Tenderfoot Creek is the largest west-running drainage in the Little Belt mountains. Like the mountains themselves, it is a unique and somewhat obscure place. It has a public lands story which is worth reading about. As detailed last week, I’ve been mulling this post for a while. I discovered (for myself) floating the creek in the best way possible; looking at a map and then going and doing it. I’ve been back a few times since, and the trips have always been stellar. The Smith River, into which Tenderfoot flows, has long been exceedingly popular, as an easy, scenic, remote-ish, road accessed float. The Tenderfoot is far from popular at the moment, though as a fishing and hunting destination it is coming that way. As a floating destination the time to establish a public use history has arrived.
Tenderfoot itself can be easily split into three distinction sections with significantly different characters. Upstream from the ranch bridge at the outlet of the South Fork of Tenderfoot Creek at least as far as Rugby Creek the creek is zippy and busy (~100 ft/mile of drop), with continuous class II++ action, and typical for small steepish creeks, complex and fast decision making. The half mile below the bridge drops into an unexpected, shallow, and very steep gorge (below), with a series of rapids culminating in the 12 foot Tenderfoot Falls. This gorge (250 ft/mile) often has vertical cliffs coming out of the water on both sides with the creek 10-15 feet across, and very few places to scout or portage. Wood is a very real concern.
A few hundred yards below the falls is the best/only public road access to the creek, and the meandering ~10 miles down to the Smith are far mellower in gradient (40 ft/mile) and hazard. There are riffles, and as with any smallish backcountry stream wood and brush to worry about, but the Tenderfoot seems far cleaner than most in the genre, at least until a big fire comes through. Backcountry packrafting is inherently not beginner boating, but the lower Tenderfoot is ideal basic intermediate terrain.
Access and creating routes and loops in the area is not simple. Road access from the south, down the South Fork, is a good if not short drive from the pavement, and this road can be driven in a passenger car when dry, and if piloted with skill. That said, folks have been rather surprised to see our FWD Saturn down there. Hike in access and route possibilities from Monument Ridge to the north is excellent for the packrafter, and I find the drive in along Logging Creek to be the more enjoyable. The largest obstacle to coherent routes is that floating on the Smith requires a permit, and furthermore, the final ~half mile of the creek passes through private land (owned by the Wilkes Bros, in fact). Montana stream access law permits wading upstream within the ordinary high water bounds, which is realistic at all but very high flows if you care to float to the Smith without a permit to continue downstream.
The season for floating the Tenderfoot has been hard to pin down. May, and most if not all of June, seem to be a sure bet. I imagine April, in early years, and early July, in late melt years, are almost often workable. The Smith has several gauges, but I’ve never been able to generalize these levels to those observable on the Tenderfoot. The creek has a big drainage, but none of it is especially high altitude, and almost all of it is heavily timbered. Lots of snow can build up and linger, with melt off responding more to temperature than solar energy.
It is a special place. Be careful.