This article is sponsored by Visit Montana.
Growing up, my mom would tell me stories of spending the summer at a camp on a lake. She and her sister and brother would spend their days swimming, playing outside and getting ice cream at a nearby drug store. On the weekends, their dad would come up from the city and join her siblings and her mom in a summer ritual.
We can’t all get away to a lake for an entire summer, but we can fit in bits of family time on or in the water, throughout the summer.
For my family, summer means camping next to Montana lakes, floating on the Yellowstone River in our raft while casting the occasional fly into the water, and stand-up paddleboarding on our local rivers and lakes. Summer means sunshine and water.
Here are a few of our favorite family-friendly places in Montana to recreate on the water.
Canoe the Upper Missouri River Breaks
A very family-friendly multi-day canoe trip is on the Wild and Scenic section of the Upper Missouri River.
The Missouri River is mellow here and easy to navigate as it winds past the picturesque White Cliffs and open prairie. You can imagine Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery covering the same river. Be glad you are going downstream instead of upstream as they did on their way west. You can even stay at the same campsites Lewis and Clark did.
We like to use the put-in at Coal Bank Landing, though you can start at Fort Benton about 40 miles up-river. Spend two nights camping along the way (Eagle Camp and Slaughter River were campsites used by Lewis and Clark) and take out at Judith Landing.
As for your car, you can either set up a shuttle yourself or hire a shuttle service.
There are several companies that lead guided trips on the Upper Missouri. Guides can interpret the Lewis and Clark journey, explain the fascinating geology and point out plants and animals along the route.
Tip: To plan a trip, start on the BLM’s Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument page. You’ll find fee information, a boater’s guide, maps, outfitters and shuttle services, as well as natural and cultural history.
Boat and Fish the Fort Peck Reservoir
The Fort Peck Lake Reservoir is Montana’s largest body of water and is home to more than 50 different species of fish, so it’s no wonder that fishing is so popular here. Anglers can catch walleye, northern pike, sauger, lake trout, small mouth bass and Chinook salmon on this dammed section of the Missouri River.
The reservoir is surrounded by the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which means lots of public lands for fishing, hiking, camping, bird watching, canoeing, hunting and other outdoor recreation. We like to mix our water recreation with some land-based fun, so this is a great setting for our family.
Most people fish the reservoir from boats, but wade fishing is also an option. With over 1,500 miles of shoreline, there is plenty of space to spread out and angle alone. Grab a copy of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge’s map to figure out where you want to go next.
If you aren’t ready to head out on your own, or don’t have a boat, check in with Hell Creek Marina, north of Jordon, for a guide or information on the best fishing spots. Other spots to access the reservoir with a boat include the Fort Peck Marina, Rock Creek Marina, Cole Ponds, and Bjornberg Bridge.
Float and Fish on the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is in our “backyard” and the river we spend the most time on. It’s also a popular float for many others. The fly fishing on and along the Yellowstone is world-class, so it’s not surprising that people from around the world come here to fish.
Fishing access sites from Gardiner to Reed Point let you tailor a day on a raft, drift boat, or paddleboard that meets your criteria for length and challenge. A lot of the time we just float a section of the river, barely casting a line for trout. We also enjoy swimming, paddleboarding, and water gun fights between our boat and our friends’ boats.
If this is your first time or you want to try something new, you can hire a guide for everything from the whitewater section near Gardiner to fly fishing in the Paradise Valley or a scenic float through Livingston. If you are comfortable with your river skills, there are several places to rent rafts, drift boats, or stand-up paddleboards.
Paddle Boarding and Fishing on Dailey Lake
For an easy couple of hours playing in the water, we like to scoot down to Dailey Lake in the Paradise Valley. This 364-acre lake is surrounded by grass and sagebrush. Dome Mountain and the Absaroka Range rise up to the east. Anglers and kids play on the shore and out on the lake.
If you want to spend a few days paddling Dailey Lake, take advantage of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks campground. Dailey Lake Campground has 35 tent and trailer campsites, restrooms and drinking water. It can get windy at the lake, but the fishing is good.
Floating and Fishing the Madison River
Because it is dam-controlled, the lower Madison River is easy to float year-round. We like to put our raft and paddleboards on the Madison in early summer when the Yellowstone River is high. You’ll see all sorts of vessels on the Madison as it winds through beautiful canyons and sagebrush steppe before joining with the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers at the confluence of the Missouri River in Three Forks.
College students on inner tubes, fishing guides in drift boats, and families in rafts and on paddleboards all enjoy floating different sections from Warm Springs to Greycliff.
If you want to spend a little more time, there are two campgrounds along the river – Red Mountain and Greycliff, plus primitive sites all along the banks. Fishing from the bank and wade fishing can be good on the Madison, so don’t forget your fly rod.
Tip: Rent inner tubes, kayaks, paddleboards and rafts in Four Corners or Bozeman.
Swimming and Beach at Seeley Lake
Sometimes we like to play in the water without all the effort of rafts, trailers, and shuttles. This is where camping at Seeley Lake fits in. We normally stay at Big Larch Forest Service Campground on the east side of the lake, but the other two campgrounds, River Point and Seeley Lake, are just as nice and a little more remote.
Wherever you stay, you’ll feel like you’re having an idyllic summer vacation as you spend your days swimming in the lake and your evenings roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
Of course, you can put a powerboat, kayak or paddleboard on the lake if swimming just isn’t enough. And if camping isn’t your thing, stay at a hotel in the town of Seeley Lake and take advantage of the day use beach in Big Larch Campground. There are also several lovely trails in the nearby national forest including the Morrell Falls National Recreation Trail.
Lake Sports in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is a popular summer choice, so we like to settle into one place for a few days and really enjoy it in depth. Bowman and Kintla Lakes in the northwest corner of the park are our favorite spots. They’re a bit of a trek to reach– think an hour or two on a dirt road to get to the campgrounds. But, the work upfront means enjoying quiet days and nights in this beautiful place, since not a lot of people are just “passing by.”
Glacier’s lakes are cold, but refreshing in summer. Their often still surfaces are perfect for canoeing, kayaking or paddleboarding. You can also hike around and between the lakes.
Tip: Make sure you get your watercraft (including inflatable kayaks and SUPs) inspected for invasive species in Apgar Village before making the long drive to Bowman Lake. You cannot put anything in the water without the inspection tag.
Lake McDonald is also a popular spot for water sports in Glacier National Park and a lot easier to get to. You’ll probably share the waters with other adventurers, but you can rent kayaks and paddleboards in Apgar Village to explore everything this lake has to offer. Plus, you can get an ice cream cone after.
Floating the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
If you like unbelievably beautiful scenery, you will like floating the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western border of Glacier National Park. Depending on river flow, you’ll mostly experience easy Class I and II rapids. We love this river because it feels so untamed. Other than passing the tiny outpost of Polebridge, you won’t see any other towns.
The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is a bit more adventurous with Class III rapids mixed in with the smaller rapids. “The River Wild” with Meryl Streep was filmed here, if that gives you an idea of what it looks like.
There are a lot of options for floating either fork of the Flathead: you can bring your own boat and go it alone, hire a guide with a boat or rent a raft or inflatable kayak and have an outfitter run a shuttle.
Tip: First timers should check out the “Down River Demo Days” at Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier. The festival takes place in July with the goal of introducing families interested in the outdoors to rafting. It’s a great way to get your feet wet.