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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
Discover the Nature of Montana...

Trails and Maps


Clark Fork River Float

Rivers need room to roam

Floating the river offers you a wonderful way to see wildlife up close, and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the Clark Fork River.

Clark Fork River Float Site Map

Field Notes

This section of the river offers a leisurely canoe trip for wildlife watchers. Scan the gravel bars for Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Common Mergansers. The alder- and willow-lined bank harbors migratory birds such as Willow Flycatchers, Yellow Warblers, and American Redstarts. Wherever you find a sandy bank, look for the nesting holes of bank and Rough-winged Swallows. If you see a hole a little larger than the others, it's probably a Belted Kingfisher nest. Great Blue Herons build their colonies in the cottonwoods on Kelly Island and near Council Grove State Park. If you see a huge pile of peeled willow sticks by the riverbank, you've found one of a number of beaver lodges along this stretch of the river.

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From prehistoric times to the present, the constantly moving Clark Fork has cut across the soft, erodible soil of the valley, forming islands, oxbows, pools, rapids, meanders and gravel bars. Cottonwoods need this dynamic movement of the river to regenerate. Its tiny seeds sprout best on open, gravel bars where they can reach water with their roots and get plenty of sunlight. We may lose one-fourth of Montana's cottonwood communities in the next 50 years through dams, which prevent flooding, and development.

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Cultural Link

About 15,000 years ago, a glacial ice dam blocked the Clark Fork River, creating the 3,000-square-mile Glacial Lake Missoula. The ice dam broke and drained the lake many times, sending catastrophic floods down the Clark Fork into the Columbia River, which has shaped the landscape we see today.

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Viewing Tip

Pick up a free copy of the Lolo National Forest's Clark Fork River Float guide to learn more about the river and what wildlife you can see along the way. Always be prepared for all kinds of weather. Floating in a canoe is best during the summer and fall. Use extra caution or avoid floating during peak spring flows when floating trees and other debris create hazards in icy water.

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Helpful Hint

You can put in your boat at the Maclay Flat Nature Trail area and take out at the Kona Bridge about six miles downstream or go a total of ten miles to the site of the old Harper's Bridge. The total float time during high water in spring and early summer may be about two to three hours depending on your boat, but when the water is low, give yourself at least six hours to make the trip. Your float will start at Maclay Flat on the Bitterroot River near where it merges with the Clark Fork at Kelly Island.

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Getting There

To reach the put in access: From the stoplight on Highway 93 just south of Missoula, head north 2 miles on Blue Mountain Road to the Maclay Flat parking area. Take out at Kona Bridge off Mullan Road..

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Lolo National Forest, Missoula Ranger District, Building 24, Fort Missoula, Missoula, MT 59804, (406) 329-3750.

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parking, boat access, fishing, restrooms at Maclay Flats, walking trails.

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Species of Note

  • Great Blue Heron rookery
  • Hooded merganser
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Red-naped Sapsucker
  • Bank Swallow
  • Pygmy Nuthatch
  • beaver
  • bull trout
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