Gallatin River

We love rivers, especially the Gallatin.

Over the past century, the Gallatin River has become a famous hub for recreation. Even if you’ve never fished the Gallatin or rafted the Mad Mile, you’ve probably seen it.

Since playing the role of the Blackfoot River in Robert Redford’s adaptation of A River Runs Through It, the Gallatin River has become a world-class brand. The iconic final scene of the film, which won the 1992 Academy Award for best cinematography, is a shot of Storm Castle Peak towering over the river.

Despite its fame, the story of the Gallatin River cannot be distilled to a single image. Instead, it must be told as a series of snapshots, which capture its resilience and capacity for change.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”


The River

During the 115 mile journey from source to confluence, you’ll never step in the same Gallatin twice.

Born 7,000 feet above sea level in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, our River begins life as a pristine, riffle filled outlet of Gallatin Lake. In the Park, the Gallatin’s multiple channels meander through broad, glacially-carved valleys. Moose, elk, and bison pause to browse in meadows of willow and sage.

Several miles downstream the Gallatin exits the Park, and the Taylor Fork, a large tributary, enters the main River. On stormy days or during snowmelt, the Taylor Fork resembles a latte: creamy and frothy. Runoff washes calcium bentonite, a mineral found in clay, into the river, clouding and coloring the water.

The Gallatin River, a few miles from its headwaters at Gallatin Lake, threads through a broad meadow filled with willow and sage.

In the summer, Gallatin Canyon is home to thrill seekers who skillfully navigate riverine boulder fields.

Due to the unique geology of tributaries like the Taylor Fork, those who know the Gallatin don’t need a meteorologist to tell them when or where it’s raining. They merely watch the color of the river for the latest forecast.

Where the Gallatin enters the Canyon, the River begins to charge and swell. Wade into the water above your knees, and you may be swept away.

The Canyon alternately tightens and releases along its 30-mile length. Where the bedrock is soft sandstone and limestone, the river carved valleys wide enough for communities like Big Sky and Karst to grow.

Where the walls are resistant gneiss, the canyon narrows to a mere quarter mile, barely enough room for the river and the road. Below the cliffs, the river runs wild past boulder fields, which pose a challenge to even the nimblest kayakers.

Just north of Indian Ridge, the Gallatin slips through a gap in the hills and enters the wide, fertile Gallatin Valley. Here, it winds past cottonwoods and ranches all the way to its confluence with the Madison and Jefferson Rivers to form the headwaters of the Missouri River.

During its 2,500 foot descent the Gallatin changes from meandering, headwaters stream to charging, whitewater run to broad, lazy river. In our work, we focus on the wild, remote Upper River: the canyon and Park. We know this story best.

The cold, clean waters of the Gallatin splashing over their gravelly bed.

First People

“The care of river is not a question of rivers but of the human heart.”

– Tanako Shozo

Throughout history, the Gallatin River has been both an obstacle to and a conduit for development. The events that shaped the West touched the Gallatin, but the inaccessible Canyon dictated a unique history for the Upper River.

The Upper Gallatin has always been home to seasonal residents. The first inhabitants, members of the Shoshone and Crow tribes, used the Canyon as a seasonal hunting ground and route to Yellowstone, where they collected obsidian to make arrowheads and spear points.

Evidence of their passing, including stone tools, wickiups, and fire rings, can still be found at streams and springs along the Gallatin River.

Photo of a Bannock Wickiup by an unknown photographer (1871). Courtesy of Yellowstone National Park Service.


“The first are 90 yards wide (Madison and Jefferson Rivers) and the last (Gallatin River) is 70 yards wide. All of them run with great velocity and th(r)ow out large bodies of water, Gallatin’s River is reather more rapid than either of the others, is not quite as deep, but from all appearances may be navigated to a considerable distance.”

– Meriwether Lewis

Headwaters of the Gallatin River at Gallatin Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
The Upper River embodies its original name: Cut-tuh-o-gwa, a Shoshone phrase meaning swift water. The Lewis and Clark Expedition chose the name we use today.

In July 1805, the Expedition arrived at the headwaters of the Missouri River. Meriwether Lewis recorded the first description of the Gallatin (above) and renamed the River after the United States Secretary of Treasury: Albert Gallatin.

Although largely overlooked by history, Gallatin played an instrumental role in planning and financing the Corps of Discovery. Thanks to the River, we still remember his name.

The Park and the Forest

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

In 1872, an Act of Congress founded Yellowstone National Park thereby establishing a model for land management that struggled to balance preservation and recreation. Larger than both Delaware and New Jersey, the Park encompasses the headwaters of several important rivers, including the Gallatin.

Plans for a railroad to Yellowstone threatened the Gallatin, but the narrow canyon halted construction. Instead, the railroad passed through neighboring Paradise Valley. The Gallatin remained inaccessible to the steam engine.

