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Following the Jefferson River Canoe Trail
A Narrative of a Six Day Trip Down the River
By Thomas J. Elpel

      The Jefferson River Canoe Trail retraces by water an essential segment of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail from the three forks of the Missouri at Headwaters State Park up the Jefferson River to its origin at the forks of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers near Twin Bridges. The Jefferson River Canoe Trail has created a conservation and recreation map of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail showing all state, BLM and Forest Service lands along the river, as well as conservation easements, formal and informal fishing access sites and hiking trailheads, and Lewis & Clark campsites.

      Most present-day travelers will prefer to follow the trail in reverse, floating down the Jefferson River, instead of towing their canoes upstream. Floaters can choose a fast pace, paddling the trail in three to four days, or a slower pace, paddling half days to experience more of the available backcountry campsites and riverside activities along the way. Please note that this is a “no-trace” canoe trail. Use our map to locate a suitable campsite where public use is allowed, then apply appropriate backcountry ettiquette to leave the area as nice as you found it. Camping is presently allowed only at a few patches of BLM land along the river, as well as within the high water mark, as allowed for by Montana's Stream Access Law. BLM lands suitable for camping are marked as Canoe Trail campsites on our maps, and described below. We are seeking to acquire suitable private lands for additional campsites along the river.

      The Jefferson River Canoe Trail is all Class I water, suitable for beginning paddlers, except during runoff season in the spring. Low water in mid to late summer may require extensive dragging of watercraft over shallow riffles and necessitate more days to complete the river.

Day One: Twin Bridges to Silver Star
      Lewis & Clark spent three days around the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers as they searched for Sacagawea’s people and tried to determine the best river route westward. On August 4th, 1805, Lewis and a small party of men on foot scouted the area in advance and left a note on a tree advising Clark not to take the Big Hole River route. But a beaver cut down the tree before Clark and his party arrived there on August 5th. They traveled a very difficult mile up the Big Hole and camped overnight before turning back on August 6th. They tipped a canoe on the way down, soaking some of their powder and losing some gear.

      Floaters can start at many points along the Jefferson River. However, the Jefferson River Canoe Trail officially begins on the Beaverhead River at Jessen Park in Twin Bridges. Twin Bridges offers a grocery store, gas, restaurants, motel rooms and cabins, fishing tackle and outfitters, and a new Sacagawea park at the fairgrounds. Be sure to bring a trash bag to collect any debris you find along the rivers.

      Floaters follow the Beaverhead River for two miles to its confluence with the Big Hole, forming the Jefferson River. There is a wooden diversion dam on the Beaverhead River, which can usually be floated over on the left side. Spend some time at the confluence as Lewis & Clark did, by stopping on 80 acres of riverside state lands with hiking, hunting, and bird-watching opportunities. Keep in mind that this is state land under private lease. A Montana state lands recreational permit is required. As you continue on down stream, watch for hazardous submerged cottonwood trees in the river. Stay in the main channel, and avoid the irrigation diversion on the right side near Hells Canyon. Hells Canyon Fishing Access is just a little farther down on the left side, tucked behind a small island. Watch out for the diversion dam on the downstream end of this island. Floaters may need to paddle upstream from the launch to get back to the main river channel.

      There are not presently any designated camping areas along this upper portion of the Jefferson, but camping is allowed within the ordinary high water mark, as allowed by Montana Stream Access Law.

Day Two: Silver Star to Point of Rocks
      William Clark camped near the present-day Silver Star Fishing Access Site on August 4th, 1805. Clark recorded that gooseberries and currents were abundant on that day. Available services in Silver Star include a post office and general store with ice cream, snacks, and nature books.

      Heading downstream from the Silver Star area, you will find moments when you seem to be floating back in time. The river winds away from the highway and most of the noise, so that in many places you will see only wildlands and wildlife in the foreground, with the untamed Highlands and Tobacco Root Mountains in the background. Most of the houses and developed areas become invisible from your viewpoint on the river.

