Montana’s Smith River is a true gem. The river is managed on a permit system and you must apply for launch dates. Typically, 14 members are allowed to each group and campsites are chosen the day of the launch (4 night maximum). Walk-on floaters can grab open spots if a group fails to show for their launch.
A good chunk of the river runs through private lands but some does go through National Forest areas. Campsites have toilets over pits, fire rings and tent sites. The float runs through canyon lands and open agricultural areas where you encounter livestock and wildlife.
Smith River Montana Flows and Weather
Smith River near Eden MT
- Water Temp: 68 ° F
- Water Level: 3.42 ft
Smith River near Ft Logan MT
- Water Level: 3.06 ft
Lottery Permits, Getting There and How it all Works
The logistics are one of the most difficult aspects of floating the Smith. It’s tightly regulated and Montana State Parks sends roughly 5,000 boaters down the river every year. A majority of the river flows through private land and floaters must camp at designated sites. They do have pit toilets at each camp and there really isn’t a bad campground option.
You must apply for a lottery permit before the deadline each year. You get to choose several dates and will likely only draw one. April has better odds but you risk river closures and extreme weather. May and June are ideal choices for higher flows and good weather. July is prime. After July the flows will drop too low to float. When the irrigation shuts off in September, flows bump back up and you may have enough water for a fall trip. You can also roll the dice and just show up. If another group does not show, you can take their place.
You can get there via Great Falls or White Sulfur Springs. White Sulfur Springs is the best route with less dirt road driving to the launch site at Camp Baker. Show up the day before and register for the campground signup process. They allocate campsites in the same order you signed up the day before. The campground at Camp Baker is nice with toilets and plenty of space for groups. The morning of the float, a ranger will check your bear proofing, collect the fee for each floater ($25 as of 2018) and register campgrounds with your group leader. The campground choices ultimately determine how far you will float each day.
After every group is registered and approved, the ranger will give a quick and painless overview of the rules, highlights, weather forecast and a bunch of other useful info. After that you can unload at one of the two launch areas and head out.
Rapids and Float Notes
Difficulty: Class I-II
The Smith does not have any major rapids. Drift boats will want to watch out for rocks when the flows are low. The river does have a few sharp turns and will pull into rock walls and danger. If you are prepared to back row, navigating will not be a problem. Overall it’s a novice river. Flows above 350 are ideal. 450+ will cover some of the boulder fields making navigation easier.
Campgrounds and Highlights by the Mile
The campgrounds are well labeled and you should see the signs. Try to keep track of your mileage however to make sure you hit the right camps and manage time as desired throughout the day,
0 – Camp Baker – vault toilets, firewood for sale, basic campsites, 2 boat launches, 1 launch has a good drift boat ramp
4.5 – Upper and Lower Spring Creek – If you launch late, this is a good one. If you launch early, take your time and stop to fish along the way.
5.6 In Lieu – Good level area
6 – Indian Springs – An upper and lower campground. The spring is a good water source.
6.8 – Rock Garden – Upper and lower camps with moderate shade and flat ground at each.
9 – Rock Creek – Sits on a nice bend for fishing.
12 – Scotty Allen’s Black Canyon – An Upper, Middle and Lower camp option.
15 – Syringa
16.9 – Canyon Depth – Beautiful campsite. High cliffs keep the sun off. Cold mornings in April and welcomed shade in the summer heat.
17.8 – Two Creek – Big, scenic views
18.4 – Sheep Wagon – Near a privately owned cabin but good overall
22.8 – Cow Coulee – Upper, Middle and Lower campgrounds.
23.6 – Sunset Cliff – Upper, middle and lower campgrounds.
25.5 – County Line – In a canyon stretch
29 – Bear Gulch – An upper and lower gulch. Roughly half way through the entire float.
30.3 – Trout Creek – Upper, middle and lower campgrounds
32 – Crow’s Foot –
33.5 – Table Rock – Upper, middle and lower group sites
35.5 – Fraunhoffer – Upper and lower sites. A forest service trail makes it possible to hike from the sites.
36 – Meadow Bend –
37.5 – Upper Parker Flat –
37.9 – Parker Flat – 3 different campgrounds here
38.7 – Deep Creek –
39.5 – Paradise Bend –
44 – Staigmiller –
44.5 – Merganser Bend – If you pick this site, pay attention after passing Staigmiller. It’s a little easier to miss this site.
44.8 – Black Butte – Upper and lower sites
45 – Ridgetop – Upper, middle and lower sites
47.2 – Givens Gulch – Upper and lower
47.4 – Rattlesnake – Upper and lower
58.9 – Eden Bridge Takeout – Nice big takeout. Still gets crowded in a hurry. A bunch of bathrooms available. Also a camp host at the ramp area. Mainly good for some peace of mind that someone is around at night with all the vehicles parked.
Smith River Shuttle Services
Charlie’s Think Wild Shuttle Service – Good service. 100 dollar rate as of 2018. You have the option to choose the dirt or highway route with no price difference. They will throw out trash so it doesn’t sit in your car if requested. Call the business line at 406-547-6338 or his cell at 406-595-4231.
Smith River Shuttle – They own the ranch by the Eden bridge takeout which is a great resource if you need emergency repairs or assistance. They also offer a car wash as part of the service. 2018 rates are 120 for the shorter dirt route or 130 for the longer highway route. Call them at 406-866-3522 to schedule your shuttle.
Make sure to bring your map. The ranger usually passes out a few as well. You can input campsites into a GPS for complete accuracy. I always recommend the Montana Paddlers guide as well for rivers in this state. It’s a great resource.
A water filter is a major bonus on the river. There are several springs where you can fill up. The river is very silty in high water and can clog your filter. Fill up big jugs at the creek inlets and springs to use at your camp.
Smith River Montana Fishing Regulations
Subject to Montana’s Central district regulations.
Open Entire Year Downstream from confluence of North and South Forks
Camp Baker Bridge to Eden Bridge – Combined Trout: 3 under 13 inches daily and in possession and only 1 over 22 inches daily and in possession.
Artificial lures only, except anglers 14 years of age and younger may use bait.