Description: The longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, the Yellowstone tumbles down a mountain valley, traverses prairie grasslands and meanders through cottonwood groves on its way to meeting the Missouri River. The only physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana-Captain Clark's name carved on a rock-can still be seen near the Yellowstone east of Billings.
Vital statistics: 554 miles long from the Wyoming boundary to the North Dakota boundary.
Level of difficulty: The river is Class I at normal flows except for the first 20 miles below Gardiner, where it is Class II and III (Class IV at peak flows).
Flow: Annual mean flow: 6,947 cfs at Billings. A big river with strong flows all year. Exercise extreme caution in Yankee Jim Canyon with flows over 15,000 cfs (Corwin Springs gauge).
Hazards: Logjams, tricky currents, diversion dams.
Where the crowd goes: Mill Creek to Carters Bridge in the Paradise Valley.
Avoiding the scene: Terry to Glendive.
Inside tip: Spend a month and take a Lewis and Clark trip from Billings to the North Dakota border.
Maps: BLM: RAG-36, #53 (Livingston), #54 (Gardiner), #62 (Big Timber), #71 (Billings), # 79 (Hysham), #80 (Hardin), #88 (Forsyth), #96 (Terry), #97 (Miles City), #103 (Sidney), #104 (Glendive), #105 (Wibaux)USFS: Custer (Beartooth)
Yellowstone: Gardiner to Big Timber
Yellowstone: Big Timber to Huntley
Yellowstone: Huntley to Miles City
Yellowstone: Miles City to North Dakota
The paddling: King of Montana rivers, the Yellowstone flows clean and free for over 678 miles, making it the nation's longest free-flowing river outside Alaska. This meandering ribbon of water, which the Indians knew as the Elk River, originates high in the mountains of Wyoming and flows for about 100 miles through Yellowstone National Park, forming such landmarks as Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It then flows across central and eastern Montana before meeting the Missouri River just over the Montana-North Dakota border.
Few rivers have spawned so rich a history as the Yellowstone. Early explorers and fur trappers—including Lewis and Clark, John Colter, Jim Bridger, and Jed Smith—all used this pathway to the wilderness. With their bull boats, pirogues, and hollowed-out logs they explored the river's most remote points. Barges and even steamboats later arrived on the Yellowstone, providing passage for miners, cowboys, soldiers, homesteaders, and other pioneers intent on opening the West.
Since no floating is allowed on this river in Yellowstone Park, the first access point is near Gardiner, the start of the 100-mile "mountain" section of the river which extends to Big Timber. This part of the Yellowstone is nationally renowned for its trout fishery. Biologists estimate fish populations as high as 500 fish per 1,000 feet of stream. In the 50-mile stretch between Gardiner and Livingston, this translates into more than 50 tons of trout! Those who want to see how big they can get should visit the "Wall of Fame" in Dan Bailey's Fly Shop in Livingston. The wall displays outlines of hundreds of Yellowstone trout over 4 pounds, all taken on flies. Conservation-minded fishermen release large fish, which account for most of the reproduction. It's key to maintaining healthy populations.
The appropriately named Paradise Valley lies between Gardiner and Livingston. Cold, clear water and cobbled bottoms characterize the river, which alternates between long riffles and deep pools. The Yellowstone is shaded by the sawtoothed Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west. Locals joke these mountains cast shadows bigger than many eastern states. Canada geese nest along the river bottom, golden and bald eagles patrol the skies, and deer haunt the willow thickets and aspen stands.
The upper river flows north from the park until it reaches Livingston, where it turns east at the point the Lewis and Clark Expedition termed "the Great Bend." Just upstream is the narrow spot in the Allenspur canyon that for two decades marked the location of the proposed Allenspur Dam, which would have flooded 31 miles of the Paradise Valley. Fortunately, sanity prevailed.
The Yellowstone's only whitewater lies in the first 20 miles of river below Gardiner.
Yankee Jim Canyon deserves special mention for its colorful history. The area was named for an enterprising pioneer named "Yankee Jim" George, who built a cabin at the mouth of the canyon in 1872. Yankee Jim charged a toll to anyone wanting to use the narrow road through the canyon. Since this was the main route to Yellowstone Park, the ex-miner had constructed a veritable "gold mine." Like St. Peter guarding the pearly gates, Yankee Jim became known as the guardian of Yellowstone Park. He was such a character that famous people (including Teddy Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling) often stopped to visit him. Kipling respectfully called the yarn-spinning Yankee Jim "the biggest liar I ever met."
Between Tom Miner Bridge and Livingston, practiced beginners can handle the Yellowstone at low flows. Beware of downed trees and snags. Canoeists should watch for big standing waves.
Numerous access points contribute to the upper Yellowstone's popularity, and they help distribute use. All sections of river in the Paradise Valley receive heavy floating pressure in the summer. One method for avoiding summer crowds: Go very early in the morning-at sunrise-on a long section of river that doesn't have intermediate access points. You will have solitude, because most of the boat traffic will be behind you.
