Love snorkeling and scuba-diving but can’t afford a week in the Caribbean? Think there’s nowhere to dive around here? Sure, Bozeman’s no Cozumel, but consider this: between tourists and locals, some two million people swarm southwest Montana each summer. While hordes of wide-eyed weekenders amass at trailheads and boat ramps, few concern themselves with what lies beneath the surface of our many lakes and rivers. Which is great news for you—venture into the area’s aquatic unknown, and you’ll have an underwater world all to yourself.
Canyon Ferry and Harrison Lake make great early-summer dives—temps may be a bit nippy, but the algae hasn’t set in and visibility’s still good. At the Harrison boat ramp you’ll find shallow, sandy bottoms crawling with crayfish and a few skittish trout; for deeper water and more structure, motor to the steep canyon walls on the north side. Canyon Ferry’s vast size and multiple access points offer a bounty of boat and shore dives alike: chase schools of carp on the shallower south end near Townsend, or go deep near the dam, where rocky outcroppings and the remains of an old townsite rest far beneath the surface.
For a close-to-home—albeit brain-freezing cold—option, head to Hyalite. Underwater structure abounds, as do meandering cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout. The real fun here, though, is collecting lost loot. Swimmers, boaters, and ice-fisherman drop items into the water all year long, turning an otherwise-uneventful dive into a thrilling scavenger hunt.
Dive options abound within Yellowstone, but one of the best, and most beautiful, is Yellowstone Lake. Shore dives are the norm here—from the parking lot at Lake Hotel, waddle into the water and search the broad, shallow shelf for sunken boats and heavy equipment, some over a century old. Enjoy an iridescent montage of cutthroat trout, freshwater shrimp, and copious plant life. Across the lake, Steamboat Point and Sedge Bay host abundant geothermal features, impressive rock formations, and large schools of trout. Keep in mind that water temps are in the low 40s here, making a dry suit the best choice.
Feeling frisky? Drop the tanks, head toward Madison Junction, and launch into the Firehole River. Named for the steamy inflow of piping-hot springs, this slow-moving stream enters a slot canyon and for 100 glorious yards transforms into a rushing whirlpool known as the Washing Machine. Drop in at the head of the canyon and hold on as you’re whisked downstream, eventually plummeting into a 30-foot-deep cavern and churning around before ejecting into a wide swimming hole. If your lungs and stomach allow, claw your way up the canyon to explore its many nooks and crannies, or walk back for another run through the spin cycle.
Risk and Reward
Like most high-altitude activities, Bozeman-area diving is all about the adventure. Be advised: in this extreme environment, nature discriminates against the unprepared. But if you’re fit, competent, and have a capable dive buddy, southwest Montana’s underwater experiences will prove every bit as captivating as those on the surface.