April showers bring May flowers, and when coupled with the melting snowcaps around Great Falls, Montana, they also bring to live rushing rivers—a condition that fishing and floating enthusiasts dream of. Whether you want to go kayaking, canoeing or rafting, there are plenty activities to float your boat in Great Falls.
The Wild and Scenic Missouri River
In 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent weeks paddling the Missouri River during their famous expedition, and the river continues to be a celebrated place to dip an oar. Hire an outfitter for a multiday exploration to rival that of Lewis and Clark, but before you paddle their route, a visit to the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center is a prerequisite.
The Missouri River may be called the “Big Muddy” in certain areas, but its cool, clear headwaters, flowing through Great Falls, are anything but “muddy.” In 1976, Congress designated 149 miles downstream of Fort Benton as a National Wild and Scenic River, promising unspoiled and unobstructed waterway wilderness to Upper Missouri’s natural beauty.
Throw a Line
Another coveted designation for the Mighty Mo is its blue-ribbon trout fishing classification. The quality of the fish (rainbow, brown, brook and cutthroat), the water, the environment and the benefits to the surrounding communities, elevate trout fishing here to prime status. The lakes and streams abound with many other species, including northern pike, walleye, sturgeon, perch and catfish, to name a few, and fly-fishing the swift currents is a great way to, quite literally, immerse yourself in the environment.
The Smith River, a Missouri tributary, is another blue-ribbon trout fishery with breathtaking views of wooded hills, open meadows and towering canyon walls. Access to float this pristine 59-mile river is strictly managed by permit and granted by lottery. Apply with Smith River State Park or arrange an unforgettable experience through outfitters that receive regular allotments.
If you can’t get access to the Smith River, head to Belt Creek, another beautiful and bountiful tributary that runs for 80 miles. Watch the shoreline for remnants left behind from earlier inhabitants, including prospectors and railroaders who also came for the gifts the creek gives. Or visit the 130-mile Sun River, which originates in the Rocky Mountains and joins the Missouri River in Great Falls, for great fly-fishing above the Gibson Reservoir.
Ready to give fly-fishing a try? Area outfitters can help you get started.
Looking for a jolt of adrenaline as you float? From May through early July, season runoff raises not only water levels but also heart rates. Kayaking, canoeing and rafting the Great Falls’ waterways will definitely get your blood flowing.
The Sluice Boxes State Park, on Belt Creek, has a renowned 8-mile section of swift class II and III water for extreme adventurists. You’ll want to know your row as you encounter white-water rapids strong enough to carve through the Little Belt Mountain’s limestone walls, harp bends and potential snags. Make sure you strap on the GoPro to prove you pushed the limits to friends and family back home.
Of course, you can enjoy the rugged beauty of Sluice Boxes without getting wet. A scenic overlook perched high above the park provides breathtaking views without the heart-racing rapids.
If you’re not ready to face the river runners, the Smith and the Mighty Mo offer exceptional class I paddling experiences, and the Sun River offers a run just below the Sun River Dam, where it cuts through the steep Sun River Canyon creating a rapid flow for kayaking. As it converges with the Mighty Mo in Great Falls, stand-up paddleboarding is a popular way to go.
In town, the adventure continues. A total of 6 miles from White Bear Island to West Bank Park on the Missouri River is great for kayaking. For 2.5 miles, you will follow the River’s Edge Trail, which makes for a great kayaking and biking experience. The 53 miles of the River’s Edge Trail provide paved walkways and single-track bike trails (from easy to difficult) that parade you past public parks, art installations, museums, restaurants, stunning views of the waterfalls, rivers, prairies and mountains, attractions—including the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center—and one of America’s largest freshwater springs at Giant Springs State Park.
The trail’s 24-plus public art installations are perfect sites for selfies. Stand tall alongside a bronze statue of Sacagawea at Missouri River Courthouse; face off with a grizzly bear sculpture at West Bank Park; strike a pose affront the colorful mural under the 1st Avenue North Bridge; stand up to a 15-foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex, and run with the colorful “Rainboffalo” (the artistic by-product of a bison and a rainbow trout).
For more artistic imagery inspired by the iconic West, visit the CM Russell Museum, which exhibits the largest collection of work by Great Falls former artist-in-residence Charles M. Russell, along with pieces by OC Seltzer, Gary Schildt and other western artists. The museum also has artifacts and a notable assortment of Browning firearms. While there, tour Russell’s home and studio, a National Historic Landmark.
Another acclaimed Great Falls attraction, which will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into another time, is the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn. In 2003, GQ Magazine listed this quirky, midcentury watering hole in its Top 10 Bars in the World and the “No.1 bar worth flying for.” Since then, media outlets, including Frommer’s, USA Today, CBS Sunday Morning and The New York Times have jumped on the bandwagon, or should I say tail fins, to applaud this unusual establishment. Its tiki bar is known for having mermaids and mermen swim in an enclosed swimming pool, visible through a window from the bar, and Piano Pat, an octogenarian who’s been crooning tunes three nights a week for more than a half-century!
Similarly, Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Company (formerly the Front Brewing Company) represents the flavors of the area by using locally sourced ingredients in its fermentations like the strong and sturdy Mountain Man Ale and the Golden Bobcat Pale Ale, concocted to celebrate Montana State University’s 125th anniversary—both are currently available on tap and on shelves throughout the state.
Ready for a visit? Go with the flow and start planning your Great Falls getaway. Remember to play it safe: Always carry bear spray, never enter the wilderness alone and have a map ready. Now, get packing!