Between Livingston and Big Timber, the fishing remains good and boat traffic decreases. Floating gets a little more hazardous, however, as the river frequently braids and creates tricky currents where the channels rejoin. Side channels may be blocked by trees, so be careful when you wander off the main channel. Practiced beginners can handle this section at low flows if they remain alert.
The 165-mile-long "transition" section of the river runs from Big Timber to the Yellowstone's confluence with the Bighorn River, near Custer. Here the river changes from a mountain stream to a prairie river. The water gets warmer, the river valley opens up, and yellowish bluffs (the river's namesake) and rocky cliffs flank the stream. On a rock outcropping east of Billings one can find the only physical evidence of Lewis and Clark's journey through Montana, the name "Wm Clark, July 25, 1806," scrawled on the rock. Clark named this particular rock formation Pompeys Pillar, in honor of the infant son of the party's guide, Sacagawea.
The river in this section frequently braids and changes its channel, as free-flowing rivers typically do. Peak flows in the spring create islands, bars, backwaters, and the kind of riparian diversity that makes ideal wildlife habitat. This is still the excellent beaver country which early fur trappers told tall tales about and risked their own hides for. Furbearers such as mink, muskrat, and a few otter lurk in the cottonwood and willow bottoms that border the river. Geese and ducks raise their young on the islands, and great blue heron rookeries can be found in isolated pockets. Whistling swans and sandhill cranes use the river heavily during migration.
It was on this section of the Yellowstone that Captain Clark finally was struck silent by incredible numbers of wildlife which the Corps of Discovery observed. He wrote in his journal in 1806, ". . . for me to mention or give an estimate of the different Species of wild animals on this particularly Buffalow, Elk Antelopes & Wolves would be increditable. I shall therefore be silent on the subject further. So it is we have a great abundance of the best of meat."
Although the trout fishing is not quite as good below Big Timber, scenery remains superb. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks access points provide good river entry. Although Interstate 90 and Interstate 94 parallel the Yellowstone for its entire run across Montana, they're usually unnoticeable.
Each July, a Livingston-to-Billings float trip attracts hundreds of participants, and the overloaded beer coolers give a literal twist to the notion of getting "Yellowstoned." Beginners can handle this section if they are cautious and don't drink too much. Watch for occasional weirs and diversions.
The "prairie'' section of the Yellowstone flows for about 350 miles from the mouth of the Bighorn River to the North Dakota border where the Yellowstone joins the Missouri. It provides one of Montana's most exceptional floating opportunities, following the same route Captain Clark and his men followed when crossing Montana on their return to St. Louis in 1806. Winding through wooded bottomlands shaded by rocky bluffs, a lower Yellowstone trip offers solitude and easy floating. It's an excellent choice for an extended boat trip.
Despite its aridity, the prairie section of the Yellowstone contains a greater diversity and abundance of wildlife than any other part of the river. The river itself supports at least 45 species of fish, including two ancient rarities (the paddlefish and the shovelnose sturgeon) and a freshwater cod (the burbot or ling). Walleyes, sauger, northern pike, and channel catfish add to the fisherman's smorgasbord. Fishing can be quite good, particularly where tributaries enter the river.
The lower river often sustains unexpected avian species, including white pelicans, eared grebes, and double-crested cormorants. The endangered whooping cranes occasionally visit the river during migration, and sandhill cranes and whistling swans are common. Antelope can often be seen from the river. Turkeys are abundant.
Although a few organized float trips are conducted each year between Forsyth and Miles City, the lower river is usually devoid of people. While access isn't as good as on the upper river, highway bridges and occasional FWP access sites suffice. Beginners can handle the lower river except during runoff. The only real hazards are occasional weirs and diversions. The five most dangerous diversions are at Huntley, Waco, Rancher Ditch, Forsyth, and Intake. Be prepared for difficult, unmarked portages at Forsyth and Intake; portage river right (south bank) for both. There are channels around the diversions at Huntley and Waco, but no signs marking them.
The most serious environmental threat to the Yellowstone is clearly visible along the banks of the lower river: thick, black-banded layers of coal. Captain Clark observed these "straters" of coal, as did an 1876 journalist by the name of Finerty. He predicted, "Someday, I think, when the Sioux are all in the happy hunting ground, this valley will rival the Lehigh of Pennsylvania." Industrial forces who want the Yellowstone's limited water have tried their best to make Finerty's woeful forecast come true.
They sustained a strong setback in 1978 when the Montana Board of Natural Resources and Conservation decided that substantial amounts of water must remain in the Yellowstone for the benefit of fish and wildlife and water quality. Unless the legislature changes this decision, it means Montana has rejected massive industrial development of the Yellowstone. Instead, the state has chosen to emphasize natural values of the river while maintaining present agricultural uses. If trout could cheer or beaver could applaud, their clamor would be heard for the length of the river.
The Yellowstone River has consistently been mentioned as a prime candidate for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Such designation would protect the river from inappropriate shoreline development and from dams. Those who would like to help write the final chapter on Yellowstone River conservation should stay alert for new developments in the long battle to keep the river free.