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Smith River, Montana

The Smith River begins in the Castle Mountains in southern Meagher County, Montana, then flows northwest between the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains. It finally ends up as a tributary of the Missouri River in central Montana.

Smith river is known for its spectacular float trips and trout fishing. However, the best sites along the river are only accessible using canoes, kayaks, rafts, and drift boats.

Before embarking on a float trip on the Smith River, a permit is necessary. Due to the popularity and high demand for floating trips, permits are distributed through a lottery system.

History of the Smith River

history of the smith river
Image: Forest Service Northern Region

Smith River got its name on July 15, 1805, from two explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. They named the river in honor of Robert Smith, who was then the secretary of the navy.

The steep limestone canyon walls and the large caves along the Smith River feature ancient art that provides a glimpse into its prehistoric past. It’s believed that around 3000 BC, early inhabitants in the canyon drew and painted clouds, abstract designs, and handprints.

Early explorers, including the American Indians and their predecessors, might have used the river canyon as their passage route or a travel corridor. The river directed them from the bison-filled plains to the higher valleys through the rugged mountains.

The early Indian tribes who probably used this route include the Crow, Blackfeet, Salish, Shoshone, and Assiniboine.

It’s believed that the Indian tribes who used the canyon as a travel corridor abandoned the place around 1700. The caves and canyon walls show a decline in rock art created after 1700. The site has numerous caves located high on the canyons and depicts drawings of various animals.

The main animals in the caves include bears, turtles, rattlesnakes, horses, bison, deer, and elk. All animals painted on the cave walls seem to have ceremonial connotations.

The early inhabitants did much of the painting with iron oxide mixed with animal fat, urine, or vegetable matter.

Geography & Stats

The headwaters of Smith River start from the Castle Mountains, flowing past the valleys between Little Belt on the east and Big Belt Mountains on the west. The river then flows past White Sulphur Springs and Smith State Park.

It finally winds up into the Missouri River about 9 miles (14 km) upstream of Great Falls. The entire river is about 120 miles (193.12km) and is served by approximately 125 tributaries.

The two longest tributaries are North Fork, 50 miles, and South Fork, 38 miles. Other important tributaries include Big Birch, Tenderfoot, Newlan, Eagle, Sheep, Rock, and Hound Creek.

Tenderfoot and Sheep are among the tributaries contributing high-quality water to the Smith River. They also serve as spawning tributaries for the Smith River’s famous brown trout and wild rainbow.

The State of Montana and the U.S. Forest Service own about 30% of the land in the Smith River drainage. The rest is privately owned.

Visitors can access four fishing sites in the drainage managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. These fishing sites are:

Activities & Attractions

Smith River is a charming landmark in central Montana that offers a variety of attractions and activities. Visitors can explore downstream and enjoy numerous recreations in the river and surrounding areas.

Attractions

Smith River State Park

smith river state park
Image: Jeff Jones

Smith River State Park is a “virtual park” and a state-protected river corridor. The park consists of Smith River, Camp Baker (a put-in point), and Eden Bridge (a take-out point).

Smith River flows past gorgeous sceneries, including a remote canyon between Big Belt and Little Belt mountains.

Visitors to Smith River State Park will find campsites, picnic shelters, public restrooms, trails, established fire pits, and grills. The park is a hotspot for wildlife viewing, fly fishing, sightseeing, and photography.

Giant Springs State Park

giant springs state park

Giant Springs State Park is 1 hr 21 min (59.2) miles from Smith River. It’s easily accessible via Milligan Rd in Montana. The park is near Great Falls and boasts a shoreline of nearly 14 miles along the Missouri River.

Thanks to its abundant recreational activities and picturesque geological features, the park is family-friendly. In addition, visitors can head to the Giant Springs, a famous freshwater spring in the county that produces over 156 million gallons of water daily.

Whether you’re a water sports enthusiast or prefer spending time exploring the vast terrain, Giant Springs State Park has something for you.

Enjoy various activities such as fishing, boating, hunting, hiking, bird watching, and photography.

Castle Museum and Carriage House

Castle Museum and Carriage House is the only Castle in Montana established in 1892 by Byron Roger Sherman.

