Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — Best Place to Visit in Montana

The colored layers in the sandstone cliffs add to the beautiful Montana scenery in Bighorn Canyon National Park

Disclaimer: for this visit to Bighorn Canyon Montana, I was hosted by the friendly folks at Visit Southeast Montana. Thanks go out to them for all of their support!

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a National Park straddling the Montana–Wyoming border. It’s the third largest canyon in America, and it’s a wonderland for fishing, boating, waterskiing, kayaking, scuba diving, camping, wildlife viewing, photography, great scenery, and simply satisfying the need to get away from it all.

Cruise, paddle, or drift through the canyon and see waterfalls, wildflowers, wild animals, pine forests, and small tributaries with crystal clear water. The colorful sandstone cliffs have layers that predate the dinosaurs. It’s inspiring and the fact that most of it can only be seen by boat adds to the allure.

What was once a roaring river carving its way into a deep gorge is now a 71-mile long lake winding between sandstone cliffs. The towering cliffs, some a thousand feet high, change colors with the light. When the water is calm, it’s hard to know where the water ends and the cliffs begin — it’s stunning — and it’s easy to understand why the Crow people consider it a sacred place.

Bighorn Canyon is more than enough reason to visit eastern Montana, but it was only the first stop on an amazing Montana Road Trip. We were in Billings to attend a conference and then spent a week road tripping around Southeast Montana. There are also a lot of  Fun Things to Do in Billings, MT.

Boating

There are no roads along the northern half of the canyon rim, so the only way to see the canyon is to be in the canyon on the water — hopefully, on a boat. Your options are:

  • Bring your own boat. If you bring your own, check the Aquatic Invasive Species Watercraft Inspection requirements on the NPS website. Montana and Wyoming are rightfully really serious about preventing invasive species.
  • Rent a Pontoon boat at the Ok-A-Beh Marina near Yellowtail Dam. The marina is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. If you’re curious about the marina’s name, Ok-A-Beh means “bend in the river” in the Crow language.
  • Hire a guide and/or boat from one of the Bighorn Outfitters in Fort Smith Montana.

Navigating Bighorn Canyon The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area website has a helpful Bighorn Canyon Boating Map.

Power Tip: It’s a bit counterintuitive, but the Bighorn River flows north. So when navigating south from Yellowtail Dam toward Wyoming, you are going upstream. The route is well marked with numbered Day Boards (navigation aids): red on the right and green on the left as you travel upstream.

Boats docked at Ok-A-Beh Marina near Yellowtail Dam in Bighorn Canyon Montana
Pontoon boats and a National Park Service boat filled with red kayaks at the dock in Ok-A-Beh Marina near Yellowtail Dam.

Fishing

Fishing is the number one attraction both in the canyon and on the Bighorn River below the Yellowtail and Afterbay Dams. According to the National Park Service, “The first 3 miles below the Afterbay Dam are truly world class.

Anywhere between 8,000 to 11,000 trout per mile can be found on the most fished stretch of river in the state of Montana.” The most popular catches are trout, bass, and walleye. Trout are in the river downstream from the dam; bass and Walleye are found in the lake, south of the dam.

Fishing Rules and Outfitters

Montana Fishing Regulations

To fish in Montana, you need at least three things: a fishing license, a conservation license, and an AIS Prevention Pass. Visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website for the latest information about licenses, permits, and rules/restrictions.

Bighorn Outfitters in Fort Smith Montana

Fort Smith is a tiny town with only one store, one gas station, and one restaurant, but it’s in the best possible location to accommodate visiting fishermen and fisherwomen. The town is perfectly situated next to the Afterbay Dam where the waters are the most fished in Montana. There are several lodges, outfitters, and gear shops in or near Fort Smith to provide everything you need from food, lodging, equipment, boats, guides, fly-fishing lessons and more:

Bighorn Outfitters
Bighorn River View Lodge & Cabins near Fort Smith provides guided fishing trips, hunting, lodging, and dining.

Our group stayed here. Some in the group went fishing and were really pleased with the guide, outing, and fish they caught. I and others opted for the pontoon boat ride in the canyon. The trip into the canyon was wonderful, and I really appreciated the cute cabin, great food, and gracious hosts at the lodge.

I have no personal experience with the next two, but they are both listed as fishing outfitters on the Visit Southeast Montana website, and they both have excellent Trip Advisor reviews:

  • Bighorn Fly & Tackle shop in Fort Smith MT provides drift boat rentals, shuttles, guide service, guided floats, fly shop, and lodging.
  • Bighorn Angler in Fort Smith MT provides guided fishing, drift boat rentals, fly shop, and lodging.

Check out Montana Fishing Outfitters and/or search for Bighorn Canyon or Fort Smith MT fishing outfitters and you’ll find several more.

Fishermen in a small boat with scenic Bighorn Canyon walls in the background
Fishermen in a small boat on the lake in Bighorn Canyon.

