Trip Guide to South Fork of the Flathead

Full transparency: I own a packraft rental company, Backcountry Packraft Rentals, so my business benefits greatly from the popularity of this river. There is definitely the possibility of the river becoming permitted in the near future, but if pack rafters continue to act as low impact backpackers, there is a chance that the river will continue to be open to anyone who wants to raft it.

This summary might be more than you want to know, but hopefully it will be informative if you are actually planning on doing the trip. If you have specific questions please feel free to contact me.

The South Fork of the Flathead in Montana is perhaps the most popular packraft rivers in the lower-48. There are 3 main reasons for this as I see it:

  1.   It is very scenic.  Especially toward the end of the trip, going into  Meadow Creek Gorge.  The deep green water and the canyons make for some great pictures.
  2.   It is also very remote.  It is located in one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower-48.   For much of the trip you are 30 miles from the nearest road.  So you can really get away from it all!
  3.   The fishing is good.  Not as good as the first time I fished it 5+ years ago, in my pre-packraft days, but still good.  It is also one of the only places you can legally target bull trout in Montana and maybe the Northwest.  According to 2016 regulations it is open the 3rd Saturday in May through July for Bull Trout catch and release.  Keep in mind that is only on the South Fork and not any tributaries, you also can’t keep them and technically you are supposed to get a free bull trout targeting “stamp” on your license (as of 2016 regs).

I have done it three times now and have had numerous customers do it and listened to their feedback on different routes. The first and third times I did it via Young’s Creek and the second time via the White River. The first and third time we entered the Bob (Bob Marshall Wilderness) via the Young’s Creek Pass off of Lodgepole Trail Head(just north of Ovando, MT) and the second we started from Bench Mark (West of Augusta, MT) and went in on the South Fork of the Sun then up and over White River Pass. The White River trip was supposed to involve floating the White River but the water was so low (July 20th on a dry year) that we ended up just hiking to the confluence with the Flathead.

I learned a lot on all three trips and from talking to customers about the area and about packrafting. Here are a few tips specifically for this trip:

  1.   I have done all my trips in July and only been rained on for one-half day.  None of our trips were bad for mosquitoes and we have only seen one bear (black) in all of those days out, but prepare for all these things!  Rain jacket, bear spray and bug spray!  Time of year matters for water levels, the later you go the more you’ll have to portage.  Early-mid July is probably best for flows, mid-late July is best for fishing with a lower risk of fires. Fires are a major consideration...they can happen at any time, but are likely at the end of July and throughout August- smokey air and trail closures being the main problems resulting from them.
  2.   If you want to have a more relaxing trip, do one long day of hiking your first day and then float the rest of the trip (its 16-18 miles of hiking over Young’s Creek Pass to the first float-able stretches of Young’s Creek). If you go in over Young’s Creek Pass start as early as possible because it gets hot on the south side of the pass and there isn’t water until you get over the top.  Look for huckberries on the way down.  The White River trip was prettier but demoralizing because we floated (on the Sun River) and then hiked almost two days and then floated two more.   You can also get to Young's creek via Pyramid Pass, but from a hiking perspective it is supposed to be harder.
  3.   The gorge section of Young’s Creek can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never packrafted before.  If the water is low, it isn’t too high consequence (meaning there aren’t any hydros that will kill you) but there are lots of rocks and you will probably scrape your boat a lot and possibly tip (which would be a bummer because you’d have several days of wet gear).  All that said, my friends and I did it and made it through having minimal prior packraft experience.  Not sure how it would be in high water though.  You can easily hike around it on the trail if it is intimidating.
  4.   The first floatable stretch on Young’s and the first few miles of the South Fork of the Flathead often have log jams.  Be prepared to portage….but that is one plus of a packraft – easy portages (attach your packraft with the backpack straps up and you can just walk with the raft on your back and carry your rod and paddle).
  5.   The ranger station at Big Prairie is worth the stop.  Drink some tang and have an Oreo.  Talk to the rangers and get a tour.  You’re pretty much walking into a small 1870s settlement due to the restrictions on technology in wilderness areas.  You can also see a plane wreck just inside the fence which is pretty cool.  Big Prairie is located at the first pack-bridge that goes over the South Fork.  Be nice and appreciative to the rangers and other forest service workers.
  6.   Sweet side-trips that we have done include: Mud Lake Lookout and Salmon Lake.  On the third trip we went up to Haystack mountain and from it you can see the famed Chinese Wall.  It is about a 20 mile round trip so start early and bring lots of water.  It is worth the view!  I’ve heard of people doing the whole South Fork trip in 4 days, but I would recommend at least 6 because you won’t feel rushed.
  7.   There is one rapid that has tipped at least one person in our group every year on the last day(although I've heard mixed reports about it washing out since then).  It is hard to see coming up but if you pay attention to the elevation drop of the river, you can see it.  If you don’t see til you’re almost there you can probably skirt it to the right if you paddle hard.  Otherwise, lean forward and paddle hard through the rapid.  It isn’t a bone crusher, but you might lose your sunglasses and anything else that isn’t attached.
  8.   The last day of the trip you will see a sign that says something like “take-out ¼ mile”.  Get on the “river right” at this point.  There will be another sign shortly, but the river increases in speed and splashy rapids right at the take-out point so you might miss it if you aren’t ready.  If you do miss it….once again thank God you are a packrafter, because you can easily get out of the pool after the take-out and climb over the small rocky embankment with your packraft in hand or on your back. If you don't get out here, you need to have a helmet and be ready for class VI rapids.
  9.   You will hike out 3 miles from the take-out to the Spotted Bear Trail Head parking lot.  From Spotted Bear it is an hour at least, on a dusty road back to Hungry Horse, MT (keep your eyes peeled for huckleberries on the way).  There is no restaurant in Hungry Horse that has all three of the magic trifecta (burgers, fries and shakes), but you can mix and match with the Huckleberry Patch and the Elk Horn Grill.  Or you can go East to Coram and the Glacier Grill.  You will be hungry at this point.
  10. Regarding shuttling- after publishing this blog, I found out that there is indeed a shuttle service that there are a couple shuttle services that run vehicles around the Bob. Montana Adventure Shuttles and Four Rivers Shuttle and Boat Rental, both based out of Missoula, can shuttle your vehicle pretty much anywhere around the Bob. Contact me directly if you are looking for a shuttle on the East side as I have some contacts.

