Kayaking in Montana: 6 Best Spots for Peaceful Paddling

Paddle off the beaten path. Learn about 6 of the best Montana kayaking spots that will get you far away from the national park crowds.

Woman kayaking on lake in Montana

Montana is famous for its national parks – Yellowstone and Glacier – but if you’re like us, sometimes you just want to escape from the hustle and bustle and go somewhere less crowded. Whether you’re heading to Montana for a visit or you already live in Big Sky Country, kayaking in Montana is a great way to explore this beautiful state without the crowds.

In this post, we’ve rounded up six of the best places to kayak in Montana for a peaceful paddle.

Important Reminder: As outdoor recreationists, it’s our responsibility to know how to recreate responsibly on the water whether we’re kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, rafting, or boating. Learn how to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species with 3 easy steps that have a huge impact on our ecosystems.

Map of Montana Kayaking Spots

Best Places to Kayak in Montana

1. Noxon Reservoir

Located off Highway 200 between Missoula and Idaho, the Noxon Reservoir was formed by damming up the Clark Fork River between Thompson Falls and Noxon, MT.

The main town that sits directly on the reservoir is Trout Creek. Merely a dot on the map, people are finally starting to discover this gorgeous little slice of heaven, which has seen an increase in tourist activity over the last decade. 

You can put in right in town and explore the shoreline from there. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like deer on the shore and bald eagles soaring above. You can even cast a line for the numerous bass or pike that populate the reservoir. 

2. Smith River State Park

If you want something truly unique, try applying for a permit to float the Smith River, a 4-day, 59-mile trip on the outskirts of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. This is such a popular trip that the state parks service has had to implement a permit lottery to prevent overcrowding on the narrow river. There are no amenities along the river so you must bring all of your gear, food, water, and equipment. The river is recommended for intermediate paddlers and beyond.

The paddling isn’t particularly technical or strenuous, but you will have to cover a lot of water each day. It’s not all work, however. There are many opportunities along the way to stop and play. Splash around in a swimming hole, do some fishing, scale the rock walls that flank the river, and keep an eye out for black bears that are known to frequent the area. 

If you’re lucky enough to win this lottery, you’re guaranteed the kayaking trip of a lifetime that you can be sure almost no one else you know has done.

Learn more about the Smith River permit lottery and how to plan your trip here.

Smith River with tall rock cliffs on right side of river
A 4-day float along the Smith River requires a permit, but it’s one of the best kayaking experiences in Montana!

3. Milk River

This unique river gets its name from the milky color of the water, the same color as if you added a spot of milk to your tea. What’s unique about Milk River is that it spans 2 countries. Originating in Browning, MT near Glacier National Park, it flows eastward across the Canadian border where it meanders through Alberta before bending back down into Montana terminating at the Missouri River.

If you enjoy paddling in solitude, this is a great river to do so in. It provides an entirely different backdrop than most of the rest of Montana as you will paddle through the flat prairies and badlands of Montana instead of the usual mountains and cliffs. 

Due to its remoteness, you must plan your journey carefully. However, the reward of peaceful solitude will be worth the effort.

Scenic open landscape with rock boulders and Milk River
A kayak trip along the Milk River can take you up into the remote prairies of southern Alberta

4. Fort Peck Lake

If you’re an advanced paddler and really want a physical and mental challenge, Fort Peck Lake has it. Montana’s largest lake, Fort Peck is located in the northeastern part of the state and has 1600 miles of shoreline. It is also renowned for its high winds and choppy waves. Plan on being stuck ashore for days, not hours, if a front is passing through. Numerous kayakers and other paddlers have undertaken the challenge while undergoing long sojourns across multiple states. Careful planning and preparation are required to take on such a daunting lake as you will not come across any amenities along the way.

Given its remoteness and the fact that it’s not particularly friendly to paddlers, why kayak Fort Peck in the first place? To quote famous explorer George Mallory, “Because it’s there”.

Sunset over lake with flat waters and flowers on shore in the foreground
Fort Peck Lake is Montana’s largest lake and is a great challenge for experienced kayakers

5. Salmon Lake State Park

Salmon Lake State Park is conveniently located near Missoula and it’s an excellent destination for a day trip or weekend camping trip. While it will not be as isolated as the Milk River, neither will it be as overcrowded as some of the other more popular lakes throughout Montana. It also boasts a dramatic backdrop of the surrounding mountains. 

