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Madison River, Montana

As a tributary of the larger Missouri River, the Madison River rises in the northwestern corner of famous Yellowstone National Park at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers – otherwise known as Madison Junction.

About 130 miles down the riverbend, it merges with the Gallatin Rivers to form the Missouri River.

Famous for its trout, fly-fishing, wilderness, and monumental snow-capped mountains, the Madison River can be categorized into four sections and is well-renowned among nature enthusiasts, attracting tourists from around the world.

Guide to the Madison River

History of the Madison River

history of madison river

The Madison River was named by none other than Meriwether Lewis on his famous Lewis and Clark Expedition around the United States.

Arriving in July of 1805, Lewis and friends reached the Missouri River headwaters in current day Three Forks, Montana on a muggy July 27.

Camping at the mouth of the Madison River, they were so struck by its beauty that they named its middle fork after Secretary of State James Madison, who eventually became President of the United States.

Originally home to the Blackfeet and Salish Indians and well-loved as a nourishing water source, the Madison River has a long history of sustenance among peoples and wildlife.

An inquisitive Meriwether Lewis noted that their July 27 campground land had previously been used by Shoshone Indians, as well.

As one can imagine, the Madison River was a staple in American life – whether newer, flashier Americans or indigenous tribes – and it continues to provide physical and psychological healing for its inhabitants and fly-fishing visitors.

Lewis also remarked that his fellow infamous traveler, William Clark, was quite ill on this leg of the journey, and as such, they were resting amongst widespread fatigue. 

In this area, in particular, Blackfeet fought for their land from American consumption, but unfortunately, they only continued to get pushed into reservations as time went on.

The Madison River is now not linked to a single Indian Reservation on Montana land, but their link to the land and riverways remains spiritually strong.

Geography & Stats

Rising in Teton County of the Yellowstone National Park in beautiful Wyoming at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, the Madison initially flows west through Yellowstone before heading into Montana.

While it eventually meets the Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers in present-day Three Forks, Montana, it travels through the southwestern edges of Montana to get to Three Forks. 

Anglers have often used the Madison River to get their fishing thrills kicked, but they’ve also divided the Madison into a useful catalog of four distinct regions – which can be helpful for water and land travel alike.

Beginning at the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park, fishermen and women often catch trout and whitefish along its flowing waters, before moving along to Yellowstone’s Quake Lake edge (Be sure to check out Hebgen Lake if you’re in the area!).

The river then travels along to what’s called the Upper Madison – from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake. This area, in particular, is fantastic for whitewater rafting and kayaking, as well as for catching rainbow and brown trout – especially near the Tobacco Root Mountains.

And lastly, the Ennis Lake section of the Madison flows towards Three Forks, that spot of Lewis and Clark fame.

Our favorite part along this section? The Beartrap Canyon is a picturesque canyon perfect for camping and fishing – more on that later!

There’s no question that the Madison River begins and ends in some pretty legendary places. But first, let’s go over some attractions and activities linked to this beautiful river.

Activities & Attractions

Attractions

Beartrap Canyon Wilderness

beartrap
Image: Bureau of Land Management

If wild, roaring canyons, whitewater rafting, and fishing is your thing, Beartrap Canyon Wilderness is at the top of our list of recommendations. Home to one of the four units of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, this 6,347 acre wilderness offers numerous opportunities to drop in and let the world float away. 

Featuring 2,000 feet of cliffs (yes, 2,000 feet!), a gorgeous canyon, and miles upon miles of fishing, this area is also popular with backpackers and birders – but if you time it right (pssst: early morning!), this location offers the type of solitude that only time in nature can fill.

We recommend coming in June through September, but edging out from those months will bridge you into beautiful spring wildflowers and fall leaves. Can you really go wrong?

And good news for your furry friends: there are plenty of places for your dog to jump into the Madison River!

