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Pony, MT 59747
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Canoe floaters.
The Jefferson River Chapter hosts a public float of the Jefferson River every summer.

The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Project
We Proceeded On. Volume 40, No. 1. February 2014

      From the journal of Meriwether Lewis at the Three Forks of the Missouri:

      Sunday, July 28, 1805. ...Both Capt. C. and myself corrisponded in opinon with rispect to the impropriety of calling either of these streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them after the president of the United States and the Secretaries of the Treasury and state having previously named one river in honour of the Secretaries of War and Navy. In pursuance of this resolution we called the S. W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson's River in honor of Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison's River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin's River in honor of Albert Gallatin.

      In the 1960s when "Ding" Darling planted the seed for the idea of a national trail commemorating the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the nation was just beginning to see the environmental downside of industrial prosperity. His beloved Missouri River was being altered by pollution and dams; his favorite pastime of duck hunting was threatened. By "preserving" the route in some way, it was his hope that future generations would be able to enjoy the Missouri River as he had growing up in Nebraska.

Cliffs near Sappington, Jefferson River, MT.

Much of the scenery along the Jefferson River remains unchanged since 1805.

      His concept of designating a "wildlife and recreational ribbon" along the expedition's route is exactly what a small group of people are trying to do for the Jefferson River, at the headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana. Members of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation are working on a conservation and recreation project to establish a network of backcountry campsites on private and public lands along the entire length of the Jefferson River. It is their hope to work in concert with public and private landowners to improve access and use of the river so that everyone can learn about Lewis and Clark history and be able to enjoy the rich wildlife and scenery that still abound there. By providing an opportunity to personally experience the region's solitude and beauty, the chapter hopes people will be inspired to work together to voluntarily protect the river from streamside impacts and development pressures that could irreparably alter the river for future generations.

      Montanans are fortunate; they live in one of the few states with stream access laws that allow the public to traverse through private property on rivers for water-based recreational purposes, provided they stay below the high water mark. Enjoying open space and having access to the rivers to hunt and fish has been a tradition for generations of Montanans. When few people lived there, ranchers commonly allowed locals to cross their property to get to the rivers or to gain access to public land on the other side. But as more and more people move into Montana and build their "mountain dream home," people find they no longer have access to the places they have always used. Out-of-state landowners and developers are posting "no trespassing" signs, reducing public access to the river.

      From its headwaters to its terminus at Three Forks, the Jefferson River is lined by private property. Public access is found at only a few developed fishing access sites. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter seeks to acquire backcountry campsites along the river accessible only by water, or if by land, then only by non-motorized travel. By acquiring the rights to picnic or camp above the high water mark in a few strategic locations, floaters would be able to enjoy a multi-day trip along the river when stream flows are high enough. That means working with willing private landowners, the Bureau of Land Management, and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to develop a handful of sites that are a day's float apart. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter hopes to avoid future maintenance and user problems by developing them as primitive, boat-in only campsites.

NPS happy floaters.

Employees of the National Park Service and Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation floated a section of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail in 2011.

      The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation has supported their efforts by providing two grants to build an accurate inventory of property boundaries along the river and to help pay for the printing of maps and brochures that will enhance public visibility for the project.

      Completing the vision will require leasing or fee title, or conservation easement acquisition of a few pieces of key property for campsites, and require working with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks to open some fishing access sites to overnight camping. By establishing and promoting the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, it could be an added tourism amenity to the communities of Three Forks and Twin Bridges, as well as a step towards preserving another piece of the "last best place" by guaranteeing recreation access to the river to keep future generations connected with the land and its history. The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation is proud to support this project and pleased to be able to provide funding through its Bicentennial Trail Stewardship Endowment. What a great way to honor the river's namesake and to continue to carry out "Ding" Darling's vision to protect public access to the Missouri River for future generations!

      To learn more about this project visit

      From Margaret Gorski, Trail Heritage Foundation Bicentennial Trail Stewardship Committee Chair. Text adapted from The Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter's Map 1-Upper Jefferson Map written by Thomas J. Elpel.

Used with permission of Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

Sample Jefferson River Canoe Trail map.
A sample snapshot of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Map. The map details public and private lands, access points, campsites, land protected by conservation easements, hiking trails, and Lewis and Clark history.

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