Canyon Ferry Lake is a man-made body of water that came about as a result of the Canyon Ferry Dam’s construction on the Missouri River, for the purpose of flood control. The dam was completed in 1954 and gave Montana its third-largest body of water, located 20 miles east of the capital Helena.
Canyon Ferry Lake is around halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, and is thus surrounded by picturesque landscape and scenery including the Big Belt Mountains to the east, the Elkhorn Mountains to the south, and to the west the Spokane Hills.
The dam and its power plant are located at the upper end of the rock-walled canyon, about a mile away from a previous Canyon Ferry Dam and power plant that existed prior to this one.
It was built in 1896 and had its own reservoir known as Lake Sewell, although the dam and plant were demolished before the new Canyon Ferry Dam came into being. The remains were inundated and Lake Sewell was incorporated into the new reservoir.
Canyon Ferry has turned out to be one of Montana’s most popular recreation areas, in part due to its proximity to Helena, as well as Great Falls and Butte. It also has impressive views of mountain ranges like the Big Belt and covers 25 miles or more.
There are over 20 recreation sites around the reservoir which are managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. The area offers a variety of recreational opportunities including boating and water sports, three marinas, year-round fishing, camping, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and hunting, to name but a few.
Canyon Ferry Lake has also become one of the main venues for iceboat racing as well as world speed record attempts. As the lake is close to Helena, it can get quite busy during the warmer months and on the weekends.
You can access the reservoir from US Highway 12 east of Helena. Take Highway 12 south for around 10 miles before turning east onto Highway 287, which will take you to the dam after about another 8 miles.
Canyon Ferry Lake Stats
- 35,000-acre lake
- More than 9,000 acres of land
- 8 campgrounds
- Open year-round
Main Attractions at Canyon Ferry Lake
Aside from the obvious recreational attractions at the lake, there is a visitor center under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management to check out. It is a mine of information as far as the history, recreation, and regulations of the reservoir go.
The center features various displays and interpretive information related to Canyon Ferry’s wildlife, as well as displays of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Things to do at Canyon Ferry Lake
Canyon Ferry Reservoir offers a wide range of year-round recreational opportunities, many of which are water-related and includes everything from swimming and fishing to sailing and all other kinds of boating such as motorboats, canoes, and kayaks alongside jet skiers, windsurfers and water skiers.
When the winter hits, so do the ice fishermen, ice boaters and ice skaters. There are three marinas on the reservoir, all with a variety of public recreation facilities and services.
The 76 miles of shoreline provides some great fishing opportunities. Many anglers come for the walleye, which do tend to be on the large side, although other fish species such as rainbow trout, brown trout, perch, ling, carp, bass, and pike are prevalent in the waters.
Some of the quiet spots near the land, as well as near the dam, are prime locations, as are boats out on the lake. The lake is annually stocked with rainbow trout, and the early spring is usually one of the most productive times to fish from the shore for rainbow trout.
Anglers often fish from a boat to access larger fish as the water warms up and the bass and carp start biting in the summer.
Canyon Ferry is an excellent choice for any visiting anglers and locals alike who want to try lake fishing. The area has some decent guides and outfitters and May through October, and any angler will report that Canyon Ferry is an excellent choice in terms of alternatives to the local rivers.
There are 10 different boat ramps around the lake in various regions, and all of the campsites have available boat access. There are a number of additional public boat launch areas close to the dam on the north end, as well as at the south end closer to Townsend.
Camping at Canyon Ferry Lake
There are eight designated campgrounds within the region of the lake, although two of them are for day use only. You can find information about reservations along with the campground rules and regulations HERE and this map will give you more idea about the location of the campgrounds and their relative proximity.
Riverside Campground is towards the northern end of the lake and contains 27 campsites, and 7 are for groups. These are paved sites and there is adequate provision for campers and large groups. The campground is quite close to the dam and is a popular spot for camping around the lake with anyone looking to fish, as well as families.
Amenities include a group use area, a picnic pavilion, 6 pit toilets, a fishing dock, and a boat ramp. Each campsite has a paved pad with a fire ring and picnic table and throughout the summer months vault toilets, potable water, dumpsters, and campground hosts are available. Fees range between $15.00 and $105.00
Chinamen’s Campground has 38 campsites and is situated at the northern tip of the reservoir. This is an overnight campground with no electric hook-ups and it is not suitable for RVs over 20-feet long.
There are picnic tables and fire rings though, as well as a campground host, vault toilets, and potable water during the summer months. Fees are around $10.00 per night.
Jo Bonner Campground is in the north-eastern corner of the lake and has 17 campsites with year-round access. Seasonal campground host, water, and toilets are available along with picnic tables and fire rings. This is an overnight site with no electricity, and the fees are around $10.00 per night.
Court Sheriff Campground is at the northernmost point of the lake and a well-maintained, year-round campground with 48 sites close to the water. Seasonal summer month amenities include vault toilets, potable water, trash cans, and a campground host, and overnight fees range between $15.00 and $30.00.
White Earth Campground is close to the small Montana town of Winstone and has 36 campsites. There is a group use shelter with electrical power which contains 5 campsites, and there is also a boat ramp here. This campsite sits close to the reservoir in the open valley region between the Elkhorn and Big Belt ranges.
Vault toilets, potable water, trash, recycling containers, and campground hosts are all available during the high season, and fees are $10.00-$90.00 per night.
Hellgate Campground doesn’t sound too appealing from the name but is the largest of all the campgrounds around the vicinity of the lake. Just 30 miles east of Helena on Highway 284, this campground has 69 sites in all and 3 group shelters.
Picnic tables and fire rings are a feature, and there are 2 boat ramps next to the site. Toilets and all the usual seasonal amenities are available here, and fees are between $10.00 and $170.00.
Cave Point Group Use Shelter is also at the top end of the reservoir and is a small, day-use area that can accommodate up to 50 people. There are six picnic tables and a toilet, and fees are around $35.00 per day.
Indian Road Group Use Shelter is another small day-use area that can accommodate up to 75 people. This shelter actually sits at the southern end of the lake not far from Townsend, and it contains 8 picnic tables and 2 grills.
There is a small fishing pond and a couple of toilets next to the area, and the shelter closes at 10 pm with no overnight stays allowed.
There is some impressive wildlife viewing to be had in and around the lake. There is a wildlife management area at the end of the reservoir which is run by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and it also happens to be home to a colony of terns and pelicans.
This area is reportedly one of the best in the country for viewing large concentrations of bald eagles, and the upland areas around the lake serve as habitat for Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Long-billed Curlews. You’ll also find plentiful numbers of Pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and whitetail deer in the vicinity.
Hiking Trails at Canyon Ferry Lake
There are literally hundreds of trails in and around the region, especially close to Helena. Here is a small selection of trails close to the lake to give some idea of what’s on offer.
This 9-mile trail is also used by OHVs and includes some pretty impressive views of the lake. It kicks off at Forest Road #4156 and finishes up at the junction with the Never Sweat trail #241.
It’s possible to access the Cave Ridge Trail by heading east from Helena via Highway #284 over the Canyon Ferry Dam, then taking a turn at O’Malley’s restaurant. The trailhead is about another half a mile along this gravel road.
This 6-mile route is a ridge trail and is commonly used for hunting. It passes through private land within the forest boundary which is apparently not under government jurisdiction. The trail starts off at the junction with the Frontage Trail #242 and finishes up at Junction 239.