Rafting the Wild Waters of Northwest Montana: Experience the Rush!

Harper Barton



A rafting adventure in the rivers of Northwest Montana is an experience that’s hard to sum up in just a few words.

But I’ll do my best to capture the essence of what turned out to be one of the most exciting adventures of my life. Also, I will give you some extra tips if you are considering taking this journey, which, just so you know, I highly recommend. 

Choose the right river

Northwest Montana is a playground of rivers, each offering its own excitement. As I like to say – there’s a river here for everyone.

Picking the perfect river for your adventure means thinking about a few things like:

  • how much rafting experience you have
  • how adventurous you’re feeling
  • when you’re planning to hit the water

If you’re new to rafting, you might enjoy the smoother parts of the Flathead River or the Lower Whitefish River. These spots are great for beginners, offering gentle rapids and gorgeous views to ease you into rafting.

For experienced rafters, who crave more excitement, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or the Yaak River, with their wild Class III and IV rapids, will definitely get your adrenaline pumping.

For example, I chose Glacier Raft Co. This rafting location lies right on the border of Glacier National Park, on the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River. For someone like me, who is somewhere in between beginner and thrill-seeker, the Middle Fork offered the perfect balance of nature’s beauty and heart-pumping rapids.

How to prepare for this adventure?

First, choosing your outfit for the rafting is more about practicality than fashion.

For those sunny day trips, you can stick to the basics: shorts, a T-shirt, and shoes that are up for a swim but won’t leave your feet. Trust me, Crocs and flip-flops won’t do you any favors here.

But on cooler days, which are pretty common in this part of Montana, layering up with a fleece sweater, wind pants, and a hat or beanie made all the difference in keeping cozy.

For those particularly brisk days, just add an extra layer against the splash, wetsuits, and neoprene booties, that are available for rent at $17. The best part? If the weather decides not to play nice, they provide wetsuits at no extra cost. Each of us got a life jacket for the ride, as safety is a top priority here.

Pro tip: leave behind anything that can’t stand getting wet. If you’re like me and can’t go without your glasses, make sure you’ve got a retainer for them. And don’t forget to bring bottled water, especially important under the blazing Montana sun.

Also, it’s crucial to understand how to maneuver your raft, respond to commands of your guide, and act in case of emergencies. Participate in safety briefings, understand the route, familiarize yourself with safety equipment, and know how to use it.

Gear list

Item Purpose Note
Life jacket Safety Essential for flotation and safety
Helmet Safety Protects your head during the trip
Synthetic or wool clothing for insulation Insulation Keeps you warm in cold water
Sturdy water shoes Foot protection Ensures good grip and foot protection in and out of the water
Waterproof bags for valuables Protect valuables Keeps your valuables dry
High-energy snacks Sustenance Provides energy during the expedition
Water Hydration Keeps you hydrated
Important note: Rafting centers usually rent all the gear, so if you don’t have something from the list, you do not need to worry.

What are the rapid classes?

Montana river adventures

The International Scale of River Difficulty classifies rapids into six classes, from Class I (easy) to Class VI (extremely dangerous). 

If you’re looking for an exciting challenge, I highly recommend the Class III rapids of Northwest Montana as a golden middle.

These waves can reach up to 4 or 5 feet tall crashing over the front of your raft. They have currents that feel stronger and might push you through narrow spaces between boulders or alongside a cliff wall. Your boat will feel the thrill too, with a bit of shimmying and jolting as you ride these larger waves. But don’t worry, after each wild ride, there’s usually a calmer, wider area waiting to give you a breather and get ready for the next rush.

Choosing Class III rapids will give you adrenaline and joy, especially with a guide steering the boat. They know how to handle the river’s surprises, making sure everyone stays safe while having a blast.

Are you going at it without a guide? That’s when things can get tricky. Class III rapids demand respect and a bit of know-how to enjoy them fully and safely, so don’t go on your own if you don’t have experience and skills. The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is well known for its Class III rapids, especially in the spring flow.

Safety tips you should know!

Safety guidelines
Wear a well-fitted life jacket and helmet at all times
Stay within your comfort zone and choose a river suitable for your skill level
Be aware of potential hazards like strainers, undercut rocks, and extreme weather conditions
Listen to your guide, follow instructions, and practice good communication with your raft team
Ensure your physical condition aligns with the demands of your chosen river
Know basic first aid, rescue procedures, and emergency evacuation routes

What else can you experience in Northwest Montana?

Kootenai National Forest

Hiking in Glacier National Park

After conquering the rapids, explore the breathtaking landscapes of Glacier National Park. With over 700 miles of trails, you can discover pristine lakes, towering mountains, and diverse wildlife while walking through these nature’s wonders.

Fun fact: The state’s name, Montana, has Spanish origins, derived from the Spanish word “montaña,” which translates to “mountain.”

Scenic drives

I drove on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the country’s most scenic drives. And I highly recommend it to everyone visiting this area. You will see panoramic views of snowy peaks, cascading waterfalls, and alpine meadows as you drive through the heart of the park.

I drove on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, known for its stunning views. I saw mountains, waterfalls, and meadows. It was beautiful and made the trip through the park really special.

Wildlife exploring 

Northwest Montana is home to a diverse wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, elk, and bighorn sheep. Go on a wildlife safari and see beautiful creatures roaming their natural habitats.


Try fishing in the Flathead River or any beautiful alpine lake around northwest Montana. This area is perfect for anyone who loves fishing, no matter if you’re just starting or have lots of experience. There are plenty of fish varieties, like trout, whitefish, yellow perch, and other local types.


Extend your outdoor adventure by spending a night under the stars at one of the numerous campgrounds in Glacier National Park or the surrounding wilderness areas. Fall asleep to the soothing sounds of nature and wake up to breathtaking views of the Montana wilderness.

Have unforgettable moments with friends and family

This is an ideal activity to bond with friends and family. As you work together to deal with the wild waters and support each other during challenging rapids, you will bond and create unforgettable memories.

Rafting teaches teamwork, as each member has a crucial role in guiding the raft safely. It builds trust and gives a sense of shared accomplishment that strengthens bonds. Even after the adventure ends, the shared stories and experiences continue to bring you closer.

Pro tip: When planning a trip with your loved ones, consider everyone’s comfort and skill levels.


What should I do if I fall out of the raft during a trip?
Guides will provide instructions on how to act if you fall out of the raft, including floating on your back, swimming to safety, and staying calm while waiting for assistance.
Can I rent a raft and explore the rivers of Northwest Montana on my own?
Renting a raft without prior experience is not recommended. It’s safer and more enjoyable to go with a professional guide who knows the river and its challenges.
Can I go rafting if I have a medical condition?
It’s important to disclose any medical conditions to the rafting company beforehand. They can provide guidance on whether it’s safe for you to participate.
What is the most thrilling rapid in Northwest Montana?
The “Bonecrusher” rapid on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is known for its exhilarating drops and challenging maneuvers, offering an adrenaline rush.
Are there opportunities for cliff jumping?
Cliff jumping is not typically part of guided rafting trips in Northwest Montana due to safety concerns. However, some locations may offer separate cliff-jumping experiences.