The Stillwater River

The Stillwater River is a local favorite. Between it's headwaters high in the Beartooths near Cooke City, MT and it's confluence with the mighty Yellowstone at Columbus, MT, the Stillwater River can be broken into four unique sections. Depending on the section of river you choose, all levels of boating can be found. You can take the family on a class II float or hair boat some Class V+. Paddle the Stillwater's tributary drainage, the West Fork of the Stillwater, and you will find six plus miles of class IV to V+ and above whitewater fun.

River Facts
Class: V+ / VI
Season: Whenever the level is just right!
Water Level: Just the right level!
Run Length: 24 miles
Avg. Gradient: 143 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Look at a Cooke City topo map
Take-Out: Woodbine

Kayaking

I've never been there, likely never will, but it has been run.  This is a three-day expedition run requiring a skilled team.  For more information read Montana Surf by Turner, Wilson and Fry.

Rafting & Fishing

Leave the fishing for the backpacking enthusiasts who will find the fishing good for Eastern Brook Trout and native Cutthroat Trout. This run has never been rafted to our knowledge and attempting to is not recommended, but parts possibly could be ran by an extreme paddle team with expert rescue skills. This section has long rapids, river wide falls, lots of huge boulders and big holes.

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River Facts
Class: IV+ / V
Season: May - July
Water Level: 9.5 - 11.5 (static gauge on the building
. next to the Stillwater Mine heli-pad)
Run Length: 3.5 miles
Avg. Gradient: 77 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Woodbine Trail Head
Take-Out: Old Nye Fishing Access 1/2 mile
. downstream of Stillwater Mine

Kayaking

The Woodbine run is for experienced boaters only.  The force of the water, the gradient and a whole bunch of boulder made holes make for some exciting rapids.  Woodbine is big, powerful, water with sticky holes. This run starts with a bang and ends with a boom and warm-up practice strokes are not a commodity on Woodbine.  You can put in several hundred yards up the trailhead just below the first water fall.  As soon as you leave the eddy, a must make move above a ledge pour-over is required to set you up for the descent.  Mess up here and it will be mayhem and carnage.  Even if you put in closer to the trailhead, leaving the eddy is still a breath-sucking experience.  All in all, this first rapid, Aqua Velva, is a real kick for adrenaline junkies.  One of the areas most dramatic horizon lines awaits you near the end of the run.  Flat, smooth water leads over the edge of a drop known as Chrome Chute.  The line is so distinct you can not see the drop until your bow touches the edge, be prepared, you're in for a ride.  While this entire run averages 77 ft/mile, the gradient is 116 ft/mile when you exclude mile 3.

Hazards and Scouting

Scouting is easy and necessary for unfamiliar boaters and at changing water levels.  In spite of the name, wood is not a major problem but sticky holes definitely are.  The beginning and ending are littered with boulders, some exposed others about half-a-head deep.

Run Variations

Class V+, VI, or suicide runs await anyone that wants to put in at the Pots.  The Pots is a stretch of twisting raging river and violent drops.  Follow the trail until you reach flat water, about a mile up or until your stomach turns queasy.

Side-Take

Woodbine campground provides a spectacular view and is only minutes from the trailhead taking you into Custer National Forest.  A short 3-mile hike from the trailhead through the canyon is suitable for younger children and older adults and takes you to Sioux Charlie Lake. Montana Hannah's restaurant on the Fishtail road offers fine dining and cold drinks.

Rafting & Fishing

Leave the fishing from shore only on this section. The fishing is good for smaller Eastern Brook Trout and an occassional native Cutthroat Trout. This run has been rafted but only by well-prepared paddle raft teams with good team paddling and rescue skills. Scouting is essential and this section at upper water flows should be avoided in most craft, especially rafts and canoes. At high flows huge river wide holes appear and a swim will be long and could very well be fatal.