Not only that, but its close proximity to other nearby lakes, like Placid and Seely Lake, means that you
can go lake hopping with your kayak and try out a new spot every day if you please. For leisurely paddling in an easy-to-reach location amongst pretty scenery, Salmon Lake is a great spot to spend a day or a weekend.

Picturesque Salmon Lake in Montana in late autumn with fall foliage and a dusting of snow
Salmon Lake in late Autumn

5. Lake Como

Lake Como is another fantastic Montana kayaking destination. With close proximity to Missoula, it’s a great getaway for camping, hiking, and paddling. For tips on planning your trip including the best hikes and where to stay or camp, head over to our post on the top things to do at Lake Como.

Woman hiker sitting on rock at lake shore facing away from camera
Lake Como is a great destination for paddling as well as hiking and camping

6. Bonus: Kootenai Falls

If you dare! Featured in the movies “The River Wild” and, more recently, “The Revenant,” the picture speaks for itself…

One of the largest free-flowing waterfalls in the region near Libby, Montana, Kootenai Falls is for white water kayaking experts only. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit. Bring your zoom lens for your camera, and hang out on this awesome swing bridge while you watch the whitewater kayakers play in the rapids upstream.

Narrow footbridge spanning river in Montana
If you’re lucky, you can see white water kayakers tackle Kootenai Falls from the foot bridge that spans the river

Essential Clothing for Paddling

Carve Designs Cruz Rashguard

Carve Designs Cruz Rashguard

I prefer wearing a rashguard over sunscreen these days. I own the Cruz in 2 colors and it’s a staple for any water activity because it dries quickly but also keeps you cool, plus the cut is flattering.

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Nani Swimwear Hybrid Explorer Shorts

Nani Swimwear Hybrid Explorer Shorts

These shorts are super comfortable, dry really quickly, and come in a bunch of colors and prints. I wear them on all water adventures!

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Teva Universal Sandal

Teva Universal Trail Sandals

Sandals that stay on your feet and can get wet are essential. I like these because they have good grip and can be worn hiking as well, plus they can easily be strapped to your boat when not in use.

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Outdoor Research Sunbriolet Hat

You’ll want a wide-brim hat that can get wet and has a chin strap so it stays on in the wind. This Outdoor Research hat is quick-drying, will float if it falls in the water, and comes in a variety of colors.

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Goodr Polarized Sunglasses

Polarized glasses are best for the reflection of the water. I like to wear budget-friendly sunglasses paddling and I always wear a retainer so I don’t lose them in the water.

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REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket

If it’s chilly or windy it can be helpful to have a lightweight rain jacket or windbreaker out on the water with you. I usually pack a jacket like this just in case!

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Supportive Swimsuit or Sports Bra

You’ll want a comfortable swimsuit that you can be active in. I like to avoid swimsuits that pull on my neck (like halters) and have been loving Nani Swimwear lately.

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What are your favorite rivers or lakes for kayaking in Montana? Did we leave any out? Let us know in the comments!

Discover 6 of the best places for kayaking in Montana with awesome scenery that will get you far away from the National Park crowds.

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  1. My family and I traveled to Montana last year and loved it! Montana is so beautiful! We spent most of our trip in Whitefish, Montana doing lots of hiking. I have never heard of any of the spots you mentioned in this article, so I guess it lives up to its title! 🙂 The photos were so pretty! I sure hope to get to these spots someday!

    Wayne Walls Blog

  2. A friend and I want to visit Montana the first week of September. We are avid kayakers. We do not want any whitewater type kayaking. We prefer flat water but can handle some current and wind and wave. Can you recommend a river in Montana and outfitter? We know nothing about Montana and would appreciate the help. Thank you, Sarah

    1. Most of these Montana Kayaking Spots are great for non-whitewater kayaking. As for rentals, it really depends on where you are planning on visiting. Both Billings and Missoula have several kayak rentals and outfitters. Enjoy your trip!