It’s poised on the highest point in White Sulphur Spring town and overlooks the Smith River Valley. The Victorian-styled castle was built using granite stones from the Castle Mountains.

Visitors to this castle can enjoy spectacular views of the entire Smith River Valley, Castle Mountains, Little Belt Mountains, and Crazy Mountain.

Inside the castle is a collection of artwork and finest materials. Some of the memorabilia in the museum include household items, mining equipment, buggies, and wagons.

Visitors can get admission to the castle at a fee of $5 for children and $7 for adults.

C.M. Russell Museum

c.m. russell museum
Image: Jasperdo

C.M. Russell Museum is situated in the city of Great Falls and serves as an art museum.

History buffs exploring Smith River might want to get in touch with the art and memorabilia of Charles Marion Russell. The museum has 2000 C.M. Russel’s works of art and artifacts.

The museum also features an impressive collection of Browning firearms and artworks of Gary Schildt, and O.C. Seltzer, among other Western artists. Beside the museum is an art studio built in 1903 using red cedar telephone poles.

Visitors can walk inside the art studio to view Charlie’s paintings.

Activities

Floating on the Smith River

floating on the smith river
Image: Jeff Jones

Floating is one of the main activities that attract visitors to Smith River. To enjoy floating on the river, you need to win a permit in the annual lottery.

Most floating begins from Camp Baker and heads downstream 59 miles (95 km) to Eden Bridge Access Site. Only nine float parties are allowed to float downstream on any day.

Visitors can spend multiple days floating downstream and camping at designated boat camps.

Floating is done using non-motorized watercraft such as drift boats, canoes, rafts, and kayaks. The best way to enjoy the natural beauty while floating downstream is by visiting when the water is navigable.

May and July are ideal months for this activity.

Fishing

The Smith River has ideal fishing access sites for catching brown trout and rainbow trout. While most large fish are found in the Missouri River, you’re likely to catch trout between 13-16 inches.

Fly Fishing is common on this river, and anglers enjoy professional guide services to help them catch giant trout.

Anglers who want to fly fish in the Smith River are provided with flies, tippets, and basic training to catch fish.

Most anglers prefer fishing at the Smith River Fishing Access Site, nine miles upstream from Camp Baker. Fishing at this site offers an excellent opportunity to catch brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout.

The best fishing site is between Camp Baker and Bridge Access. Anglers can get a floating permit and float downstream to enjoy fishing in one of the sites with a large brown and rainbow trout population.

Camping

camping
Image: Jeff Jones

Floating downstream from Camp Baker to Bridge Access is a great way to enjoy camping for several days. Float parties can use maps to choose the best campgrounds along the river. Luckily, most campgrounds have labels, and you can easily see the sign as you float.

Some of the campgrounds you will find along the river include Camp Baker, Indian Springs, Rock Creek, Canyon Depth, Sheep Wagon, Rattlesnake, and Eden Bridge.

Smith River Facts

  • The river is approximately 120 miles (193.12 km) long.
  • The river has one public put-in point and one public take-out point.
  • Floating on the Smith River requires a permit.
  • Approximately 125 tributaries feed the Smith River.
  • The steep canyon walls and caves between Little Belt and Big Belt along the river have numerous paintings and drawings of the earlier inhabitants.
  • The river is home to brown, rainbow, and brook trout.
  • Smith River flow is 59 miles (95 km) from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge.

FAQ’s

How deep is Smith River?

The depth of the Smith River varies from point to point and from season to season. The shallowest parts are on the upper part from Camp Baker upwards. The deepest parts are downstream from Camp Baker and are ideal for floating.

How long is Smith River?

The river is about 120 miles (193.12 km) and runs through steep canyons, rugged mountains, and dense forests before reaching its confluence in the Missouri River.

How wide is Smith River?

The width of the river varies in different parts. There are wide and shallow parts, while others are narrow and deep.

Where does Smith River start?

The river gathers in the Castle Mountains in southern Meager County.

Where does Smith River end?

The river spills into the Missouri River south of Great Falls in Meagher County and Cascade County.

Which way does the Smith River flow?

The river flows northwest from the Castle Mountains through the valley between Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains.

It then flows past White Sulphur Springs and Smith River State Park and turns north-northwest joining the Missouri River southwest of Great Falls.

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