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River Facts
Season: June - July
Water Level: 1000cfs - 4000cfs on Absarokee gauge

The Upper Stillwater is both a step up and a step down from the Lower depending on where you put in and take out. There are actually four distinct runs or combinations of longer runs along this part of the river.  What makes this stretch particularly inviting to new boaters is the lack of any real wood hazards.  You will boat past a lot of private property and share this run with fishermen, so recreational courtesy is in order. Working our way from top to bottom the easiest stretch is first. The put-in for each run is the take-out of the previous.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

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Part 1__________

River Facts
Class: II
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800 to 4000 cfs on Absarokee Gauge
Run Length: 8 miles
Avg. Gradient: 27 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Old Nye Fishing Access: about 5 miles south of Nye.
Take-Out: Moraine Fishing Access: turn northwest at Nye and follow
. the Stillwater River Road 5 miles. Or go west out of Absarokee, MT on Hwy 420, the Stillwater River Road, for about 20 miles.

Kayaking

This is truly a beginners run, suited for a first time river run.  It consists of easy current and large lazy eddies.  There are several small rapids so like all runs, it should be attempted with qualified assistance. This section allows you to take out at Buffalo Jump Access or, if things are going well, continue on downstream to Moraine Access. From Buffalo Jump to Moraine the amount of boulders in the river increase.  Just below Buffalo Jump you will encounter one very large boulder garden as you round a corner. This boulder garden deserves the attention of any beginning boater. At lower flows boating through the rocks or portaging may be the only options.

 

Rafting & Fishing

For a mellow family raft or a canoe trip, which will still require good paddling skills, the Old Nye to Buffalo Jump stretch is a float with some boulders and minor obstacles. At flows below 1000 cfs, on the Absarokee gauge, more manuevering of shallow boulders will be required. If you opt to float from Buffalo Jump to Moraine, just below Buffalo Jump, one very large boulder garden deserves the attention of any rafter or canoeist. At lower flows it may be hard to get right or left of the rock garden and dragging a raft or canoe around the right side may be required. This section has great scenery and is frequented by Ospreys, Deer and many fly fisherman.

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Part 2__________

River Facts
Class: II+ / III
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800 to 4000 cfs on Absarokee Gauge
Run Length: 6.5 miles
Avg. Gradient: 37 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Moraine Fishing Access: turn northwest at Nye and follow
. the Stillwater River Road 5 miles. Or go west out of Absarokee, MT on Hwy 420, the Stillwater River Road, for about 20 miles.
Take-Out: Dead Horse Eddy: 6½ miles downstream of the Moraine
. put-in, or 2.5 miles upstream from Cliff Swallow Fishing Access. It is a wide spot on river side of the road sitting on the crest of a hill, parking for 2 or 3 vehicles, look for a log rail that sits just off the pull-out.

Kayaking

This novice-intermediate run begins with a small but nice pour-over play spot. It continues through a large boulder garden where intermediate boaters can practice eddy hopping and novice boaters can generally learn to pick a line. A few wave trains of several hundred yards each put a little spice into the run. My first major thrashing took place on this run at a feature known as Dallas Drop, a large boulder pour-over that will release you and your boat, but not at the same time.

Rafting & Fishing

The take out on this run is not suitable for rafts unless you deflate and carry up the bank. See Part 3 for a description of Parts 2 & 3 combined.

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Part 3__________

River Facts
Class: II / III-
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800 to 4000 cfs on Absarokee Gauge
Run Length: 2½ miles
Avg. Gradient: 37 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Dead Horse Eddy - 6½ miles downstream of the Moraine
. put-in. Or 2.5 miles upstream from Cliff Swallow Fishing Access. It is a wide spot on river side of the road sitting on the crest of a hill, parking for 2 or 3 vehicles, look for a log rail that sits just off the pull-out.
Take-Out: Cliff Swallow Fishing Access, 10 miles west of Absarokee on
. Hwy 420. Hwy 420 is also called The Stillwater River Road.

Kayaking

The nature of this run is somewhere between Part I and Part II, fairly flat with less boulders but swift water. It's commonly run in conjunction with Part II as a means to extend a day on the water in a beautiful river valley.

Hazards and Scouting

Other than the natural hazard inherent with river-running this area is straight-forward and offers boaters a sufficient time to see what lies ahead.

Run Variations

One reason to take out at Dead Horse Eddy is to catch a wave train known as Roscoe's Rapids. If the water level is up this is a hoot. However, if you want to shorten the run you can take out at the iron bridge 3 miles downstream of Moraine.