During these early days, a colorful cast of outdoorsman hunted, trapped, and tamed big game along the Upper River. Buckskin Charley, “a crack shot who dressed in buckskin clothes”, guided Theodore Roosevelt on a 40-day hunting trip in Gallatin Canyon (Cronin and Vick, 34). Perhaps, Roosevelt’s first-hand experience on the Gallatin River influenced his designation of Gallatin National Forest 13 years later (1899).

A sign placed at the junction of Highway 191 and 64, which stated: “There is a ranger on Lone Mountain, will you help him look out for fires?”.

The Road

“Endless was the fascination and the wonders one could see.
When the mountains had their quiet music and the animals were wild and free.
I have such lovely memories, thinking of what I’ve seen,
In the old West Gallatin Canyon before the days of gasoline.”

– Meriah Isabel Stevens; Meriah Foster (one and the same), 1930

The extractive boom of the late nineteenth century merely brushed Gallatin Canyon. Without reliable transportation, mining, hunting, and trapping proved to be unprofitable. Occasionally, ranchers from the valley grazed their cattle in the hills and sawyers successfully logged as far south as the Taylor Fork. By the time of the 1890 census, only two hardy individuals lived in the Canyon year-round.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a road through the Canyon was proposed. Over the next two decades, construction would start, stutter, stop, and start again. Ten full years passed before the final thirty miles between the Taylor Fork and Yellowstone National Park were completed.

Finally, in 1911 the completed road connected Bozeman and West Yellowstone. Access improved, if only marginally.

Drivers preferred horse and buggies to cars, which often suffered flat tires or engine trouble. During the long Montana winter, Big Sky remained cut-off from Bozeman. Until 1936, the highway department only plowed as far south as Karst Camp. And during high water, the River often claimed wooden bridges, forcing frequent updates and improvements.

Forty years after its initial construction, Highway 191 was paved. To this day, it is considered the most dangerous road in Montana.

Prospectors panning for gold at Michener Camp during the short-lived, early nineteenth-century mining boom in the Canyon.
Lumberjacks perched on a log float in Gallatin Canyon. Loggers transported timber to Bozeman by damning the tributaries; waiting for spring runoff; breaking the dams; and riding the logs down the mainstem Gallatin.
In the early days, horse and buggy were better suited to the original road conditions in Gallatin Canyon.

The Resort

“I’ve always had the conviction too that this might be done without mining the land and spoiling or exploiting it, so that these priceless heritages that we have, and the incredible resources might be preserved for future generations.”

– Chet Huntley

Gallatin Canyon remained an isolated outpost, home only to rugged Forest Service Rangers and homesteaders, until the birth of Big Sky in 1970.

Typical calf-cow operations rarely succeeded in the Canyon. Due to the challenging environment and climate, dude ranches quickly became the bread and butter of early twentieth-century homesteaders. Enterprising individuals, such as Thomas Michener, Pete Karst, and Sam Wilson, catered to easterners seeking the frontier experience.

Michener and his family planted fingerlings in Porcupine and Beaver Creeks. Establishments, such as Karst Camp, located between Gallatin Gateway and Big Sky in the Canyon, thrived in multiple roles: homestead, inn, prohibition bar, ranch, ski hill, and bus service to Yellowstone.

Big Sky was born over a century ago when Augustus Crail purchased his 160-acre homestead for $150, less than one dollar per acre. Crail Ranch, located in the Big Sky Meadow Village area, became the Canyon’s most productive and long-lasting stock ranch.

Almost seventy years later, a consortium led by retired TV newscaster Chet Huntley purchased Crail Ranch to develop a resort community: Big Sky, MT. This small, unincorporated community grew to become a year-round, world-class recreation area home to four ski resorts, four golf courses, and a growing year-round population.

Crail Ranch with Yellow Mountain in the background.
A tree-framed view of Lone Peak and Andesite.
Life in the Gallatin during the early twentieth century was much like it is today.
Today, Chet Huntley’s dream has become reality. However, we cannot forget that the Gallatin River continues to shape and sustain our community. Tourism and resort development drives close to one hundred percent of our economy.

To give back, we have made it our vision to conserve the Gallatin River Watershed for future generations. Join Us.


  • Cronin, Janet, and Vick, Dorothy. Montana’s Gallatin Canyon, a Gem in the Treasure State. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1993. Print.
  • “Historic Crail Ranch History.” Historic Crail Ranch History. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
  • Mistretta, Anne and Strickler, Jeff. Images of America: Big Sky. Montana: Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
  • United States. National Park Service. “America’s National Park System: The Critical Documents.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
  • Historical Images: The Gallatin Pioneer Museum/Gallatin Historical Society and Yellowstone National Park Service