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Upper Missouri River in Montana

Trip Overview

Lewis& Clark Section of Upper Missouri - Ft. Benton to Judith Landing

I arrived in Great Falls, MT from Central California on June 2 in a raging rainstorm which dropped 5" of rain in 24 hours. After talking to Adventure Bound, the company which was going to shuttle my truck downriver, I decided to wait an extra day to start and to shorten the trip to the first 100 miles along the White Cliffs and Hole in the Wall and exclude the second 100 miles to Ft. Peck Lake.

On the morning of the June 4th, I arrived at the launching ramp in downtown Ft. Benton, MT in a steady rain. The river was at maximum flow with many logs and debris in the water. Water color was muddy and flow rate was 8mph. After conferring with the Bureau of Land Management Ranger and being warned that two men had been rescued in a canoe the day before after being stranded on an island in the river, I launched my 16' Navarro Canoe and headed downriver expecting to do twenty miles per day making a nice five day trip. Surprise! I reached the twenty mile campsite at Coal Banks Landing in less than three hours.

I ended up paddling 47 miles the first day in rain showers and spots of sunlight. Along the banks I spotted a six point buck, several does, a multitude of pelicans, and a pair of eagles protecting a large nest in a dead fir tree.

As I passed Coal Banks I spotted the two boats of the Lewis & Clark reenactment group tied up along the shore. Spent the evening with a family from Montana which held an annual trip on the river. They had paddled seven miles that day.

On the 7th, I rose early to get a quick start on the river before the up river winds picked up in the afternoon and the threat of lightning became likely. About two hours out in the fantastically beautiful white cliffs area, I heard the approach of a motor boat from up river. Two rangers came into view and pulled alongside. They asked if I was Murphy. When I replied in the affirmative they said they had checked the two campsites at the 20 and 40 mile points the night before, and having not found me, had thought I had had an accident. They said that a severe thunderstorm was coming in the afternoon with winds over 60mph and that I should be sure and be off the river before noon. Since I was within an hour of the Hole in the Wall Shelters I thanked them and headed out.

The weather was a perfect 72 degrees and I arrived at the pull out by 10:30 am. Spent the rest of the day hiking the area and drying out clothing. A group of six canoes arrived at about 2:00pm just as the weather set in. That night high winds, massive lightning shows, and solid rain came down. The new three sided lean-too with cinder brick floors held up well.

On the 8th, I awoke to an ugly weather situation. Although the lightning was over the winds and rain were steadily coming up river. Left at 6:30 am and headed to my pull out at Judith Landing. Stopped twice at campsites and old homesteads. The grounds were saturated with water and Missouri Mud was everywhere. My mukluk waterproof boots served me well. By this time, even my waterproof Goretex parka and rain pants were saturated. No one can discount the value of polar fleece in these conditions for maintaining body warmth.

At one point in the river near the 87 mile point the river cuts around a black cliff of loose rock and gravel. Part of the cliff had collapsed into the river and created the only white water I encountered on the trip with a quarter mile of class I-II- waves and whirlpools. I had deliberately stayed away from the cliff side of the river with this type of difficulty in mind so the run was easy even though the canoe was loaded with gear and I didn't have a spray cover. I was happy that I had installed a ring and bungee system to hold down my waterproof packs so they would not shift in rough water.

Paddling against the wind was difficult, as a straight line was virtually impossible. Nearing Judith Landing I saw my first Peregrine Falcon in action as he dove down to catch a fish. Pulled into Judith Landing just below the bridge on Route 236 I was surprised to see my truck parked by the Store. Unloaded the canoe, secured it to the rack on the truck, and headed out the 40 miles of 4Wheel dirt road to Lewiston.

Many thanks go to Adventure Bound in Ft. Benton for their knowledge of the river and getting my truck to the take out spot two days before I was suppose to be there. I didn't relish the thought of spending two extra days in rainy conditions with no paddling to do. This trip is normally done in five days under normal water conditions.

It is very scenic through the White Cliffs area with many old homesteads to visit, and big vista's from rock formations along the route. Expect to see deer, foxes, coyotes, eagles, pelicans, falcons, hawks, cottontail rabbits and assorted other wildlife. Best times to go are end of May through to September. July and August are very hot on the river. Need to carry water containers on some stretches of the trip or a water filter. Be prepared for thunderstorms at any time and winds upriver in the afternoons.


Adventure Bound of Ft. Benton is an excellent outfitter. They can provide guided or unguided trips, canoes, and shuttle service on the Upper Missouri out of Ft. Benton.


16' Navarro Loon Canoe make of cedar cross beams, fiberglass exterior, wood gunwales and cane seats. The canoe weighs 62 pounds.


Permits are required on the Ft. Benton to Ft. Peck stretches of the river. Be aware that much of the upper area between Ft. Benton and Coal Springs Landing is private land. Stay only in established campsites. Carry human refuse bags for use at sites without outhouses. They are available through outfitters, or the Ranger Station.


Take Highway 15 to Great Falls and Route 87 to Ft. Benton.


Standard USGS Topographical Maps for Missouri River and campsite map distributed by Bureau of Land Management, Montana

  • Duration: Extended Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip