Wildlife watching at Red Rock Lakes.
Southwest Montana is blessed with an embarrassment of wildlife riches. From elk herds to wolf packs, we’ve got it all. Now, everyone knows about Yellowstone and its bison jams and gawking tourists, but where can you go to witness Mother Nature’s offspring in a more solitary setting? How about the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge along the Montana-Idaho border west of West Yellowstone? Not only are the bird watching and wildlife viewing opportunities phenomenal come fall, but a visit is also on our Fall Hit List.
Who: Anyone looking for a true adventure, especially this time of year. The Red Rocks Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is remote, to say the least. Roads in and out are few, and the condition of said roads is ever-changing. Gravel or mountain bikes would be a good way to explore, plus you’d likely see more animal action.
What: The largest high-mountain, wetland-riparian habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With over 75,000 acres under the management of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Red Rock Lakes is one of the most underappreciated natural areas in the country. Migratory birds flock here by the thousands, trumpeter swans make the refuge their home, and beyond the wetlands, wolves, moose, bear, pronghorn, and myriad bird species thrive. Few roads traverse the rugged landscape, and weather can change in a hurry. Be prepared for emergencies, but don’t rely on cell service, other people, or any agency services. You're on your own out there, which is part of the fun.
When: Now, or wait until next fall. Once winter hits the refuge, it’s effectively closed for business. Most bird species migrate south or to lower elevations, although trumpeter swans stick around, taking advantage of the spring-fed lakes.
Where: The far-southern Idaho-Montana border, about three hours from Bozeman. The refuge sits just inside Montana to the west of Henry’s Lake, which is about 20 minutes from West Yellowstone off Hwy. 20.
Why: Because it’s there. Natural environments like Red Rocks are few and far between. Some say the refuge is the most beautiful wildlife preserve in the United States, which is saying something considering Yellowstone National Park is a stone’s throw from the Red Rocks boundary.