Round Up: A Different Kind of Trail

Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) is best known for Bozeman’s Main Street to the Mountains trail system, but the definition of “trail” is expanding: With partners, GVLT recently launched the area’s first water trail, the Missouri River Headwaters Paddlers’ Trail. The trailhead (or “put-in,” as it’s better known in the paddler world) is located at the Missouri River Boat Launch in the Missouri Headwaters State Park near Three Forks. The trail takes floaters past the Fairweather Fishing Access Site and ends at the Toston Dam “take-out.”

GVLT was among several partners that worked together to bring this vision to life, including Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the Montana Association of Conservation Districts; and Montana Conservation Corps. “It’s amazing when a community can rally around a project that combines recreation with the power of education to protect a resource,” says GVLT trails director Matt Parsons. “GVLT relies on its many partners to build incredible trails, and this project is no different.”

Water trails typically have a predetermined route along a river, with dedicated access points to put in and take out personal watercrafts such as kayaks, canoes, rafts, and even stand-up paddleboards. The trail includes signage and mapping with mile markers to help users of all abilities and experience levels have a better understanding of what to expect on their journey. In addition to general awareness of surroundings, visitors should look up weather conditions, water levels, flows, and common hazards to ensure the best possible day on the water.

In a recently published article by American Trails, the organization acknowledges the importance of water trails: “Water trails connect us to nature and history in a way that other trails cannot. Many American towns and cities are built at the edge of water bodies, so taking to the water is a way to explore areas from a different perspective, close to home. Water trails can allow access to wild places that may be almost unreachable otherwise.”

The creation of the trail was inspired by GVLT’s mission to connect people to the open spaces and varied landscapes in southwest Montana. A key component of this project is public education. Signs at put-in and take-out locations encourage paddlers to follow Leave No Trace principles and explain how they can help maintain water quality and preserve the sensitive lands surrounding the river corridor. 

Gallatin Valley Land Trust connects people, communities, and open lands through conservation of working farms and ranches, healthy rivers, and wildlife habitat, and the creation of trails in the Montana headwaters of the Missouri and Upper Yellowstone rivers. For more information, visit

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