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What to Know About Yellowtail Dam and Boating Bighorn Canyon

After experiencing the Yellowtail Dam and Bighorn Canyon for the first time a few summers ago, I immediately let my mom know the next time I saw her that I was not pleased with how my childhood had gone.

“How could you have never ever taken us to Bighorn Canyon when we were here for weeks every summer growing up? It’s amazing!” 

Mom shrugged. “It wasn’t so easy back then. There weren’t boats to rent like there are now.”

I’m still not sure how satisfied with that answer I am, but let me tell you: there are boats to rent at Bighorn Canyon now and so you should go.

Wide waterway in Bighorn Canyon in Montana
Bighorn Canyon

Touted by locals as Montana’s best kept secret, the water recreation found at Bighorn Canyon is a result of the Yellowtail Dam, which was built in the 1960s to prevent flooding that often occurred from the Bighorn River and to be used as a source of electrical power to the valley.

Cliff jumping in Bighorn Canyon in Montana
It’s also a fun place for cliff jumping!

For her bachelorette party, my sister, her friends, and I rented a pontoon and chugged away into the crevices of the canyon that wound through the earth like a snake. The canyon was incredibly devoid of crowds and it was easy to find our own little spot to do some swimming. 

…all I could think of was “wow, I have never had a moment quite like this before.”

For once, the cliché “took my breath away” totally applies…ok, that may have been partly because the water was a bit shockingly chilly upon first jumping in from the pontoon. Yet as I treaded water in the calm, quiet of the dam with nary another boat in sight while all around me the earth jutted up magnificently from the deep blue water in shades of pine green and sandstone red, all I could think of was “wow, I have never had a moment quite like this before.” 

Cliffs and water converge in Bighorn Canyon thanks to the Yellowstone Dam
Cliffs and water converge in Bighorn Canyon

You can rent a pontoon boat from Ok-A-Beh Marina near Fort Smith, Montana, which also has easy parking and access to Bighorn Canyon.

Bighorn Canyon dock where boats can launch
Boat dock at Bighorn Canyon

If you’re into engineering marvels, Yellowtail Dam, also located in Fort Smith, has a visitor’s center on the cliff’s edge overlooking the dam that you can tour to learn more about the construction process and the history of the area. 

How to Get to Bighorn Canyon

From the West: Ok-A-Beh Marina is 96 miles from Billings. Heading east on I-94, exit on to I-90 and continue to Hardin. See Hardin directions below.

From the East on I-94: Ok-A-Beh is 125 miles from Forsyth (the closest town with lodging options before Hardin). Take exit 49 south toward Hardin on to Hwy. 47. This is a two-lane road through ranch and farm land. Allow for construction as you near Hardin. See Hardin directions below.

From the East on I-90: Ok-A-Beh is 100 miles from Sheridan, WY. Take I-90 north to Lodgegrass. Exit 530 on to Co. Rd. 463 toward St. Xavier. Turn left on to Hwy 313 and continue toward Fort Smith. See Hardin directions below.

Hardin Directions: At Hardin exit 495 south on to N. Crawford Ave. (Hwy 313). A slight right turn becomes Mitchell Ave. (still Hwy 313). Ok-A-Beh is a little over an hour from Hardin with limited options for gas or food along the way so it’s a good idea to replenish in Hardin. Ok-A-Beh stocks some options for snacks and sandwiches, but selections are costly and few. Just past Fort Smith watch for a sign for the marina and make a left turn to head up the canyon to Ok-A-Beh. Staying on Hwy 313 will take you to the Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center.

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Learn why Bighorn Canyon is Montana's best kept secret and why it's a must-visit for water recreation like boating, cliff jumping, and water skiing. #easternmontana #bighorncanyon #yellowtaildam

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