Clearwater River, Montana

Rebecca Hanlon
Last Updated: March 4th, 2023

Clearwater River is a narrow, jungly watercourse that is not easily accessible. Its main attributes are the sequence of lakes right from Summit Lake downwards up to Harper’s Lake.

If you are willing to make the journey, Clearwater Rivers is an incredible place for family vacations and fishing enthusiasts.

History of the Clearwater River

Lewis and Clark discovered the river in the 1800s. Before the European settlement, the Kootenai tribes and Salish people lived along the river, and they named it “Clearwater” as it had crystal clear waters.

Over two million years ago, the Clearwater Valley was formed due to glacial forces, resulting in many lakes, namely Lake Alva, Seeley Lake, Rainy Lake, Lake Inez, and Salmon Lake, which offer excellent recreational opportunities.

There are also dams like the Elbow Lake Dam that residents use for fishing along the river.

Geography & Stats of Clearwater River

geography of clearwater river
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Clearwater River runs from the Swan Range southwards. It then flows through the Clearwater River Valley via an array of lakes to the intersection of the Blackfoot River.

It acts as Blackfoot River’s tributary right from Summit Lake towards the Seeley town and then moves downwards to the Clearwater Junction. From there, the watershed becomes the Clark Fork River’s tributary.

Main Attractions

Clearwater River offers beautiful attractions near or along the river. Some of the popular attractions include:

Swan Range

swan range

This mountain range sits in western Montana and has tall peaks, with some rising to 2700 m. Glacier National Park surrounds it on its southwest, the Flathead River is on its north, and the Swan River is on its west.

The Mission Range borders the Swan Range towards the west and Flathead Range towards the east.

The Swan River has numerous streams that flow into South Fork Flathead River. These streams offer a prime fishing spot for bull and cutthroat trout.

The Swan Range is home to black bears, wolves, deer, elk, grizzly bears, moose, and mountain lions, making it an incredible place for wildlife viewing.

As you move towards the summits, the areas offer beautiful views of the Flathead Valley, Seeley Lake, Swan Lake, and Condon.

Seeley Lake

seeley lake

Seeley Lake is located on one of the scenic drives in Montana. Lots of miles to explore, ranging from larch forests, mountains, rivers, and pine forests.

The lake has crystal clear waters where you can swim, hire a canoe, enjoy a boat ride, or take a water ski. You can also fish or sit along the lake shores to relax.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

bob marshall wilderness
Image: Troy Smith

The Bob Marshall Wilderness covers more than 1.5 million acres of mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and streams. It’s home to elk, mule deer, mountain goat, lynx, wolverine, moose, cougar, wolf, and bighorn sheep.

Its forests are dense, with spruce, larch, and Douglas fir dominating them. Fishing, camping, and hiking are allowed.

The South Fork is popularly known for fly fishing, and it has bull trout in large numbers. Youngs Creek provides anglers with plenty of cutthroats.

Flathead National Forest

flathead national forest

Flathead National Forest borders Lolo National Forest southwards, Glacier National Park northward, Kootenai National Forest towards the west, and to the east, there is Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Flathead National Forest offers an excellent hiking area with more than 2600 miles of hiking routes, including Danny on Memorial Trail. Explore the various lakes and rivers like Middle Fork and North Fork, where you can fish.

Georgetown Lake

georgetown lake

Georgetown Lake is a reservoir nestled within Flint Creek Range eastwards, the Sapphire Range towards the west, and the Anaconda Pintlers towards the south. It is in Granite and Deer Lodge counties, and it was constructed in 1885.

The reservoir has a total area of 2818 acres and an average depth of 16 feet. Referred to as the blue-ribbon fishery, Georgetown Lake is among Montana’s best ice fishing lakes.

Placid Lake State Park

Placid Lake State Park sits between Clearwater River’s tributary and Swan River Valley. It is about 45 km northeast of Montana, with a total area of 31 acres.

The park is popularly known for its camping sites and recreational activities. Bring your entire family to swimming, boating, picnicking, and playing horseshoes.

Placid Lake State Park is home to various birds, including waterfowl, necked grebes, and common loons.

Whether experienced or a beginner angler, you will have a chance to gauge your fishing skills. Some of the big catches here are whitefish, rainbow, perch, bull trout, kokanee salmon, and cutthroat.

For those who love boating, you are not left out. There is a boat ramp with some rental boat slots and docks at the campground, acquired on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Recreational Activities


Near the Clearwater River, Summit Lake Trail is popularly known for hiking and backpacking.

This challenging  15.9 miles out-and-back route takes around seven hours to complete. The ideal time to tackle this route is June to October.


The Clearwater River Canoe Trail offers the best place for canoeing. The trail is located at Seeley Lake-town northward, where it moves slowly along the Clearwater River to the Seeley Lake’s upstream.

This waterway is around 3.5 miles, and you can canoe leisurely for less than two hours. The canoe trail provides excellent wildlife viewing and bird watching. There are interpretive signs for wildlife viewing along the canoe trailhead.


Flathead Lake offers more than 518-kilometer squares of water, giving you plenty of spinning options. Also, there are multiple docks, boat launches, and fueling points.

Placid Lake is another incredible place for boat riding. Though small and a bit tucked away, the lake is picturesque. Recently, the site was renovated, and it now consists of a double ramp and over 15 slot docks.

Other beautiful boating spots with easy access include Salmon Lake, Lake Alva, Lake Inez, Holland Lake, Painted Rocks Reservoir, and Georgetown Lake.


The Clearwater River has plenty of bull trout and cutthroats, while Seeley Lake is filled with yellow perch, rainbows, notorious pike, and kokanee salmon.

The Blackfoot-Clearwater Crossing Access Fishing Site is also an excellent fishing area, and it’s only one mile away from Clearwater Junction. 

If you are interested in spinning, baitcasting, or fly fishing, go to West Fork Clearwater River, situated about 10 km from Seeley Lake. Here there is a variety of fish like cutthroat trout and rainbow trout.

Georgetown Lake is an exceptional fishing place as it has a large population of kokanee salmon, brook trout, and rainbow trout.

Clearwater River Facts

  • The river flows to the south from the Swan Range
  • A sequence of lakes surrounds it
  • The river has limited access
  • The watercourse is Blackfoot River’s tributary


  • How deep is the Clearwater River?
    • The depth of the Clearwater River varies from one point to another.
  • How long is the Clearwater River?
    • The Clearwater River has a length of 46 miles.
  • How wide is the Clearwater River?
    • The Clearwater River width is not constant since it changes as it meanders to the south.
  • Where does the Clearwater River start?
    • The Clearwater River starts at the Swan Range and then flows towards the south through a sequence of lakes.
  • Where does Clear River end?
    • The Clearwater River ends at the intersection of Blackfoot River.
  • Which way does the Clearwater River flow?
    • The Clearwater River flows from the north to the south.

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About The Author

Rebecca Hanlon

Rebecca has been a travel blogger and editor for over 5 years, working with some of the biggest brands in industry. She’s taught English as a foreign language in 5 different countries, and her most fulfilling role was as a tour guide around some of Europe’s finest vineyards. She the one behind the social channels here at Discovering Montana, whilst also finding the time to perform an assistant editor role.

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