Montana, a state known for its unique and severe geography, is unsurprisingly home to a number of canyons. While each one is a bit different, many of canyons in Montana were formed either by water erosion from creeks and rivers, or they were carved by glaciers.
Montana’s canyons have very diverse landscapes, and their surrounding recreation areas are suited to all manner of activities. Your first thought for a canyon activity might be white water rafting – there are indeed many canyons in Montana that are perfectly suited to it – don’t discount hiking, rock climbing, and even horseback riding. And in the winter, these can be perfect spots for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and even ice climbing.
If you’ve never considered one of Montana’s canyons for an excursion before, here’s a brief overview of some of the state’s most popular, unique, and surprising canyons. Included in the list are:
- Bear Trap Canyon
- Gallatin Canyon
- Yankee Jim Canyon
- Hyalite Canyon
- Trout Creek Canyon
- Blodgett Canyon
6 Canyons in Montana to Visit
While there are hundreds of canyons in Montana ranging from small to immense, there are a few that bring visitors back time and again. While this is just a small sample, here are a few of the canyons in Montana that you should keep on your radar.
1. Bear Trap Canyon
Within the Lee Metcalf Wilderness just north of Ennis is Bear Trap Canyon, one of the most versatile recreation areas in all of Montana. Much more than just a ruggedly beautiful place to go hiking, it is famous for its excellent and challenging whitewater rafting, fishing, and even a wheelchair-accessible picnic area.
A popular hiking trail runs the length of this 9-mile canyon, bringing you past some of the highlights in the region. Along it you’ll eventually reach Bear Trap Creek, about 3 miles from the trailhead. If you continue along the trail, you’ll eventually reach the Ennis Dam; the eponymous lake just on the other side was created by its construction. Backpackers especially can benefit from the several rugged campgrounds in the area, as it’s a perfect region to plan to spend two or three days.
Fishing enthusiasts have long known Bear Trap Canyon to be a great spot for trout fishing. The combination of warmer waters and fewer crowds can make for an excellent day’s catch.
But the real star of the adventures to be found in Bear Trap Canyon is the incredible whitewater rafting. There are a few companies in the area where you can schedule a guided excursion, or, for experienced rafters, you are welcome to bring your own gear and go at it alone.
2. Gallatin Canyon
Just south of Bozeman, Gallatin Canyon was already a popular spot for Montanans to go hiking and fishing, but it was made even more famous by being included as a shooting location in the 1998 film A River Runs Through It. Now, it attracts tourists from all over the country.
This is a prime location for fly fishing, with several recreation areas in the canyon dedicated to accommodating fishing enthusiasts. The canyon is home to the Gallatin River, a famous Blue Ribbon trout stream that is especially known for the proliferation of rainbow and brown trout.
A curious side effect of the combination of the canyon’s steep walls and the boulders that sit on the stream bed are some of the swiftest and most ferocious rapids in all of Montana. Along the Gallatin River, you’ll find several spots with class IV rapids, but of them, the “Mad Mile” is a particularly challenging section that is a favorite of rafters and kayakers.
If you’d like to make a weekend of it, there are several campgrounds in the area, many of which don’t require a reservation. They range from very well-appointed with spots for RVs, electricity, and water, to simple sites to pitch a tent. They range from about $16-$20 per site, increasing for amenities like electricity and dump-outs.
But the best part of Gallatin Canyon is how accessible it is. If you don’t want to detour off the highway, you’ll be excited to know that it runs right along it. If you follow highway 191 between Big Sky and Bozeman, you won’t have any other choice than to drive right through it. Though it’s not too long of a drive – about an hour in normal traffic – it’s one of the most scenic in the state.
3. Yankee Jim Canyon
Only about five miles long, the Yankee Jim Canyon is small but mighty. While the Yellowstone River has plenty of enviable rapids, most of them are inside of Yellowstone National Park, where rafting them is illegal. Yankee Jim Canyon is particularly popular with whitewater rafters as its location outside of Yellowstone makes rafting its waters possible.
Even though it’s small, there are several options here for rafting, all for different skill levels. There are several points within the canyon to begin and end your rafting run, so you can easily tailor your excursion for how adventurous you’re feeling. There are a couple of companies that rent gear and offer guided rafting if you’ve arrived unprepared.
