Middle Fork of the Flathead

The Essence of Montana

Overview

A spectacular backcountry flight, smaller groups sizes, and striking emerald-aqua water beckons from Montana’s Big Sky country. Thanks to simple logistics, the Middle Fork Flathead is one of our most affordable trips on a pristine wilderness river. Enjoy the thrilling whitewater in the springtime, hike to a mountain lake, fish for native trout, and relax around camp for five glorious days in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana.

Trip Highlights

  • 5 days, 35 miles
  • Class III-IV whitewater
  • 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 alpine landscape and wildflower meadows

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 black and grizzly bears, elk, deer, moose, mountain goats, and elusive lynx and wolverine.

The journey begins with a breathtaking flight into Schafer Meadows, a backcountry airstrip nestled in the middle of the wilderness. After several miles of scenic floating we enter the first rapid series, Three Forks. While earlier trips offer exciting whitewater thrills between quiet pools, later dates provide better fishing opportunities as the water drops and turns magnificent shades of emerald and aqua. The Middle Fork has an average gradient of about 35 feet per mile, which translates to punchy Class III-IV rapids on earlier trips and boulder garden rapids during lower flows. We bring oar boats, paddle boats, and at lower water, inflatable kayaks.
Five days and 35 miles means plenty of time to hike, fish the fat and feisty Cutthroat trout at Castle Lake, view wildlife, or simply relax. Accessible only by plane and trail, the Middle Fork Flathead is a true wilderness experience.

 

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The Stats

Departure Month July, June
State / Region Montana
Adventure Level High, Moderate
Price Range $2000 - $3000
Activities Fishing, Hiking, Inflatable Kayaking, Whitewater Rafting, Wildlife

Reviews

Logistics

This trip begins and ends in Kalispell, Montana.

Before the trip:
Fly commercially into Kalispell, Montana. Delta, Alaska/Horizon, United, Allegiant, Frontier and US Airways offer flights into Glacier International Airport (FCA). The Red Lion Hotel (800-547-8010) will provide transportation from the airport to Kalispell. Give them a call from the airport as soon as you arrive as it is a 20-minute drive to the 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, and answer any last minute questions. We will also distribute WRO hydroflasks.

We will pick you up at the Red Lion around 8:00am. We provide transportation to the river via a scenic flight to Schafer Meadows, a backcountry airstrip in the Great Bear Wilderness. Lower water trips, we drive to a trailhead and hike into a lower put in option.

Motel Before and After:
We recommend staying at the Red Lion Hotel (800-547-8010) or Four Seasons (406-755-6123) in Kalispell for the evening before and after your trip.

Transportation after the trip:
We provide transportation back to the hotel in Kalispell where we typically have an optional farewell dinner that evening. We typically arrive back in Kalispell around 3 or 4 pm on the final day of the trip.

Sample Itinerary

Day before the trip: Arrive in Kalispell, MT. In the evening, we’ll get together to hand out dry bags, Hydroflask coffee mugs, and answer any last minute questions.

Day 1: We’ll get an early start for our flights to Schafer Meadows.  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, floating casually, running rapids, and almost anything else you can think of.  On this trip we often include a layover day to allow for a longer day hike to a mountain peak or alpine lake. For those who would rather spend a relaxing day around camp doing some fishing or reading a book by the river that is an option as well.

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 usually before lunch.  After the gorge we’ll have lunch along the river or down at the take out.  The final day below the gorge includes 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

Camp Life and Meals

Will we be at a new camp every day?

Yes, we do normally change campsites every day. However, on the Middle Fork Flathead we usually take one “layover” day where we stay at the same camp and spend the day fishing, hiking, or relaxing.

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?

Your river and/or hiking clothes can double as camp clothes, but you are welcome to bring something else if you would like, such as a cotton shirt, an athletic dress/skirt for women, or some fiesta-wear.

