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Floating the Madison

Travel west of Bozeman on Montana Highway 84 (Norris Road) on any given summer day, and you’re likely to see hundreds of people decked out in swimming suits and shorts. What’s going on, you ask? None other than the local tradition of floating the Madison.

Originating in Wyoming, the scenic Madison River crashes and twists its way through Montana, churning up powerful whitewater rapids before stilling into a snail’s pace as it creeps its way to the headwaters of the Missouri River. While the Madison’s upper whitewater rapids receive their fair share of use, it is the lower section beyond Bear Trap Canyon that has become the quintessential summer destination for people of all ages. This lower river section features only a few occasional waves or rocks, and some spots are low enough that people can stand in the middle of the river! Tubes in all shapes and sizes bob in the molasses-slow current while their occupants soak up summer rays and wave to other floaters enjoying the wide river. For those experienced floaters who really know how to have a good time, coolers are held in high esteem and receive their own special tube. Friends, snacks, beverages, water, sun. What could be more fun on a hot Montana summer day?

To experience this Montana tradition for yourself, travel west on MT Highway 84 to the put-in at Warm Springs Access Point. The point can’t be missed; a huge parking lot full of cars waits where the highway departs the Madison River to wind along Warm Springs Creek. After meandering 6 to 7 miles downriver, floaters will reach the take-out point at the Blacks Ford Fishing Access site. Floaters should plan on spending the better part of a day to complete this entire float. For those short on time, a well-marked highway bridge denotes the halfway point where floaters can either put-in or take-out. Rental tubes are available at several sporting goods stores in Bozeman, but plan ahead. On any hot day before Labor Day, tubes are in high demand as everyone rushes to the river to beat the heat!

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