This is a guest post by my awesome husband, Henry. Enjoy!
If you find yourself reading this article, it’s probably because you are trying to plan your own Smith River Float Trip. You probably don’t need me to sing its praises. You are here for the things to know when planning your Smith River float.
Please NOTE: Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks have made several changes starting in 2024. I will call those out in the appropriate sections.
For this article, I’m going to make some assumptions: You are not going with an outfitter and you have moderate floating skills in your boat of choice or you are riding with someone who does. We wrote this article because we found planning our first float a few years ago to be a bit daunting. We were going with other experienced floaters but this was only our second multi-day river float and we had so many questions, especially since our first multi-day float took place after we’d applied for our Smith permit.
There’s a lot of info on fishing the Smith River out there but much less on planning your own trip. We did a ton of research and decided to share what we’ve learned over multiple years and multiple Smith River trips to make your planning easier. It’s a fantastic and very doable trip and we hope this helps you plan your own Smith River adventure.
We’ve put together a fairly comprehensive downloadable packing list . There’s a pdf download there and links to lots of products we like in case you need to gear up. Let us know if we’ve missed anything or if you have suggestions or edits that might make this planning guide more useful to others. It should be a living document and we’ll edit it as we get new info and learn new lessons.
- 1 Where is the Smith River and Why Do We Love to Float the Smith River?
- 2 How To Get a Permit for the Smith River
- 3 or Getting Started on the Smith River, MT
- 4 The Best Time to Float the Smith River
- 5 Shuttling for the Smith River
- 6 Planning Your Smith River Float
- 7 Floating The Smith River
- 8 Smith River Take Out
- 9 Additional Resources:
Where is the Smith River and Why Do We Love to Float the Smith River?
The Smith River is located in Central Montana. The 59-mile, permitted section flows roughly between White Sulfur Springs (Camp Baker) and Great Falls (closer to Ulm really). It flows through spectacular limestone canyons between the Little Belt Mountains and the Big Belt Mountains (aka the Little Belts and Big Belts).
You can stay at hotels in White Sulphur Springs or camp in the surrounding area when you arrive. In previous years you would typically camp at Camp Baker, the official put-in where you have to check in with your required permit (more on that later) but in 2020 and 2021 they banned camping due to public health concerns.
You will take out at Eden Bridge (called Chaos Bridge on Google Maps) south of Ulm, a tiny ranching town on I-90. The river flows through a mix of private and public land made up of Forest Service and Montana State Parks land. It is gorgeous and remote and it’s such a popular float that it has become the only river in Montana that requires a permit for private parties to float.
You can fly fish on the river and several feeder streams as well. It’s exclusively limited to non-motorized craft such as canoes, kayaks, rafts, and drift boats.
Floating the Smith River in spring and summer can be a lovely time of solitude and natural beauty. Camping in the established campsites and just listening to the river makes for a wonderful Montana wild experience.
The river can be mildly technical in certain places but anyone with moderate skills will have no problems. It’s just a joy to be out there in the mountains away from the stresses of cell phones, the internet, and traffic. You are truly away from it all (there is no cell service).
Dogs are not allowed.
Smith River Management
The corridor is managed through a public and private partnership with the actual administration conducted by Montana State Parks. Campsites are mostly on public land but a few are on private ground leased by public agencies. It’s very important to respect private property boundaries and adhere to the rules of the permit.
Smith River Flows and Watercraft
River flows on the Smith River can vary widely from year to year depending on snowpack, temperature, and rainfall. It can run from a couple thousand CFS to, well, nearly zero. We have floated it at 280 cfs and 1800 cfs. You can check stream flow data on the USGS website here.
Recommended flow rates for drift boats are above 350 cfs. Below that, you will likely scrape the heck out of your boat. Rafts are ok until about 250cfs, and canoes are good down to 150 cfs according to the Montana State Parks site. In 2021, the river fell to 110 cfs by mid-June. In mid-May of that year, we floated in a raft at 280 cfs and hit plenty of rocks but otherwise were fine. It was a fantastic trip. In 2023, the river rose above 2000cfs for several days on at least two occasions and was floatable well into July.
Who Should Float the Smith River
Really, anyone who enjoys backcountry and remote experiences should float this river. However, it is not a river to do with no experience. If this is your first river expedition, go with someone who knows what they are doing.
