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Just Add Water

Six ways to add water to any trip to Montana


Montana is known for its beautiful mountain terrain and unspoiled, wide-open spaces. But for travelers looking to add water to their summer adventure, Montana is home to some of the most impressive bodies of water, from the mighty Missouri River to crystal lakes nestled in view of the mountains. Water activities range from thrilling whitewater rafting tours or relaxing and scenic sailboat rides, to unique river surfing in downtown Missoula. They also pair perfectly with well-known mountain favorites such as hiking and horseback riding. These land and water activities will help travelers plan the perfect day and provide ample time to dry off in style.

Flathead Lake: Sail Boating + Camping

Located in northwest Montana, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the lower 48 states. Reaching 28 miles long and 15 miles wide, the lake covers a large variety of terrain, including sweeping mountains, the expansive Flathead National Forest, and the boundaries of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation. With more than 200 square miles of water, travelers can explore both by boat and by shoreline.

Whether travelers are looking to rent a boat, take a guided tour, or hike along the shore, there’s so much to see on this sprawling natural wonder. Rent a sailboat from Dayton Yacht Harbor and sail to the nearby Wild Horse Island State Park, the largest island in a freshwater lake west of Minnesota. This local landmark is abundant with wildlife and rare plants, and is a popular hiking and boating destination. Or sit back and enjoy the ride instead. Flathead Lake Sailing and Charters out of Bigfork offers cruises on Flathead Lake, allowing travelers to enjoy beautiful views of the sweeping mountains while sailing one of Montana’s greatest lakes.

There’s also more to see of the Flathead Lake area from land. Visitors can sleep under the stars to the sound of the rolling waves at one of Flathead Lake’s many campsites. Many Bigfork residents will say that the best sunsets on the lake can be viewed from Wayfarers State Park. Or after a visit to Wild Horse Island stay the night outside at Big Arm State Park, nestled under a collection of ponderosa pines and junipers. No matter where visitors choose to rest their heads, camping along Flathead Lake is a warm season must.

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Gates of the Mountains: Boat Tour + Hiking

In 1805 while traveling the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark Expedition discovered two limestone cliffs approaching 1,200 feet in height which opened like giant gates to the path ahead. Amazed by the sight, Lewis called the beautiful site the Gates of the Mountains. Visitors can still see this natural wonder just as Lewis and Clark had discovered it 200 years before, both by land and water.

Located just 20 miles north of Helena, Gates of the Mountains Boat Tours offers trips through these towering cliffs for incredible views of the Missouri River, rugged rock formations, and the historic countryside. This is a truly unforgettable Montana experience that allows travelers to explore the most widely recognized landmark of the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Travelers can also see the Gates of the Mountains from land with a hike through the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, which covers over 28,000 acres of pristine forest. This network of trails covers 53 miles and a variety of terrain, including steep switch backs, cave-filled canyons, and wide valleys. Remember to always be aware, not approach wildlife, and to carry bear spray while hiking.

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Yellowstone River: Whitewater Rafting and Horseback Riding

As the last free flowing river in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone River is an untamed natural wonder that attracts world-class fishermen, adrenaline-seekers, and outdoor adventurers alike. For travelers looking to explore the beauty of Yellowstone Country with a hint of adventure, Wild West Rafting offers a number of thrilling land and water trips.

Travelers can first try their hand at whitewater rafting or kayaking the rushing rapids of Yellowstone River. Wild West Rafting hosts exciting trips for all ages and experience levels, from scenic floats to challenging kayak rides through the rapids. Experienced guides lead the way on this exhilarating trek along one of Montana’s most well-known river.

Back on land, Wild West Rafting takes visitors to see the nation’s first national park on the back of a horse while traveling through beautiful meadows and sweeping mountain landscapes. From the fast-paced rides on whitewater rapids to horseback rides through Yellowstone National Park, there’s something for the entire family to enjoy.

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Clark Fork River: River Surfing + Missoula History and Brewery Tour

Despite its lack of oceanfront property, Missoula is an up and coming surfing hotspot. Visitors can enjoy a truly unique experience riding the waves of Clark Fork River, which flows right through downtown Missoula. Founded in 2008, Strongwater Surf Shop has cultivated a loyal following of dedicated river surfers. The river’s waves range in difficulty, allowing people of all experience levels a chance to say they’ve surfed in Montana. Visitors can also kayak Clark Fork River’s famous Brennan’s Wave, an engineered whitewater masterpiece in the heart of downtown Missoula. Named for Brennan Guth, a Missoula native and world-class kayaker who died in 2001, Brennan’s Wave hosted the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championship in June 2010.

After drying off, experience the rich history and the satisfying taste of the local craft beers of Missoula on a walking tour. Take to the streets of the downtown area while learning the inside scoop on all the local tales, secrets, and historical landmarks. Along the way, visitors can stop at one of Missoula’s numerous craft breweries such as the Kettlehouse Brewing Company or Bayern Brewing Company, the only German microbrewery in the Rockies. This is the best way to explore the vibrant streets of Missoula while getting a taste of a true Montana brew.

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Fort Peck Lake: Fishing + Visiting the Dinosaur Trail

The town of Fort Peck in northeastern Montana is home to a variety of animals both living and extinct. With more than 50 different kinds of fish swimming in its waters, Fort Peck Lake is a fisherman’s paradise. Fort Peck is also located on the famous Montana Dinosaur Trail, which features some of the greatest paleontological finds of the last century. Travelers can spend a full and relaxing day reeling in a prize-sized fish and coming face to face with a perfectly preserved creature from another age.

As Montana’s largest body of water, Fort Peck Lake has over 1,520 miles of shoreline, which is longer than the California coast. With so much available shoreline, the lake is perfect for travelers looking to reel in a keeper this summer. Fort Peck Lake is known for walleye, northern pike, sauger, lake trout, and much more. Relax, cast a line, and spend the day fishing on one of the best fishing spots in the west.

Travelers can then explore the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum, which is home to Peck’s Rex, a fossilized T-rex discovered only 20 miles from Fort Peck. The museum also offers a collection of regional paleontological discoveries, including a display of the Cretaceous Sea and its underwater inhabitants. For those looking to get a closer look at the history of the area, the Fort Peck Dam and Power Plant Museum offers guided tours of the plant that powers Fort Peck Dam.

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Seeley Lake: Canoeing + Mountain Biking

Seeley Lake, a 1,025-acre glacially-formed lake just an hour northeast of Missoula, is perfect for a day on the water. Surrounded by the Lolo National Forest and a beautiful mountain landscape, this serene lake is a quiet destination for those looking to relax. But with a collection of mountain bike trails in the area, travelers looking for a more heart-racing tour will find miles of backcountry to explore.

Take a canoe down Clearwater River Canoe Trail for a two hour ride through dense willow marshes and the northern half of Seeley Lake. Paddlers are sure to see a variety of wildlife of all shapes and sizes, including great blue herons, western painted turtles, rainbow trout and more. This is unspoiled nature at its finest.

Travelers can then get their legs pumping with a mountain bike ride through the Swan River Valley. The Holland Lake Lodge bike route is an excellent choice for a ride, offering miles of beautiful countryside in view of the Mission Mountains.

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