South Fork of the Flathead

Explore the Heart of Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness

Overview

Hike past pristine mountain lakes and snow-covered peaks. Cast for native trout along grassy meadows bursting with wildflowers. Feel the exhilaration of puckering whitewater rushing through a narrow gorge. Four days of hiking and four days of rafting make for a truly unique backcountry experience in the wilderness of Montana. Come see for yourself why the South Fork of the Flathead is a guide favorite!

Trip Highlights

  • 8 Days, 43 miles of river, 22-29 miles of trail
  • Hike/ trail ride through Bob Marshall Wilderness
  • Remote scenery
  • World-class fly-fishing
  • Hiking
  • Horseback riding
  • High adventure whitewater (Meadow Creek Gorge section)

 

The trail includes clear mountain lakes and a high mountain pass surrounded by majestic snowy peaks and lush green valleys.  This remote valley, deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness is home to extraordinary wildlife including elk, moose, wolf, eagles, mountain goats, grizzly and black bear.  Backpack or let the horses carry your gear and wear only a light daypack.  We travel 6 to 10 miles a day through spectacular backcountry and most routes include one day of uphill climbing.  Just when your feet are getting a bit heavy, we reach the cool, clear waters of the South Fork.

The river is one of the prettiest and most productive trout streams in North America. For the first two days, the water meanders lazily through a sweeping glacial valley and grand Ponderosa Pines.  We dedicate plenty of river time to fishing for one of the purest strains of Westslope Cutthroat trout in the world.  Big and plenty, these native fish average 12-20 inches. On one of our trips last summer three people fishing the same hole each caught 20 fish in under an hour!  On the third day of the float, we enter Meadow Creek Gorge and the character of the river changes dramatically. The narrow, limestone gorge allows only paddle boats on this section of the river and for six miles the water crashes through a series of class III to V rapids (this section is optional). One day of the South Fork’s whitewater is enough adrenaline for the whole trip!  The final night is a celebration of our amazing adventure around a roaring campfire. The last day includes a casual float and fishing from the boat. Join us for eight wonderful days in the incredible Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana.

The Stats

Departure Month July
State / Region Montana
Adventure Level High, Moderate
Price Range $3000+
Activities Backpacking, Fishing, Hiking, Horseback Riding, Rafting, Whitewater Rafting, Wildlife

Reviews

Logistics

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

Before the trip:
Travel to Kalispell, Montana (FCA) no later than 3 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 driving, you will be able to leave your car at the Kalispell airport.

We will provide transportation from Kalispell to the Rich Ranch the day before your trip is scheduled to begin. It is about a two hour drive to the Rich Ranch.

Your trip leader will put on an orientation around 6 pm at the Rich Ranch. We will need to have our gear ready either that evening or very early the next morning (especially if you’ve chosen to use horse support). We will make lunch for the trail, and after a short drive to the trailhead in the morning we will be on our way.

Lodging Before:

You will need to arrange lodging and dinner reservations for the night before your launch date at the Rich Ranch. You will be responsible for the cost of lodging and dinner here that is not included in the WRO trip cost.

Rich Ranch
Phone: (406) 677-2317
Email: [email protected]
Website: richranch.com

After the trip:
We provide transportation back to Kalispell from either the Meadow Creek trailhead after a three mile hike if not running the gorge (1 hour hike, 3 hour drive plus mule packing gear unload), or from the Spotted Bear Bridge takeout (3 hour drive) if rafting the gorge. We try to arrive back to Kalispell late afternoon on the last day of your trip if running the gorge, but will typically arrive closer to early evening if hiking out, as you are dealing with additional logistic factors.

If staging in Kalispell after your trip, we recommend making your reservations at the Red Lion Hotel (1-800-547-8010) or Travelodge (1-406-755-6123) in Kalispell. The hotel will provide shuttle service from the airport.

Sample Itinerary

Day Before: Travel to Kalispell, Montana (FCA) no later than 3 pm. Please contact our office ahead of time to arrange logistics if you need to be picked up. If driving, you will be able to leave your car at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell. After meeting your trip leader and the other guests, we will drive as a group from Kalispell to the Rich Ranch, which is about a two hour drive. Your trip leader will put on an orientation at 6 pm at the Rich Ranch, where trip details, last minute questions, and dry bag demonstrations will be given. We will need to have our gear ready that evening or very early the next morning (especially if you’ve chosen to use horse support). We often have dinner together, and you will spend this first night at the Rich Ranch lodging.

Day 1: We will make packed lunches at the Rich Ranch. From the Rich Ranch, we’ll get an early start for our drive to the Pyramid or Holland Lake trailhead. Depending on the route in, over the first two days we will cover about 20-25 miles either by foot or by livestock. We will have lunch on the trail and camp on the trail the first night after about 16 miles. 

