Tumbling down from the jagged peaks of the Crazy Mountains is one of the most intimidating and exclusive kayaking runs in Montana. Equally crazy whitewater paddling can be found on various creeks around Montana and Idaho, but Bozeman-area boaters’ rite of passage into extreme kayaking begins at the steep, volcanic gorge of Big Timber Creek.
Located about an hour east of Bozeman, “Big T” has become renowned nationally and abroad for its narrow waters and big drops. The low-volume creek consists of various drops, steep sections, and consistent Class V rapids during the main-season months of May, June, and July. But be warned: Big T is not to be taken lightly. It’s a serious creek with little margin for error; if you’re not ready both physically and mentally, stay away from this beast. And don’t even think about going up without an experienced, capable support crew.
At Half Moon Campground, begin the hike up to one of two main put-in sites: the narrow section known as The Pinch, or a quarter-mile upstream of the second bridge. While hiking, make sure to look at the creek for constantly changing logjams. If the Red Bull or eardrum-blasting music on the drive up fail to provide sufficient adrenaline, putting in above Big Timber Falls and dropping the stomach-in-your-throat waterfall is a great way to get your blood flowing. It’s also a good, albeit risky, way to gauge the water level.
Big T runs anywhere from 100-400 cubic feet per second and screams downslope at 720 feet per mile. No one formally records the unpredictable water levels, so be prepared for some do-it-yourself hydrology. “A good way to gauge the water level is to look at the rock directly above Big T falls,” says Bobby Jackson of Northern Lights Trading Company in Bozeman. “If the water is pouring over the rock, that generally means the flow is high, which correlates into a softer ride but with nastier holes and hydraulics.” Big T does offer manageable put-ins and take-out eddies, alleviating the “point of no return” concerns that accompany many alpine creeks—just keep in mind that eddy space can be scarce between rally points and blowing through one could easily lead to disaster. After gauging the water level and logjam locations, prepare for a fun and spine-tingling ride through one of the best creeks you’ll find anywhere.
Ultimately, Big T serves as the preeminent creek for Bozeman-area boaters searching for a proving ground. If anything, it’s a good reason to check out the rugged and remote Crazy Mountains and to get some exercise while hiking alongside roaring rapids. Whether you’re preparing for the first gut-wrenching run or you’re contemplating a second or third while still shaking in your booties, Big T’s natural beauty and hair-raising power will reward you with even more appreciation for the sport we love.
For more information on Big Timber Creek and other local waters, consult the extremely accurate and handy Montana Surf kayaking guidebook written by Nick Turner, Matt Wilson, and Russ Fry.