There are a few places with rocky riffles that might take some technical rowing but nothing extreme. The major dangers are weather, getting pushed into cliff walls, being stuck on rocks, or popping a boat on a downed tree. We’ve had friends break oars and oarlocks so take spares (don’t worry, that’s on the downloadable packing list !).
If you stay alert, think ahead, and know how to handle a boat, you should be fine. It’s a pretty easy river in my opinion but you’ll have to make your own assessment of the dangers. According to the floater information packet:
“You should possess, at a minimum, intermediate rowing or paddling skills before floating the Smith.” I would add “Unless you are just a passenger.”
How To Get a Permit for the Smith River
or Getting Started on the Smith River, MT
As mentioned, because the Smith River is so popular, you must draw a permit through the annual lottery run but Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (the FWP). You can skip this process by going through a commercial outfitter.
You can apply for the permit online for a $15 non-refundable application fee between the first business day of the year and February 15th.
You will need to create a Montana ALS number as part of this process. It’s all pretty easy and well-designed. You will be prompted for your ID type and license or ID number so have that handy.
The key is to select the correct “license year.” License years in MT run from the first of March. Since you will be floating in April or later in the current year, select that and you will go to a page that lets you select the Smith River Launch Application under State Parks Special Permits box.
The maximum group size is 15 people and anyone 12 years old and above can apply.
Starting in 2024, you can also buy a “bonus point” for $5 ($50 for non-residents). This is an extra chance for the permit. These accumulate every year if you don’t draw a permit that year.
Keep in mind that the trip permit is non-refundable and non-transferable. So the permit holder has to be in the party floating.
Smith River Bonus Points
According to the person at FWP District 4 that I spoke to, these bonus points also accrue exponentially. Whatever number you have gets squared. So if you buy a bonus point every year and don’t get a permit for two years, you get another 2×2=4 chances. If you are unlucky enough to go three years, you get 3×3=9 chances. This might be a good option for non-residents because, by law, no more than 10% of permits may be allocated to non-residents.
Smith River Lottery Results
The lottery results are emailed out to successful applicants within a week or two of the drawing. Over 10,000 applications are submitted and the State publishes some pretty detailed statistics for you to pour over if you want to try to find the best time for success.
Smith River Weather and Flow
However, the real determiner of a successful trip will be the weather and preparation so we recommend taking a look at historical weather records as well. A good resource for this is Climate.gov where you can search by zip code or for more general info you can try Weatherspark.com.
Smith River water levels and river flow can be checked online using the USGS gauge information from below Eagle Creek near Fort Logan. This gauge is upstream from Camp Baker and you see up to 1 year of data. It defaults to gauge height but you can scroll down and select “Discharge, cubic feet per second”. In the winter, you won’t get recent info because it will freeze over.
Lottery Application Details
The State Parks application will ask you many questions
including your first, second, and third choices for launch dates. In 2024, applicants may only select one date. Factors that may affect your choice of dates include typical weather, typical flow rates, and flexibility with your schedule. You are allowed a maximum of four nights on the river between May 15 and July 15th, which may be a lot of time to float it or could be too little depending on flow rates and weather. This is the busy season with the most sought-after launch dates.
Also new in 2024, the launch date window requiring a permit has changed to April 1 to August 15th. The later date used to be the end of October.
After August 15th, floaters merely need to self-register at Camp Baker without obtaining a permit in the lottery. The tricky bit here is that because of the law limiting non-resident permits to a maximum of 10% of the total permits issued, n0n-residents will need to call the FWP Region 4 office to ensure they can still float.
I called the FWP District 4 office in February 2024 to get some clarification on how the post-Aug 15 system works but they weren’t really sure. They said there should be a kiosk where you register when you arrive but I’m not sure how you go about paying and getting your permit since a permit is required. The phone number they list for Camp Baker is no longer in service. It may be moot since flows at that time of year are rarely sufficient to float.
For those who receive a permit, the FWP will send the applicant a floater information packet with FAQs, rules and regulations, a map of the campsites, and some other useful information. You can see the 2023 packet online. They do NOT contact you if you weren’t selected.
The FWP will call all successful applicants 2 days before your launch date, in random order, and you will have to commit to your campsites for each night at that time.
If people who were called before you have already selected a site, it is “taken” and you will need to pick a different one for that date so it’s good to have some backups in mind. On this call you will also be given a “one-hour” boat launch time (I don’t know why the FWP uses quotes here but they do so I included them.)
