Middle Fork Flathead Kayaking

Montana Whitewater at its Finest

Overview

The Upper Middle Fork Flathead is one of Montana’s best kept whitewater secrets. A spectacular backcountry flight, more wildlife than people, and striking emerald-aqua water beckons from Montana’s Big Sky country. With long, puckering whitewater sections, countless play spots, and feeling like you’re traveling through Glacier National Park scenery without the crowd, this trip is many locals’ favorite multi-day sections to paddle. Along with the thrilling whitewater, there are many opportunities to hike to a mountain lake, fish for native trout, and relax around camp for five glorious days in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana.

If you are an advanced paddler and feel comfortable running continuous class III with some solid class IV whitewater, this is a great trip for you. This is not a trip for beginner kayakers! We have great options for more intermediate paddling. (See WRO’s skill requirements overview.)

Trip Highlights

  • 5 days, 35 miles
  • Exciting class III-IV whitewater
  • River character: Sections of long, continuous, challenging pool-drop; boulder drop, playboating
  • Rapid series such as Three Forks and Spruce Park Gorge
  • Glacial blue, pristine water
  • Great hiking vistas of high Montana peaks
  • Waterfalls & beautiful side streams
  • Mountain lakes, streams and quiet pools for fishing
  • Incredible wildlife habitat for bears, mountain goats, moose and eagles
  • Lush landscape and wildflower meadows
  • Layover camp

Middle Fork Flathead Kayak Trip Overview

The Middle Fork Flathead, one of the little known jewels of whitewater, is a beautiful 35-mile river journey through the Great Bear Wilderness. The Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wilderness areas make up the third largest wilderness complex in the lower 48.  Together with Glacier National Park directly to the north, the Bob Marshall Complex forms the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem.  Largely unimpeded by human tinkering, wildlife is plentiful, including grizzly bears, lynx, wolverine, moose, and mountain goats.

The journey begins with a breathtaking flight into Schafer Meadows, a backcountry airstrip nestled in the middle of Montana wilderness. After several miles of scenic floating we enter the first rapid series, Three Forks. This river has limited named rapids, so often times the whitewater sections are clumped together, offering several back-to-back rapids multiple miles long that are each exciting in their own way- from techy moves, big waves and smooth boofs, large drops, and tons of play spots. Other favorite sections include 25 mile series, Lunch Creek series, and often the most notable, Spruce Park series. With a gradient of about 35 feet per mile, earlier trips offer punchy class III-IV whitewater thrills that are fairly continuous, while later in the summer the river slows down, becoming a more technical, boulder-gardened style of paddling, clearing up the water and providing more time to take in the breathtaking scenery. American Whitewater claims that the river here is so clear, that it often feels like you are “snorkeling from your boat.”

Five days and 35 miles means plenty of time to spend time scouting rapids, playing at surf waves and eddy lines, hiking, exploring, viewing wildlife, or simply sleeping in and spending time at camp and relaxing. Accessible only by plane and trail, the Middle Fork Flathead is a true wilderness experience.

Why Raft Support?

When self-support kayaking, you often have to be a minimalist. When traveling with raft support, you are able to bring all your heart desires, and probably more! Our rafts carry all of your personal things (costumes and dry shoes anyone?), and other items that self-support boating does not allow for such as coolers for gourmet food prepared for you (no more ramen and MREs!), beer, extensive safety supplies, a full-sized firepan with a daily fire, latrine facilities, logistics taken care of, etc. Without the bulky weight of your gear in your kayak, it allows for quicker, more responsive (and fun!) paddling, and also opens up possibilities for more low-volume styles of boats for those looking to spice up the class IV. 

If running this type of river without ever seeing it makes you nervous, or you are traveling alone, having a safety kayaker/ kayak guide is a great way to travel. Traveling with one of our knowledgeable safety kayakers is a great way to gain confidence and expertise through this technical run. Lastly, this type of trip also allows for you to bring non-kayaker family and friends to also be able to enjoy a perfect river vacation for everyone involved.

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The Stats

Departure Month July, June
State / Region
Adventure Level High, Moderate
Price Range $2000 - $3000
Activities Hard Shell Kayaking

Reviews

Logistics

See You Here:

The South Fork of the Flathead trip begins and ends in Kalispell, Montana (FCA).

