Located along the beautiful Madison River in southwestern Montana, Bear Trap Canyon offers 6,000 acres of wilderness, thrilling recreation, and scenic views. If you’ve never heard of Bear Trap Canyon, welcome to paradise!
Known worldwide for its raging rapids passing through 2,000-foot high canyon cliffs, Bear Trap Canyon has some of the best whitewater rafting in all of Montana.
If you’re less of an adrenaline junkie but love Montana for its natural beauty, this canyon also offers fantastic trout fishing, hiking, picnicking, backpacking, horseback riding, and primitive camping.
And of course, since it runs through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area, you’ll find plenty of wildlife on your path. Let’s get into it!
Starting with Bear Trap Canyon’s nine-mile float trip down the raging river – are you up for it? Plenty of summertime fun and boating can be found at nearby Ennis Lake, but the real adventure begins a bit north as you’re plunged into an adrenaline-driven race down the river.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced rafter, this is the golden spot for you – but we don’t recommend Bear Trap Canyon for beginners unless you have a guide present (More on that in a moment!).
Similar to rock climbing, whitewater rafting here is a bit of a choose your own adventure: it’s up to you to move past boulders, down stretching water lines and eddies, plunging through Class III and IV glasses of water leading up to the big kahuna, the Kitchen Sink.
The waters are sparkling and the Montana air is fresh, but if you’re not paying attention, you could risk getting flushed under.
And that’s where the guides come in! We highly recommend Montana Whitewater guides – they’re Bozeman-based and family-owned, sure, but they come with years of experience in rafting. And, they’ll keep you humble as you fly through the waters – safety comes first.
More interested in fishing? You’ll find plenty of trout all year round along the Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness. If you love spending time with the water, you’ll know that this area of the Madison River houses 2,000 trout per mile, making it a great spot for angling. In other words, that’s a whole lot of fish!
And the best part is that it’s only 30 minutes from Bozeman, but it comprises some of the most serene fishing spots in the state.
For an experienced guide in the area, we recommend Yellowstone Fish, although they only offer their guided trip in August and September due to water levels. Otherwise, the warmer waters mean you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find fish on your own.
And of course, there’s the beautiful Bear Trap Canyon Trail, one of our favorites in the entire state.
Running 7 miles round trip to Bear Trap Creek or 15 miles round trip to the Madison dam, you have a few hiking options – but they all traverse beautiful terrain. Ranging from 3 to 7 hours, it’s recommended to pack a snack, water, bug spray, and – when in Montana! – bear spray.
Because of its beauty, the trail is relatively trafficked, but we’ll be sure to provide a few options below that offer a bit more solitude.
Do you like hiking and camping in all four seasons? We only recommend the first part of the trail during the dense winter months, due to icy and snowy conditions. But, your patience will be rewarded with spectacular views come springtime.
Let’s get into a few of our favorite spots in and around Bear Trap Canyon. Your adventure awaits!
Bear Trap Canyon Stats
- Size: 6,000 acres
- Season: Year-round
- Hours: All-day
- Nearest Body of Water: Madison River
- Number of Campsites: Multiple, Primitive
- Number of Picnic Sites: Multiple
- Wheelchair Accessible: Yes, at picnic areas
Main Attractions Around Bear Trap Canyon
There’s plenty to do at and around Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness, from the greater Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area to distilleries and swimming opportunities. Off we go!
If you remember, we mentioned this family-friendly lake at the top as a fantastic summertime swimming hole and boating option near Bear Trap Canyon, and it’s still true.
Come here for the Fourth of July weekend or any other time during the summer, and you’re sure to find summer vibes, some Yacht Rock, and maybe even more trout fishing.
Although the lake is only 2.5 miles long, it offers year-round play opportunities, from 9 campsites to ice skating to floating around in a doughnut tube with a popsicle. You get to decide!
Madison Buffalo Jump State Park
You’re already in the area, so visit this ancient site where indigenous peoples lured buffalo off of steep cliffs in one very unique hunting technique.
As horses entered the Montana landscape, indigenous people adjusted their technique, but the cliffs of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park remain a testament to innovation, intuitive skill, and technical prowess.
Also recommended: Buffalo Jump State Park Loop for a winding trail with informative signs, and immersion into a more primitive way of life.
Norris Hot Springs
We love a woman-owned business, and this relaxing hot springs and campground is a true gem of girl power.