You can download a table of boat camps and river mileages as well. You are only allowed to camp in designated spots that you have selected at this time. It is possible to stay in a site more than one night, but only once during the high season — and, honestly, at low flows, this could make for some long days on the water.
There is no wild camping allowed. You will also be expected to pay your float fees on this call. These fees in 2024 for private float trips are per person and are as follows:
- $0 for children less than 6 years old
- $15 for any child 6-12 years old
- $25 for residents over 13 years old
- $60 per non-resident over 13 years old.
For an idea of what many of the campsites are like, we put this basic video together of what they look like from the river.
If for some reason you need to cancel your float, you’ll want to do that as soon as possible.
If you cancel less than two days before your scheduled launch, you are prohibited from applying for a permit the following year UNLESS the river flows are below 100cfs.
Also, the park manager may waive the penalty if they think weather, stream flows, or other issues justify it. You can cancel by calling Smith River Reservation Line at (406) 454-5861 M-F in the mornings.
The reason it’s so important that people call and cancel is that if you are flexible with your dates, you can call that same number and possibly pick up a slot from another party that had to cancel. This can be a good option if you weren’t selected in the lottery.
The Best Time to Float the Smith River
The best time to float the Smith River is whenever you can, but I know that’s a bit of a cop-out. April weather tends to be wet and cold but with higher water. May could go either way.
As I mentioned, we’ve floated in mid-May twice: once we got high water and cold snow and rain, and we bailed early. The other was idyllic weather but with low water. Usually, you can count on at least one day of rough weather so be prepared.
June is risky when it comes to low water and more applicants, but the weather is likely to be warmer. That said, do not go out onto the river unprepared for some harsh weather, and check the forecasts often before launching.
You won’t be able to check once you are at Camp Baker because there’s no cell service. The ranger will have some current info though.
The best length of time to float the Smith River also varies depending on flows and weather. We’ve personally decided that a forecast of spring storms is a no-go and we’ll cancel in the future.
That said, during the popular season, you are limited to a maximum of four nights and I would recommend taking all of them. On our last trip, we stayed three nights and it meant some long days. Honestly, would you rather be in the wilds of the Smith River Canyon or answering emails and doom-scrolling?
Shuttling for the Smith River
The floater information packet will also include information on shuttle services. If you checked the box allowing FWP to share your address with vendors, you will receive several offers from various services as well.
We HIGHLY recommend paying for a shuttle. We’ve shuttled ourselves once and it’s a solid 4-6 hours round trip. Google Maps will tell you to take Milligan Road, but the road is, well, let’s call it rough. We went around through Great Falls the year we self-shuttled. You then have to come back to Camp Baker to pick up your other vehicle after your float.
The shuttle drivers will sometimes give the option of which road you want them to take.
If you decide to spend the day shuttling cars, keep in mind that Eden Bridge where you take out is called “Chaos Bridge” for some reason in Google Maps. I’ve submitted edits a couple of times but I think someone must have put that in there sarcastically many years ago and it seems to have stuck. I’ll continue to tilt at that windmill but check for both names.
If you go through Great Falls, get off I-90 at exit 270 at Ulm, make a left under the freeway, and then another left on Milligan Rd. and go 17-18 miles.
If you decide to go with a shuttle service, most will give you a discount if you call early. Some will even clean your car. Expect to pay about $100-125/car if you call ahead.
I’ve seen them pick up vehicles and they are very professional. They pop the hood, do a walk around, and generally make sure the vehicle is in good condition. You will let them know where to find the key and where you want it left and you will likely never see them. We got a shuttle last time and it was worth every penny.
You’ll want to make sure your vehicle is in good condition and your trailer must have a spare tire and a jack.
If you don’t have your own boat but do have skills, you can rent a floating package from area vendors. Your Floater Information Packet will have several on pages 16 and 17 or you can do your own research. Fifteen years ago we rented from the Base Camp in Helena and it was a positive experience, though we canceled that trip due to weather and day-tripped on the Missouri instead. Prices will vary.
Planning Your Smith River Float
Getting There and Putting In
We’ve put together this downloadable packing list for you but in the end, you’ll need to add and subtract what you think is best for you. You can see the above links for stream flows and weather. But let’s walk through the process a bit.