Side-Take

A great day on the river can be followed up by sharing lies and stories at Castle Rock Campground, one of the nicer area campgrounds.

Rafting & Fishing Part 2 & Part 3

Put-In: Moraine Fishing Access: turn northwest at Nye and follow the
. road 5 miles. Or take Hwy 420, about 20 miles south of Absarokee MT.
Take-Out: Cliff Swallow Fishing Access: 10 miles west of Absarokee on
. Hwy 420. Hwy 420 is also called The Stillwater River Road.

This 9-mile section is very technical with lots of boulders and is not floated in rafts as often as Part 4 or the Lower Stillwater. The put-in at Moraine is less than perfect for rafts as they have to be carried to the river from the parking lot and through a fence. Fishing is good, however, requires a good oarsman with lots of swiveling and bouncing off boulders. Flows less than 1000 cfs, on the USGS gauge near Absarokee, will be very bony. At levels around 4000 cfs and up, on the USGS gauge near Absarokee, a few bridges will be nearly impossible to clear in a raft, especially with rowing frames with high back seats. Scout the county bridge just upstream of Cliff Swallow fishing access, to our knowledge it is the bridge with the least amount of clearance to the water. For white-water rafters there is a lot of good action at levels between 3000 cfs and 4000 cfs.


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Part 4__________

River Facts
Class: II / III-
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800 to 4000 cfs on Absarokee Gauge
Run Length: 8 miles
Avg. Gradient: 37 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Cliff Swallow Fishing Access: 10 miles west of Absarokee on
. Hwy 420. Hwy 420 is also called the Stillwater River Road.
Take-Out: Johnson's Bridge Fishing Access: 2 miles west of Absarokee
. on Hwy 420. Hwy 420 is also called The Stillwater River Road.

Kayaking

The nature of this run is somewhere between Part I and Part II, fairly flat but swift water with lots of small features, boulders and irrigation jetties to navigate. It's run by more fisherman than kayakers but makes for a great float in a beautiful river valley.

Hazards and Scouting

Other than the natural hazard inherent with river-running this area is straight-forward and offers boaters a sufficient time to see what lies ahead.

Side-Take

Sharing stories of high adventure at Cliff Swallow Campground, a nice campground with a great fishing hole right outside your tent door can follow up a great day on the river.

Rafting & Fishing

This section offers great fishing and is a frequent run for local fishing guides. The Rosebud River tributary is often responsible for muddying the Lower Stillwater while this section will be running crystal clear. It has a lot of small features, boulders and irrigation jetties to navigate. You really need around 1000 cfs. or higher on the USGS gauge near Absarokee to float without too many hang-ups.

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Kayaking

River Facts
Class: II / III
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800cfs - 4000cfs
Run Length: 4.5 miles
Avg. Gradient: 45 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Whitebird Fishing Access: Hwy 78, 6� miles south of
. Columbus MT.
Take-Out: Fireman's Point Fishing Access: Hwy 78, 2 miles south
. of Columbus MT.

The Lower Stillwater is the first descent for many new boaters. It's swift current, short rapids and big eddies make it an ideal run for the novice boater to begin getting the feel of the river. Mix in several sections of standing waves, a couple of ledge pour-overs, some strong eddy lines, and this stretch becomes a lot of fun for the play boater. Which is why, you can almost always see a mix of more experienced boaters throwing ends while keeping an eye on the beginners. At higher flows beginners and intermediate boaters need to pay attention to Swinging Bridge Rapid and Beartooth Drop.  Beartooth Drop lies just downstream of Swinging Bridge Fishing Access. The season is fairly long (if you don't mind low water playing), beginning about mid-April and frequently extending into November. I remember when several of us took play boats to a river wide pour-over in February and cartwheeled up a storm in a snowstorm. The Lower Stillwater River valley parallels Highway 78, running through private property on both sides of the river. It's not uncommon to see white-tailed and mule deer, bald eagles and great blue herons as you float or fish the river. This run is particularly pretty in the fall when the leaves turn color.

Hazards and Scouting

Scouting has never been required, although logs and an occasional downed cottonwood tree will adorn the banks.

Run Variations

To make this a longer run, put in at the Riverside Inn Bridge 6½ miles south of Whitebird Fishing Access. Between there and Whitebird the river is primarily class II but there is one great play wave, Mr. Bubble, that comes in between 2000cfs - 3000cfs.

