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Yellowstone—The Ideal River Playground

The Yellowstone River is Montana’s most famous river. It is also the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states.

Yellowstone canoeing

High in the Absaroka Mountains of northwestern Wyoming, the river begins its flow for 678 miles before it meets the Missouri River in North Dakota. The river enters Park County near Gardiner, where it flows out of Yellowstone Park, then winds for more than 75 miles through Park County. This river is world famous for its extraordinary fishing and also offers a variety of water features, from pleasantly meandering, stream-dotted with gentle pockets, to swift whitewater as it plunges over massive boulders through narrow gorges.

The first public access site in the south of the county is just below the Gardiner Airport at mile maker 3 on US Hwy. 89 South. The next access is at Corwin Springs, 4 miles north on the highway and downstream, the water is fast and a good challenge for intermediate kayakers and large rafts.

Between Corwin Springs and the head of Yankee Jim Canyon, the river is suited for intermediate canoeists. That stretch is also excellent fishing water. Yankee Jim Canyon is the most famous and challenging whitewater on the river, containing some difficult rapids and it’s for experts only.

One safe and exciting way to float the upper Yellowstone and Yankee Jim Canyon is with one of the commercial raft companies that operates in Park County. Below Yankee Jim, the river heads north and enters Paradise Valley and winds toward Livingston, then heads east. This point was coined “the Great Bend” by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Between Livingston and through Sweet Grass County, the river begins to braid and the channels can be tricky. Floaters should stay alert for blockages by fallen trees and for standing waves on this stretch of the river.

Commercial raft companies offer both whitewater and scenic trips that last from a half-day to a week. The larger rafts can carry up to a dozen, but most trips average about half that. People floating the river must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket on board for each person in the boat, and children under 12 must wear their jacket at all times.

If its power boating you prefer, then you’ll need to head east of Livingston to where US Hwy. 89 North crosses the river. The state allows all types of powerboats downstream from that point.

For those who want to enjoy the river on a warm and sunny afternoon but don’t have a boat, an inner tube will do. Just pick one up at the local tire shops, and jump in—or checkout the local rental shops.


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