Norris Hot Springs is a short drive from Bear Trap Canyon, and its mineral waters are the perfect way to relax after a day roughing it (Ask us how we know!).
Rustic, elegant, and relaxing, the hot springs are open all year round, offering camping sites and – sometimes – live music.
Go soak in the water of the gods and replenish your body and mind before another day of Montana adventures.
Madison Valley History Museum
History museums are kind of our thing – we love seeing the unique displays that every small town has to offer.
The Madison Valley History Museum preserves plenty of local artifacts and historical items from the area, but our favorite is the Madison Monster. Oral family history and folklore share that a terrifying wolf-like creature came through town, killing livestock and terrorizing animals and humans.
But I.A. Hutchins’ rifle came in handy as he shot the town monster, and the mount and history are now on display at the Ennis-based museum. This is exactly what we love about small town museums!
Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, from 1 pm to 4 pm. Let us know how you like the spooky monster! Then, check out Willie’s Distillery for a surprisingly thorough array of spirits. Our favorite? Willie’s Huckleberry Sweet Cream Liqueur, thanks for asking!
Recreational Activities Around Bear Trap Canyon
We’ve touched on some of our favorite recreational activities at Bear Trap Canyon Wilderness, but that’s just one section of the gorgeous Lee Metcalf Wilderness and surrounding areas. Let’s dig a bit deeper!
Hiking & Biking
A quick refresher about Bear Trap Canyon Trail: it’s one of those beautiful and convenient hikes that you can turn around whenever you’d like if you’re getting hangry (just us?), although most people stop around the creek for a shorter hike (Just be mindful of those rattlesnakes in the warmer months!).
For a bit of a drive west, we love hiking at Louise Lake for an easy day trip, and one of the best mountain biking spots in the area is the 72 miles from Ennis to the Centennial Valley.
Or, if you’re feeling brave, we recommend participating in Ennis’s Madison Triathlon. Best of all worlds, and then a soak in Norris Hot Springs? Go for it!
Swimming & Fishing
Fishing in Montana is a trout lover’s dream, that’s for sure! And all you have to do is drop a line for a great solo or family adventure.
If you’re already at Bear Trap Canyon, you’re good to go with a plethora of fishing opportunities, but Ennis Lake and Louise Lake provide some healthy alternatives.
And speaking of Ennis Lake, you’ll love swimming there with friends and family, but we especially love Kobayashi Beach and Upper Potosi Hot Spring.
You’ll find plenty of lakes to chill out in as the weather gets cooler – just don’t forget a warm towel and hot tea!
You already know about the primitive camping at Bear Trap, and it’s easy to feel good about roughing it in such gorgeous surroundings. But let’s go over some other unique spots!
Potosi Campground is just a bit west of Bear Trap Canyon and if you’re lucky with timing, you could have access to a smaller hot spring while you’re there (see below!).
We also recommend the closer Red Mountain Campground for a grounded spot, warm fire, and good company. (Incredibly scenic and close to the river – score!).
We do have a soft spot for Norris Hot Springs, so check their camping availability as well. Either way, you’re in for a beautiful night under the stars.
Trail Creek –Length: 5.1 miles
We’ve already talked extensively about Bear Trap Canyon’s gorgeous trail – please don’t miss out on it! – so let’s branch out to some of our other favorites in the area.
Starting in nearby Ennis, Trail Creek takes a little under 3 hours to complete and features some spectacular Montana views. You’ll love its switchbacks through forests, more widened rocky areas, gradual incline (see: not steep!), and rewarding postcard views at the top.
If you come during the winter, dress accordingly in spiked shoes and warmer clothes, but it’s more than doable!
Twin Lakes Trail – Length: 12.2 miles
This trail is a bit longer than Trail Creek, but you get to see moose and elk along the way. Also, it’s true – you’ll get two lakes for the price of one if you hike high enough.
If you come during the winter, know you’ll have a lot of snow, so we recommend this trail most during the peak of summer.
Don’t forget to leave the area better than when you found it: the campsite rule applies to hikers and bikers, too!
Upper Potosi Hot Springs Trail – Length: 1.6 miles
Let’s end on an easier note! We mentioned this hot spring earlier, but let’s give it some more color. Unlike Norris Hot Springs, Upper Potosi is free and primitive, but that also means you have to brave the walk there.
Thankfully, it’s an easy one in Beaverhead National Forest, through mountainous fields and classic Montana views. Honestly, this trail is an easy win for us, and we think you’ll love it, too.