One more thing: camping is primitive, so keep that in mind when setting up camp: this spot is nature immersion at its best, and it sits at number one for a reason.

Missouri River Headwaters State Park

headwaters state park

Don’t let the Missouri name fool you: this cherished state park is located in Three Forks, Montana, so – you guessed it! – it’s the exact point where the Madison River spills into the Missouri River documented by Meriwether Lewis in July of 1805.

This spot was utilized by the indigenous people, traders, and later American pioneers. Indigenous people in particular fought to gain control of the land – from pioneering people as well as amongst themselves. 

Interestingly, this is the area where the Hidatsa tribe captured Sacagawea, the Shoshone native guide who eventually provided a cultural and natural bridge to Lewis and Clark.

Being rich in resources and culture, it was eventually recognized that the geography and history of the location were far too precious to fall to industry, technology, or time, and the land became a state park.

It now offers 17 campsites, multiple picnic spots, and – our favorite part – interpretative signs and displays on culture in the area. 

Hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, moose viewing, and more all make up the lush and scenic beauty of the Missouri River Headwaters State Park.

If you do plan to camp, sites range from $4 to $34 depending on the location. (Or, you can camp in a tipi!) And as far as trails go, we recommend the Fort Rock Trail Loop – easily accessible and a short 35-minute hike – but our favorite is the Headwaters Trail that spills out into the Jefferson River. Absolutely gorgeous.

Once you leave the park, we recommend that you check out Triple Forks’ Sacagawea Bar for their refreshing drinks and burgers to keep the relaxing vibe going.

Madison River Valley Scenic Route

More interested in a scenic drive? We’ve got one you’ll probably enjoy: the Madison River Valley. Running about 90 miles, it takes about an hour and a half to drive through the valley without stopping – but what’s a scenic drive without some stops along the way?

Starting near Yellowstone National Park from Hegben Lake, it runs through the town of Ennis (yes, the one with Ennis Lake!) before branching over to Three Forks. 

Why do we love this route? Well, we’re a sucker for the wood-bottomed pool at Norris Hot Springs in Ennis – and chances are you may love it, too.

The coolest part of this refreshing spot? The overflow and drainage water run to the nearby wetlands, making their way to – yep, you guessed it – the Madison River at Warm Springs Recreation Area. 

As with many hot springs and waterways in the country, indigenous native tribes used these waters for their own rejuvenation and healing purposes, long before anyone else settled in the area.

We think there’s really something to these healing waters that give life to the Madison River – trace minerals, magic, whatever you want to call it! (Sidenote: check out their website for the opportunity to catch some live music on site!)

Just make note that the pool is closed on Tuesdays, so get your kicks in on any other day of the week and you’ll be golden. And then, of course, head back through the Madison River Valley for the next leg of your adventure. Alright, moving right along!

Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site

three dollar bridge

For some fishermen and women, the Three Dollar Bridge Fishing Access Site is the star of their show – and for good reason.

Open year round, this spot can be found east of Hebgen Lake along the Madison River – and if you don’t exactly think of a fishing mecca when you hear the word ‘bridge,’ we’re here to prove you wrong. 

Surrounded by jagged mountains, lush wetlands, and Big Sky Country air, Three Dollar Bridge is less of a bridge area and more of an unmatched natural setting perfect for anglers and trout.

Now a four-mile stretch of beautiful terrain, you can expect to catch a trout that averages 15 inches! (Listen, if that’s not motivation to go, we don’t know what is!) And for a small $3 parking fee, you can have access to some of the best fly-fishing in the nation. 

Activities

Fishing

Fishing

Truly a favorite pastime for Montanans and travelers alike, the Madison River offers abundant opportunities to sink a line and spend time on the river with buddies.

The fishing season in Yellowstone along the Madison River begins on the third Saturday of May and ends on the first Sunday of November – so keep that in mind when traveling from out of state. 

But it’s when the Madison River touches Ennis that the fly-fishing crowd starts to perk their ears, and it’s an incredibly popular spot for river floating.