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. If you need assistance, we’re happy to help and always there to 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 consist of a combination of grains, vegetables, eggs, and breakfast meats, and dinners consist of culinary delights such as 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 (sourced locally when we can).

Can WRO accommodate dietary restrictions?

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 half and half in the morning. We do not provide soda or alcohol. If you feel you would like to have soda or other canned beverages on the trip, please bring what you wish and we will help keep it cold! You are also welcome to bring your own alcohol (packed in unbreakable containers whenever possible, please). As this is a fly-in or pack-in trip, please try not to bring excess drinks of what you will drink.

How does personal hygiene work during the trip?

We need to keep soap out of the rivers, 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 a little different, with varying options for hiking, exploring, swimming, fishing, and great lunch stops. Your lead guide will give you an overview of the day each morning.

What will I do with items I need accessible during the day or on the boat?

In addition to the large waterproof bag issued for packing clothing and camp items, everyone is also issued a smaller “day bag” to carry items you will need access to while on the river (sunscreen, camera, extra layer, etc.). Put anything you might need during the day in this day bag, as the larger bag will usually be inaccessible until we reach camp for the evening.

How will I keep my phone/camera/other valuable items safe from the elements?

We discourage bringing any unnecessary valuables on your trip. Phones can be placed in a ziploc bag or water proof case and put in your day bag if you would like to have it accessible for taking pictures during the day. If you are bringing a large, expensive camera, we recommend you bring a hard waterproof case in which to store it and accessories.

What kind of boat will I be riding in?

We usually have a variety of boats so that everyone gets a chance to experience each type of river craft, water level permitting. During your registration, you will note your boat preferences so we can plan accordingly. Unless you have requested otherwise, we typically bring several oar boats, a paddle boat, and a few inflatable kayaks. We recommend trying out each boat and riding with each guide as they all have something different to offer.

If we say we want to paddle, are we committed to paddling the entire trip?

Generally no, as we usually have enough boats that guests can rotate and have the option to paddle when they wish.

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 in the springtime to 70-80s the next afternoon. Mid summer sunny days can also reach the upper 90s! Storms can also roll in unexpectedly, and it’s best to be prepared for anything. Rain is always possible, especially in the Flathead, but trips earlier in the season are more likely to see precipitation and/or cooler temperatures than mid to late summer trips. Check out the weather section of the packing list for specific seasonal information and average temperatures for your trip. It is also recommended to check a weather forecast at Schaefer Meadows, MT (our put-in) and at Essex, MT (our takeout) while packing for your trip.

Is it possible to rent a drysuit (spring trips)?

We provide wetsuits, but we also have drysuits available to rent for added comfort. Let us know if you’re interested in a drysuit and we can ensure we have the right size and add it to your invoice.

Clothing, Footwear, and Gear

What kind of footwear should I bring? What shoes will I wear in the boat?

For most trips you will need two pairs of shoes, one to wear in the boats and one to wear hiking and around camp. For spring trips, we recommend neoprene socks to wear on the river with your river shoes. By July, water temperatures become warmer and socks may no longer be necessary. Most people enjoy wearing water shoes or sturdy sandals with an ankle strap (popular options include Chacos, Tevas, and Keens). Old running sneakers can also work well as river shoes. Flip-flops can be nice for around camp but you need something that will stay on your feet while we are on the boats. For most trips, sneakers or a lightweight hiking boot will be fine for side hikes.

What clothing should I wear in the boat?

This will depend on the time of year. For spring trips, we provide wetsuits, underneath which you can wear long underwear or swimwear. For cooler early-season days you can also wear long underwear, synthetic pants with rain pants over them, and a fleece or other warm layer with your raincoat on top. As temperatures warm up, we might just wear a pair of shorts over a bathing suit, or light pants and a sun shirt. Quick-dry synthetic clothing, layers, rain, and sun protection are the most important things to keep in mind.

Why do you recommend synthetics instead of cotton?