Kayaking

Bighorn Canyon is perfect for kayaking. Kayakers can slip into the calm, shallow waters of the many branches in the canyon, and it seems like a great way to see wildlife up close but hopefully not too personal. Visitors can enjoy kayaking two ways:

  • Bring your own (just be aware that kayaks are subject to the same invasive species requirements as bigger boats)..
  • Take advantage of the National Park Service’s free Summer Kayaking Program. The dates are announced in late May/early June, and all you have to do is call up, sign up, and show up.

Once announced, the Kayaking Program schedule is available three ways:

Visitors in bright red kayaks paddle through Bighorn Canyon Montana
Kayakers paddle through the calm water in Bighorn Canyon.

Camping

There are three campgrounds at the northern end of the canyon. The Afterbay Campground in Fort Smith by the Afterbay Dam and you can drive to it. The other two campgrounds (Black Canyon and Day Board 9) are in the canyon and are only accessible by boat. Here are the details:

Afterbay Campground (with vehicle access)

Afterbay Campground is the only north end campground with vehicle access. It’s located next to the Afterbay lake between Yellowtail Dam and the Afterbay Dam. It has:

  • a fee of $15 per night
  • 40 Tent/RV sites (no RV hookups)
  • Composting vault toilets
  • RV dump station
  • Drinking water
  • No reservations (First come, first served)
Black Canyon and Day Board 9 Campgrounds (boat-in only)

The boat-in only campsites nearest the north end of Bighorn Canyon are Black Canyon and Day Board Nine. Both of these campgrounds:

  • are free
  • are first come, first served
  • have docks with toilets
  • have tent sites with tables, fire rings and bear boxes
  • do not have drinking water
  • have firewood, but it may be scarce

Black Canyon is located about 6 miles south of Ok-A-Beh Marina, between Day Board 5 and 6. The campground has a dozen tent sites; it’s located in a small serene cove in Black Canyon where a crystal clear stream joins the lake.

Day Board Nine (as you might have guessed) is located near navigation aid Day Board Nine, which is about 9-miles south of Ok-A-Beh Marina. It has 6 campsites.

Download the National Park Service Waterway Trail Guide

Waterside campsite in Black Canyon campground in Bighorn Canyon, Montana
One of the waterside campsites in Black Canyon Campground, which is only accessible by boat.

Wildlife Viewing

In the two trips I’ve made into the canyon, I’ve seen a black bear, a deer, and a common garter snake. While I didn’t see them, the canyon is home to mountain lions, coyotes, and elk, and a huge variety of birds including golden eagles and great horned owls.

While Black Bears are common in the area, they often stay out of sight, so I was thrilled when one came wandering through a brushy area and along the waterfront. There are bighorn sheep and wild mustangs in the park too, but they are mostly at the southern end in the Pryor Mountains.

A black bear walks along the water’s edge in Bighorn Canyon Montana
A black bear takes a stroll along the water’s edge in Bighorn Canyon.

Photography

Bighorn canyon and the surrounding area are great for photographers, even wannabes like me. The sandstone layers in the canyon walls change color with the shifting light, and there are also beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Because there’s little light pollution in the area, moonless nights are great for night photography. My hopes of getting a great shot of the Milky Way were dashed because the moon was too bright.

These layers of sandstone in Bighorn Canyon Montana are orange at the top and shades of gray or beige at the bottom
These colorful sandstone cliffs are so old they predate the dinosaurs.

Hiking

There are 15 hiking trails (17-miles in all) in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Three trails are at the north end near Yellowtail Dam; the other 12 trails are along the canyon’s southern half.

I spent my two visits in the canyon on a boat, so I’ve not hiked the trails. Luckily, the National Park Service provides a downloadable Bighorn Canyon Hiking Guide with a trail map and descriptions of the 15 trails.

Bits of History and Science

History

Yellowtail Dam

The 525-foot high Yellowtail Dam was built to serve three purposes: flood control, power generation, and irrigation. It was completed in 1967.

The dam is named after Robert Yellowtail who was a Crow tribal chairman and Superintendent of the Crow Indian Reservation. He earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and spent his life fighting for the rights of the Crow people. He helped create the Crow Act of 1920, which prohibits Crow tribal lands from being taken away.

Crow Indian Reservation

The Bighorn Canyon National Park Service website briefly tells the story of The Crow Nation beginning with their arrival in the Bighorn Canyon area in the early 1700s. About a third of Bighorn National Park is located on the reservation, and several members of the Crow Nation work for the National Park Service or operate park concessions like Ok-A-Beh Marina.

While members of the Crow Nation are commonly called Crow people, they call themselves Absarokaa: Children of the Large Beaked Bird. Bighorn Canyon is sacred to them, and there are locations in the park that are historically important to them, like the gravesite of Chief Pretty Eagle and the Four-Winds Interpretive Site with this important teaching:

From the South comes the Summer to give us the power to grow

From the East comes the Morning Star to give us wisdom and light

From the North comes the White Wind to give us strength and endurance

From the West comes the mighty Thunder Beings to give us rain

 

Science

How Bighorn Canyon Formed

Bighorn Canyon was created in three phases over 2.5-Billion years. Phase 1 was the accumulation of thousands of feet of rock. Phase 2 occurred when tectonic forces pushed the rock up into mountains. In some places the tectonic forces were uneven and actually bent the layers into curves, which are quite visible when you go through canyon. Phase 3 was erosion by the Bighorn River, which formed the canyon.