  11. Don’t forget forest rangers are the law back there and they (one in particular) follow it to the letter! On a different trip into the Bob we had to turn around and go back because my friend’s fishing license had disappeared out of his pack. The ranger wouldn’t budge, or call in to verify his license. I also had 3 renters get fined $80/person in the Bob because they didn’t have life jackets in their boats.

  12. Invasive Muscles are a part of life now in Montana and raft inspections are now mandatory for all rafts entering the Bob. You’ll need to carry your inspection papers with you. Please check out the link here for check station locations.

  13. Bears- customers ask fairly frequently about bears and how to prepare for them…I honestly haven’t heard of anyone encountering a grizzly on the main trail or on the river. I’ve seen one Blackbear and have had a handful of customers report black bear sightings on the river. Definitely bring bear spray and hang your food, but the overall concentration of bears is pretty low in that area during the summer.

    If you are hoping to delay this river becoming a permit river, I would suggest:

  14. Having your fires below the high water mark.

  15. Picking up other people’s trash if you see it.

  16. Not cutting other boats off or paddling through fishing holes that people are fishing

  17. Fly fishing instead of spin fishing

  18. Pulling your barbs down

  19. Limiting how many holes you fish

  20. Fishing more for bull trout, because you won’t catch as many cut-throats and the ones you catch will be bigger

  21. Pulling your fish in quickly and taking the hook out in the water

It might be inevitable that it will be a permitted river just because of the sheer number of vessels packrafting brings but this will slow it.

Helpful resources: Bob Marshall Wilderness Map and Flathead River Guide.

Are you doing a trip this year, if so what are the dates? I’d love to do a trip in over Young’s pass but have had the hardest time finding an outfit that will do a vehicle shuttle.

Hey Infrastructure, I’m interested in doing the Young’s Creek/SF Flathead this year as well. Hit me up with a PM and let’s put something together.

Hey! Just found out Four Rivers Shuttle service, out of Missoula runs shuttles around the Bob. Call 406-370-5845 and ask for Tommy.

I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and hoping/assuming you don’t mean “it’s probably a bad idea to write about this, but it won’t screw me over too much in the near future, so what the hell.” As you’ll be in the position of renting boats to folks who have never been in the Bob, and maybe never in a packraft, before, how about a prominent missive on your website, and in a handout to renters headed for the South Fork, about how to minimize impact and keep the South Fork permit-free. Things like camping and building fires below the high water mark, camping out of sight of the trail, selecting earth toned gear, and limiting how many fish they catch and release. There’s a point in a destinations popularity where increased traffic becomes inevitable, and education is particularly valuable right then.

Good call Dave, I edited my post to reflect some of those ideas.

Good stuff.

Packrafters move at a different pace than hikers, horsepackers, or the (typically guided) trips on big rafts. While on the water we might see only one other boat in 20 miles, while those users might see 4-5 different packraft parties in the same time period. It’s an important distinction to keep in mind, and one that multiple FS employees have emphasized in conversation.