While on the river you will get wet going through rapids (what fun would it be if you didn’t?!). Synthetic materials are lightweight and dry much quicker than cotton. They also keep you warmer if wet. Comfort is essential to having fun!

What size and type of sleeping pad does WRO provide?

We provide deluxe, self-inflating basecamp “Therm-a-rest” pads. These are very comfortable and fit very nicely in our gear bags.

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 30 pounds and not bringing excess stuff, as this is a fly or pack-in trip.

Logistics

When do we need to be there?

You should arrive in Kalispell the day before your trip is scheduled to begin. There will be an evening orientation with WRO guides and guests, where we will go over trip details, answer last-minute questions, and hand out Hydroflask coffee mugs and waterproof bags to repack your gear into. You will head to the river the next morning (the official starting date of your trip).

Is there a place to store our non-river luggage while we’re on the river?

Yes, we will store your extra bags and make arrangements for them to be transported to meet you at the end of the trip. However, we do recommend that you leave any unnecessary valuables at home. Your wallet & cash should be placed in a Ziplock bag and taken with you on your trip. Many hotels also offer luggage storage on this trip.

How, where, and when do we get our fishing licenses?

If you want to fish, a Montana fishing license is mandatory, and can be purchased just before you arrive if it is an in-person purchase. If you look at the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website, it will direct you to options for online purchases or in-person vendors around Montana. Online purchases are immediately effective, but must be printed and kept on your person at all times when fishing. Montana also has the option to purchase a fishing license just for the time you are on the river.

Is there somewhere to purchase last-minute items before the trip?

Yes, there are usually outdoor stores located fairly close to all the hotels we recommend or on the way to the river. Examples in Kalispell include Sportsman's Warehouse, REI, or Cabella’s.

Can I stay at a different hotel than your recommended options before the trip?

You are welcome to stay wherever you’d like as long as you are at 1) orientation the evening before your trip and 2) your trip’s designated pickup location ready for departure the morning your trip begins. We recommend the most convenient lodging, which is usually where orientation is held and where group transportation will pick up and drop off guests before and after the trip. Kalispell and Whitefish have limited taxi options like Uber or Lyft, so if you don’t have a vehicle, staying in the recommended lodging is especially convenient.

Miscellaneous

When do we need to be there?

You should arrive in Kalispell the day before your trip is scheduled to begin. There will be an evening orientation with WRO guides and guests, where we will go over trip details, answer last-minute questions, and hand out Hydroflask coffee mugs and waterproof bags to repack your gear into. You will head to the river the next morning (the official starting date of your trip).

Is there a place to store our non-river luggage while we’re on the river?

Yes, we will store your extra bags and make arrangements for them to be transported to meet you at the end of the trip. However, we do recommend that you leave any unnecessary valuables at home. Your wallet & cash should be placed in a Ziplock bag and taken with you on your trip. Many hotels also offer luggage storage on this trip.

How, where, and when do we get our fishing licenses?

If you want to fish, a Montana fishing license is mandatory, and can be purchased just before you arrive if it is an in-person purchase. If you look at the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website, it will direct you to options for online purchases or in-person vendors around Montana. Online purchases are immediately effective, but must be printed and kept on your person at all times when fishing. Montana also has the option to purchase a fishing license just for the time you are on the river.

Is there somewhere to purchase last-minute items before the trip?

Yes, there are usually outdoor stores located fairly close to all the hotels we recommend or on the way to the river. Examples in Kalispell include Sportsman's Warehouse, REI, or Cabella’s.

Can I stay at a different hotel than your recommended options before the trip?

You are welcome to stay wherever you’d like as long as you are at 1) orientation the evening before your trip and 2) your trip’s designated pickup location ready for departure the morning your trip begins. We recommend the most convenient lodging, which is usually where orientation is held and where group transportation will pick up and drop off guests before and after the trip. Kalispell and Whitefish have limited taxi options like Uber or Lyft, so if you don’t have a vehicle, staying in the recommended lodging is especially convenient.

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