WRO Kayak Rentals

WRO has a wide range of playboats, half-slices, and river runner/ creek boats to reserve for the week in a variety of sizes. WRO does not provide paddle, skirts, helmets, PFD’s, or personal dry gear. For more information, contact Seth, [email protected] (Reservation website coming soon.)

Before the trip:

If you need a WRO kayak rental, be sure that you reserve your boat ahead of time with the office. (See WRO kayak inventory.) Paddlers will need to provide their own paddle, helmet, lifejacket, drysuit, and optional safety gear. WRO also has drysuits available for rent, but many are rafter-designs and do not have kayak tunnels or rubber neck gaskets. 

Travel to Kalispell, Montana (FCA) no later than 5:30 pm one day prior to your trip’s launch date. Delta, Alaska/Horizon, United, Allegiant, Frontier and US Airways offer flights into Glacier International Airport (GPI). A variety of car rentals are available should you decide to visit Glacier National Park before or after your trip. Please contact our office ahead of time to arrange logistics if you need to be picked up. If flying into Kalispell, the Red Lion Hotel will pick you up, which is about a 20 minute drive to the hotel. If driving, you will be able to leave your car at the Kalispell airport.

We will have an orientation meeting at 6:00pm at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell the night before the trip to meet everyone, distribute waterproof bags for your personal gear, hand out 16 oz Hydroflask mugs, and answer any last minute questions. 

The next morning, we will pick you up at the Red Lion around 8:00am to drive to the airport.  We provide transportation to the river via a scenic flight to Schaffer Meadows, a backcountry airstrip in the Great Bear Wilderness.

After the trip:

We will have lunch at the takeout, after which we provide transportation back to the hotel in Kalispell. The travel time is about two hours, and you should arrive in Kalispell early afternoon.

Sample Itinerary

Day before the trip: Arrive in Kalispell, MT no later than 5:30 pm. At 6 pm at the Red Lion Hotel, you will meet the rest of the guests on the trip, and your trip leader will hand out dry bags if needed, answer any last minute questions and give you your 16 oz Hydroflask mug.

Day 1: We’ll get an early start for our flights to Schafer Meadows. We will typically leave the hotel in Kalispell around 8 am and head to the airport. We will then fly in personal gear and people in a series of 30 minute flights. There is a short hike to the river, in which we will need to bring our personal bags down to meet the boats and the rest of the guides. After finishing rigging the rafts, doing a river safety talk, and fitting lifejackets for those not kayaking, we will get on the water. The first few miles are a slow warm up before lunch. After lunch, we’ll be in the Three Fork Rapid Series, a couple miles of continuous class III and IV whitewater.

Day 2-4: Our trips are very flexible so that each one is tailored to the group. There will be time for hiking, fishing, looking for wildlife, casual floating and playing, scouting and running rapids, and relaxing. Day 2 or 3 is typically a layover day, in which we will stay at the same camp two nights and allow for a large, full day hike to a mountain peak with an awesome view of Montana wilderness, or a day at camp relaxing.  

Day 5: The last day brings us to the second big stretch of whitewater, the Spruce Park Gorge.  We’ll have several miles of good class III-IV water before lunch.  After the gorge we’ll have lunch, then a beautiful float down to the takeout with Glacier National Park on the right and Great Bear Wilderness on the left. This is a great place to spot mountain goats. The drive back to Kalispell takes a little over an hour.

FAQs

Kayaking/ Miscellaneous

Will I have to paddle the whole time?

We generally ask that if people sign up for a trip as a kayaker that they plan to paddle the entire trip. This is mainly because we base our number of rafts, guides, and gear distribution off of planning on having people in their kayaks. That being said, we can absolutely make accommodations for individuals in certain situations, (Not wanting to run a particular rapid, medical situations, etc.)
All and all, this is your trip and we are here to ensure you have the best trip possible.

Will safety kayakers/ kayak guides be on the trip?

WRO provides safety kayakers on trips at paddlers' request or if there are more than four kayakers on a trip. We especially try to make sure this is true during high water/ spring trips. Our kayak guides have experience on each of our rivers, as well as with instruction and rescue. We currently cannot provide one-on-one instruction with the types of trips we run, and try to focus on providing river beta and safety.

