The Best Boating in Montana’s Yellowstone Country
Montana is home to some of the country’s most renowned waters - mighty rivers, big reservoirs, and quaint alpine lakes. And when it gets hot, people flock to play in them. There are various options, from challenging whitewater to calm lakes for fishing or watersports. We’ve put together a guide to our favorites. Still, several smaller lakes and creeks exist throughout the Gallatin, Absaroka, and Beartooth Mountains Ranges, so if you’re looking to get away from the crowds, step off the beaten path and explore some lesser-known areas!
One of the busiest recreational waters in Montana, Hyalite is a favorite for many reasons. This no-wake reservoir is a short drive from Bozeman, and the drive itself is gorgeous. The lake is surrounded by majestic peaks, which are great fun to hike. Just past the reservoir, you can hike to Emerald Lake, a small, beautiful little lake in a big basin, before heading up to Hyalite Peak.
Despite its name, the Stillwater also has some fantastic rafting, with Class II and III whitewater in sections. A 70-mile tributary of the Yellowstone River, it’s also a popular fishing spot, including fishing from a raft. However, only experienced rowers should attempt to navigate it independently due to its technical nature. Otherwise, it’s best to hire a guide.
Most of the year, the Madison is a famous fishing river, particularly the upper Madison past Ennis. But the lower Madison has a long stretch of shallow, slow-moving water, a favorite for tubes and other floatation devices. Pack your picnic and cold beverages and relax while enjoying beautiful scenery along the banks. Montana Whitewater offers shuttles and watercraft rentals out of Bozeman.
One of the three rivers that join to form the mighty Missouri River, the Jefferson is one of the smaller and quieter rivers, a gently meandering water great for canoes, rafts, and drift boats. The fishing can be good, but the beautiful views can’t be beaten.
You may recognize the scenery from A River Runs Through It, filmed on the Gallatin River, for its stunning backdrops. The Gallatin is accessible most of the year for angling, but its popularity soars in the spring and summer when the rafting season starts. When the water is high, people stop along the highway to watch kayakers run the iconic House Rock. (As a reminder, fishing from a boat is not allowed on the Gallatin.)
This giant man-made lake is 15 miles long and 4 miles wide and considered one of the best Stillwater fishing lakes in the state due to its large populations of brown, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. It’s also a popular spot for water sports, though it’s deeper than some other lakes in Montana, and therefore it stays a bit cooler. Watch for the wind to come up in the afternoons; it’s great for those with sailboats but not so much for smaller watercraft.
Affectionately called Can-Cooney by residents, Cooney is a popular lake for watersports. It may be small, but it’s got a great summertime vibe. Fishermen love the walleye and trout populations, and the five campgrounds are home to 82 campsites.
Boating is also allowed in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Lake is spectacular. It sits 7,733 feet above sea level, making it the largest high-elevation lake in North America. It’s twenty miles long and fourteen miles wide with 141 miles of shoreline. It’s big water, which completely freezes over in the winter. It stays an average of 41 degrees, so it’s not recommended for swimming, but you can take some fabulous boat tours.
Lewis Lake in Yellowstone allows motorized boats and is much smaller and easier to navigate. You can take canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and other non-motorized boats on most other YNP lakes except Sylvan Lake, Eleanor Lake, Twin Lakes, and Beach Springs Lagoon.
And as a reminder, aquatic invasive species (AIS) pose a grave and growing threat to our waters. Clean, drain, and dry all boats, trailers, and gear to help prevent their spread. Stop at all inspection sites before entering the water, and in Yellowstone, all watercraft must have a current Yellowstone AIS inspection and boat permit to launch.