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Gallatin River

Description: Originating in Yellowstone National Park, the alpine-like Gallatin River provides great whitewater and good fishing as it courses through one of the most scenic valleys in Montana. The Gallatin River actually consists of two forks, the East Gallatin and the West Gallatin rivers. Because the West Gallatin is substantially larger, it's generally recognized as the mainstem river. While both branches are floatable, they differ sharply in character.

Vital statistics: 100 miles long from the Wyoming border to the Missouri River near Three Forks. The East Gallatin River, a major tributary of the Gallatin, is also floatable for about 20 miles from Bozeman to its confluence with the mainstem near Manhattan.

Level of difficulty: A difficult whitewater stream with Class II, III, and IV rapids in the upper 40 miles. Very technical, experts only at high flows.

Flow: Annual mean flow: 810 cfs near Gallatin Gateway. Often too low by late July. On the lower river (measured at Gallatin Gateway), 500 cfs is a minimum flow and 2,500 cfs is a maximum flow. For the Mad Mile, 8,000 cfs should be maximum for whitewater enthusiasts.

Hazards: Large rocks, tricky currents, large waves, diversion dams, and logjams on the Gallatin. Barbed-wire fences, sharp bends, low water, and narrow brushy channels on the East Gallatin.

Where the crowd goes: Big Sky to Squaw Creek.

Avoiding the scene: Shed's Bridge FAS to Missouri Headwaters State Park.

Inside tip: Great fall duck hunting from Logan to Trident. A birder's paradise.

Maps: BLM: #43 (Bozeman), #44 (Ennis)
USFS: Gallatin
USGS: Bozeman-MT
Montana Afloat: #11 (The Gallatin River)

River rules: No fishing from boats from Yellowstone National Park to the confluence with East Gallatin.

For more information: Yellowstone Raft Company, Big Sky; FWP, Bozeman.
The paddling: The Gallatin River springs from the snow-clad peaks of the Madison and Gallatin mountain ranges and courses for more than 90 miles before joining the Madison and Jefferson rivers at Three Forks. The Gallatin comes close to being an alpine stream as it spills through the scenic Gallatin Canyon, where frequent rapids alternate with deep, green pools alive with trout.

The upper 40 miles of the Gallatin River contain some of Montana's very finest whitewater with an abundance of technical rapids, tight turns, big rocks, and large waves. While much of Montana's whitewater consists of large drops separated by long stretches of flat water, the Gallatin distinguishes itself with its quantity of whitewater as well as its quality. Some stretches have nearly continuous action. Almost all the Gallatin's whitewater is easily accessible as the river flows mostly through public land and generally runs close to U.S. Highway 191. Even though the Gallatin is a small river, it can sustain good boating well into the summer.

The Indians knew this area as "the valley of the flowers." Despite ever-increasing development, it remains one of Montana's loveliest valleys.

Lewis and Clark named the river after President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin. Captain William Clark explored the Gallatin Valley in July of 1806, on his return trip from the Pacific. He wrote in his journal, "I saw Elk, Deer and Antelope, and great deal of old signs of buffalo. Their roads is in every direction . . . emence quantities of beaver on this Fork . . . and their dams very much impede the navigation of it."

Had Captain Clark proceeded further upstream, he would have discovered some challenging rapids that would have tested the Corps of Discovery's buffalo-skin boats. Modern-day explorers, however, find the whitewater much to their liking.

After its start in Yellowstone Park, the Gallatin dashes its way through beautiful forested country, providing good fishing and excellent whitewater boating along the way. Access is good and public land touches the river in many locations.

The sinuous East Gallatin winds through open meadows and agricultural country. With its brushy banks, deep holes and sometimes silty bottom, it resembles the Beaverhead, only smaller. Its high nutrients make for a good fishery, but access is difficult and fences are common.

Floating on the East Gallatin is possible most of the year, except in particularly dry years. Early in the season, floating is possible as high as the Cherry River Fishing Access Site in Bozeman. This winding upper section can be handled by intermediate canoeists and rafters. Below Dry Creek, practiced beginners can give it a try, although the sharp bends and occasional brush piles necessitate constant maneuvering. Because the river is occasionally blocked by barbed-wire fences and is so narrow and winding, it's rather difficult to float, but some people do because there is no way to get to the river-it's all private land.

County road bridges provide the primary access for East Gallatin float trips, and they occur at fairly regular intervals. Most of the river receives only moderate floating pressure.

The mainstem Gallatin is a river for experienced floaters. From Taylor Creek to the West Fork, intermediate canoeists and rafters can test their skills. During peak flows, however, canoeists will have problems with high waves. Below the West Fork, the Gallatin is extremely challenging all the way to Squaw Creek, and only experts or solid intermediates should try it. The most difficult section runs for 2 miles directly below the highway bridge at Cascade Creek. Large rocks in the river spawn tricky currents and frothing water.

