Montana’s Smith River Float

The 59-mile float trip down the Smith River is a must-do for anyone who likes the Montana outdoors. The Smith float is a permit-only float within the Montana Smith River State Park, and is accessible only by non-motorized watercraft.  There is only one public put-in site (Camp Baker), and one public take-out site (the Eden Bridge access site) on the 59-mile stretch of river. In 2013, 1,100 permits were drawn from the 6,662 applications submitted during the annual lottery. When the 2014 application time came around, my husband applied for 3 launch dates, not expecting to be drawn for any given the large number of applications submitted the previous year. But in early March, when the lottery permit results were posted on the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website, he had his first launch date choice, June 2nd, posted as a winning application. And a winner it was. Our group numbered 6, with 3 rafts, and so we all had plenty of space during the float parts of each day and at our nightly campgrounds. We did the float in 3 nights and 4 days. Throughout the whole float, we hit the weather and river flows just right. The rain and hail storms had moved through the area the day before we launched. We climbed out of our tents on launch day to find a heavy frost, but also were greeted by beautiful blue skies. In fact, the only time we were really rained on was the 2nd night out, after we were tucked away in our cabins at the Heaven on Earth Ranch. Thinking we would be in the midst of June rain and even hail storms, we decided that this time on the Smith, we’d stay at the Heaven on Earth Ranch and at least have 1 night of warmth and dryness. But – instead, we watched it rain for about 15 minutes and then headed up to the lodge for a wonderful dinner under a rainbow in the eastern sky. Our weather luck held out even until we took out at Eden Bridge. It was overcast most of that last day’s float, but no up-river winds. And we still had enough river flow so that the last 15-mile stretch was easy and fun, rather than fighting wind and pulling the raft through low water.

A few of the trip highlights:

Float start

The start of the float is always a highlight – especially in good weather. We are just less than a mile out from Camp Baker in this photo.

Indian Sprinks dunk

Indian Springs, mile 6 of the float, is a great place to dunk your head on a hot day, or even when it’s not hot!

madison cliffs

Mississippian Madison limestone forms many of the amazing cliffs along the Smith River float.

more madison

More Madison limestone and in this instance, the cliffs give way to a serene setting.


Pictographs are found in some locations on the Smith River cliff walls.

cave pictographs 1

A cave high on the cliff along the Smith River is worth hiking up to to see its contained pictographs.


The Smith River canyon as viewed from the pictograph cave.

raft ties

Camp grounds along the Smith River float all have boat stakes making it easy to tie off for the evening.

last 15 miles

The last 15 miles of the Smith River float gives way to low rounded hills. Luckily for us, even though it was overcast, there were no up-river winds and the river flow was high.