Navigating the Gallatin's grandest rapid.
For much of its course, the Gallatin River is an intermediate paddle, but once you float past the Lava Lake trailhead and round the corner, things get a little Western. It narrows, tumbling through steep boulders, lit with a glowing orange hue emitted from the granite canyon walls. Navigating this Montana classic has long been a Bozeman rite of passage. Near misses; long, cold swims; and upside-down rafts are commonplace along this unique section of continuous Class III/IV whitewater. The legendary Mad Mile drops 98 feet in one mile, requiring a solid skillset for running tight, steep, technical lines.
Paddlers typically put in at the Moose Creek Flat campground, which provides trailer parking and an ample rigging area. The standard run is eight miles, ending at the Storm Castle fishing access. You can scout most of the run on the drive from Hwy 191.
The fun begins with eight warm-up class II-III rapids dropping at a gradient of about 35 feet per mile. Lava Lake trailhead identifies your last river exit before entering the gnar. Here the river takes a sharp turn to the right; you’ll notice its changed character, with large boulders and a more defined river channel. Entrance Exam is the first of the 13 rapids making up the Mad Mile. Weaving though Pinball, Old Bridge, Snaggletooth, and Two Scoops will get the adrenaline flowing. The river then provides a break, with a mellow few-hundred yards of flat water with a large eddy on river right. The eddy provides a chance to catch your breath and build up courage for the crux move on this 120-mile free-flowing river: House Rock.
House is the most technical and dangerous rapid on the Gallatin. The water splits around a large boulder in the center of the river, creating a pinch with little room for error. A perfect run through House Rock requires patience and timing. Set up on the left. As you approach the drop, you’ll see Whacker Rock (hole 1,000-5,000 cfs or wave above 5,000 cfs) forming a horizon line middle left. Position your boat between the left shore and Whacker. This is a finesse move; the most common mistake is going left too early. The result is slamming into the left shore, bouncing back out to the center, and hitting House Rock.
For thrill-seekers, you can punch Whacker Hole, but you might get “whacked” right out of the boat. Once you’re past Whacker, it’s time for momentum. Hitting the first and second class-V waves with speed will ensure you stay center left, setting you up for the exit.
If you find yourself in the drink, keep your feet up facing downstream, and try to work your way left to the highway side of the river. There is no great way to swim the shallow boulder garden—it will be painful 100% of the time. If you don’t possess the skills or proper equipment, Montana Whitewater would be happy to take you down Montana’s steepest commercially guided stretch.
Robert Price is a river guide for Montana Whitewater.