      Watch out for the Parson’s diversion dam at the Waterloo Bridge. This large pile of boulders across the river could cause a bad accident. Stop and survey the situation before reaching the dam, or better yet, drive to it before your float. It is sometimes possible for skilled floaters to float over the diversion dam, which was reconstructed in 2014 with an improved pass-through chute in the middle of the dam. Otherwise, it may be necessary to hug the right bank and tow your boat down over the rocks or portage on the left side, where you will carry gear and canoes through a narrow walkway to get over the irrigation ditch.

      Downstream you will soon pass under a railroad bridge then gradually float back into undeveloped spaces rich with wildlife. Throughout the day you can see the landmark called Point of Rocks at the northern end of the Tobacco Roots Mountains and mark your progress towards it. Point of Rocks is an informal campsite on BLM lands and a good place to hike up into the hills. A high cave includes one nice remaining Native American pictograph. Other pictographs have been destroyed by vandals over time. Stop and imagine going back in time to vision quest at this site with a grand view of the Jefferson Valley. Also be sure to bring a swimsuit to enjoy the hot springs, but avoid coming on the weekends when the site can turn into a party zone. Please help to pick up trash here.

Day Three: Point of Rocks to Sunlight Islands
      Two miles down river from Point of Rocks, you will see the massive stone walls of Parrot Castle on the right bank, the remains of an early smelter used to process ore from local mines. Stay to the left channel when the river splits around the island. On the left bank is Parrot Castle Fishing Access Site, with the Parrot Castle Diversion Dam across the middle of the river. The diversion dam is sometimes floatable, or you can portage it on the left bank, although the portage can be challenging through through the rocks and bushes. At low water levels you may be able to hop out on shallow ground in the middle of the river and tow your canoe over the rocks.

      The next seven miles down to Mayflower Bridge FAS are some of the most wild and “remote” parts of the Jefferson, where the river braids into channels wrapping around islands that are sometimes hundreds of acres in size. Here the wildlife abounds, and in many places the only visible sign of modern civilization is the reclamation contouring of the Golden Sunlight mine to the north.

      On August 2nd, 1805 Captain Lewis noted the snowcapped peaks of the Highlands and Tobacco Root Mountains and recorded, “The tops of these mountains were yet partially covered with snow while we in the valley were suffocated nearly with the intense heat of the midday sun. The nights are so cold that two blankets are not more than sufficient covering.”

      This is private land, but we hope to negotiate a permanent interest in one of these islands, or an easement on it, from a willing seller for a unique backcountry campsite. Floaters will be able to stop to enjoy the remote setting, hunt for mushrooms, and enjoy the birds and wildlife. Weather and water levels permitting, it is possible to skip the Sunlight Islands and float all the way to “Canyon Corner Camp”, but a stay on or near the islands is definitely worth the extra time.

Day Four: Sunlight Islands to Canyon Corner
      Back on the river, you will soon pass Mayflower Bridge FAS, and a few miles later the Cardwell FAS. There is a vault toilet at the Cardwell site for a convenient pit stop. If you are ready for a break from camp fare, then stop for a great restaurant meal at La Hood. Otherwise, continue floating on down into the canyon for a night’s stay at “Canyon Corner ”. Canyon Corner consists of a strip of BLM along both sides of the river. William Clark shot a bighorn sheep at Canyon Corner, near the red rocks in the cliffs.

      Canyon Corner is near the road, but remarkably quiet. Unfortunately, a new house was built on private land overlooking the site in 2014, although it is still a good distance away. Campers at this site have access to thousands of acres of backcountry hiking in Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. There is public access just west of the new house. The explorers did not know the caverns were there when they passed through, but Lewis noted the “tremendous clifts of ragged and nearly perpendicular rocks on August 1st, 1805.

Day Five: Canyon Corner to Philosophy River
      Just moments downstream from “Canyon Corner ”, you cannot miss the man-made, but very alluring cave at the Sheep Gulch gypsum quarry. People have explored and partied at this site for decades. Fish, Wildlife, and Parks wanted an easement across the land for public hiking access up Sheep Gulch, but the land was fenced and marked with "No Trespassing" signs in 2015.

      Access to the main entrance to Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park is somewhat inconvenient from the river, but you can stop at Limespur Fishing Access Site (no services) and walk to the park entrance from there. The Caverns Campground is a nice place to camp, but too far from the river to be of practical use to floaters. Be sure to visit the caverns while in the area, and allow plenty of time to hike the three miles up to the caverns if you don’t have wheels.