Side-Take

A third Fishing Access, Swinging Bridge, lies between the put-in and take-out access sites, so for families that include fishermen, this is your place.

The Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, which is about 15 miles south of Absarokee on the way to Red Lodge, serves up a great dinner.

The New Atlas Bar (See Em Dead Zoo as the locals call it) in Columbus serves cold beer with lots of character.

Rafting & Fishing The Lower Stillwater

River Facts
Class: II / III
Season: May - July
Water Level: 800cfs - 4000cfs
Run Length: 12.5 miles
Avg. Gradient: 35 ft/mile
.
Put-In: Johnson s Bridge Access: 1 ½ miles above Absarokee on
. the Stillwater River Road.
Take-Out: Fireman's Point Fishing Access: Hwy 78, 2 miles south of
. Columbus MT.

For many an area rafter, the lower Stillwater is a classic day run. Expect a fairly straighforward run with an occassional sweeper or small log jam to negotiate. River levels, according to the USGS site at Absarokee, of 800 cfs or higher are needed for a put in at Johnson Bridge. This put-in is above the confluence of the Rosebud River, which is about equals the flow of the upper Stillwater. Flows less than 800 cfs are bony and may require exiting your boat and pulling it over an occasional boulder or two at lower levels. The lower Stillwater is home to a thriving rainbow and brown trout population, so expect a high population of fisherman at lower flows in the spring and fall. At flows higher than 4000 cfs, the river develops some big features that are capable of flipping rafts. At the bottom of Swinging Bridge Rapid lies a near river wide ledge called Beartooth Drop. At high flows the other hazard is the bridge pier that lies just downstream of Beartooth Drop. Many rafts have been upset or wrapped here. There is a raft slide at the take-out at Fireman's Point or float 4 more miles downstream to Itch Ke Pe Park on the Yellowstone River. Itch Ke Pe Park lies on the outskirts of Columbus and has a concrete boat ramp at the downstream end of the park. The average gradient on this additional 4 mile stretch is 20 ft/mile.

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River Facts
Class: IV+ / V+
Season: Late May to June
Water Level: 1.8 - 2.6 on gauge
Run Length: 8 miles
Avg. Gradient: 140 ft/mile
.
.
Put-In: Just past the Stillwater mine, follow forest service road 846
. 6.5 miles to a large meadow, one mile before Initial Creek Campground. You'll know you're on the right road if you meet a downward bound vehicle and someone has to back up a half mile.
Take-Out: Go west 3/4 mile on the Stillwater Road across from
. Carter's Camp at Nye. Take a left at the first fork in the road for another two miles. A small wooden bridge nestled off the road in the trees is the gauge and the take-out. This is private property and the land owner has begun to take notice, so please park the "single" take-out vehicle accordingly.

Kayaking

This classic creek run has all the ingredients: remoteness, steep drops requiring multiple moves, continuous rapids, wood strainers, rock sieves and scenic beauty. The first mile starts out gentle enough, allowing you to enjoy the moment, with the theme to Jaws playing in your consciousness. When the action starts it stays steady for the next five miles followed by a two mile class III paddle-out. The middle portion of the run is the steepest at about 280 ft/mile. Read the gauge at the take-out bridge carefully, every 1/10 of a foot jacks up the difficulty of the run considerably . A personal note on this run: it is responsible for a pulled shoulder, which took me out of commission for three months, and I have had to be pulled from a nasty hydraulic, but it still remains my favorite.

Hazards and Scouting

Numerous hazards: water, wood and rock. Scouting is generally easy BUT it is mostly private land and the land owner doesn't like boaters!! Below the normal high water mark is definitely the place to scout.

Run Variations

A few young and immortal boaters have put-in above the standard put-in.

Side-Take

Dead moose and Grizzly bear make for interesting camp-mates. Follow the road another 2 miles from the put-in to a trail-head. Twenty-five miles of wilderness is all that separates the adventurous hiker from the Boulder River drainage.

Rafting & Fishing

Given the hazards of rock, wood and water, this section has never been rafted and probably can't. The fishing should be good for native cutthroat and eastern brook trout if you access the river legally.

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