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 Judith River

Description: This excellent canoeing stream flows through isolated breaks country that features white cliffs, deep coulees, and peculiar rock formations.

Vital statistics: 130 river miles from the confluence of the Middle and South forks to the Missouri River.

Level of difficulty: Mostly Class I, except for a 1-mile Class II rapid beginning a mile upstream from the Montana Highway 81 bridge. Suitable for intermediates in canoes or practiced beginners in rafts.

Flow: Annual mean flow: 60 cfs near Utica. Too low to float by mid-July except in wet years.

Hazards: Barbed wire (even some electric fences!), many rocks, ledges across the river, some snags, rattlesnakes.
Where the crowd goes: Nowhere. Most floating occurs between the MT 81 bridge (east of Denton) and Anderson Bridge.

Avoiding the scene: Just show up.

Inside tip: In wet years a fall trip may be possible.

Maps: BLM: #51 (White Sulphur Springs), #58 (Winifred), #59 (Lewistown), #60 (Big Snowy Mtns.)
USFS: Lewis & Clark (Jefferson Division)
USGS: White Sulphur-MT, Roundup-MT, Lewistown-MT

For more information: BLM, Lewistown

The paddling: The fast-flowing Judith River gets its start in the Little Belt Mountains and then courses through forests, badlands, and arid prairies for 130 miles before meeting the Missouri River not far from Judith Landing. This must have been the point in Lewis and Clark's journey where they got lonely for female companionship, as Captain Clark named the Judith for Julia "Judy" Hancock (whom he later married) and not far upstream Captain Lewis named the Marias (Maria's River) after Maria Wood, a cousin he was fond of.

The Judith is a small stream floatable only early in the season or in wet years. It's largely unfloatable above Hobson, as beaver dams and fences create frequent barriers. Between Hobson and the MT 81 bridge, occasional county bridges provide access. There's a 1-mile rock garden beginning 1 mile upstream from the MT 81 bridge that has some moderate rapids (Class II). Otherwise the river is mostly flat, but swift-flowing, water.

The small amount of floating that does occur on the Judith takes place mainly between the MT 81 bridge and the Missouri River, where the river flows through a secluded canyon. This river has a surprisingly lively flow for a prairie stream, rushing down a rocky streambed with occasional ledges. Rugged terrain surrounds the river, including sandstone cliffs, clay banks, and slightly timbered hillsides. There aren't many trees, just occasional groves of cottonwoods and occasional buffaloberry bushes and willows. The river is extremely isolated, with only a handful of ranch houses near the river. We floated the Judith one October and a rancher told us we were the first floaters she had seen in 30 years. While this river sees a few floaters every year, it's very remote and you'll feel like an explorer. It's an outstanding river for canoeing, as it requires constant maneuvering. Wildlife viewing is great; expect to see deer, coyotes, eagles, and pheasants. The Judith has places with more wild asparagus than we've seen on any other Montana river.

The biggest problem with Judith River floats is the barbed-wire fences. They're very floater-unfriendly-some are even electrified! They are very hard to portage around; lifting them is the best bet. Lots of barbed wire translates into lots of cows, and the Judith has its share. Heavy cow use has rendered many potential campsites undesirable. Public land along the Judith is limited, however, so you may have to take what you can get.

In a normal year, floating on the Judith is possible until mid-July (it can pick up with fall rains). If you see lots of rocks above the surface and the water looks low just above the MT 81 bridge, you should definitely not try the float between Danvers Bridge and the MT 81 bridge. If you put in at the MT 81 bridge, Warm Springs Creek, 6 miles downstream, provides a significant boost of water (at least 100 cubic feet per second). You'll also see a major game farm about 7 miles before Anderson Bridge on the east side of the river. MT 81 bridge to Anderson Bridge is a two-day trip when days are long and the water is up. Add another day to go from Anderson Bridge to Judith Landing. While the Judith is almost all Class I water, this brisk-flowing river with its profusion of rocks will challenge inexperienced canoeists. Beginners in rafts should have no problems, but watch out for that barbed wire.

With a few less barbed-wire fences, a few less cows right next to the river, and some better public-land campsites, the Judith could provide a truly first-class river experience. The Bureau of Land Management studied the river for possible wild and scenic river status in the mid-1980s. If you take a trip on this river, you may wish to follow up by calling BLM in Lewistown and urging it to get involved with protecting the Judith's considerable natural attributes.

Excerpted from Paddling Montana by Hank Fisher
(Copyright 2000, Falcon Publishing, Inc.)




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