Let’s assume you’ve hired a shuttle service and have your sites picked out already. If you are coming from out of state or from more than 100 miles away, you’ll want to consider staying in White Sulphur Springs.
Where to Stay in White Sulphur Springs
White Sulphur is a small town about 75 miles north of Livingston, about 100 miles from Great Falls, and about 75 miles from Helena. There are several hotels including the Spa Hot Springs Motel which runs the eponymous hot springs. It’s a nicely run place and the hot springs are worth a visit. We’ve also stayed at what is now The Edith (updated and owned by Showdown ski area) and the Tenderfoot Motel and Cabins. Neither were fancy, but they were clean and adequate.
There are several vacation rentals in White Sulphur Springs, which could make for a great pre-trip base camp.
You can camp up by Newlan Reservoir or on nearby Forest Service land and there’s at least one private campground in town.
Where to Eat in White Sulphur Springs
There are a few places to eat and get a drink as well. We like Bar 47 for food and 2 Basset Brewery for beer. The Jawbone is a speakeasy-type place across the road. If you want to load up on last-minute groceries, you can go to Mathis Food Farm which is downtown, and not at all obvious when you pass by, or Castle Mountain Grocery.
Transporting Your Boat
If you just need to grab ice and some beer, there’s the Town Pump on the east end of town. You’ll also want to make sure you fuel up for the shuttle.
Please keep in mind that Montana mountain passes are fairly high and if you go over one with a fully inflated raft or boat, the pressure may increase to the point that your seams burst. It’s an easy thing to overlook and also easy to avoid. Just let a few psi out of the boat.
If you’ve come from out of state or from west of the divide, you will need to have your watercraft inspected for Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS). AIS are becoming a bigger and bigger problem in MT waters and they are serious about preventing it from getting worse.
Also, if you are coming from out of state, you must purchase an AIS Vessel Prevention Pass for your watercraft which you can get from Fwp.mt.gov or any FWP office. It costs $10.
If you pass an inspection station with any kind of watercraft, including paddle boards and kayaks, you MUST STOP. They are usually in operation near the state borders but in the early season, maybe not. It doesn’t take that much time. You can find a list of stations on the FWP Watercraft Inspections website.
There is NOT an inspection station near White Sulphur or at Camp Baker. You will need to show your AIS inspection document when you check in at Camp Baker. If you are from Montana and the last body of water your watercraft was in was on the east side of the Continental Divide, you should not need an inspection.
Check the FWP website or call because rules may change and inspection stations may not be open at convenient times. Here’s a good document the State put out regarding inspection regs and stations.
Getting to Camp Baker, Checking In, and Launching
Getting to Camp Baker is pretty straightforward but I’m always a bit surprised at how long it takes to drive that road. Make your last phone calls and emails before leaving White Sulphur Springs because there is no cell service at Camp Baker.
The ranger hut has a landline for emergencies.
Head west out of WSS on Hwy 12 / 360 for about 15 miles then make a right onto Smith River Road for another 9 miles, and turn left at the sign for Camp Baker. You’ll drop down and may think you are driving into a ranch yard but just bear right at the house and keep going.
Camp Baker has a couple of pit toilets, a camping area that is closed for the foreseeable future, and a ranger hut. Typically, you will pull in to the right and pull your rig off the road to get your stuff prepped. Please keep the road and ramp clear until you are ready to launch. Remember, there will be upwards of 75 people there and it’s a shared space so be considerate of others and patient. The atmosphere has always been pretty laid back and low-stress.
The first thing you should do is check in with the ranger and let them know you are there. They’ll probably ask you to let them know when your entire group is there so they can check you in.
If you’ve brought your dog, you will need to drive back to WSS to arrange a kennel because PETS ARE NOT ALLOWED on the Smith River. Even the goodest dogs. Even if they are really cute. Just sayin’. (There is an exception for licensed service dogs). I have never used pet boarding in WSS but they exist. There are more pet boarding options in Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, and Great Falls.
Drones are not allowed in the Smith River Corridor so leave those at home or in the car.
The check-in process is fairly simple.
- The ranger will check to make sure you have your permit paperwork and have paid.
- They will check to make sure you have an AIS inspection certificate if required.
- They will check to make sure you have IGBC-compliant bear storage.
- New in 2024, they will check to make sure you have an approved toilet system.
