Lewis and Clark Trail

A friend and I are considering paddling some of the Lewis and Clark trail of the Missouri River this next summer or fall. We’d like to do a 3, 4 or 5 day trip in July, August or September. We’re looking for good scenery, Class 1 or 2 water, see some of L&C’s campsites (maybe even camp at them), knowledge of history of the area, maybe do some light hiking along the way. So, two questions:

  1. If we were to be completely outfitted, what outfitter(s) would you recommend?

  2. If we were to be partially outfitted (canoe, paddles, life jackets, stove, fuel),
    a. What outfitters would you recommend?
    b. What informational resources, e.g., books, would you recommend for us to study in advance that would tell us things like: where L&C camped; locations of portages; locations of Indian villages; etc.?
    c. Where would you recommend we put in and take out?

We did from Coal Banks to Kipp Recreational Area unguided. There are no class 2 rapids. We took four days. The river was high muddy and full of breeding geese.
Setting up the shuttle took a whole day. However our trip was essentially free. You can go guided with history minded outfitters.

Our part was the Missouri Breaks and full of high cliffs and old homesteads. No portages.

I can’t recommend any outfitters as we did not use any.

You WILL be camping,. No roads for almost a hundred miles.

We got guidebooks from BLM but I think they are out of print. USGS markers mark lots of L and C camps

Hello John,

I may be one of your ‘huckleberries’. I’ve been in the ‘Breaks’ three times, paddled the length twice. The last time was 2014. There were two outfitters in Fort Benton. Twice I used ’ glenn@uppermissouri.com ’ Upper Missouri River Guides

I think John was retiring from pick ups or vehicle trans port. Hopefully if Glenn is still around, he also wrote the book of what to see and do along the way. Buy his book.

I reccommend you include a few more days for your trip. Yes, you can do it in 4 or 5 days, but that is too fast. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a hiking trip, you just use a canoe to get there.

Strong recommendations for the tail end of the high water melt season, first or second week of July, plus or minus. BLM is a strong source for info, I seem to remember 15 or so camp areas, along the way, Fire rings and pit toilets The 20 mile stretch from Fort Benton to Loma is farms, many skip this and launch at Coal Bank. I do not recommend the launch at Coal Banks, you miss too much Launch at either Fort Benton (grocery and hardware store there), or launch At the base of the Tiber Dam, Lake Elway, Sanford Park Campground, it adds 60 miles to the total trip, but I rather liked it. One stretch of true Class 1 to less than a 2 near the fancy house.

University of Nebraska has all the Lewis and Clark diaries on line. The must read before is Stephen Ambrose, “Undaunted Courage” It will help you pick the dates out when you research the on line journals.

Eagle Creek Encampment, perhaps Lewis’ most famous and flowery language. The exact site is on the west side of the creek, private land or BLM maybe by now. You can stand on the spot where the words were written. Neats Coulee is a do not miss. Some markers still exist, but few, it IS a real and living river, it erodes its banks, changes its course. Near Decision Point, Loma , Montana. If you can, Ma’s Loma Cafe, save your appetite, walk into town, plain, horrible , wonderful place. She used to make all her own pies. A do not miss. Daily special or fried chicken and coleslaw, burger and coleslaw Wood Bottom camp is about one mile from Decision Point and 3 miles from Ma’s. If you have come down the Marias River, haul out at the Teton River bridge, Ma’s is just over the bridge.

Smal state park at Coal Bank Landing, last water source for your trip. The river is NOT suitable for filtration, ag chemicals. 1 to 2 gallons per person, per day. Judith landing MAY have water. Check before you go. or possibly have some staked there for you.

If you hitch a ride into Winifred, great burgers, 'Montana’s best burger. But at least a cold beer.

There are hundreds of places to do side hikes. I recommend them all… THAT is why allow a few more days.

IMPORTANT, It appears even in the L&C Journals. Pack after dinner the night before travel, leaving only the tent and sleeping gear. Roll that up before dawn and leave, at or before dawn. A quick coffee, or instant oatmeal, better, breakfast bars , apples and oranges that can be eaten on the river. Get to your next camp before noon. Do not minimize this… in the Breaks, the afternoon time winds can be fierce. Get your travel done pre noon and hike the after noon. Along the same lines, your canoes are securely tied down whenever on shore and over night. It would be a damned long walk out. Note. I am not kidding or exaggerating. Tie them down. I have seen kevlar canoes waving on the end of their tether, like flag in a breeze.

