Rafting the Smith River in Montana: Now is the time to plan

Rafting the Smith River in Montana requires planning ahead and a permit. Without the permit, you’re not going. Obtaining one is simiilar to acquring a permit for a private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. A lottery system says who goes and when a trip can happen. Not everyone wins.

The application process for 2010 begins in January permits closes the end of February for trips starting mid- April through the beginning of July. Some trips can go in September or later in July depending upon the river’s water level.

The person who lands a permit can take a group of 14 people on the 59 mile route of that starts at Camp Baker and ends at Eden Bridge. That’s how we ended up on the Smith two summers ago when the river was still high enough to make the four day journey. By the middle of July the water level is too low, particularly closer to the bridge.

Lucky for us, we were the last minute tag-a-longs who happened to be in Montana two days before our friends’ trip and there was room for four more. Score!

The fact that I’m not a back country camping sort of person on most days was something I decided to set aside. The fact that my husband’s hip was causing him major grief was something he decided to ignore. When would such perfect timing happen again? Never.

As a newbie to the back country rafting experience, I learned a few things.

A raft trip on the Smith is a journey through an isolated section of the Little Belt Mountains and some of the best blue ribbon trout fly fishing in Montana. The blue skies, meadows of wildflowers, high cliffs that edge the river in places and the chance to see wildlife face to face is so worth the effort. Plus, there’s the leisurely pace of spending time with family and friends and allowing ones mind to clear from the hassles of life off the river.


Although this trip does require trust, stamina and perseverance, it is doable for people of all ages. Most of the trip is the float trip version of rafting trhough class I and class II waters. As long as you have an expert rafter with you, someone who knows how to row AND read the river, and another person to help paddle AND to hop out to heave a raft forward or off a rock if need be, you can make it.

Here are tips to keep in mind.

At Camp Baker, your group will meet with a park ranger to map out your exact trip. There are designated campsites along the way. Which group gets which campsite depends on a first come first serve basis. There’s only one group allowed at each one.

To ensure that we would be able to sign up for our first choice of campsites, the two male friends of our group arrived at Camp Baker the night before to put us at the beginning of the line.

The rest of our group was made up of us–a couple with a teenage daughter and a six-year-old son–our friend with her two sons, ages 7 and 9, and two couples without kids.

When planning campsite stops, it’s important to know how far your group will be able to go in a day. Once you take off from Camp Baker, there’s no other place to stop the trip until the take out.

To get your car from the put in to the take out, you can hire a private outfitter with a shuttle service to drive your car from Camp Baker to the parking lot at Eden Bridge. It’s worth the extra money to pay for the paved road version. The gravel road is shorter and less expensive, but you can end up with a cracked windshield. Our car was waiting for us with a nice note from the driver and the keys.

The longest day for us was to be 14 miles which would take most of the day with enough time leftover before dark to pitch tents, make and eat dinner and do the majority of clean up necessary to not have unexpected, unwelcome visitors once we went to bed.

Back country camping that leaves no trace of your presence and taking precautions against bears. This means tying trash bags high up in a tree, putting food in coolers that can be made bear proof with bungee cords and rope each night, and taking everything with you.

Each campsite has a fire ring. We bought some wood with us and used sticks and twigs for kindling. The campsites also have a pit toilet a good distance from the tent sites. The views were splendid. Toilet paper, however, is not to be dumped down the latrine.

Planning for all sorts of weather and having enough supplies is imperative. If you go in the spring or fall, it can snow. We had some rain and mostly warm temperatures during the day, but it was cold at night.

Since we had no idea we were going until the phone call asking if we were interested, we weren’t prepared. To get prepared, we headed to the thrift store in Philipsburg, Montana to buy sweats, sweaters, socks and hats. At the Wal-mart in Missoula, we picked up a sleeping bag and food. At a sporting goods store we bought shoes that could be worn in the river, flashlights and whatever else we couldn’t borrow.

We were able to borrow sleeping pads, three sleeping bags, an air mattress for me, a cooler, a raft and oars. Not too shabby. We had our own pillows.

Well before the trip, the people in the group divided up the food obligations to share the responsibility. Each couple group was in charge of one dinner for everyone. Because we were the last minute tag-a-longs, we were in charge of appetizers and desserts. Each couple group was in charge of their own drinks, breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The biggest hit appetizer was a shrimp, cream cheese and green chili quesadilla. The fly fishermen experts on the trip who caught 40 a day, did treat us to trout, although they threw back most of what they caught.

Bags and bags of ice were a must to keep perishable food and beer cold.

Our biggest issue along the way was keeping the boys from bickering about who would be able to use the small solo float raft and who should ride in which raft. Also, our son did not have a fishing pole. A big mistake. The other two boys did. Upset? You bet.

Our daughter slightly whined because she had to wear a life vest, but not much. She was a trooper and helped haul the rafts off rocks many times.

We didn’t meet up with bear trouble, but we did run into a family who lost much of their food due to a bear getting into it at night. We offered to give them some of our bounty.

At the end of our trip we found out why it is a great idea to have AAA. Our car wouldn’t start. It’s a long tale, but the short version is we fried the wiring with a plug in adapter.

We had to keep getting the car jumped all the way back to Ohio.

For other handy Smith River rafting tips, click here.

[All pictures, courtesy of Jamie Rhein.]