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Judith River, Montana

Stretching for 127 miles through central Montana, the Judith River is a tributary of the Missouri River.

With origins in the Little Belt Mountains, the river is home to diverse species of fish and a gateway to local outdoor recreation. Its basin has famously been a goldmine of dinosaur fossils.

What is the History of the Judith River?

history of the judith river
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Prior to the arrival of white explorers, the Crow tribe called the Judith River waterway Plum River or Buluhoa’ashe.

The Judith River was eventually named so by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He named it after the woman who would become his wife, Judith Hancock (Visit Montana).

Upon first looking at the river on May 20, 1808, the Captain was taken aback by its beauty and was inspired to name it after his sweetheart back in Virginia.

Similarly, Judith Hancock inspired the naming of the nearby Judith Mountains, as well as the Judith Landing, where the Judith and Missouri rivers meet. Before Clark himself had named the river, Meriwether Lewis named it the Bighorn River after the large quantities of bighorn sheep he saw in the area.

Fossils were discovered in the area in 1855, and teeth extracted from the mouth of the Judith River were classified as coming from a new species of dinosaur. These were the first dinosaur fossils to be discovered in North America.

The discovery of the fossils instigated a global interest in Montana, and the Judith River in particular, as a major destination for paleontological excavation.

In the late 19th century, two large ranching operations were set up in the river basin: the DHS Ranch and the PN Ranch.

Judith River Geography

judith river geography
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

The Judith River has its origins in the Little Belt Mountains, near Sapphire Village and to the southwest of Lewistown, Montana.

It begins at the confluence of the South Fork Judith River and the North Fork Judith River, and travels all the way to the Missouri River, in close proximity to Judith Landing.

The river flows past the towns of Utica and Hobson, through picturesque valleys and barren plains, serving as an important part of the local ecosystem. In some areas, it’s bordered by white cliffs and distinct rock formations.

It is notably associated with the Judith River Formation, a geological formation at the confluence of the Judith and Missouri Rivers that has previously produced fossils and nearly complete dinosaur skeletons.

The Judith River Formation is part of the larger Judith River Group, a collection of excavation sites in North America that date back to the Late Cretaceous Period, 78 to 74 million years ago.

River levels tend to run low in summer due to significant irrigation use.

What Activities and Attractions Are Available Near the Judith River?

The Judith River isn’t the most popular of Montana’s rivers, and many out-of-staters don’t even know it exists. But the river lends itself to several activities and, in certain areas, also offers scenic views of the surrounding landscape.

While visiting the region, visitors can explore the river itself through fishing and canoeing, and discover some of the destinations of the region.

Do Some Fly Fishing

Montana prides itself on its plentiful fishing opportunities. The Judith River is a mostly unknown fishing location thanks to its lack of visibility.

But it’s home to several species of warm and cold water fish including brook trout, brown trout, burbot, channel catfish, mountain whitefish, rainbow trout, and sauger.

There isn’t an infinite supply of fish in the river, but the population of fish is diverse. The river is mostly fished by locals only, so it’s worth exploring if you’re looking for a fishing location that isn’t crowded with other anglers.

In the upper section of the river, within and near the Little Belt Mountains, the river hosts mostly rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout.

For channel catfish and mountain whitefish, anglers must fish the lower end, closer to the Missouri River, where the water temperature is warmer.

Accessing the Judith River can be challenging as there are limited access points in certain sections. There are bridge crossings that allow anglers access in the middle section of the river, while there is minimal access at the lower end.

Enjoy Water Activities and the Nature Area Along the River Banks

enjoy water activities
Image: Mike Cline

The Judith River serves as a brilliant canoeing river, particularly as it is bordered by stunning landscapes filled with otherworldly rock formations, white cliffs, and deep ravines.

While canoeing is a popular pastime on gentler sections of the river, floaters should note that there are fences crossing the channel.

The section of the river in Judith Basin County, which is 45 miles long, has been rated as a class II-III section by American Whitewater.