The often-photographed House Rock rapids, the most formidable of all, are visible from the highway, and crowds often gather to watch the intrepid boaters. At peak flows, only experienced floaters with high-flotation life jackets, helmets, and wet suits should try this.

Big fun on the Gallatin:  The upper 40 miles of the Gallatin River contain some of Montana's very finest whitewater with an abundance of technical rapids, tight turns, big rocks, and large waves. Some stretches have near-continuous action and almost all the Gallatin's whitewater is easily accessible as the river flows mostly through public land and generally runs close to US 191. Most of the whitewater fun takes place in May and June, as the water generally gets low by mid-July.

The action starts right where the Gallatin leaves Yellowstone National Park near Taylor Creek (boating is not permitted inside the park boundary). From the park boundary to Big Sky (where the West Fork enters), intermediate rafters and strong intermediate canoeists will have fun. It's broad and shallow with tight turns. It's a Class II run with some big waves. A favorite run is from Red Cliff to Big Sky, a distance of about 8 miles. The river above Red Cliff doesn't get much floating use. It's typically too low for boats by mid-July. Watch for downed trees.
As the Gallatin churns downstream, it grows increasingly difficult. Big Sky to Greek Creek features tight turns and challenging rapids as the river picks up volume. There's a particularly challenging spot near where Portal Creek spills in. Intermediate rafters can handle it, but it's on the margin for canoeists. It's mostly Class II, but Portal Creek is a difficult Class III.

The real heavy-duty Gallatin whitewater lies between Greek Creek and the Squaw Creek Bridge. Not long after Greek Creek, the canyon narrows and the river changes. The turns get tighter, the river grows rockier and the whitewater becomes more continuous. It gets hard to find eddies where it's easy to pull out and bail or take a break. Between Greek Creek and the Cascade Creek Bridge (also known as the 35-mile-per-hour bridge) lie several tricky rapids, including a wicked bend known as Screaming Left Turn and a tricky keeper called Hilarity Hole. While the rapids can be intense (this section rates a solid Class III) the most difficult whitewater comes between Cascade Creek and the Squaw Creek Bridge. At high flows this final 3 miles is for experts only, so don't miss the takeout at Cascade Creek (on the left side of the river, opposite the highway) if you're not up to it.

Below the Cascade Creek Bridge the whitewater is nearly continuous, with big rocks and big water in the narrowly constricted river. This section contains the Gallatin's most famous and most photographed whitewater, House Rock rapid. Immediately downstream lies a boulder field and a swift section known as the Mad Mile. Again, this section is for properly equipped experts, running in groups. Super-expert canoeists have run this section in recent years, but it requires a great deal of flotation and really exceptional skills. This section contains many Class III rapids and a couple of Class IVs.

The last section of good whitewater lies between Squaw Creek and the bridge at the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon. This popular section has some Class III water. Watch for a dangerous diversion dam about a mile before the takeout.

Although the Gallatin loses its whitewater below the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, it remains difficult until it reaches the East Gallatin near Manhattan. The river frequently channels and has numerous logjams that sometimes completely block the river. Combine that with occasional diversion dams (especially in the area immediately below Axtell Bridge), and it all adds up to frustrating floating. Rafters are smart to pass up this section. Only expert canoeists or kayakers should try it during runoff. Afterwards, intermediates can handle it if there's enough water. Irrigation dewatering may deter summer floating in some sections.

Biologists report trout numbers as high as 3,000 fish per mile on the upper Gallatin. While the river isn't renowned for huge trout, there are some nice browns below Erwin Bridge. Anglers should be aware that the entire West Gallatin-from Yellowstone Park to its confluence with the East Gallatin-is closed to fishing from boats. The Montana Fish and Game Commission established this closure to alleviate conflict between floaters and bank anglers. Because the Gallatin is classified as a navigable river, it remains open to floaters who are not fishing.
The two forks of the Gallatin join about 2 miles north of Manhattan (at Gallatin Forks FAS) and provide easy floating, suitable for beginners, for about the next 6 miles downstream to Logan Bridge. Between Logan and Trident (another 6 miles downstream) occasional logjams and sharp bends increase the hazard level. Like the last few miles of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers, the last segment of the Gallatin is alive with wildlife, including waterfowl, deer, and an occasional moose.

The Gallatin River has begun to feel some of the impacts of man-caused pollution. A federal report issued in the 1980s identified four problems:

  • Logging and construction activities in geologically fragile areas is causing siltation in both forks through their tributaries.
  • Brush removal and overgrazing is also causing sedimentation and erosion.
  • Increasing numbers of septic systems, a result of rural subdivision, are polluting ground water in some areas.
  • Urban runoff as well as discharges from Bozeman's sewage treatment facility, are hurting water quality in the East Gallatin.

Those who care about the Gallatin should take the time to get involved.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.)

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