- They will also discuss best practices and any seasonal changes to the river. In 2021, we were told of some strainers that had popped boats in the last section of the river. It was all fine but it was also nice to have a heads up so pay attention and ask questions.
- The ranger will also talk about putting in and give you any instructions they might feel necessary.
- They will give a Tyvek-type paper with your permit number and a zip tie for each boat that must be affixed to the bow. Rangers float the river from time to time to scout for debris and check up on floaters so have it visible.
- They will also give the permit holder a survey document to fill out while on the river with things like the number of other floaters seen each day, etc. You turn this in at Eden Bridge.
Camp Baker has two separate ramps. One is wider and the other is further around the loop and a bit smaller but very useable.
They are steep so be careful that you don’t bottom out your truck or car if you are launching from a trailer. Please limit your time on the ramp so you aren’t blocking it for others. Basic river etiquette. The water is often fairly small here so you may need to do some pushing and shoving to get out into the main flow.
If you have hired a shuttle service, there should be an area over by the ranger hut that is fairly obvious where you can park your vehicle and trailer. There should be plenty of room as shuttle services are constantly moving vehicles to the takeout so just find a spot up there and park in a considerate manner. Remember to leave the keys in the location you’ve agreed with the shuttle.
Finally, the ranger station has, in the past, had firewood for sale if you need some. More on that later.
Get a quick “Before” photo with your group and away you go. Unless……the weather sucks. As I’ve mentioned, this float is not nearly as enjoyable and downright dangerous when the weather goes bad, especially with kids.
We’ve made the decision as a family, having suffered through bad weather, that if the weather is going to suck, we’re out. Floating the Smith in sleet, rain, and cold temperatures is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and we’ve used that one up. It’s just not worth it to us and I would encourage you to consider that option as well.
What To Take (see downloadable Smith River packing list )
I mentioned IGBC-certified bear storage equipment. This is for the bear storage requirement for the Smith River. This could be an electric fence, a certified dry box or cooler, or something else. The floater information packet has a list of potential options.
There are black bears throughout the canyon that are becoming more and more of a problem so please be bear aware and bear safe when storing food and other attractants such as toothpaste, soaps, cookware, etc. A fed bear is a dead bear and it could result in human injuries as well to someone later on.
We have a certified dry box and a few lockable Grizzly Coolers that we use and like. You can use a lock or a bolt with washers and nuts. Just make sure you have spare keys (or use a combination lock) or nuts and bolts, because if you lose them on the river, it would be nice to have a backup. That’s one reason we prefer nuts and bolts. You have to use two per container.
You can buy a bear fence or possibly rent one as well, but we like the lockable option. The FWP website also says attractants can be hung 10 feet up and 4 feet out, but there are very limited places at the sites to do this and no established hangs like in National Parks.
The FWP also recommends bringing a can or two of bear spray.
I mentioned the variable weather earlier. You will want to make sure you take adequate rain gear and several layers to keep warm. You may have sun the first day and ice and snow the next. I’ve heard people in Chicago say “If you don’t like the weather in Chicago, just wait 15 minutes and it will change.” I like to say “In Montana, if you don’t like the weather, too bad. It’s Montana, what’d you expect?.” That’s Montana in spring and you will be glad of long underwear, warm hats, gloves, and dry socks as much as a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen.
We take calf-high muck boots for cold weather and getting in and out of the boat, sandals for warm weather, and maybe some shoes for around camp at night. I’ll also take my waders if there’s rain in the forecast. You will typically have plenty of room for gear so why not use it?
For weather, we also take a couple of tarps, ropes, and extendable poles for rainy camp nights. We feel it’s better to cook out of the rain than in it. Also, sitting under a tarp by the fire with friends and family is better than huddling in your tent alone. I like to bring the 10 penny nail style pegs for this and in case a tent site is not amendable to the soft, bendable pegs that come with most tents.
And finally, if you are in the elements and not rowing or paddling, you can huddle under a tarp while others get snowed on.
Unless you are planning to sleep out under the stars, you’ll want to bring a tent or two. A three-season tent is probably your best bet.
MSR makes some great tents, but see our downloadable packing list for more suggestions:
To keep your kit and gear dry, you’ll also want an assortment of dry bags. A dry box is nice for some stuff and we use one, but it’s a hassle to take in and out of the boat. Dry bags are easy, light, and portable. We have a couple of duffle styles and a bunch of roll-top bags.
