Destination: Belt Creek
Posted on 25 August 2016
Belt Creek provides memorable float through Sluice Boxes State Park
By DAVID REESE
Even for the hardiest Montana residents, rainy weather in June can wear you down.
So when the rain continued to pour, as it can in June, we decided to head for sunnier climes, and the closest place to do that is the east side of the Continental Divide. We drove from Kalispell, up out of Essex in a miserable, light drizzle and as soon as we hit Marias Pass we were greeted with what was to come: high clouds and sunny, sunny skies. The gorgeous weather followed us all the way over to Belt Creek and Sluice Boxes State Park, south of Great Falls.
Normally I wouldn’t opt for driving five hours to fish only a seven-mile stretch of river, but my friend, who had never floated this river, was adamant about trying it.
The river, scenery and camping did not disappoint. Called a miniature version of the famed Smith River in Montana, Belt Creek meanders through tall, limestone cliffs punctuated by caves.
Montana Mining History
Mining relic in Sluice Boxes State Park. David Reese photos
All along the float are remnants of Montana’s early mining days, with the old mining town of Albright sitting on a bench near the river. Wander through Albright and you can find reminders of the limestone mining operation that took place there in the 1940s, just as World War II was ramping up. Tall furnaces used to smelt the limestone from its ore still stand. Railway tracks snake through the tall underbrush, and an old root cellar shows the ingenious design used by miners 80 years ago.
And then there’s the fishing. River flows were dropping quickly, and we caught Belt Creek just as it was about to become unrunnable in a raft. At that flow, of about 500 cubic feet per second, fishing was excellent. One member of our party caught a 28-inch brown trout, the largest of the two-day expedition. Since Sluice Boxes State Park includes only about seven miles of Belt Creek, you have to take your time and fish the river meticulously. Or, just relax and enjoy the gorgeous views unfolding all around you. Coming around a corner of the river, focused on filming, I didn’t see at first the two mountain lions getting a drink from the river in the late afternoon heat. The first lion broke quickly into the underbrush, then the second lion scampered away, eyeing me as I floated past in my kayak.
Jeff Littfin rows through Belt Creek south of Great Falls. David Reese photo
Della Littfin with big brown trout on Belt Creek.
The river can be dangerous at most any level, because of the narrow canyon and because of steep drops. On our final day, a kayaker had broken his back in the river and was being rescued. At much higher flows, I could see how this would be an incredible whitewater run for expert boaters. With Belt Creek getting more use, permits are required from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and certain camping restrictions apply.
We floated out of the coolness of the canyon into the flanks of the Highwood Mountains. The hot, dry heat of an eastern Montana summer bore down on us. As we got off the river, people splashed about in the shallow, cool water. I found I didn’t want to leave.
We were blessed with gorgeous views of the Rocky Mountain Front on the drive home. Then, dropping off Marias Pass back into the Flathead Valley, the rain began splattering our windshield. Although it was a long drive, the journey to Belt Creek was well worth it.
Whoever said “Go West, young man” had it all wrong. In a rainy June in western Montana, it should be “Go East, Go East.”
An old mining railway tunnel. David Reese photo
Camping along Belt Creek in Sluice Boxes State Park.
Belt Creek south of Great Falls, Montana. David Reese, Montana Living
Exploring an old mining cabin along Belt Creek.