Bullwacker Coulee lots of hiking 47,825569 -108.973422 Probable location of “Where I first beheld the snow covered mountains” 12 mile round trip hike. min, three quarts of water per. person.
Rattlesnake country. always a walking stick thumping the ground, snakes feel the vibrations, cows never step on a snake, because the snake felt the plodding and left. And, never walk three abreast, or even two. The reason for ‘Indian file’ in a line, is for snake country. Three abreast, if a snake is trying to escape,and they always do, , one of the outer people will step on it. Do not reach into or step into a bush without leading with your stick. And, listen to the ravens, crows, they will tell you where the snake is. Listen to them.

Stop nearly anywhere except private land, hike explore, travel in the mornings, don’t do it fast. And, if you get the the morning of the day before your pick up, and you go “Oh shit.” and must paddle like mad for 40 miles, you did it just perfectly.

Take as many people with you as will go. Wonderful place to go play. Class I is the biggest thing you are likely to encounter, two of them may just start to hedge into a Class II just riffles. depends on river cfs.

Find Glenn,talk to him. Buy his book. read “Undaunted Courage” research University of Nebraska L&C Journals, travel in AM only, take a few extra days for weather or hiking. Weather normally 90’s, have at least one 45F outfit. It is a hiking trip, you just take a canoe to get there. Mostly, have fun, not a race, the current is strong, paddling easy. Annd almost on bugs. Heaven.

I have done some small amount of L&C route, all of Powell’s, and then some, and multiple times.

In September, my friend and I started at Woods Bottom and paddled through to Kipp. We self-organized the trip. We had my truck shuttled from Woods to Kipp by Missouri River Outfitters.

We intended to start in Fort Benton but took MRO’s advice to skip the first, cold, rainy day and start the next day at Woods, which is just above the confluence with the Marias.

I can’t really put my finger on a reason, but I enjoyed the trip even more than I expected. One reason was the good weather–we did not encounter the wicked winds many had told us about. I was also very nervous about hiking because of all the rattle snake warnings. I saw one snake, but it wasn’t a rattler. It was more remote than I expected–we didn’t see many people on or along the river. I suspect it is different in the summer.

We picked up water at Judith Landing by prior arrangement with MRO, which was another better-than-expected situation–I had planned on packing all my water, and it was nice to be able to lighten the water load.

The L&C campsites are supposed to be marked. But the markers are small (like USGS benchmarks), and I only found one. The one I found was down in the weeds, which by September are quite high. If you are going to look for them, I recommend getting GPS locations to guide your search.

There is a lot of ranching, which I guess is a big reason for BLM. The cattle like to hang around in the cotton wood groves, for the shade I suppose. Many of the campsites are located in the cotton wood groves, meaning, it’s hard to find a spot to pitch a tent between all the piles of cattle poo. Some of the established sites were reported to have cattle exclosures, but when we got there we found the exclosures were either not maintained, not effective, or dismantled. There was a lot of fencing that had been sawed into firewood lengths, by who I don’t know. The two times we camped at dispersed sites were the two least poopie sites we found.

There are many named rapids in the stretch we paddled, but no real rapids. I think most of the rapids were altered during the steam-boat era, so that today, the rapids are reduced to a few pressure waves.

If you decide to wait until September, know that power-boating restrictions are relaxed after Sep 15. Also, big-horn sheep hunting season opens Sep 15, which attracts a few hunters (the number of hunting permits for sheep is very low) traveling in power boats. I’m not sure Montana people much care about the power-boating restrictions anyway, as at least some believe BLM lacks authority to regulate boating on the river.

As far as outfitters, MRO is the only one I know of. We were pleased with their services and the advice we received from them (Nicole). I recommend them. We bought BLM-published maps from them, which were adequate for river travel but not much help in finding hiking routes, until annotated by Nicole. If doing it again, I think I’d look for different or supplemental maps.

I hope you go. It’s a great trip.

Hi John,
I like the Upper Missouri R and floated it from Ft Benton to Kipp Bridge in 1998, which is 151 miles. Bring the Journal of L&C, I like the DeVoto version. “Undaunted Courage” by S Ambrose is the other great book.

We camped at several of their campsites, and read from the Journal every night. The last 4 days we saw no one except one airplane pilot. The bighorn sheep did not even look up when we drifted by.

The flow level and time of year changes the character of this trip a lot. The rapids are not difficult for a loaded boat with people that have moving water experience. In spring time and during flood it can be very pushy. There are normally few obstacles like rocks or trees.

We went in July and hit some record heat. We were surprised to be in eastern Montana with 112 degree temperatures. We got an official reading at a BLM field office during the trip. September could be ideal.

The shuttle took us a whole day. Finding an outfitter could make your trip much easier logistically. We planned a 7 day trip, but paddled about 35 miles the last day for some cold beer, ice and a cheeseburger. We had dehydrated food the last couple of days. Or trip was 6 days. It can be windy. One day we had down stream winds and used a bed sheet between two canoes and made about 9 knots over ground.