The FWP biologists have also reported a significant increase in evidence of caught and released fish during their recent South Fork surveys. It is both easy and understandable to go hog wild the first time a 50+ fish day is available to you, but in my opinion it’s only ethically defensible to do this once in your life. I’d encourage packrafters to limit catch and release for cutts; fish a bit morning and evening, release the big ones and little ones, and keep a few middlins for dinner.

Just got off the river on Friday. Hike from Lodgepole Creek to the upper Young’s took twice as long as it should have due to hundreds (probably thousands) of downed trees on trail. I seriously doubt the FS will get that totally cut out any time soon considering they have hundreds of miles of horrible blowdown to deal with from last years storms. My buddy and I made it to Babcock Creek in a day, but it was truely brutal. We put on Young’s at Babcock at 6000 cfs at the gauge and that was perfect for that Creek. The gorge on Young’s was about a mile of class ii+ boulder gardens with two or three class iii- rapids with big holes to avoid. At those flows it is worth a scout. Once you are in the gorge it is tough to scout, so find the trail at the beginning of the gorge and walk ahead. There were five log portages on Young’s, only two of which took longer than 3 min. (No logs in the gorge). The big jams on the South Fork at Gordon Creek were very easy to portage, there were three river wide jams in a quarter mile that took no more than a couple minutes each to walk around. We were told that there was ton of blowdown on the White River Trail so we didn’t bother walking up it. By the time we hit the rapids before the Mid Creek Takeout the river was at about 3000 cfs and they were easy class ii+ iii- but are worth looking at to find the best line. We found some garbage on the river, please do your part to keep the river clean so it doesn’t become the next Smith. Fishing was simply excellent.

Hope this was helpful, PM me if you have any specific questions or need some advice.


Hey Ben, thanks for the update. I have a six day solo trip planned from 7/5 thru 7/10 following your exact path. Any other suggestions, recommendations or tips would be appreciated.

Anybody else want to join me? Looking to avoid the very expensive shuttle.


Three of us will be hiking into the top on July 15th. Does anyone know the conditions of the trails this year? We’re trying to decide if we should start at Pyramid Pass or Lodgepole Creek. The trail from Pyramid Pass is about 2 miles longer but it gets us up onto Youngs Creek faster. BenGarr mentioned that there might be a lot of trees down on the trail from Lodgepole. Your suggestions are greatly welcomed.

I would call the Seeley Lake Ranger District and get their take. I have also heard that culverts are being dug on the road up to Lodgepole that was causing delays.

I’m curious if anyone has a report on the status of the lodgepole trail and clearing of that going into upper youngs creek.

I am hoping to do this trip the second week of August and wonder if I should be planning to put in further downriver due to water levels and if so, where would the best place to put in?

For Trail conditions please go to the link below and click on the Seeley Lake Ranger District link. There is also a phone number for more updated information.

I’m no expert but the 2nd week of August will be brutally low for the upper reaches… I cant gather a guess at the flow but if I did I would say 650cfs? Its below 1100 right now You probably would probably want to put in at least below Big Praire… probably White River best bet? Check out Dave Chenault’s flow guide and maybe try to contact him:

Thanks for the tips - I’ve been trying to reach the ranger but so far unsuccessful. I’ll keep trying because I’m keen to float this river!

I just got back from the SF Flathead. We hiked in from Lodgepole TR. The trail was clear of blowdown except for where the Hahn cabin bypass trail is. It appears that the the pack teams all take the Hahn cabin trail instead of going down that section of the Youngs creek trail. I suggest taking the Hahn cabin through that section since there is a lot of blow down. It’s only half a mile longer.

We floated the last 4 miles of Youngs Creek. It was really shallow and we had to portage around and over a few logs. There’s a short class 3 rapid where the creek goes into a narrow canyon in the last couple miles of the river that should be scouted.

I suggest getting both the National Geographic Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex map and the Flathead National Forest Three Forks of the Flathead Float Guide. These are all the maps you’ll need.

Just did a short weekend trip on the S Fork. Parked at Spotted Bear RS, hiked up to Meadow Creek airstrip on the east side trail, camped out there, and floated back to the car the next day. It’s a beautiful stretch but at 320 cfs it was a little gravelly and slow at times. Didn’t see another human soul, but some of the deeper pools had hundreds and hundreds of fish. Thanks to the MT Pilots Assn the NW corner of the Meadow Creek airstrip has a well-maintained campground with firepits, picnic benches, a bear box, the nicest outhouse I’ve ever seen, and a nice path down to the river.