mary Ronan


The Salish Mountains can be viewed from Lake Mary Ronan.


North end of Lake Mary Ronan


That small dot in the photograph below is a fellow kayaker out on an overcast day on Lake Mary Ronan.


Fellow kayaker on Lake Mary Ronan


The sun came out from behind the clouds briefly while I kayaked on the lake. This would be a great place to camp and I wish that I would have had more time to spend here. It is a beautiful area. Apparently ice fishing is very popular here in the winter. Snappy's in Kalispell (telephone: 406-257-7525) sponsors a free annual ice fishing derby which draws over 500 anglers.


Lake Mary Ronan


Lake Mary Ronan is named for Mary Ronan, whose memoir Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan is a vivid story of her journey across the Great Plains, her childhood on the Colorado and Montana mining frontiers, her formative years on a California farm, her experiences as a student in a Los Angeles convent school, and finally her return to Montana as a bride to live on the Flathead Indian Reservation as the wife of Indian agent Peter Ronan. The book tells the story of her amazing experiences on the frontiers of Montana and the American West.


Photograph of Mary Ronan




Stop 14:  Other Optional Stops



Yellow Bay State Park, MT

Directions: 15 miles north of Polson on Montana 35

A wide, sandy beach with tent camping spots



Yellow Bay State Park is located on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. Yellow Bay is in the heart of the famous Montana sweet cherry orchards. The cherry blossoms are a beautiful sight during the spring. The park includes Yellow Bay Creek, four walk-in tent camping spots and a wide, sandy beach for swimming, sunbathing, scuba diving, boating, fishing and bird watching.


The Montana Orchard website allows you to purchase their cherry products from this Flathead Lake region. The products are really amazing.



Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, MT 

Directions: Off of US 93 75 miles north of Missoula and 2 miles south of Polson in the Flathead Indian Reservation. Mission Valley, Vehicle access across the dam and along the north side of the Refuge.




Pablo National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1921 and is located within the Flathead Indian Reservation (known as the Tribal Trust Lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) 2 miles south of Polson, Montana. Most of the 2,542 acres is part of a reservoir so the exposed land area is only 692 acres in a narrow band around the reservoir. Pablo is a prime nesting habitat for numerous bird species such as the Green-winged Teal, Canada Geese, Bittern, Great Blue Heron and various species of ducks. At least one pair of nesting Bald Eagles produce offspring each year. in 1996, 19 Trumpeter Swans were released in an effort to establish a breeding flock in the region which appears to have been a success. Small mammals commonly found include muskrat, porcupine, badger and the striped skunk. The refuge is located immediately west of U.S. Highway 93. As a part of the National Bison Range Complex, this refuge is managed from the headquarters of the National Bison Range.



Bozeman Pond, Bozeman, MT

U. S. 191, west edge of Bozeman, milepost 87



Bozeman Pond Fishing Access site is located adjacent to the Gallatin Vally Mall. You go west on Huffline, past the mall, then north on Fowler Lane. Bozeman Pond is a day use only site with a boat launch, toilets, water and swimming.


Bozeman Pond




Saint John's Fishing Access, Clark Fork, MT

Directions: Beavertail Hill State Park, 26 miles southeast of Missoula on I-90 to Beavertail Hill, exit 130, then .25 miles south on county road. This small park offers river frontage, a one-hour trail, camping and picnic sites. You can fish or kayak on the Clark Fork.



Saint John's Fishing Access


The Clark Fork, which begins at the confluence of Warm Spring and Silver Bow creeks near Butte and ends nearly 300 miles west at Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille, provides excellent fishing opportunities for big rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout. It is one of the longest rivers in Montana. I stopped near exit 130 to take these photographs of Clark Fork. There was a severe drought in Montana and most of the western states in 2003 and you can plainly see its effects in these photographs.


Signs of drought on Clark Fork


For its entire length in Montana, Interstate 90 roughly parallels the river, providing frequent, although sometimes noisy access sites.


Saint Johns Fishing Access Site Sign



Clark Fork



Clark Fork



Clark Fork



Rocky bottom of Clark Fork



View from Saint John's Fishing Access on Clark Fork



Clark Fork



Clark Fork




Frenchtown Pond, MT

Directions:  15 miles west of Missoula on I-90 at Frenchtown Exit 89, then 1 mile west on Frontage Road. A spring-fed lake park for non-motorized boats only.



Frenchtown Pond


My brother says he skinny-dipped here 20 years ago before it became the popular recreational spot it is today. Frenchtown Pond is a day-use-only, spring-fed lake park with places for picnicking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, sailboarding, kayaking and canoeing. Only non-motorized boats are permitted. This small lake has a maximum depth of about 18 feet.


Montanta Permits

Kayaks that are properly registered in another state may operate in Montana for up to 90 consecutive days.





Table of Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 |
Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 - Part A | Chapter 13 - Part B | Appendices |

© 2016 Diana Schwartz

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