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The Gallatin River – A Complete Guide

The Gallatin River emerges at Gallatin Lake up in Yellowstone Park’s Gallatin Range, and from this point to its confluence with the Missouri River at Three Forks it flows more than 100 miles, with 25 of them being in the national park. 

The Gallatin is not a dam-controlled river so it flows fairly consistently from mid-summer through mid-spring, with a heavy and murky runoff late-spring that depends to some extent on weather and remaining snowpack.

Once outside of Yellowstone National Park the Gallatin flows through 40 or 50 miles of public land, and the river is easily-accessible year-round.

It runs virtually parallel with Highway 191 up to Big Sky and beyond, after that leaving the mountainous regions behind and entering the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman, although much of the surrounding land is actually private in this stretch.

The History of the Gallatin River in Montana

history of the gallatin river

The Shoshone Tribe originally coined the name “Cut-tuh-o-gwa,” (swift water) for the river, although once the 1805 Lewis & Clark Expedition hit town the waterway got re-christened.

The name came from one Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury in America in the early 1800s, who was also apparently so well thought of that the mountain range to the east of the Gallatin River and the nearby national forest bordering Yellowstone National Park were also named after him.

The Gallatin was frequented and made use of by Native Americans for eons until more and more people began to move into the area by way of trappers, hunters, and settlers who became homesteaders.

Apparently, something in 1911 changed all that—the completion of Highway 191. This highway connected Big Sky to West Yellowstone, and although it wasn’t actually paved until 1951, the route opened up access to the entire region around the river.

Today the Gallatin River is an integral recreation hub in Montana, drawing in primarily anglers, hikers, and rafters. As it is so easy to access from mountain towns like Big Sky and Bozeman, there is never any shortage of people keen to explore the adventure that the river offers.

The Gallatin River inside Yellowstone Park

gallatin river inside yellowstone park

The river starts out as just a small stream from the lake inside Yellowstone National Park, and generally, fishermen will head lower down where it looks more like many of the park’s other winding meadow streams.

These areas are accessible easily from Highway 191 and are abundant with all kinds of wildlife like bears, moose, and deer.

The character of the river tends to change quite significantly across the park, the canyon, the Greater Gallatin Valley, and the lower reaches near Missouri.

The Gallatin Canyon Stretch of the River

gallatin canyon stretch of the river

This is the stretch of the river from the border of the national park to Spanish Creek, most often referred to by locals as the Gallatin Canyon.

This is a highly scenic section of the Gallatin River complete with surrounding pine forests and clear pools—you may have seen some of this scenario before in the movie ‘A River Runs Through It’.

The canyon is a popular spot with anglers all year and when you get to August time the traffic in this area reaches annual heights.

The Gallatin Valley Stretch of the River

As the river enters this region between Spanish Creek and Headwaters State Park it changes quite dramatically, exiting the alpine canyon and flowing into the wide valley of agriculture known as the Greater Gallatin Valley near Bozeman.

In this section, the river flows past cottonwoods and hay fields and contains long, deep pools as well as some islands.

Near the small town of Manhattan towards the Headwaters State Park, the lower Gallatin River forms from the East and West forks before heading towards its confluence on the Missouri River alongside the Madison and Jefferson Rivers.

This stretch of the Gallatin is also where anglers looking for bigger trout might likely head. 

Fishing the Gallatin River

fishing the gallatin river

The Gallatin River offers some excellent dry fly fishing in some beautiful surroundings, although it receives relatively low fishing pressure.

The fish are reportedly not that fussed about what they eat either, so the river is also an ideal stretch of water along which to learn or practice fly fishing.

Rainbow trout are the dominant strain, along with plenty of brown trout and cutthroat, a few brook trout, whitefish, and even a few grayling. 

Most of the Gallatin River is actually off-limits when it comes to float fishing, so if that’s what you have in mind you should head to the lower river—starting around the region of Manhattan and continuing down to Missouri Along this stretch floating is permitted and the opportunity for snagging a brown trout with the panoramic scenery behind you increases.

Channels in the river can often change dramatically, especially after a high run-off, increasing the chances that some reasonably-sized fish could be lurking around every corner.

Since the majority of the Gallatin River is closed to float fishing, the Gallatin is also a dream for wade anglers.

The fact is they don’t find that they have to share the water with raft and drift boat traffic add to that the excellent access found in the upper half of the river and it’s not difficult to see why the Gallatin ranks as one of the top wade fishing rivers in Montana.

Specific information about fishing access sites can be found on the website of the FWP.

Other Recreation and Tourism along the Gallatin River

Rafting

rafting

There are a few extensive white-water runs to be found along the Gallatin River, especially in the vicinity just downstream of Big Sky.

After the Taylor Fork has joined the Gallatin, it swells in size somewhat. Then, when it enters the Gallatin Canyon stretch, the river seems to suddenly morph into what many believe to be some of the best white-water rafting rivers in the entire region.

Navigating through the Gallatin Canyon can be hair-raising as the water rushes alongside Highway 191, flowing under some huge peaks like Storm Castle. Highway 191 has a lot of pull-outs and trail-heads that provide easy and ideal access to the river and some rafting.

Another one of the prime white-water runs on the river is in the Yellowstone-Teton area, where the Gallatin River is intense and exciting—particularly when indulging in a rafting trip. 

After the mountain snow has melted, usually around June, the mountain boasts a stretch known as the ‘mad mile’, which is classified as IV white water.

Needless to say, this stretch challenges you to pit your wits against a mile’s worth of grueling white water, guaranteed to get the blood pumping.

Camping

There are plenty of campgrounds and campsites available throughout the region operating on a seasonal basis, many overlooking the Gallatin River. 

If you can find yourself a nice spot in the shade of the fragrant pine trees you’ll see the various rafting parties and trips passing by your campground.

Overnight camping can be accessed at various developed sites along the river, in particular at Red Cliff, Spire Rock, Greek Creek, Swan Creek, and Moose Creek Flat Campgrounds.

As it turns out, dispersed camping outside of the developed sites is prohibited within half a mile of Highway 191 between May 15 and September 15. More details on these campgrounds can be found HERE.

Nearby Accommodations

If you are looking to visit the Gallatin River and experience all it has to offer there are a few towns that grant easy access to the area.

Thankfully, both Big Sky and Bozeman offer an abundance of options for accommodations for tourists visiting Montana. You can browse available bookings here and here!

Hiking

hiking

The Gallatin Riverside Trail is a prime example of a hiking trail close to the river, although in this neck of the Gallatin National Forest you are never too far away from other options.

The Trail covers a 5.5-mile route that takes most hikers a couple of hours to complete and is relatively easy as the elevation gains and gradients are minimal.

The trail is also used for other purposes such as running and mountain biking, and the traffic is moderate. The route is open year-round and features looming overhead cliffs and moss-covered boulders, with the beauty of the area being captured nicely along this route.

You can reach the trail by heading along Highway 191 from Bozeman in a southerly direction, looking out for signs highlighting Storm Castle Road near an old bridge.

You’ll see the parking area for the trail after about another 2 miles once you have crossed the bridge.

For more ideas about the wide and diverse range of trails on offer near the river and within the region of the Gallatin National Forest, look HERE.

Conclusion

Montana’s Gallatin River is one of the most diverse rivers running through the state. It has many characteristics suitable for various endeavors and is the location of much tourist activity in Montana.

There is some world-class fly fishing and a touch of floating to be had, and in many ways, the river is under-rated from a fishing perspective, although regulars to these waters know otherwise.

If you are a fan of multi-faceted waterways set within stunning natural scenery, then this is one river in Montana worth paying closer attention to.

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