The Madison River has a huge draw for trout lovers, from Yellowstone to the more forceful waters of Beartrap Canyon.

Here’s a fun fact: the Madison River hosts an approximate 3,000 to 5,000 trout per mile – so now you can understand why it’s such a beloved spot. Wade fishing may not be easy in some spots (especially Beartrap Canyon!), but boats will have an easy drift in this trout mecca.

Also worth noting: the Madison River has a prolific number of insect hatches, providing a food chain fishing pole success story. 

Whitewater Rafting & Paddling

rafting
Image: Bureau of Land Management

It’s easy to understand why whitewater rafting enthusiasts love Beartrap Canyon: its frothy, quick waters make for a perfect family adventure that keeps you on your toes.

While there are also plenty of more peaceful waters in the area, you came here for the adrenaline rush!

We especially love Montana Whitewater, a wilderness company that makes it easy to enjoy the rapids. If you look closely on your full-day raft trip, you may see rock climbing mountain goats, protective bears, or circling eagles.

If you’re not an adrenaline junkie, Beartrap Canyon visitors are also spoiled for choice with hiking, kayaking, fishing, and lounging opportunities.

This remote area along the Lee Metcalf Wilderness is a mountain paradise! Honorable mention: Ennis Lake!

Wildlife Viewing & Hiking

wildlife

Grizzly bears, moose, wolverines, grouse, elk, and more – the Madison Valley is a designated Audubon Important Bird Area.

So, what does that mean? It has a special conservation status that makes it a fruitful space to be one with wildlife – from a distance, of course! 

There are so many opportunities to view wildlife while on hikes, especially within the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, including the Beartrap Canyon region.

Be sure to respect their space and you just may get the next National Geographic shot!

Madison River Facts

madison river facts

  • Angling, and especially 15 inch+ trout fishing, is extremely popular along the entirety of the Madison River.
  • July 27, 1805: keep this date in mind and imagine yourself in the shoes of Meriwther Lewis and William Clark on their famous expedition across America. 
  • The Madison River is considered a Class I river in Montana – and it’s provided sustenance for people and wildlife as long as it’s existed. 
  • Paddling and hiking are popular water and land sports along the river, one rich in history and culture.
  • To follow the conservation efforts of locals, check out the Madison River Foundation, working to ensure and preserve this natural landscape for future generations to enjoy.

FAQ’s

How deep is the Madison River?

The Madison River has an average of 18” feet at most points – although beware that its swift movements make it a treacherous body of water to cross. However, it’s definitely deep enough for kayaking, swimming, and – of course – fishing!

How long is the Madison River?

The Madison River is 183 miles long – and its beautiful waters run through Wyoming and Montana.

How wide is the Madison River?

Interestingly, the Madison can reach anywhere from a few hundred feet in width to much smaller access points. If you’re looking to wade in the river, we recommend sticking closer to a fishing access site, like Bear Trap Canyon on the Lower Madison.

Where does the Madison River start?

The Madison begins at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, about 14 miles inside of the park’s west side entrance.

Where does the Madison River end?

Ending near Three Forks, Montana, the Madison spills into the Missouri River after a long journey through Yellowstone National Park, Madison River Overlook, Beartrap Canyon, and more.

Which way does the Madison River flow?

While the Madison does initially flow west, it makes some north and eastern turns into Montana before merging with the larger Missouri River.

Conclusion

Okay, we get it: you’re really into fly fishing. Well, you’ve come to the right river! This hotspot is home to numerous trout, acting as a goldmine for fishermen and women.

Starting and ending in legendary locations, the Madison River offers adventurous water sports and hiking opportunities – just don’t forget your sunscreen!

Have you whitewater rafted down the Beartrap Canyon, or visited any of our other favorite landmarks along the Madison River? Let us know in the comments! Enjoy the Montana magic!

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