      On the south bank of the river lies the old bed of the Chicago Milwaukee Railroad. Both Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park and the Jefferson River Canoe Trail would like to negotiate rights to this railroad bed for use as a recreational trail. We would also like to see a conservation easement on the north face of the London Hills to protect the viewshed as seen from the Caverns.

      Downstream from the caverns the river bends around the mountain and emerges from the scenic canyon landscape. The cliffs on the right side are also BLM land, and there is suitable camping, but not much shade, near the river. A little farther downstream, Antelope Creek enters from the right side. Lewis & Clark camped here on July 31st, 1805. Upon seeing the terrain ahead of him (upstream), Lewis wrote “the mountains on both side of the river at no great distance are very lofty. We have a lame crew just now.”

      At Antelope Creek today you will hear the endless buzz of the nearby Luzenac America talc plant. But a few quick miles down the river takes you past the talc plant and past Sappington Bridge FAS (no services), back into a small, but remarkably isolated and scenic hide-away with limestone cliffs, where it seems as though the river opted for the path of greater resistance, cutting through the limestone hill, instead of flowing around it. This would be an ideal spot for a future campsite, but is presently in private hands.

      An irrigation diversion dam at this spot used to consist of a small pile of round rocks in the river, easily floatable, but as the river channel has dug deeper, the dam has been built higher. This diversion dam is now as big or bigger than the dam at Parson's Bridge. There is a floater channel on the left side, but it isn't always floatable. It can be portaged on either side.

      This section, from Sappington Bridge to Williams Bridge, is the most heavily used portion of the Jefferson River. Once in awhile, big parties of floaters take to the river with tubes, with sometimes in excess of a hundred vehicles parked at Sappington Bridge and along the highway, but that only happens a few times a summer. Floaters used to climb a small cliff near the head of the irrigation ditch and jump into a deep pool, but due to liability concerns, the landowner obtained a permit (with inadequate public input), and dynamited the cliff.       Almost immediately after the cliffs area, the hills recede from the river, giving way to wide open bottomlands and numerous farms and ranches. The Williams Bridge FAS has a vault toilet for a convenient pit stop along the way.

      Floaters can continue downriver beyond the Williams Bridge to a nicely secluded 40-acre parcel of state land at the mouth of Willow Creek, which Lewis originally named as the “Philosophy River” on July 30th, 1805. The river runs right through the middle of this parcel, and much of it consists of gravel bars. However, there are some nice campsites in cottonwoods and sometimes junipers around the perimeter of the property. Keep an eye on your map, as it is easy to miss the creek, the campsite, and the nearby town of Willow Creek as you drift downstream.

Day Six: Philosophy River to Shoshone Landing
      From Philosophy River it is a pleasant float through cottonwoods and farmlands on down the river. The Droulliard FAS offers a convenient rest stop with a vault toilet. The site was named after George Droulliard, a member of the Lewis& Clark expedition.

      Below Droulliard the Jefferson passes under I-90 and shortly thereafter, Old Town Bridge. On the right side, immediately before the bridge, is Shoshone Landing, the first public floater's camp purchased by the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. Stop for a picnic, and bucket water to the new trees. Stay overnight if you can, or paddle on downriver to the end.

      The Jefferson merges with the Madison to form the Missouri River. The Gallatin flows into it shortly afterwards. Upon arrival at the Missouri Headwaters on July 27th,1805, Lewis “ascended the point of a high limestone clift (now known as Lewis’s Rock) from whence I commanded a most perfect view of the neighbouring country The party camped at the Missouri Headwaters for three nights to rest and repair gear, before starting up the Jefferson River on their route to the Pacific.

      There is a developed campground a short distance up the Madison River at Headwaters State Park for present-day travelers to rest and recreate, but it is not easily accessed from the river. Most weary river travelers will skip the camping and exit the river at Missouri Headwaters FAS just downstream from the confluence with the Gallatin River. For the more adventurous traveler, this is the starting point to trace Lewis & Clark’s route up the Jefferson River, instead of down.

See also:
Jefferson River Canoe Trail Overview
Floating and Recreation on the Jefferson
Lewis & Clark on the Jefferson River

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