4. Hyalite Canyon
Only 15 miles south of Bozeman, a visit to Hyalite Canyon is easy to fit into a myriad of itineraries, and many folks do. In fact, it is the most visited recreation area in the state, also due to the myriad of activities to do here in both the summer and winter.
Just north of the canyon is Hyalite Lake, a manmade reservoir formed when the built the dam. It supplies water for a huge portion of the area surrounding Bozeman, and is a popular place for all kinds of no-wake boating, especially sailing and canoeing. But for kayakers looking for a little thrill, just south of the lake, within the canyon, is one of Montana’s best spots for kayaking.
In the winter, though it’s far too cold for kayaking, the geology is perfect for ice climbing. With over 250 routes ranging from easy to extreme, this is a perfect place to try ice climbing both as a new sport, or to challenge your already existing skills. You can even check out the Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival that occurs annually in early December.
5. Trout Creek Canyon
Though it’s only three miles long, the Trout Creek Canyon is a haven for hikers and mountain bikers. About 25 miles north of Helena, it’s also home to Vigilante Campground, if you’d like to turn your canyon hike into a weekend.
The trailhead begins just beyond the campground and continues to Service Road 138. Along it, you’ll find sheer limestone molded by eons of exposure, and even a few benches and picnic tables along the first mile.
Though it’s mostly a seasonal trail – best conditions are between May and October – this hike has very little gain in elevation and is rated as easy, so many choose to hike it even with a bit of snow on the ground. In the summer, even small children wouldn’t have much problem with the first mile of the trail, known for being particularly wide, smooth, and mostly flat.
6. Blodgett Canyon
Though it’s just one of over 20 canyons within the Bitterroot Forest, Blodgett Canyon is considered the most stunning. Lined with stunning granite peaks and lush greenery, this glacier-carved canyon in western Montana is a favorite of hikers, campers, and even fishermen, though it is particularly prized by rock climbers.
Some of the tallest rock-climbing routes in the state exist here, and of them, the south face of Flathead Buttress is the tallest, at about 1,200 feet. At the mouth of the canyon, you’ll find a trailhead at which begins the Blodgett Canyon to Waterfall Trail. Though the trail is long – just over 14 miles – the waterfall is only about five miles in.
What you should bring on your trip to a canyon in Montana
While activities certainly vary, there are a handful of items that will be extremely useful during your trip to one of Montana’s canyons regardless of what you have planned. Some of these items are necessary to ensure your safety, while others will simply make your trip more enjoyable.
It can be easy to forget an item or two while you’re packing for a trip, so take a look here to see if there’s anything you may have forgotten.
Udap Bear Spray
The wild in Montana is exactly that, and that comes with both brown and grizzly bears. If you’ve never seen a wild bear in real life before, you may be curious, but they can be extremely dangerous. To protect yourself while you’re out on the trail, be sure to carry bear spray with you, just in case.
Adorrgon 12/42 HD Binoculars
If you’re looking to spot birds or any other kind of wildlife during your trip, a pair of binoculars is an inexpensive way to make your hike that much better. This pair from Adorrgon are compact, lightweight, and offer stunning views for a sub-$50 binocular.
Protect Life 100 Piece First Aid Kit
At least a basic first aid kit is a must if you’re going to be out in the wild, and this compact kit from Protect Life is small enough that you’ll barely notice it in your daypack.
Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets
While it may be pretty unlikely that you’d get lost or stuck out in the wilderness, having an emergency mylar blanket is a simple way to help keep yourself safe.
ALPS Light Weight Snowshoes
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If you’re visiting one of the canyons that are accessible in the winter, you may want to add a pair of snowshoes to your arsenal.
CamelBak Cloud Walker 18 Hydration Pack
If you struggle with finding the perfect water bottle, you may adore this simple, practical, water bladder and day pack in one from CamelBak.
Columbia Men’s Point Park Lined Windbreaker
While anywhere in Montana is bound to get windy, its canyons especially are known for creating strong wind currents. Bringing a windbreaker like this one from Colombia is always a good idea, even if it’s hot at the trailhead.