Two Wild and Scenic-designated rivers form the west and southwest boundaries of Glacier National Park. The Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River offer scenery, wilderness, float sections, and white water. Together the rivers provide 219 miles of recreation. The rafting season runs May-September, with high water usually peaking in late May.
Rafters should purchase the Three Forks of the Flathead Float Guide ($13), available through Glacier National Park Conservancy (406/892-3250) for locations of rapids and public lands for camping. Flathead National Forest manages both rivers; consult the Hungry Horse Ranger Station (10 Hungry Horse Dr., Hungry Horse, 406/387-3800), nine miles west of West Glacier, for assistance in planning a self-guided overnight trip. Toilet systems and fire pans are required for overnight trips.
Middle Fork of the Flathead RiverMiddle Fork is a fun, splashy place where rapids named Screaming Right Turn, Jaws, and Pinball provide the fun.Bordering Glacier’s southern boundary, the Middle Fork of the Flathead has scenic float sections interrupted by raging white water. The river’s headwaters are deep within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and it drains Glacier’s immense southern valleys.
While the white water here cannot compete with the Grand Canyon’s monster rapids, the Middle Fork is a fun, splashy place where rapids named Screaming Right Turn, Jaws, and Pinball provide the fun. It’s easy enough for kids and a good introductory paddle for a first-time river trip. White-water trips begin at Moccasin Creek and end in West Glacier; scenic float trips begin in West Glacier and end at Blankenship.
The Middle Fork offers several river accesses easily reached along U.S. 2. Different sections are appropriate for overnights, day trips, fishing, and short floats. While a few rapids at certain water levels are rated Class IV, the river along Glacier’s boundary is primarily Class II and III. No permits are required. However, all camping must be done on the south shore; no camping is permitted on Glacier’s shoreline. Since private property abuts some of the south shore, you’ll need to be knowledgeable about where you can camp.
Mountain Photography shoots photos of commercial and private rafts in Bonecrusher Rapid.
North Fork of the Flathead River
From Canada, the North Fork of the Flathead flows 59 miles through the remote North Fork Valley. As the river enters the United States, it forms the western boundary of Glacier. Accessed via the bumpy, dirt Outside North Fork Road, the Class II-III river provides multiday float trips, day rafting, and fishing. Those looking for tamer water can take out at Big Creek before the Upper Fool Hen Rapids. River accesses flank the North Fork Road. No permits are required, but campsites must all be set up on the western shore; no camping is permitted on Glacier’s bank except by permit at Round Prairie. The river ends at the confluence with the Middle Fork at the Blankenship River Access, a 10-minute drive west of West Glacier.
The commercial rafting season runs May-September, with high water usually peaking in late May-early June. Four West Glacier rafting companies lead half-day and full-day trips on the Middle Fork as well as scenic, dinner, barbecue, and evening floats. They also do saddle-paddle combinations that put you on a horse and a boat the same day. Each company launches 4-5 half-day raft trips daily through the white-water section and guides overnight and multiday trips. Children should be at least six years old for white water.
If you’re comparing rates among companies (they’re all very similar in cost), be sure to ask if the 7 percent service fee is included in the rate or added on. Also, ask about the size of the raft and the number of people it carries. Smaller rafts have a more exciting ride. Expect to pay (not including service fees) around $55 per adult for a half-day raft trip or $90 for a full day; kids run about $10-25 cheaper. For more fun, tackle the white water in a small sport raft with more kick or on an inflatable kayak, otherwise known as a rubber ducky. Both run around $65-80 per person for a half-day trip; rates include helmets. Paddles and life jackets are included in all rates, but some companies charge additional fees for wetsuits and booties. Clarify the costs when you make your reservation. Plan on tipping the guide about 15 percent.
Overnight rafting trips range 2-5 days; longer trips are usually paired with hiking, horseback riding, or backpacking. Expect to pay around $185 per adult per day for an overnight rafting trip; rates for children run less. Specialty trips with cabin stays, horseback riding, or flights will cost more. Plan to tip your guide 20 percent. When making reservations, clarify what you’ll need to bring for your overnight. The companies can provide tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and dry bags for your gear.
Glacier Raft Company (6 Going-to-the-Sun Rd., West Glacier, 406/888-5454 or 800/235-6781) is right in West Glacier village adjacent to the river—close enough to the takeout that white-water rafters debark at the Middle Fork Bridge to walk two blocks back to the office. Specialty combo packages include half-day white-water rafting with half-day horseback riding or fly-fishing. The company offers 2-4-day overnights and is the only local company permitted to guide trips on the Class III-IV Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the Great Bear Wilderness. Access requires a flight to a remote put-in near the headwaters for the four-day trip ($1,530).
Located one mile west of downtown West Glacier, Great Northern Whitewater (12127 U.S. 2 E., 406/387-5340 or 800/735-7897) is the one company that offers river instruction through Glacier River School courses. The company also runs 2-3-day custom floats on the Middle Fork.
Just off the highway 1.5 miles west of West Glacier, Montana Raft Company (11970 U.S. 2 E., 406/387-5555 or 800/521-7238) is the only company that can combine guided hiking in Glacier National Park with raft trips. An extensive menu of hike-raft or backpack-raft combos can fill a day or a week. The overnight river trips float the Middle Fork or the North Fork of the Flathead River. One series of North Fork overnight trips includes cabin stays.
Also located 1.5 miles west of West Glacier, Wild River Adventures (11900 U.S. 2 E., 406/387-9453 or 800/700-7056), the smallest company, adds a paddle-saddle combo trip that includes a four-day campout adventure.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Glacier National Park.