Montana’s Fabled Smith River - A Trip of a Lifetime
by Croakies Ambassador Parker Smith
It was sometime during the winter when my friend sent me a short text message: I pulled a permit, May 21. My mind immediately went into planning mode, we were going on the Smith River!
The Smith River is one of the most popular rivers in Montana. So popular, in fact, the state had to institute a permit system for folks to ﬂoat it - the only body of water in the state to do so. The trip takes you 59 miles down one of the most scenic river corridors in the world. Parties are limited to fifteen and there is a four night maximum for camping on the river before you must take out!
"My mind immediately went into planning mode, we were going on the Smith River!"
I was reading Undaunted Courage, which chronicles the epic journey of Lewis and Clark, as I was planning for the trip. I couldn't help but draw some parallels, except for the fact that all of our planning took place via email. We planned our meals, campsites, our firewood ration, a few other essential items, and left the rest up to whatever folks brought to the put in. We camped at Camp Baker the night before our launch date and sorted through a mountain of gear, discarding extras and taking on last-thought essentials. Needless to say, we were outfitted!
The experience of the Smith is spectacular and is very difficult to describe in words. The river meanders through lush ranch land and a deep canyon. Spires and precipitous cliff walls line every bend as you venture farther into the canyon. Most of our party were fishermen and women, and some nice ﬁsh were caught. But the water was high and muddy, and folks had to work hard to catch ﬁsh. In my boat, we couldn’t focus on fishing for trying to take in the sights, and soon dismissed fishing all together. The weather cooperated for us. We had some light rain during the first three days, but the clouds always seemed to break as we hit camp. The last two days were blue skies, warm temps, and calm winds.
"The experience of the Smith is spectacular and is very difficult to describe in words."
Each night our campsite was situated on the bank opposite a towering cliff wall, with beautiful flower-filled meadows behind us. Our meal plan proved to be exceptional, and each evening after dinner we ventured into the meadows to some of the most breathtaking vistas and sunsets. Once the sun had set, a warm campﬁre was the best way to cap off the day.
As with anything so special, the trip went by in a ﬂash. Before we knew it we were at the take out unpacking our boats and saying our goodbyes. In the moment, I think it was tough to quantify what transpired on the river. But as we neared civilization our phones started coming to life, and I couldn't help but wish we were still deep in a remote canyon. Guess we’ll just have to put in for a permit next year.
Camp Baker - Rock Garden
The weather for take off was nice and sunny. We stopped a couple times along the way to take in the scenery and to have some lunch. There was some rain in the afternoon that stopped as soon as we reached our first camp.
Taking a quick break
Setting up camp on day 1
Rock Garden - Sunset Cliff
The second day started off chilly and rainy but the weather cleared up as soon as we reached camp. We setup camp and had elk steak and veggies for dinner.
Sunset Cliff - Fraunhoffer
As the previous days it was chilly and rainy for the first part of the day. After about 2 miles of takeoff we stopped at the Heaven on Earth Ranch. This Ranch is well-known amongst the floaters. You can play a round of golf or just get a pitcher (or two) of their signature cocktail - the Deep Creek. It was a welcome stop as it was raining pretty hard at that point and it was great to be in the dry for a couple hours. As always the weather cleared up as soon as we reached camp. Lucky us!
Fraunhoffer - Rattlesnake
The last full day on the river. For once we got up to nice weather which lasted all day. On this stretch of river there is a cave you can hike up to. It is a quick 30 min hike with a bit of a rock scramble at the end but well worth it for the views and the pictographs in the cave. The mission of this day was to burn as much wood as we could and get rid of as much food/drinks as possible as this was the last day of camping.
Stopping along the way for a hike
Hiking to the pictograph cave
View on the Smith River from the cave
Pictographs in the cave