Lakeside paradise in the southern Bitterroots.
With its deep canyons, sweeping granite walls, and towering ponderosa pines, the Bitterroot Valley offers a remarkable change of scenery from our Bozeman back yard. If you’re planning a trip west across the Continental Divide, head down to Painted Rocks State Park for a remote experience in Montana’s farthest southwestern corner.
As you drive up the riffling West Fork of the Bitterroot River, you’ll see how the park got its name. Imposing granite cliffs streaked with vibrant hues of orange, green, and yellow lichen fringe the skyline of this narrowing canyon. After cresting onto the shores of Painted Rocks Lake, you’ll have no choice but to stop at the first pullout and bask in the glowing aura of these magnificent ramparts.
The park sits on the southern end of Painted Rocks Lake, a reservoir on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. The campground lies beneath a soaring canopy of lodgepole and ponderosa pines—the latter of which will have any eastslope native poised in a neck-craning salute to impossibly large timber. Amenities include 25 first-come, first-served campsites, a boat launch, and lakeside hiking trails. If the campground is full, try Slate Creek Campground, two miles north on West Fork Road.
Near the campground you’ll find ample opportunities for hiking, foraging, and fishing. Stroll along the cobbled banks of the West Fork upstream from the lake, keeping your eyes peeled for wild raspberries and huckleberries in mid- to late summer. Head downstream from the lake and wade the shallow riffles of the West Fork for westslope cutthroat, rainbow, and bull trout. Did I mention the ponderosas? Try to keep your eyes on the fly as you loll in the emerald light.
Painted Rocks Lake is open to motorized and non-motorized watercraft. In late summer, the shoreline drops significantly as water is released from the dam for irrigation in the West Fork Valley. If the water is too low to launch from the campground, try Little Boulder Bay on the north end of the lake.
For hikers seeking a longer trek, head to the summit of Piquett Mountain, elevation 8,831 feet. This peak offers spectacular views over Painted Rocks Lake and into the southern Bitterroots. Start from Little Boulder Creek Trailhead, one mile up Little Boulder Bay Campground Road from West Fork Road. The round trip is 10 miles with 3,878 feet of elevation gain. An assortment of mysterious artifacts occupies the summit; we’ll let you find out what’s up there for yourself.
On your way out, stop for a cool-down swim at the ledges along Blue Joint Road, just across the dam from West Fork Road. Here you’ll find cliff-jumping opportunities ranging from ten to 20 feet into cool, deep, sub-alpine water.
From Bozeman, shortest route to Painted Rocks State Park is through the Big Hole Valley, where plenty of other recreational options abound, not to mention fantastic scenery. One can also approach from Missoula. Either way, once on Hwy. 93, which runs the length of the Bitterroot Valley, head toward Darby. A few miles south of town, turn onto West Fork Rd. Cruise up the West Fork of the Bitterroot River for 22 miles and you'll be there.