What food and cooking gear you take on the Smith River will depend on your preferences, of course. We take a Coleman two-burner propane stove (or similar, you know the ones) and a couple of backpacking pots and pans, bowls, cutlery etc, and a coffee/hot water pot.
We take three of the 1-pound propane canisters so we have a backup. We usually go through just under two of them. I’m looking to pick up one of the 5-pound tanks and adapters for future trips. Some friends have one and since you can refill the 5-pound tanks, it means less waste and cheaper propane.
We also take a camp table that we like for our kitchen and some of the small, lightweight camp chairs that have come out recently. Having a table is pretty close to essential in my book. I’m tall and I like to be able to stand up when prepping dinner or heating water for morning coffee and tea.
Speaking of waste, you will want to have a couple of bags for trash and recycling (and starting in 2024 a human waste system. See below). We go through a lot of cans on the river and they need to go somewhere other than the bottom of the boat. Some people use a mesh bag but I like a used plasticized feed bag like some birdseed or horse feed comes in. They are thick enough that the edges of the cans don’t poke through and they are cheap. You could also use a larger dedicated dry bag or some other system. And remember, trash is a bear attractant so you need to keep it in a bear-proof storage system.
We take cans because bottles and glassware just aren’t a great idea when camping. When they break, they are sharp and hard to deal with for the rest of the trip.
What’s in those cans you ask? Mostly beer but a few sodas and soda waters. I would encourage you to be realistic about how much beer you need and then add some. I always share around and end up running out. Drink responsibly, but have a good time. There are some great local beers to be had.
From Livingston, you can get cans of Neptune’s. I like their pale ale. I like Draughtworks as well and Map Brewing out of Bozeman, but most stores will have a wide selection.
One of the lessons we’ve learned from floating the Smith River is to plan your meals for ease of preparation and cleanup. We take chili and pasta and other simple things. Less time at the stove means more time by the fire with friends drinking local beers.
For lunches and staying warm, we also take plenty of snacks. 75% of our family are vegetarians so we eat a lot of hummus, crackers, cheese, sliced veggies, and hard-boiled eggs during the day and we take some junk food to stay warm if the weather turns.
Each campsite has a metal fire ring. Fires must be made exclusively in these rings. At the sites on public lands, you can legally gather deadfall but not cut or break limbs or trees. However, the sites are usually pretty well picked over so we take our firewood.
If everyone in the group brings some, it means very little per boat. Later in the season, be aware of any fire restrictions and fire dangers for the area. If you forget, the ranger station at Camp Baker has had bundles for sale in years past.
Fires mean s’mores if you have kids so take the fixings and some sticks for roasting. They may be hard to find at the site. Also, most kids won’t turn down hot cocoa in the morning.
We usually have oatmeal for breakfast but we’ve been known to cook up some pancakes or eggs too.
While you are floating down a canyon full of water, not much of it is safe to drink. There are cows and humans that use the bathroom very near the water all along this corridor. You can take a filter, but we have a raft so we just take our own water.
We take about 10-12 gallons of water for our family on each trip and we’ve always had water left over. We also bring a filter or iodine, just in case we need extra.
There is little to no public access beyond the river so if there’s an emergency, you want to be prepared to deal with what you can immediately. Take a first aid kit. There are ranches and vacation homes along the river but many may not be occupied or have a landline. You need to be a little bit self-sufficient here.
In that vein, accidents happen with boats as well. Every vessel should carry a spare oar or paddle, a spare oarlock if appropriate, and a patch kit and know how to use it. It can be a long trip out if you need those things and don’t have them.
Floating The Smith River
The Smith River flows through private land for many miles before it hits Camp Baker, but that is where the permitted section starts. I’ve mentioned the ramp and that process but once you put-in, civilization falls away almost immediately and life becomes quiet and beautiful.
You’ll float past banks with lots of pine and willow and some wildflowers. You’ll begin to see the myriad of geese and goslings, (our boys like keeping count and putting it on the survey as additional info. They counted 300+ last time.)
The river is easy here and the only real obstacles are boats that have stopped to fish. Give them plenty of room and try to avoid sliding in just beneath them where they hope to fish in the next few minutes. There are a couple of tight bends with cliff faces to be aware of too, but if you preposition yourself well they should be easy.
