Description: Crystal-clear waters rush through narrow canyons with sheer walls and spectacular rock formations on this highly scenic small stream.
Vital statistics: 67 miles long from Scapegoat Mountain north of Lincoln to its juncture with the Missouri.
Level of difficulty: Class I and II water, with rock gardens, rapids and sharp drops. Not for beginners.
Flow: Annual mean flow: 220 cfs near Craig. Typically too low to float by late-July. Minimum flow is 250 cfs.
Hazards: A small waterfall at mile 34, 10 miles downstream from the Dearborn Canyon Road put-in. Fences, rock gardens, rapids, and shallow waters.
Where the crowd goes: Highway 287 bridge to the Missouri River.
Avoiding the scene: Dearborn Canyon Road Bridge to Highway 287 bridge.
Inside tip: Extend your Dearborn trip and continue down the Missouri. Excellent fishing and scenery.
USFS: Lewis and Clark (Rocky Mountain Division)
USGS: Great Falls-MT, Choteau-MT
Maps:BLM: #30 (Dearborn River), #40 (Great Falls South)
River rules: Be sure to stay within the high-water marks, as almost all of the land along the Dearborn is privately owned.
For more information: Montana Fly Goods, Helena; FWP, Great Falls.
The paddling: Anyone who floats the Dearborn River at low flows can't help but be mesmerized by the extreme clarity of this small stream. Even in the deep pools, it's almost always possible to see the brightly colored rocks that dot the streambed.
The Dearborn's clarity impressed Meriwether Lewis, and he made this observation after a brief exploratory trip on July 18, 1805: "At the distance to 2.5 miles we passed the entrance of a considerable river on the Stard. side; about 80 yds. wide being nearly as wide as the Missouri at that place. it's current is rapid and water extreamly transparent; the bed is formed of small smooth stones of flat rounded or other figures. it's bottoms are narrow but possess as much timber as the Missouri. the country is mountainous and broken through which it passes. it appears as if it might be navigated but to what extent must be conjectural. this handsome bold and clear stream we named in honor of the Secretary of war calling it Dearborn's river."
The highly picturesque Dearborn gets its start high on Scapegoat Mountain near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and it carves a deep and beautiful path as it winds its way out of the mountains and onto the open country that once was the buffalo hunting grounds of the Blackfeet Indians. Although the Dearborn is rather small, it's a high-quality stream with a floatable distance of 45 miles.
The Dearborn can be logically divided into three sections, each floatable in a day during the peak of summer when days are long. The uppermost section begins at the Dearborn Canyon Road bridge (also known as Clemons Creek bridge) and flows for about 16 river miles to the Montana Highway 200 bridge. The Montana Highway 434 bridge, about 4 miles downstream from the Dearborn Canyon Road bridge, offers another potential access point, but the banks are rather steep making access more difficult.
The river in this section is quite small and shallow, so it's primarily an early-season trip. It's a popular run for good intermediate canoeists. The river passes through a narrow canyon with many rocks and sharp turns. Watch out for fences and beware of a waterfall about 10 miles downstream from the Dearborn Canyon Road put-in. It's a mandatory portage. The shortest portage is on river right over bedrock, but if the river is up you may have to use the trail on river left.
The middle section, from the MT 200 bridge (another steep put-in spot) to the U.S. Highway 287 bridge, flows for about 10 miles. It's another popular canoe stretch, though not as difficult as upstream. The only real hazard other than fences, fallen trees, and swift water is a 3-foot drop about 3 miles below the MT 200 bridge. The river generally runs through open country with occasional bluffs. This section is still too tough for beginners except at low flows.
The most popular and scenic Dearborn float is the 19-mile section that runs from the US 287 bridge to the Missouri River. Although the distance is less than 12 miles as the crow flies, the river twists and turns through a narrow canyon.
The river cuts through a highly scenic gorge, replete with sheer walls that rise hundreds of feet with unusual rock formations. Most people either take out right where the Dearborn meets the Missouri (a difficult take-out on the southeast shore) or float a few miles down the river to Mid-Canon Access and take in the good fishing and scenery there.
This lower section of the Dearborn is suitable for small rafts or canoes. A tricky rock garden (you'll want to scout it except at low flows) and a few rapids occur below where Flat Creek enters the Dearborn, about 6 miles downstream from the U.S. 287 bridge. These rapids pose a serious hazard to beginning canoeists, and an exciting challenge to intermediates. They aren't so hard in a raft.
While many people do this lower section in one day, if you take much time for photography, fishing, or swimming, you won't make it. The Dearborn canyon is so spectacular that you will want to take your time but public land camping opportunities are extremely limited and make it difficult to stay overnight on the river. Montana law does allow camping within the high-water mark of the river (defined as the place where the presence of water upon the land changes its characteristics below the line), as long as the camping is not within sight of, or within 500 yards of, an occupied dwelling. Islands and gravel bars are the best bets. Respect private property and do not trespass. This river has some VERY sensitive landowners.
Beaver, deer, and raptors abound along the Dearborn, and you may spot one of Montana's more uncommon streamside denizens, the river otter. Unfortunately, trapping of these fascinating creatures is still permitted, even though they are extinct in most states, rare in almost all. This is a predator that everyone can like: they don't eat sheep, grass, or people. Although Lewis and Clark regularly encountered river otters in Montana, count yourself fortunate to see one.
The typical Dearborn River float season is quite short. The water is often high and dirty into early June, and often gets too low to float by mid-July. The river offers excellent fly fishing for small rainbows and some cutthroats. A few large brown trout reside in the deep pools. Occasionally a really large fish will grab onto a smaller fish as you reel it in.
For most of its floatable distance, the Dearborn offers a semi-wilderness float. Much of the canyon is relatively pristine and very scenic. Along parts of the lower river, however, subdivision and other signs of human activities scar the river. Management of the river corridor is sorely needed if this spectacular river is going to keep its outstanding natural attributes. A cooperative management effort, like that on the Blackfoot River, would be a big step forward.