If I'm on a mixed raft support/ kayak trip, will I be able to scout rapids/ play/ separate from the group?

Generally, yes, to an extent. We try to stay together as a group to keep our repair and major first aid kits accessible to both rafters and kayakers at all times. A certain amount of playing is okay, and we definitely encourage you to do so, but we try to keep our group about a quarter mile distance within each other. If there is a particular rapid you want to scout, try to have an idea the morning of, and let the trip leader know, we will all scout as a group.

I am a whitewater canoeist; are there options for me?

If you are a confident whitewater canoeist with comparable experience, (see skill requirements) we encourage all types of whitewater enthusiasts out there. There are different types of rivers and trip times of the year that may fit your paddling experience and style better than others (high water, big hydraulics versus more creaky and technical), so please check in with the office or read on our kayak trip pages on what those might be. WRO does not currently offer whitewater canoes or accessories in our rental fleet, so you will be responsible for transporting your gear.

I am a part of a kayak school/ company and would like to book a trip for a group of my clients with a WRO permit. How does this work?

As you would charter the whole trip, this needs to be planned well in advance to ensure that there is a full trip date open for your group. The only exception to this might be if another chartered trip was canceled. Call the office for details on charter fees, guide expectations, available dates, etc. There are group discounts and charter commissions available.

How old does my child have to be to participate?

We recommend children be at least the age of 14 for the Middle Fork Flathead, but have made exceptions based on river experience. Contact us to ask about your child age and river dates.

What if there is a family emergency back home? How will they locate us?

We always carry a satellite communication device for emergency situations and stay in contact with WRO staff in Salmon, who are aware of our location and campsites during the trip. If our office staff is notified of an emergency they will let our crew know, but it is definitely not immediate as we are typically traveling in remote wilderness areas.

What happens if someone gets sick or injured?

All of our trip leaders are certified Wilderness First Responders, along with the majority of our other highly capable guides, several of whom are Wilderness EMTs. All guides are trained in Swiftwater Rescue. Evacuation plans are in place for each trip in case of an emergency, and a satellite communication device is carried at all times.

What is an appropriate gratuity for your guides?

Guides are usually tipped 10-20% of the cost of the trip, more for exceptional service. The guides equally split the total tip amount from each guest. They are most appreciative of receiving this directly from the guest, which will usually be given to the trip leader at the end of the trip to distribute to the rest of the guides, so we recommend planning ahead to have cash or checks on hand. Please do not make tip checks out to Wilderness River Outfitters. They will need to be made out to the guide or to cash. Most of the guides also use Venmo.

Camp Life and Meals

Will we be at a new camp every day?

Yes, we do normally change campsites every day. This allows us to cover new scenery, rapids, and side adventures each day at a fun, comfortable pace.

Will there be a campfire every night?

Yes, we almost always have a campfire every evening and morning.

What clothes should I bring for camp?

Spring trips in Idaho can be very cold and unpredictable. It is recommended to have plenty of fresh, warm, dry clothes to change into at camp. Ensure that you have fresh thermal-layers, fleece or wool, synthetic down, warm hats and gloves, and wool socks. Some sort of sturdy/ insulated pants are also nice. Winter camp booties or close toed shoes are recommended for around camp.

How big are the tents? Do we have to share a tent with someone else?

Most of our tents are high-quality three-person tents, but we only put two people in each tent. If there is an odd number in your group we will not make you share a tent with a stranger. We offer brands like Mountain Hardware, North Face, and Sierra Designs.

Will my tent be set up for me?

In the interest of a more genuine wilderness experience, we encourage people to pick their own sleeping sites and set up their tents (or sleep under the stars, weather permitting!). If you need assistance, we’re happy to help and always show you how the gear works.

What kind of food will we be eating?

Wonderful, gourmet backcountry cooking! We are consistently told by guests that we out-do their expectations when it comes to our food’s quality that we can accomplish in the wilderness. Breakfasts and suppers consist of culinary delights like wild Salmon and steak, many of which are cooked over open campfires and dutch ovens. Lunches are a combination of tasty salads, sandwiches, fruits, and assorted snacks. Healthy and nutritious options are always available, and meals always include fruits and vegetables (locally sourced and organic ingredients whenever possible). For additional information, check out our "Sample Menu" page.