We also try to stay relatively together as a group in case someone gets into trouble and because that’s one of the reasons we’re on the trip, to spend time with friends.
The first campsite is only 4.4 miles downstream and then in clumps every few miles or so thereafter. Some are fairly close together but far enough for privacy. They are generally pretty easy to identify by the signs posted on the riverbank but you will want to pay attention to where you are and keep an eye out. You don’t want to float past your site. See the Video Above for drive-by’s of most of them.
Each site has several small posts for tying up boats. Like most rivers, water levels can go up and down so keep that in mind when tying up.
Most sites are right near the river but a few involve a bit of a climb up to the site. There will be a fire pit as mentioned previously and a few unmarked but usually fairly intuitive places to put tents.
We usually divide and conquer between putting up tents and setting up the kitchen. The kids help and it’s a family effort. Some people will take their dry boxes and entire coolers up to the site but we like to carry a reusable shopping bag to carry essentials for the meals being prepared. It saves our backs in both directions.
We may set up tarps if necessary and we’ll get a fire going. It all goes pretty quickly.
Please keep in mind and respect private property. Though most (not all) campsites are on public land, they usually border private land so make sure you know where the boundaries are if you wandering around or planning day hikes. That said, the Montana Stream Access law is one of the best laws we have. It guarantees public access below the ordinary high watermark on all of Montana’s surface waters capable of recreational use. However, it does not allow the public to cross private land to gain access to those waters. You can take a look at a brochure on the law here.
In regards to food prep, please keep in mind standard back-country food prep practices. Use biodegradable soap, strain cleaning water for food scraps, and broadcast your dirty water on the land away from camp and above the high water line.
Bathrooms on the Smith River (NEW 2024 Regulations!)
Let’s talk about pooping. With so many people floating the river every year, this could become a very serious issue very quickly. National Parks and other public areas already have problems with human waste in public places. Many rivers require you to take a portable toilet system, often referred to as a “groover” and carry out all solid human waste.
As of 2024, all float parties must pack out their human waste. Floaters must pack an approved portable toilet system(s) sufficient for the party’s needs. You can find a list of approved devices on the FWP Webpage. The FWP has also installed two SCAT Machines in a new hut and a waste disposal station as well as a backup RV dump station at Eden Bridge.
They have also put together the handy video below.
Fortunately, the State Parks has resolved this problem by putting a rudimentary pit toilet system at each campsite. And I do mean rudimentary. They are basically a toilet seat on a box over a pit. Standard pit toilet rules apply. No trash or non-biodegradable material in the pits! Administrators try to place them with the hopes of privacy in mind but mostly they don’t have screens and rely on foliage filling out to block views. I recommend taking a screen system, maybe a couple of posts with some fabric between, if privacy is a primary concern.
Speaking of privacy, your group will want to agree on a “bathroom buddy” system. No, not going with a buddy, but having a signal that the toilet is occupied or open. We hang a dongle of some sort, which could be a bag or any visible item that you can hang in an agreed-upon spot. The user will take that buddy with them, and, very importantly, put it back when they are done. If the buddy is gone, the toilet is occupied. If the buddy is present, the toilet is free to use.
You will also need to take your own toilet paper. Usually, in our groups, each family brings their own. That way there’s plenty of extra if needed.
Carry “wag bags” for surprise potty stops between campsites. It’s not practical to set up your groover in random locations.
If a situation arises where the immediate need of a toilet occurs between campsites, pull off the river and go find a spot on public land at least 200 yards from the water and dig a hole. Cover it up when you are done and try to make it less obvious. Please don’t leave exposed toilet paper for others to find. Or use a “wag bag” or Biffy bag.
Fishing on the Smith River
There’s lots of information on fishing the Smith River out there so I will only give you the high level here. It’s a great fly fishing river for rainbow and brown trout if you catch good conditions. Make sure you have an MT fishing license and follow the published fishing regulations for the Smith River. Feel free to ask the ranger at Camp Baker if you have any questions.
Wildlife on the Smith River
The Smith River corridor is a wild place. It’s part of the draw. In addition to fish, many other wild animals call the area home. We’ve talked about bears already. Grizzly bears don’t currently inhabit the area but plenty of black bears call the Little and Big Belts home. They can be just as dangerous when they are surprised or hungry. Practice bear-safe camping and properly store attractants.
