When the hot summer days arrive, Montana’s lakes are a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors. Canyon Ferry Reservoir is a popular spot to recreate because of its proximity to Helena and the ample activities there. Whether you’re looking to camp, swim, kayak, fish, picnic, or boat, this reservoir along the Missouri River is a great place to explore.
Canyon Ferry Reservoir General Info
Canyon Ferry Reservoir makes up a section of the Missouri River near the Big Belt Mountains. Lewis and Clark passed through this area mid-summer on their journey west. They set up multiple campsites along this stretch of river.
Canyon Ferry Dam was built in the 1950s, creating the reservoir. The Bureau of Reclamation currently manages it. It has a water surface area of 33,500 acres and 96 miles of shoreline. There are no fees to visit the reservoir; however, some campsites and activities require payment or the purchase of a license. We’ll discuss fees associated with some of the activities in the sections below. For updates and more information check the Bureau of Reclamation site.
Getting to Canyon Ferry Reservoir
Canyon Ferry Reservoir sits just east of Helena. There are numerous campsites, boat ramps, and other spots to hang out, and there are various ways to access the reservoir, so check your route before heading out.
The east side of the reservoir can be accessed by driving Highway 284 and the west side by Highway 287. Along both of these roads are many turnoffs to access the reservoir. Note that there are some businesses and residences along the way, so please be respectful of the property in the area. Use a little extra caution near Canyon Ferry Dam because the road is winding and narrow in spots and the area can be busy with campers, cyclists, etc.
Boating & Kayaking
Boating is quite popular at Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Motorized boats are permitted and you’ll likely see many out towing tubes, water skiers, and wakeboarders. The Bureau of Reclamation lists 11 boat ramps and you can find ramp data for each one here under the Canyon Ferry Lake section. There are no fees to use the boat launch and park at day use areas. Slip spaces at the marinas around the reservoir do charge a fee and generally require a reservation.
Kayaking and paddle boarding are also quite popular here. We enjoyed taking our kayaks out to fish and to explore the inlets along the lake. Like many spots through Montana’s plains, know that the winds can get pretty intense here and the paddling/rowing can get difficult.
Montana has many watercraft inspection points set up, particularly near larger bodies of water in the state. If you pass one on your way to Canyon Ferry Reservoir, you must stop to have your watercraft inspected for invasive species. This includes kayaks, paddle boards, rafts, etc. Take some time to understand the Montana boating regulations before you head out on the water.
Montana is quite a popular fishing destination, and both locals and visitors from out of state frequent the sections of the Missouri River near Helena. Canyon Ferry Reservoir is known for trout, perch, and walleye and people come here to fish in all seasons.
If you want to fish, you need to obtain permits for each individual aged 12+. These include a fishing license, Angler Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass, and a conservation license. The annual cost for an adult Montana resident is $31 USD, but the price varies for children, seniors, non-residents, short-term passes, etc. Find pass details and other fishing info here. We buy our passes at Scheels, but you can also purchase them online or at these other retailers.
Camping at Canyon Ferry Reservoir
There are ample camping opportunities along the shores of Canyon Ferry Reservoir. However, this is an incredibly popular place to camp, so if you are looking to stay at a developed campground, try to reserve in advance when possible and arrive early to secure a spot. Check fire regulations before your trip.
The Bureau of Reclamation lists 13 campgrounds and information on amenities at each of the sites can be found here. The following campgrounds can be reserved online ahead of time: Riverside, Court Sheriff, Chinamen, Jo Bonner, White Earth, The Silos, and Hellgate. Outside of peak season (Sept through early May), reservations are not available.
If you prefer to camp in primitive spots, there are tons of options outside of the campgrounds around the reservoir. Per Leave No Trace policies, try to pick spots that have already been established – usually marked by a fire ring. Most of the dirt roads we drove down looking for a spot were pretty tame. But, we did encounter some incredibly steep and rocky places where only an ATV/off-roading vehicle would make it.
We ended up finding a spot on the water a bit north of Duck Creek Campground. There is limited shade around much of the reservoir and many of the best shaded spots with water access were taken when we showed up on a Sunday afternoon. Luckily we brought our canopy because it was over 100˚F out! The next morning, the campground campers and dispersed campers near us completely cleared out.
A great way to escape the heat is to take a dip. Even during the hottest summer days, the water at Canyon Ferry Reservoir felt brisk and refreshing. There are some pebbly “beaches” around campgrounds and day use areas that are nice to hang out and swim at. We brought some inflatable floaties and spent many hours out in the water trying to stay cool.
While the bottom seemed to be fairly soft near where we were camped, we saw fishing hooks and some glass on the shore, so we opted to wear our Chacos.
Despite being a busy destination near one of Montana’s larger cities, you’ll still likely encounter wildlife when you visit Canyon Ferry Reservoir. When we camped, we saw a couple little snakes, deer, antelope, hawks, rabbits, and we heard coyotes during the night. It was also a bit buggy during the evenings, so bring the bug spray.
Though bears aren’t as common in this area as they are elsewhere in Montana, it is still good practice to discard your trash properly and put away your food when not in use. We did see mice trying to chew into a bag of chips we had out!