The Alberton Gorge, 35 miles west of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, is the most accessible and best-sustained whitewater in western Montana. Best-sustained in terms of bang-per-mile, with eight named Class II-III rapids (and maybe a high-water Class IV) in a 10-mile stretch of isolated, almost development-free river, and also in terms of seasonal duration: the Gorge is runnable year-round, depending only on your tolerance for cold water and weather.
The default put-in utilized by commercial raft guides, and a good many DIYers, is the Cyr fishing access site at Exit 70 on Interstate 90 headed west. The first notable rapids are called Cliffside I and II, large and confused wavetrains hugging the river-right shore. Kayakers and open-boaters frequently bypass Cliffside by putting in at Sandy Beach (also a popular picnic spot) two miles downstream, and accessible by dirt backroads. Triple Bridges, named for the interstate and railroad overpasses, is just a mile downstream, offering a good warm-up wave that’s surfable at good flows. Split Rock, a relatively minor rapid, is next, followed by perhaps the Gorge’s most fearsome rapid, Tumbleweed, a quick right turn narrowly framed by tumult on river left and a giant hole to the right of the line. At certain flows Tumbleweed is sneakable at far river right.
Tumbleweed is followed by Surfer Joe (another good surf spot), Boat Flipper (which comes in at high water), Boateater, and finally Fang, the Gorge’s second-scariest rapid, which also features a meaty surfing wave for those skilled enough to brave it.
Most raft trips continue to the Tarkio FAS, five miles downstream of Fang, usually battling a wide river and upstream winds to reach the easy-access boat-ramp take-out. Kayakers and canoeists frequently lop off the last four quiet-water miles by taking out at the “Ralph’s” access on river right, a steep 200-yard uphill haul to a dirt parking lot accessed by backroads.
Aside from whitewater, Alberton Gorge is famed for its steep, colorful canyon walls and wildlife. Sightings of beavers, eagles, deer, elk, otters, and osprey are common, and black bears are always a possibility. Swirling flocks of American avocets can captivate the least-observant of birdwatchers. Beware shore-wading yourself, though: most of the Gorge’s shoreline is cluttered with sharp and slippery rocks, and beyond the rocks are some of western Montana’s densest populations of poison ivy.
During the high-summer season, the Gorge also hosts one of western Montana’s densest populations of rafters. Expect plenty of company in the warm months.
In 2005, the Montana Power Company transferred 320 acres of land forming a corridor along the river into public ownership, preserving public access, and scenic values, in perpetuity.