You will likely see hundreds of geese and goslings. They are not pets nor should they be fed or harassed. Many other birds are around depending on the season as well. Take a birding guide and binoculars.
Finally, there are most definitely a few rattlesnakes along the river. One year we camped at Rattlesnake Bend, a beautiful location, and sure enough, we found a rattlesnake on the path to the pit toilet. Someone got a stick and shooed it safely out of the area without harm to it or people.
The only venomous snake in Montana is the prairie rattler. They are also one of the least aggressive snakes but can still be dangerous if you step on one, harass it or otherwise make it afraid for its life. They are an integral part of the ecosystem so please do not kill them. Walk heavily in areas with tall dry grass and they will typically leave you alone. That said, some friends shared a picture of one of their camps with one in amongst the firewood, so be aware.
You may also see mule deer and other animals along the way. Enjoy them from a distance.
Photos And Memories
Maybe this is redundant, but just a reminder to take plenty of photos. For a lot of people, this is a trip of a lifetime and the natural beauty and amazing natural surroundings lend themselves to photographs. These will be fun to look back on many years hence to spur your memory. And don’t just take photos of the mountains and water and views. It’s the people we share these places with that make them special too, so take photos of friends and family.
Smith River Take Out
On the last day of the float, you will leave the canyon behind and enter rolling hills and ranch country. The river will begin to meander much more as you pass cattle and sheep ranches. You will probably see ewes with new lambs and hear them blathering at each other. It’s a pleasant but less dramatic float to the Eden Bridge takeout.
The take-out is on river left just before the bridge. It may be fairly busy but it’s a wide ramp so there should be plenty of room. As always, be considerate of others when using the ramp by minimizing your time on the ramp and leaving as much room as possible for other floaters.
There are pit toilets just up the ramp on the left and there are also bins for trash and aluminum cans recycling. As mentioned above, there is also now a station for emptying your portable toilet system. I haven’t used one of these systems yet but they seem pretty straightforward.
Your shuttle driver likely parked your rig in the grassy area behind the main lot. Proceed up the ramp and through the parking and you’ll see the extra lot. Maybe you get lucky and your rig is in the main lot but mine has always been in the other one.
Eden Bridge also has a camp host. Remember that survey paperwork the ranger gave you at Camp Baker? You turn the completed forms in to the host here. You’ll see their trailer at the top of the ramp. Regardless, you need to report in to them so that they know you made it safely out. You wouldn’t want to trigger some big search and rescue by accident.
The ramp is wide and not very steep so taking out is generally pretty easy. Clear your boats out as soon as you can but we’ve rarely felt rushed. This is a great opportunity and time to take one last group photo for the album too.
Don’t forget to let some air pressure out of your inflatables if you are planning on going over any passes or if it’s going to get very hot.
Chances are you will be heading back up to I-90 at Ulm. It’s about 18 miles away and there’s a gas station and quicky mart there to get some more junk food and beverages and fuel if you need it. Great Falls is another 20 minutes to the east and Helena is an hour or so to the southwest through a very dramatic canyon and mountain pass.
Remember when we talked about AIS? Well, we need to be careful when we take out of the Smith too. There are several different terrestrial invasive plants that we don’t want to give any help to including Leafy Spurge. “Clean. Drain. Dry.” is the motto. This will not only help Montana fight invasive species but also your next floating adventure.
If you are looking for some things to do in the area around Great Falls after your trip, why not try another Montana State Park? Just a few miles north of Ulm is First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. It’s only a few minutes away and easy to find. They have a great little interpretive center and staff and you can drive up to the top of the jump and get a great view and see firsthand what it must have been like to drive herds of buffalo over the cliff. The site was one of the most important in the region, having been used by 13 different tribes.
If you watched the above videos, you’ll know that Great Falls has a lot to offer including Giant Springs State Park and abutting that is the wonderful Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center run by the Forest Service. It’s fantastic.
We can recommend Mighty Mo Brewing Co and the Celtic Cowboy Pub for food as well as one of my favorite pizza places: Fire Artisan Pizza. For more on things to do in Great Falls and Central Montana, check out this blog post.
And finally, let us know how your float went. Post your photos and stories on Instagram and tag @TravelingMelMT so we can find them. Let us know if we forgot or missed anything or if you have any additional tips that might help other floaters plan their own Smith River Float Trip.