Difficulty I-IV
Length 26 Miles
Gauge M F Flathead River near West Glacier MT
Flow Range 1000 - 20000 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 1 day ago 7610 [CFS] ℹ️
Reach Info Last Updated 08/06/2019 11:43 pm

River Description

This is the multi-day Wilderness run of the Flathead River National Wild and Scenic River. It begins in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, traverses the Great Bear Wilderness, and the take-out is on the southern border of Glacier National Park. Quite the pedigree - and it is more than deserving.  

While most visitors choose to fly into Schafer Meadows, kayakers and packrafters can hike or paddle down Granite Creek 8 miles to enjoy the final 18 miles or so of the Middle Fork.  Flights out of Kalispell, Montana take about 20 minutes to reach Schafer Meadows. Bush planes have gear weight and size limits, so call ahead for reservations and details so you can plan accordingly. The river is about a 1/4 mile muddy hike from the airstrip. Granite Creek, about 11 miles downstream from Schafer Meadows, is a significant tributary, and flows increase after it joins the main stem near the Granite Cabin. Less than a mile after the cabin marks the Castle Lake trail, a short steep hike up to an alpine lake that is a nice side trip to stretch tired legs after a day of boating. Multiple additional creeks enter the main stem throughout the run, some with waterfalls of varying sizes. Spruce Park Rapid, the last rapid in the series, is the most notable, while others are bony tumblers flowing past rock formations that look like stacks of flapjacks. Overall, this is a spectacularly wild run with gin clear water, grizzly bears (be sure to hang your food), and eagles. It often feels like snorkelling from a boat because there are so many fish and the water is so clear. 

For more information, download the Three Forks of the Flathead Wild & Scenic River Float Guide from the Forest Service or purchase a waterproof copy from the National Forest Map Store.

Check out this low water video of the run below Granite Creek: Wild and Scenic Montana, Episode 3: Middle Fork Flathead River from American Whitewater on Vimeo.

Note: the putin lat/longitude coordinates listed above are at Schafer Meadows (no auto access; horse or plane only); this would be the Upper West Fork Flathead.

Photo courtesy of, and copyright by, Randy Clark.

This pdf Slideshow is by Mark McKinstry from a 2017 trip.

Rapid Descriptions

Spruce Park Rapid Series

Class - IV Mile - 0
Like the Three Forks Rapid series, the Spruce Park Rapid series is about a two-mile section of rocky rapids that ends with a large rapid at the site of the proposed Spruce Park Dam. Dam efforts were defeated, leaving this river in is free-flowing state. Prior to the beginning of the rapid series, there is a large flat campsite on river right in Spruce Park, a widening of the river corridor.  With the exception of the last rapid, most are read-and-run, though rafts at lower flows may want to scout. At higher flows, watch for goose-neck-like bends in the river where currents may push against the walls. Eddy out above the last big rapid on river right to scout. At 3.6 ft the entrance drop can be run center or right.  Running the center line makes it easy to shoot the gap between the two subsequent center boulders, followed by a move to the right to avoid a left-side pourover, which probably becomes a large hole at higher flows. If piloting a raft, consider the right line to avoid getting stuck between the rocks. The exit rapid has a large boulder dead center and can be run down the left channel.

Three Forks Rapid Series

Class - IV Mile - 0
About three miles downstream from Schafer Meadows putin, the Three Forks Rapid series begins. This two-mile section of intermittent rocky rapids requires some maneuvering, but most are read-and-run. Around 3.6 ft, rafting becomes more challenging due to the number of exposed rocks and scouting may be advisable. Kayaks can easily navigate these rapids at a variety of flows. The last rapid in the series is the largest and is marked by a drop with several narrow channels. Different lines may open up at different flows, but at 3.6 ft take the far right channel to drop into the large pool below.  


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5 years ago

I just posted a bunch of new pictures with captions for this river. I couldn't find the most reliable info for this section and wanted to update what was here. We started at Shafer running at 8200 and ended at Essex at around 6400 and I thought being a class IV boater that it was perfect! Check out the pics and enjoy. Feel free to contact me at jgras@sailingscubaadventures.com for more, Thanks to Glacier Whitewater and Mike from Helena for all the great info!

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11 years ago

High Water the upper stretch is very dangerous use extreme caution

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12 years ago

new online whitewater guide for montana area paddling - check it out! www.montanaeddyhop.blogspot.com

Gage Descriptions

The gauge is about 60 miles downstream of this run.

Directions Description

Most boaters choose to fly into Schafer Meadows airstrip from Kalispell, Montana. Montana Air Adventures offers air shuttle for approximately $450/plane (2019 prices). Reservations fill up, so call in advance. Come to the airstrip early, as all of your passengers and gear must be weighed. Airplanes have weight and space limits, so make sure your gear is as light and compact as possible. Whitewater kayaks do fit, but just barely! The company can advise you, based on your anticipated gear and passengers, on how many planes you will need. Be aware that afternoon thunderstorms can delay your flight, so plan some flexibility in your schedule.

There are multiple take-out points once the river exits the wilderness. At Bear Creek it parallels Highway 2 until it reaches West Glacier, the west entrance to Glacier National Park. Shuttle your pickup vehicle to Bear Creek, Essex, Paola, Cascadilla, or West Glacier, depending on the desired length of your trip, prior to arriving at the airstrip, or arrange for a $100 (2019 prices) vehicle shuttle with Montana Air Adventures.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2012-07-24 n/a Fatality Other Read More




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Draft Flathead River Management Plan Released for Comment (MT)

Kevin Colburn

The Forest Service has released a Proposed Action which is essentially a partial draft management plan the forks of the Wild and Scenic Flathead River. The Proposed Action is available for public review and comment through September 13, 2019. The Forest Service proposed a number of management actions that would be triggered by encounter limits being reached, including new permit systems. We encourage Flathead River paddlers to give the agency some feedback on the encounter thresholds they propose, the proposed management actions, and the Proposed Action as a whole.

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Appeal Challenging Montana Navigability Is Denied

Jason Robertson

On May 28 the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by Mountain States Legal Foundation who filed a lawsuit in June 2001 alleging the 1985 Montana Stream Access Law violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution to regulate who floated over their land.

The decision thereby protects Montana's Stream access law and public rights of navigation throughout the State.

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River Recreationists Win Big in Montana!

Jason Robertson

The Missoulian newspaper reported on January 5th, 2001 that U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell dismissed a case brought by the Mountain States Legal Foundation challenging public recreational rights on Montana’s rivers and streams. This is a huge win for boaters and fishermen!

Lisa Ronald


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