Much of what you see in the canyon walls was formed during the Pennsylvanian period of the Paleozoic era and predates even the dinosaurs. The stunning reddish-orange cliffs are from the Madison layer, which gets its color from iron oxide in the Amsden layer above it. For more geologic history, watch “The Geology of Bighorn Canyon” on the National Park Service website.

Full view of Yellowtail Dam on the bighorn river in eastern Montana
Yellowtail Dam tames the Bighorn River and creates Bighorn Lake in Bighorn Canyon.

Best Time to Visit Montana

The best time is late spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and the waterfalls are most active. Summer and early fall are also great. The lake freezes in winter, but the park is still open. It just presents different recreational opportunities.

Visitor Centers and Park Ranger Programs

There are two Visitor Centers in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The northern one at Yellowtail Dam (near Fort Smith, Montana), is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The Visitor Center at the southern end, near Lovell, Wyoming, is open all year round.

During the summer, both Visitor Centers have Ranger led programs. The programs at the northern end are held in the Afterbay campground theater. Program topics include the natural and cultural history of the canyon, the history of the Crow Nation, kayak trips, hikes, nighttime photography, and, of course, bears.

Check the Bighorn Canyon National Park News Releases and/or the Bighorn Canyon Facebook page for program details and schedules.

The Bighorn Canyon National Park Service employees hosted tours for our group of travel writers and really helped us experience the beauty and tranquility of the canyon and to learn about its history. Rangers Marvin Dawes, Todd Johnson, and Jennifer Prentiss, Chief of Interpretation for Bighorn Canyon, Christy Fleming, and boat captain Bill Snell all made our visits informative, interesting, and fun. Thank you for all you did.

A pontoon boat on Bighorn Lake with the colorful layered sandstone walls of Bighorn Canyon in the background
As we cruise by, I keep remembering there are layers in those sandstone cliffs where dinosaurs once roamed.

Getting to Bighorn Canyon

It’s 95 miles from Billings to the Yellowtail Visitor Center and takes at least 90 minutes to drive. Click here for National Park Service directions.

Map of Bighorn Canyon North End

Map of the north end of Bighorn Canyon including Fort Smith and Yellowtail Dam
Click here to access an interactive map of the north end of Bighorn Canyon, Montana

Where We Ate and Stayed

We stayed at the Bighorn River View Lodge and Cabins near Fort Smith. The cabins are cute and comfortable, the food was excellent, and Cary & David Horneman were gracious hosts. In addition to food and lodging, they arrange guided fishing trips.

Collage showing the cabins, dining area, and view for Bighorn River View Lodge, a Fort Smith Montana fly fishing lodge
The cabins, dining room, and view at Bighorn River View Lodge and Cabins.

Important Things to Know

A summary of important things to know before you go:

  • The northern and southern parts of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area are in different states and are not directly connected by roads or public trails. The North District, where Yellowtail Dam and most of the canyon is located, is in Montana. The South District is in Wyoming. The only connection between the two parts is by boat through the canyon.
  • The North District recreation area includes the canyon and river, but a lot of the land on either side is part of the Crow Indian Reservation; trespassing is not allowed without a tribal trespass permit (available in Crow Agency MT). The South District has many hiking trails, historic ranches, and many land based opportunities.

Conclusion

I’ve been to Montana before and always enjoyed the friendly people, beautiful scenery, and wide open spaces, but I’d never been to, or heard of, Bighorn Canyon. It’s wonderful.

Where else can you boat or float through a gorgeous and serene canyon, surrounded by towering cliffs that change color with the shifting light. And it’s so peaceful and quiet. Add Bighorn canyon to your list of must visit places. You’ll be happy you did.

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10 thoughts on “Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — Best Place to Visit in Montana

  1. Rhonda Albom says:

    Wow, what a beautiful canyon. I love that they have free kayaks in summer. The wildflowers in spring would be beautiful to see.

  2. Lisa says:

    Ginny, it was great to meet you on the boat in Bighorn Canyon! The views are so great from the water and love your bear photo.

    • Ginny Vail says:

      Lisa, it was great meeting you too, and thank you for your comment. The canyon was such a great experience, and I was surprised that I actually got a decent video of the black bear.

  3. Ann says:

    You are not a wannabe when it comes to photography, you did a great job producing stunning images! Keep up the good job!

    Cheers from Stcokholm Sweden

    • Ginny Vail says:

      Ann, Thank you for your comment and your kind words about my photography. I will keep working on my photography and videography, but I have a lot yet to learn. Cheers to Stockholm; it’s one of my most favorite places.

    • Ginny Vail says:

      Ann, Thanks for your comment. Bighorn Canyon is the perfect place to motor-roam, and I hope you get there and enjoy all there is to see and do.

    • Ginny Vail says:

      Susan, Thank you for your comment and for adding Bighorn Canyon to your bucket list. It’s truly a wonderful place.

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