Day 2: Finish off the hike or horseback ride to the river put in where we will meet the rafts and the guides. A general river orientation and safety talk will be given, and PFDs (lifejackets) will be custom-fitted before getting on the water and starting the adventure! Usually we would reach the river mid afternoon the second day camping at the river the second night.

Day 3-4: The third morning we would head downstream on the river, stopping for some fishing along the way and camping at some beautiful riverside campsites.  On our adventure South Fork trips, we use a mix of paddle rafts and inflatable kayaks; some people can try different boat options. There is the option to add a fishing boat for an additional fee, fishing boats are booked for two people.  

Day 5-6: We’ll be rafting the calm and beautiful upper South Fork, floating around lazy corners and casting along undercut banks. There will be plenty of opportunities to try out the superb fishing, and we’ll take some time to wander through the beautiful Ponderosa Parks, for opportunities to possibly see wildlife and soak in the scenery.

Day 7: Depending on the group and water levels we may run the Meadow Creek Gorge on the seventh day and camp below the tight and technical 5 mile rapid section the final night. The whitewater is thrilling with a series of class III and IV+ whitewater. The gorge itself is very beautiful with a trail along the river, so the whitewater is optional. The run through the gorge is dependent on the river level, the gorge being clear of logjams and guide discretion.  If flows are not right for the gorge or clients do not wish to run it, we will camp the final night above the gorge.

Day 8: If we run the gorge, the final day we will have lunch on the river and take-out by mid-day at Spotted Bear Bridge. The drive back to Kalispell is about 3 hours. If we camp above the gorge and do not raft it, we will arrive at Mid-Creek takeout and there will be a three mile hike to the Meadow Creek trailhead, which takes about an hour. After unloading the mules that pack the gear out, we will meet the vehicles and WRO will provide transportation back to Kalispell. 

 

*Itinerary and route to river is subject to change based on the desired hiking and whitewater interest of the group. We like to maintain a flexible schedule.

FAQs

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. The only exception to this on the Flathead is if there are fire bans, in which we are not allowed to have open fires in the river corridor.

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, dry pants, layers or some fiesta-wear. Weather can be variable in the Montana wilderness, so be sure to have warm layers for around camp. It is also nice to have camp shoes to change into.

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 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). For more information, check out our "Sample Menu" page and "WRO Garden" 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, except for one night which is a fiesta night in which we provide drinks. South Fork Flathead trips are unique in the sense that you have to pack in your trip on a mule string, and most packing outfitters will not allow carbonated beverages to be packed on the animals. This is because if they break, it is very disruptive to the mules, and can cause a whole mule crash. If possible, we recommend bringing hard alcohol packed in non-glass containers, or bagged wine. Occasionally hiking members can pack a few beers on their personal backpack, but one can imagine we need to keep these quantities limited.

How does hygiene work on the trip?

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

How do the bathroom systems work on 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, swimming, fishing, and great lunch stops. Your lead guide will give you an overview of the day each morning. Our fishing-specific trips are most likely more time focused on the water, but we encourage our fishers to also enjoy the cool side hikes that the Bob Marshall has to offer.

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, rain gear, 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?

Our South Fork Flathead “classic adventure” trips are typically WRO adventure-style paddle boating. This trip also is a premium pack-rafting destination, which WRO also offers and is a really awesome way to experience the river in a way that is personal and adventurous. During your registration, you will note your boat preferences so we can plan accordingly. We offer fishing-specific trips that reserve a fishing boat and frame and a professional fishing guide.

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

If it is a non-fishing adventure style trip, we will be paddling the entire trip. This is the classic way WRO ran our wilderness trips, and is a wonderful way to experience this river! Oar frames are very heavy to pack in on mule strings, so we try to stick to paddle boats when a fishing frame is not needed.

If I did not book the fishing-specific trip, can I still fish?

Booking fishing-specific trips on the South Fork Flathead ensures that you have a fishing frame and a fishing guide, and will fish most of the day. If you are not interested in that option but still want to walk and wade, you most definitely can bring your fishing stuff! There will be plenty of time to fish at lunch or at camp, but your on-river fishing will be more limited.

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

Summer temperatures in Montana can fluctuate dramatically in a 24-hour period, from freezing at night to 70-90's the next afternoon. Mid summer sunny days can also reach the upper 90’s! Storms can also roll in unexpectedly, and it’s best to be prepared for anything. Rain is always possible, but trips earlier in the season are more likely to see precipitation and/or cooler temperatures than mid to late summer trips. 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 Seeley Lake, MT (our put-in) as well as at the Meadow Creek Trail, MT (close to our takeout).

Logistics

When do we need to be there?

You should arrive in Kalispell the day before your trip is scheduled to begin by 3 pm. After driving to the Rich Ranch, 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 16 oz Hydroflask mugs and waterproof bags to repack your gear into. This trip you need to have your bags packed by that evening or very early morning for the packers. You will head to the trail the next morning (the official starting date of your trip) and start the hike or pack in.

