Wild and Scenic Packrafting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

No roads lead here—that keeps it wild. And there’s no question that it’s scenic. The South Fork of the Flathead River in Montana is one of those classic packrafting trips my husband and I had been scheming about for years. The Flathead, in northern Montana, is part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. Rivers with this designation are preserved for possessing remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. They’re preserved in their free-flowing condition and are not dammed. The South Fork of the Flathead River, a 40-mile stretch of river flowing north-northwest, is a Wild and Scenic River above the Hungry Horse Reservoir. This is where we were hoping to explore.

The beauty of the South Fork of the Flathead River is that it is truly in the middle of nowhere. Our route took 17 miles of hiking before we were able to inflate our boats and float 35 miles. This was after the 30-mile drive down a dirt road outside Augusta, Montana. After driving to the Benchmark Trailhead from home, our destination was the Basin Creek Meadow. After hiking up and over a pass into Stadler Creek, we arrived in the stunning meadow. The views were breathtaking—peaks all around, wildflowers across the meadows, and Danaher Creek traveling through the middle of it all.

We blew up our boats just below where Stadler Creek dumped into Danaher Creek. In retrospect, I might have waited a little longer to inflate the rafts, as we were greeted with seven or eight portages around deadfall that first evening of paddling. We camped at the junction of Danaher Creek and Youngs Creek, where the river doubles in size and becomes the South Fork of the Flathead, and where the river’s Wild and Scenic designation begins.

After a good night’s sleep (aside from a few too many mosquitos buzzing in my ear), we put on the river at 7 a.m. With 35 miles of paddling ahead of us and 17 miles of hiking behind us, we spent the morning in awe of the wilderness. We noticed signs of grizzly bears and saw elk, deer, and a whole variety of birds. We were far from roads, cell service,  work, television and all the weeds in our garden.  

We stopped for lunch at the confluence of the White River and the South Fork of the Flathead. The White lives up to its name, a clear, beautiful creek adding a significant amount of water to the Flathead. After the White River, we passed Big Salmon Creek, the outlet for Big Salmon Lake, Little Salmon Park, and Damnation Creek, finally taking off the river at the Black Bear Pack Bridge, just north of Helen Creek.

The scenery was vast and dramatic. The river went from flat water to fun, splashy class I/II water, to engaging, entertaining class II+ water and everywhere in between. The pack bridge at Black Bear was solid and well constructed. We took our rafts off the water just above the bridge and set them out to dry. As our boating gear was drying out in the sun, we cooked dinner, complete with “suicide cocoa”—at last count before we threw it out, our cup of cocoa had nine flies in it and a couple teetering on the rim of the cup.

From our take out, we had a whole lot of hiking ahead of us before the road. We were hoping to float the last eight or 10 miles of the West Fork of the Sun River, but were unsure if we’d be able to. We hiked about four miles up Helen Creek before we set up camp in the woods that night. The temperatures were cooler and the bugs were few and far between. We toasted our amazing day on the river and kept our fingers crossed that we could paddle again before our adventure ended.

 

Our next day brought a brief interaction with a trail crew—hooray for the trail crew! There is a tremendous amount of deadfall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Then we hiked up the incredible Helen Creek. We felt like we were on the edge of the northwest ecosystem, with devils club, ponderosa pine, ferns and alder. It was a stunning hike up a faraway trail.

The trail crests the ridge just below Pagoda Mountain and traverses the alpine terrain to the south of Pagoda Mountain into Pagoda Creek. The views back into the South Fork of the Flathead were a highlight from this part of the trail, an excellent reminder of the whitewater adventure we’d had the day before. We continued to the base of Pagoda Creek, into the headwaters of the White River. Our hike, which at this point in the day began feeling more like a forced march, took us past the stunning Needle Falls and down to where the South Fork of the White meets the White.

 

Camp at the White River junction was gorgeous, a beautiful rocky river with plenty of water to paddle in, surrounded by mountains and wildflower fields. We were tempted to stay an extra day and run the White down to the South Fork of the Flathead, but previous commitments and limited food supplies kept us on a schedule. We woke up 24 miles from the road, our fingers crossed that some of those miles would be traveled on water.

We climbed for a couple of hours, through forests and alpine meadows in cool morning temperatures. The trail led us up and over White River Pass and down to Indian Creek. We inflated our boats at the confluence of Indian Creek, the West Fork of the Sun, and Ahorn Creek. We paddled for a mile, portaging maybe a half dozen times in a little over an hour. At the rate we were traveling, it would take more than just the afternoon to get to the road. We packed up the boats and started to hike the trail that followed the river. My feet were sore. My pack started feeling heavier. I started counting down the miles. The scenery was gorgeous, but the road was beaconing.

 

We arrived at the roadhead hungry, thirsty and feeling the 44 miles that we had covered in the last two days. The Bob had delivered. The more than 1.5 million acres that the Bob Marshall, The Scapegoat, and the Great Bear Wilderness comprise served up a very wild and scenic packrafting trip, a 95-mile adventure in four and a half days.