The Flathead River is 219 miles of free-flowing water in northwest Montana that spans an area from the Canadian border to the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The designated reaches of the Flathead includes the North, Middle, and South Forks of the river. These forks travel through some of the most wild, rugged country in the United States, including Glacier National Park, Great Bear Wilderness, and Bob Marshall Wilderness before joining near Hungry Horse to create the mainstem Flathead River, a major tributary to the Columbia River.
October 12, 1976. The North Fork from the Canadian border downstream to its confluence with the Middle Fork. The Middle Fork from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Fork. The South Fork from its origin to the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
The Flathead River system supports many complex and diverse native plant communities which include sagebrush, old-growth spruce and fir trees, river bottom disturbance species, mature cottonwood groves, and rough fescue grasslands. Although these native communities may not be remarkable on their own, the combination of them in a restricted river corridor is unique.
The Flathead River system is nationally and regionally an important producer of resident and/or migratory fish species as the river provides exceptionally high-quality habitat for indigenous fish species. Additionally, all life-histories are present. Particularly unique are the west slope cutthroat and bull trout populations of the South Fork of the Flathead drainage, which exist without the presence of any non-native fish species.
The Flathead River system’s native fish populations, including the North, Middle, and South Forks, are extremely rare and unique across the western United States. Native fish, such as bull trout (listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act) and westslope cutthroat trout (a state of Montana Species of Special Concern) are present throughout the system. In addition, all life-histories are present in the system. The fisheries of the Flathead River are a nationally valued resource, have high local economic and social values, and provide unique opportunities to fish for native fish in a wilderness, or minimally impacted, river system setting.
The Flathead River system includes some rare and exemplary geologic features which contribute to the unique beauty and value of the river corridor. Features such as the Goat Lick, Meadow Creek Gorge, and the colored riverbed rocks are awe-inspiring geologic features that add to the character and interest of the Flathead River.
Geologic values include the Meadow Creek Gorge, a unique and dramatic feature of exposed limestone bedrock eroded by the South Fork River and the associated karst deposits of fluted travertine and a karst spring emerging from karstified limestone at the river's edge.
The river bottoms of the North, Middle, and South Forks of the Flathead River contain brightly colored pebbles, cobbles, and boulders derived from the local red, bluish gray, and green Proterozoic Belt rocks. This feature is further accentuated by the unusually clear blue waters of all three rivers.
The three forks of the Flathead provide outstanding resources to interpret the early history of the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, including ranger stations and work centers still serving their original purposes. These historic sites were centers of activity in the early 20th century and continue to operate as U.S. Forest Service or Park Service ranger stations, work centers, and/or public facilities. The combination of historic uses of the Flathead River corridor, such as trapping, oil and coal exploration, homesteading, and early public lands administration, and the degree of historic integrity of these resources, as evident by the number of properties already listed in the National Register of Historic Places and those eligible to be listed, is not typical of river settings in the region.
All three forks of the Flathead River were used by native peoples to move to and from the plains. Traditional travel routes followed the North, Middle, and South Forks with major travel routes crossing both the North and South Forks from east to west. Most of the sites represent campsites of small transient groups moving into or through the mountains and were located in areas accessible to high country and ample game sources. There is at least one known chert quarry in the area for procurement of raw material for the manufacture of stone tools.
The Flathead provides a combination of wild, scenic, and recreational segments. Users experience varied levels of challenges accessing the river, ranging from multiple days to hike and pack in, or a 14-mile hike/all-day packstock trip, or air delivery, to a paved vehicular river access site. The river ranges from fast-moving whitewater to more placid stretches as the river widens in broad, timbered valleys. Because of the rich diversity of fish and wildlife species, the river system is also a destination for camping, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing. The river system has 85% of its shoreline miles managed either by the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service, resulting in high levels of public access.
No permits are required for river use; however, there are regulations for human waste, campfires, stay limits, motorized watercraft, vehicle use, proper bear attractant storage and other site-specific rules on national forest lands. Please contact the Hungry Horse or Spotted Bear Ranger Districts for more information. Additionally, the lower Middle Fork and entire North Fork are boundaries to Glacier National Park, and those segments of river are managed cooperatively by both agencies. Specific rules and regulations for activities in Glacier National Park, including camping, campfires, bear attractant storage and other approved activities apply on Park Service lands and, in some cases, are different than the National Forest regulations. Please contact Glacier National Park for more information.
There are several commercial outfitters that offer float trips. Details on these commercial rafting companies can be found at the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau or at any of the Flathead National Forest offices.
The three tributaries of the Flathead River, the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork, all offer beautiful vistas of protected lands. Distant, middle ground and streamside trees and shrubs provide contrast to forest openings and rock outcrops. In late fall, the yellow larch are striking against the greens of fir and pine. Small-scale scenery, consisting of stream bank vegetation, converging streams and waterfalls of varying size, changing colors of plants, and a variety of flora and fauna, is also common.
The three forks of the Flathead River occur within one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, where natural processes such as fire, flooding, plant succession, wildlife migration, and predator-prey dynamics shape the landscape and its wildlife. River corridors provide travel ways for wide-ranging species.
The Flathead River system provides high-quality habitat for the threatened grizzly bear. Three recently delisted species (rocky mountain gray wolf, peregrine falcon, bald eagle) have den or nest sites located in the river corridor. The area also provides habitat connectivity for one listed species, the lynx, and one candidate species, the wolverine.