What does the hike/ trail ride to the put-in entail for the South Fork Flathead?

The South Fork Flathead is one of our most remote trips, which makes the experience extremely unique and rewarding. While most of our other trips can get to the put-in at the river by vehicle, we must use packing outfitters to break down all of our river and personal gear to be packed in by a mule string. The put in and pack in are trip dependent, as different outfitters have different preferences. Generally we will either pack 25 miles into Gordon Pass, in which you hike in from Holland Lake, or around 23 miles to Young’s Creek from Pyramid or Lodgepole Pass. We will have lunch on the trail that is pre-packed in the morning, and camp on the trail the first night after around 16 miles. You can either hike in or be packed in by horse, which is an additional cost not included in your WRO trip cost. When booking your trip, you will need to know your pack-in preference, and horse reservations need to be arranged ahead of time through WRO. You do not need previous trail riding experience.
If hiking in, you will want to have a backpack with your personal gear such as water, layers, snacks, packed lunch, basic first aid, sunscreen, medications, etc. (What you will eventually pack into your river day bag. If horseback riding, you should not wear a backpack, but keep water bottles, rain jacket and packed lunch loose to be placed in saddle bags.
Overnight bags and sleep kits will be available on the trail the first night.

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. It is recommended to keep your wallet at the bottom of your overnight bag, so it does not get misplaced.

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.

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. 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 are great 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?

Quick-dry clothing, layers, and sun protection are the most important things to keep in mind. The South Fork Flathead above the Meadow Creek gorge is mostly scenic, with small sections of mellow class II whitewater, so you will not be getting wet that often on this trip versus some of our more whitewater-oriented trips. Long sleeved, lightweight sun hoodies, long pants, brimmed hat, eye protection, and possibly sun-gloves are recommended. For the Meadow Creek Gorge section, it is intense, exciting whitewater, and depending on the weather, you will probably want to consider having extra layers and splash gear.

Will I need waders?

The fishing we will do is primarily inside of our fishing rafts, and you will not need waders. With these trips being in the middle of the summer, the temperatures are very pleasant and walk-and-wade fishing from the bank and on side streams can be done without waders.

What fishing gear should I bring versus what WRO provides?

WRO guides bring a spare rod, a handful of popular flies, and leader and tippet, but we recommend guests bring their own 5 weight rod (cutthroat) and 6-8 weight rod (targeting bull trout), as well as their own fishing accessories and flies. Spey fishing is a unique way to fish for bull trout in the Flathead. Hopper patterns, chubby trinobles, purple haze, parachute adams, humpies, ants, beetles, and general terrestrial patterns are popular flies in this region. Lakestream in Whitefish and Larry’s Fly Shop in Columbia Falls are good local fly shops to go to beforehand, and a few more limited sport stores like Sportsman's Warehouse and Cabella’s in Kalispell.

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 when 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 20 degree sleeping bag, a packable 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. As this is a pack-in trip, we highly recommend limiting your personal gear to 25-30 pounds, and leaving non-essential items at home.

Miscellaneous

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. 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 are great 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?

Quick-dry clothing, layers, and sun protection are the most important things to keep in mind. The South Fork Flathead above the Meadow Creek gorge is mostly scenic, with small sections of mellow class II whitewater, so you will not be getting wet that often on this trip versus some of our more whitewater-oriented trips. Long sleeved, lightweight sun hoodies, long pants, brimmed hat, eye protection, and possibly sun-gloves are recommended. For the Meadow Creek Gorge section, it is intense, exciting whitewater, and depending on the weather, you will probably want to consider having extra layers and splash gear.

Will I need waders?

The fishing we will do is primarily inside of our fishing rafts, and you will not need waders. With these trips being in the middle of the summer, the temperatures are very pleasant and walk-and-wade fishing from the bank and on side streams can be done without waders.

What fishing gear should I bring versus what WRO provides?

WRO guides bring a spare rod, a handful of popular flies, and leader and tippet, but we recommend guests bring their own 5 weight rod (cutthroat) and 6-8 weight rod (targeting bull trout), as well as their own fishing accessories and flies. Spey fishing is a unique way to fish for bull trout in the Flathead. Hopper patterns, chubby trinobles, purple haze, parachute adams, humpies, ants, beetles, and general terrestrial patterns are popular flies in this region. Lakestream in Whitefish and Larry’s Fly Shop in Columbia Falls are good local fly shops to go to beforehand, and a few more limited sport stores like Sportsman's Warehouse and Cabella’s in Kalispell.

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 when 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 20 degree sleeping bag, a packable 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. As this is a pack-in trip, we highly recommend limiting your personal gear to 25-30 pounds, and leaving non-essential items at home.

Book Now