As we passed on, it seemed those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end. -Captain Meriwether Lewis
The canoe trip though the White Cliffs of the Missouri River in central Montana is one of the premier canoe trips in the USA. The 47-mile stretch of river, which starts at Coal Banks (near Big Sandy) and ends at Judith Landing, has changed very little since the Lewis and Clark Expedition came through in late spring of 1805. I like to get a group of friends together and do the trip during my mid-October break (coincides with Montana’s state teachers’ convention). We’ve done it four of the last five years, and plan to do it again in the future.
The hills and river clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. -Captain Meriwether Lewis
I always see something new on the trip, but for me the real fun comes in showing this unique area to friends who are doing the trip for the first time. I get to watch their amazement as we hike through a box canyon in “Neat Coulee”, climb to the “Hole in the Wall”, and walk to the feet of the “Seven Sisters”. We spend our first night at the Eagle Creek Campground (one of the most scenic campsites in the state) where we enjoy a campfire, listen to coyotes howl, and wake up to sunlight reflecting off of sandstone cliffs across the river. If the weather cooperates, it just doesn’t get any better than this. (Photo Tour)
Not gonna lie – Organizing a trip like this is a lot of work! There are guide companies, such as Upper Missouri River Canoe Guides, that you can hire to take care of the dirty work for you (logistics, equipment, shuttle, meals, etc.). Guide companies also offer a longer (105-mile) 6-day trip, which starts at Coal Banks and ends near Robinson Bridge (64 miles north of Lewistown). Most people do these trips (47 miles or 105 miles) in the summer. Our group of 5-10 mostly teachers and retired folks does the trip in mid-October because that’s when we (teachers) have our fall break. Most people prefer the shorter trip because it is goes through the more scenic part . . . Plus, six days on the river can be a bit much for most folks (including me).
Here is the itinerary for our 47-mile kayaking and hiking adventure in mid-October.
Monday before the trip – We decide “go” or “no-go” based on the weather forecast. We don’t take any chances on this one – It can be a really miserable experience if it is cold and/or windy, especially on Friday (our 21-mile day). So far we’ve had “good to great” weather each of the four years we’ve done the trip – Knock on wood.
Tuesday – Everyone loads their kayaks and canoes onto a trailer at my house. The best way to do the trip is to have two people with all of their gear in a canoe. However, sitting in a canoe bothers my back, so I use a spacious 16-foot tandem kayak (with one seat taken out).
Wednesday – A few of us take care of the shuttle (3 vehicles). We haul the canoes/kayaks 165 miles to the starting point (Coal Banks – 70 miles NE of Great Falls), unload them, drive all three vehicles (and the trailer) to the end point at Judith Landing (53 miles from Coal Banks), leave two vehicles and the trailer there, and then return to Coal Banks where we spend the night. If it is clear, calm, and sunny (as we want it to be) temperatures can dip below freezing at night.
Thursday (14.5 Miles of paddling) – Those not involved with the shuttle leave Helena by 6 am and drive up to join us at Coal Banks. We’ve always been able to be on the river (paddling) by 9:30 am. After a couple hours of paddling, we stop for lunch at a favorite spot (see photo tour). From there we paddle to the Eagle Creek Campground, set up camp, and then hike up through Neat Coulee (2-3 miles round-trip). After returning to camp for a break, some of us explore the Eagle Creek drainage. After dinner and campfire time, we spend the night in our tents.
Friday (20.8 Miles of paddling) – We get up with the sun, eat breakfast, load up, and head down the river by 8:30 am. We paddle 7 miles, park along the river, hike up to the “Hole in the Wall”, return to our canoes for lunch, paddle a couple miles, and then hike to the base of the “Seven Sisters”. After that it’s a long paddle through “Scenes of Visionary Enchantment” to our campsite at Slaughter River. Some of us like to make one more stop less than a mile before the campsite to explore several interesting rock formations.
Saturday (11.7 Miles of paddling) – After breakfast we take a walk to explore some hoodoos and an abandoned farm site (~2 miles round-trip) before heading out. Along the way we pick a spot for lunch before paddling the final few miles to Judith Landing. On the drive back we stop in Great Falls for dinner, and then continue onto Helena – We have always arrived home by 9 pm Saturday night.
Links – Check these out!
- My Best White Cliffs Photo Tour
Trip photos from October 2014 – Fantastic fall colors!
- Photo Album from the 2015 Trip
Another great trip – Includes photos of the Seven Sisters.
- Upper Missouri Canoe Guides
Trip Packages and Rates.
- Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Site
All about the geology of the White Cliffs.
- Pre-Ice Age Path of the Missouri (won’t open on mobile devices)
It used to flow into the Hudson Bay!
- More about “concretions”
You will see plenty of these strange spheres in the White Cliffs.