Can WRO accommodate dietary restrictions/ allergies?

WRO will happily do our best to accommodate any dietary restrictions at no additional cost. We have experience working with vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, nut allergies, etc. Please notify us of any dietary restrictions or allergies as early as possible so that we can adjust the menu accordingly. In certain cases, individuals may want to supplement meals and snacks with some items of their own.

Does WRO provide drinks/ snacks?

WRO provides ample snacks as well as plenty of drinking water, fruit juices, and coffee, tea, and cream in the morning. We do not provide soda or alcohol, with the exception of a fiesta night that we provide drinks. You are also welcome to bring your own alcohol (packed in unbreakable containers whenever possible, please). As there are portages on this trip, we recommend thinking about options such as hard alcohol packed in non-glass containers and bagged wine, though beer is okay if that is your preference.

How does personal hygiene work during the trip?

We need to keep soap out of the rivers (and the hot springs), so if you want to use soap and bathe on the trip, you need to do so above the high water mark. The guides can help carry and heat up some water if needed. Face and body wipes also work well for helping stay clean.

How does the bathroom system work during the trip?

In order to keep these places beautiful for years to come, all rivers are “pack it in, pack it out.” We bring fabulous portable toilets and handwashing stations that we place in a private location away from camp with the best bathroom view you will ever have.

On the River

How long will we be floating on the river each day?

Each trip is tailored to the desires of the guests, but generally we will be on the water a total of 5 or so hours each day (give or take a couple of hours), broken by a lunch stop and any other side adventures. We usually start floating when the sun hits the water each day and arrive in camp late afternoon. Each day will be different, with varying options for hiking, exploring, and great lunch stops. The Middle Fork Flathead is a lower mileage adventure, which allows for us to take our time.

What will temperatures and weather be like? Will it be cold? Will it rain?

Summer temperatures in the Northern Rockies can fluctuate dramatically in a 24-hour period, from freezing at night to 50s and 60’s and sunny the next afternoon, and up to 80-90 degrees later in the summer. Storms can also roll in unexpectedly, and it’s best to be prepared for anything. Rain in the Flathead is very possible, with likelihood increasing with earlier season trips. The water temperatures are cold. Be sure to check out the weather section of the packing list for specific seasonal information and average temperatures for your trip, as well as doing your own research a week prior to your trip, checking anticipated weather at Shaefer Meadows, MT (our put-in) as well as in Essex, MT (close to our takeout).

Clothing, Footwear, and Gear

Can I bring my own sleeping pad/bag/tent/other gear?

You are welcome to bring your own sleeping gear if you wish, but if you do, please bring your own complete sleep kit and let us know ahead of time. Our sleep kits consist of a "Therm-a-rest" pad, a 0 degree sleeping bag, a pack-able pillow, and a ground cloth. We can provide an empty dry bag to store your sleep kit in.

How big are the waterproof bags and how much stuff can they hold?

Everyone is issued a waterproof “day bag” to carry items you will need access to during the day while on the river. This day bag is 9 inches in diameter and 20 inches tall. Everyone is also issued a large waterproof bag for your personal gear and clothing. This bag should be plenty large enough for everything listed on our suggested packing list. We recommend limiting your personal gear to 35 pounds. You will be able to use your own dry bag if you would like, just let our office know.

Logistics

Can I bring my own sleeping pad/bag/tent/other gear?

You are welcome to bring your own sleeping gear if you wish, but if you do, please bring your own complete sleep kit and let us know ahead of time. Our sleep kits consist of a "Therm-a-rest" pad, a 0 degree sleeping bag, a pack-able pillow, and a ground cloth. We can provide an empty dry bag to store your sleep kit in.

How big are the waterproof bags and how much stuff can they hold?

Everyone is issued a waterproof “day bag” to carry items you will need access to during the day while on the river. This day bag is 9 inches in diameter and 20 inches tall. Everyone is also issued a large waterproof bag for your personal gear and clothing. This bag should be plenty large enough for everything listed on our suggested packing list. We recommend limiting your personal gear to 35 pounds. You will be able to use your own dry bag if you would like, just let our office know.

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