Dearborn River: Easy Day Hike

by Rob Chaney

CRAIG – The Dearborn River offers your paddling Goldilocks a classic three-bears set of options.

The upper third coming out of the Scapegoat Wilderness is Baby Bear, with a little stonewalled water park just outside the wilderness boundary popular with summer swimmers and a dramatic canyon near Bean Lake along its 16-mile reach where kayakers play.

The middle third is the more sedate Momma Bear, with 10 miles of rolling hills, little shade
but curiously good fishing, according to local guides.

Rafters negotiate a section of rapids on the lower Dearborn River. Most of the river below the Highway 287 bridge twists and turns through scenic cliffs on its way to the confluence with the Missouri River 19 miles downstream.

Rafters negotiate a section of rapids on the lower Dearborn River. Most of the river below the Highway 287 bridge twists and turns through scenic cliffs on its way to the confluence with the Missouri River 19 miles downstream.

Papa Bear dominates the last reach, where 19 miles of twisting canyon curves get packed into 12 miles between the Highway 287 fishing access site and the confluence with the Missouri River. By August, only 70 cubic feet of water per second flow into the Big Mo’ at the U.S. Geological Survey gauging station near Craig. Prime floating time is just after spring runoff when the flow is between 300 and 600 cfs. That usually occurs between early June and early July. Even then, it takes a fast paddler about seven hours to make the run, while a raft can need half a day.

Even though nine of 10 Dearborn floaters use the lower reach, the river’s geography ensures you’ll rarely
see another boat. The water cuts through volcanic tuff of the Adel Mountains with dozens of fishhook and horseshoe bends that restrict the view. That also means few places to pull out or camp, making a Dearborn trip generally a one-day adventure.

Since Meriwether Lewis noted the Dearborn’s “handsome, bold and clear stream” in 1805, the river has played several roles in Montana history.

Hollywood cowboy (and Montana native) Gary Cooper had a ranch on the lower reach. Other ranchers had a court battle over their definition of trespassing that helped the Montana Supreme Court clarify the state’s expansive stream access law. While yet to receive a federal Wild and Scenic River designation, the Dearborn would get protection in the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.

Location: Trailhead to Devil’s Glen cascade is about 22 miles west of Augusta. Access to lower Dearborn River is about 20 miles north of Wolf Creek on Highway 287.
Distance/duration: Devil’s Glen cascade lies about 3 miles up from Dearborn River trailhead. Lower river only accessible by boat, with lower 19-mile reach most popular
Difficulty: Easy day hike to Devil’s Glen. Lower river requires boating experience with class-II rapids and at least seven hours paddling endurance.

Dearborn-River-map

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