Camping, Hiking and Traveling in Montana
Books & Maps
Exploring Montana's Yellowstone River
River is one of our nation's most remarkable
treasures. From its origin as a melting snow bank on Yount's Peak deep
in the Wyoming wilderness south
Yellowstone Park, the Yellowstone River remains dam-free as
680 miles to its confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota.
enters Yellowstone Park from the south and flows into the Southeast Arm
Yellowstone Lake. Exiting Yellowstone Lake at Fishing Bridge, the
River flows over the majestic Upper and Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon
Yellowstone River merges with the Lamar River near
Tower Junction in Yellowstone Park and continues northward through the
Canyon. The Yellowstone is joined by the Gardiner
of Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, Montana. This marks the point at which
floaters are allowed to access the river and from here the Yellowstone
runs north through Yankee Jim Canyon and the famous
until it reaches
Montana. Through the Livingston area the
For its entire length the Yellowstone River is unaltered by any major dams making it the longest free-flowing wild river in the lower 48 states. As a free-flowing river the Yellowstone experiences an annual flood cycle that results in significant water flow changes over the course of a year. When the snow melts in the spring the river gets high and flooded and as the dry days of summer arrive the river gets low - an annual cycle that the river has seen for millennia. Today the fish, animal life and habitats are much the same as they were when Lewis and Clark visited the area more than 200 years ago.
Floating on the Yellowstone River is
a cherished activity with lots of opportunity. 540 miles of the river
are open to floating, from
The 540 miles of floatable river outside of Yellowstone Park is generally described as having three sections; the upper, middle and lower. The upper river section is world famous as a trout fishing mecca. The water in this section is clean, clear, quite cold most of the year and generally fast flowing. The stretches of the Yellowstone are not formally defined but the upper section is generally considered to be the stretch of river from Yellowstone Park downstream to somewhere around Columbus, Laurel or Billings Montana.
The middle section of the Yellowstone is a transition section for the river as it switches from being a mountain stream to a prairie river. The river becomes larger and gradually slower. The water gradually gets murkier and is not as clear as it is on the upper section. Water temperatures are cool but can be very warm in summer. The high temperatures on this section often exceed the lethal tolerance level for trout and there are far fewer trout found in this section. The middle Yellowstone has a big diversity of fish species with everything from cold-loving trout species to the warm water fish such as bass, sauger and paddlefish. Despite the fact that the river is often paralleled by Interstate 90 and passes through Billings (Montana's largest city), the middle Yellowstone remains a wild river. Much of this section is undeveloped and large cottonwood river bottoms, braided channels making chains of islands and lots of wildlife are typical of this section of the river.
As the Yellowstone transitions from the middle river section to the lower river the character changes quite dramatically the Yellowstone here is a big slow-moving muddy River. The gradient is low and the rock and cobble bottoms found upstream have gradually been replaced and mud typifies the substrate. The fish inhabiting the lower Yellowstone are almost exclusively warm water species yet fishing opportunities can be tremendous. As with the middle Yellowstone, the lower Yellowstone River has a sprawling river bottom with large wooded islands that are being rapidly invaded by non-native Russian olive and salt cedar. The very lowest ends of the river are in oil country so don't be surprised to see oil & gas activity on the riverbanks.