Put simply, this means it is moderate to moderately difficult river to raft, with quick water and rapids with regular to irregular waves.

For those who are not canoeing or rafting, many travelers simply explore the natural area along the banks of the river. Travelers can enjoy wildlife viewing and bird watching along with photography, camping, and hunting in the area.

Visit the Judith River Wildlife Management Area

Many travelers who arrive in Montana hope to catch a glimpse of the roaming wildlife that makes this state unique. The Judith River Wildlife Management Area offers a great opportunity to view elk, deer, and other wildlife species.

The area comprises 9,408 acres and provides vegetation for a variety of species. It’s closed to recreational activity between the start of December and mid-May, but visitors can still view big game animals from the county road during this time, depending on weather conditions.

In spring, summer, and fall, visitors have the chance to see white-tailed deer, antelope, raptors, small mammals, and songbirds. There is also the opportunity to enjoy horseback riding and hiking when the area is open to visitors.

Visit the Circle Bar Ranch

The Circle Bar Ranch is located steps away from the Judith River in the town of Hobson.

For those who love the great outdoors, the ranch offers access to a range of exciting activities including fishing in the river, hiking, and UTV-guided tours.

The UTV guided tours take participants across the ranch’s 520 acres, plus into the nearby Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

There are spelunking caves in the area for those looking for a thrill. If you’re interested in staying out in the open air, the ranch additionally runs horseback riding tours.

Visitors to the ranch can also enjoy fat tire bike rides and target shooting and archery.

The ranch provides a selection of comfortable lodging options. Choose from a historic cabin that will immerse you in an authentic Montana experience, the spacious Buffalo Rooms, or the idyllic ranch house itself.

Stay at the Judith Guard Station

Adjacent to the Middle Fork of the Judith River, the Judith Guard Station is a famous ranger station that was built in the early 1900s.

A national historic site, the building has been furnished with décor and wallpaper that is reminiscent of the era in which it was constructed.

The cabin does boast some modern amenities, including two heat stoves and a cook stove, lanterns, two tables, three twin beds, a queen-size futon, and cooking equipment.

Renters should bring their own drinking water, other than during the months of May through September when an outdoor pump is available.

Up to eight adults can stay in the cabin at once. The Guard Station is close to a small campground, where travelers can also choose to stay along the Judith River.

Attend the Montana Bale Trail What the Hay

If you visit the Judith River in September, you won’t want to miss the annual event known as the Montana Bale Trail What the Hay.

Every year, the road from the town of Hobson to the town of Utica is lined with more than 50 creative hay bale sculptures.

Along with the sculptures, the event is also marked by a Hay-Maze, a craft fair, flea markets, and local food. Around 7,000 visitors attend the event each year, which takes place on the first Sunday after Labor Day Weekend.

Fascinating Facts About The Judith River

facts about the judith river
Image: Bureau of Land Management
  • The Judith River is home to both cold and warm-water species of fish.
  • The Judith River Basin tends to be the driest in February and receives the most rainfall in May (Fodors).
  • A large number of dinosaur fossils have been discovered in the Judith River Formation, including those of Tyrannosaurus, Styracosaurus, and Edmontosaurus.

FAQ’s

  • How deep is The Judith River? n/a
  • How long is The Judith River? 127 miles (approximately 204 km)
  • How wide is The Judith River? 100 yards (approximately 91 meters)
  • Where does The Judith River start? In the Little Belt Mountains, southwest of Lewistown, Fergus County
  • Where does The Judith River end? The Missouri River, 18 miles northwest of Winifred, Montana
  • Which way does The Judith River flow? Northeast

Conclusion

The Judith River, Montana, is one of the state’s lesser-known rivers and home to a varied population of fish. It offers visitors striking views of the unique landscape that surrounds it.

Its fascinating history dates back even beyond its naming by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The surrounding basin was a catalyst in making Montana a global paleontological destination.

Have you ever visited the Judith River, or would you like to visit one day? Let us know in the comments below!

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