Western Montana Hikes & Attractions

Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area

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The Warm Springs Ponds Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is one of the most unique wildlife viewing places in all of Montana. The ponds are artificial and were not built for their wildlife value. In fact, they were constructed to try and mitigate environmental damage resulting from mining in nearby areas.

Just like Prairie Dog State Park, Warm Springs Ponds are located right on Interstate 90. The site is on the north side of the Interstate at Exit 201. This is about 20 miles west of Butte, MT and a few miles north of Anaconda, MT. There is good signage on I90 and the entrance to the Ponds is right next to the highway. Silver Bow, Mill, Willow and Warm Springs Creeks merge here and just below the Ponds the Clark Fork River begins.

Warm Springs Ponds sign

The Ponds Are Born From Mining Pollution

Mining was king in the early days of Montana’s development and the entire Butte and Anaconda area was intensively mined. Silver Bow Creek received mining, smelting, industrial and municipal wastes for more than a hundred years. (note: Butte is one of the most historic mining towns in the US. If you are interested in the history of MT or of mining you will enjoy the book The Mining History of Butte, MT).

Beginning in 1911 the Warm Springs Ponds were constructed to serve as “settling ponds” where the heavy metal pollution carried by Silver Bow Creek would settle out before joining the Clark Fork River. While this was somewhat effective, a lot of pollution still made its way into the Clark Fork River. To address this problem the filtering capacity of the ponds was improved in the 1990’s. Today the upstream pollution has been significantly reduced and there is debate as to the future of the Warm Springs Ponds.

Photo of pond at Warm Springs Wildlife Management area
The diversity of habitat types found at Warms Springs Ponds creates homes for many different creatures, especially birds. Many types of waterfowl are found in the ponds but a lot of other bird species are also common. Be sure to bring your binoculars to aid in viewing.

Popular With Birders

Extensive habitat improvement projects along with the pond improvements have resulted in excellent habitat for many bird species. Many different waterfowl species are abundant but so are many other birds. The USGS has produced a Bird Checklist for Warm Springs Ponds that lists more than 140 different species. However, experts state that 218 species have been spotted in the WMA. It’s estimated that as many as 300,000 birds use the area each year. Each season brings a different variety of birds so any time is a good time to visit. More information about birding in Montana is in the book Birding Trails Montana.

Fishing the Warm Springs Ponds

Despite the fact that the primary purpose of the ponds is to purify polluted waters, they offer excellent fishing opportunities. Many anglers know that large trout that are routinely caught in the ponds. This makes the WMA a popular destination for fly anglers. The Ponds have been known to produce some true trophy fish so come prepared to fight a big fish!

Hiking, Biking and More

There are hiking and biking trails at Warm Springs Ponds. Locals use the trails a lot for hiking, biking and running. In fall, waterfowl hunters can be found at the site and fishermen are encountered year round. As already mentioned, the bird watching is always productive and many birders try to make frequent visits.

Photo of large flock of snow geese flying over the Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area
From late March through mid April it’s not unusual to see large flocks of Snow Geese migrating through the Warm Springs area. There were thousands of birds flying overhead this day.

Warm Springs Ponds are a very unique area. Originally created to reduce toxic mining waste washing downstream, today they effectively purify the water and provide an excellent habitat for wildlife and fish. The fact that the area is right along I 90 at Exit 201 makes it easy to visit. I often plan a little extra time when I drive through this area to allow for a quick visit and a good dose of the outdoors. Be sure to stop if you are in the area and enjoy this interesting site.

You can discover other Montana roadside attractions in the book Backroads & Byways of Montana: Drives, Day Trips & Weekend Excursions

Western Montana Hikes & Attractions

Salmon Lake State Park

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Salmon Lake is one of a chain of natural lakes located along the Clearwater River in northwest Montana. The 630 acre lake is a popular with anglers, boaters, campers and bird watchers. Located on the lake, Salmon Lake State Park provides excellent access and getting there couldn’t be easier. It’s right on MT Hwy 83 about 7 miles north of the Junction of Highways 83 & 200 (Clearwater Junction).

The entrance to Salmon Lake State Park is on the west side of the highway and is very easy to find. The park offers boat ramps, camping, picnic shelters, toilets, potable water, firewood for sale, interpretive displays and other amenities. As with all Montana state parks, this is a fee area. For day use, there is no charge for any Montana resident. However, for non-residents there is a $5.00 fee for day use. There are fees for camping which vary according to campsite type and other factors.

Photo of beach leading into Salmon Lake
Nestled between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges, Salmon Lake is one of the chain of lakes that are found along the Clearwater River. Salmon Lake State Park offers all types of recreation and provides easy access to the lake.

Although Salmon Lake State Park is big on features, it’s rather small in size. The park is 42 acres and sits between the Hwy 83 and the lake. There are 23 camping sites and about half of them have electrical hookups.  Campsites have picnic tables and fire rings. Many sites are intended for trailers or recreational vehicles. Campsites can be reserved online and you should always check on campsite availability if you plan to camp here.

For more information here is a link for a Salmon Lake State Park Brochure

Fishing Salmon Lake

Salmon Lake one of a number of natural lakes along the course of the Clearwater River. Lake Inez, Lake Alva, Seeley Lake and Rainey Lake are others formed by the river as it flows generally southward until it reaches the Blackfoot River at Clearwater Junction. Each of these lakes is a jewel and well worth a visit.

Photo of boat launch area at Salmon Lake State Park
Salmon Lake State Park has good facilities for boating.

The lake is a popular fishing destination and has a diverse fish population. Kokanee salmon, northern pike, rainbow trout, yellow perch, brown trout, bull trout, largemouth bass, mountain whitefish, pumpkinseed and westslope cutthroat trout are all found in the lake. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocks the lake with kokanee almost every year and this is a great place to seek this uncommon salmon.

Fishing pressure is moderate but the lake can get busy at times. In a typical year the lake is about the 100th most popular fishery in the state. Pressure varies year-to-year but can be as high as 7,000 angler days per year.

Popular for Birdwatching

The tree-lined banks of Salmon Lake might make you think it is a mountain lake. However, it is located at a relatively modest 3,995 ft and there is a lot of habitat variety in the area. This excellent habitat provides homes for a large number of bird species and makes the lake a very popular destination for bird watchers. From majestic bald eagles to brilliantly colored song birds, the varied habitats provide homes to many different birds.

Salmon Lake is one of the best places in Montana to view the common loon. Loons are large and rather shy birds that are known for their exotic calls. Loons also perform an elaborate courtship “dance”. Normally loons nest on the lake every year. They can often be spotted, especially at dawn and dusk.

Learn more about Salmon Lake and Montana’s other state parks in the book Montana State Parks. You can read about the lake and many other Montana attractions in Backroads & Byways of Montana: Drives, Day Trips & Weekend Excursions

Western Montana Hikes & Attractions

Painted Rocks Recreation Area and State Park

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Painted Rocks Recreation Area and Painted Rocks State Park are located in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, MT. Named for the green, yellow and orange lichens that cover the rock walls, Painted Rocks Reservoir is popular for fishing, water skiing and all other types of boating. On a typical summer day you’ll find everything from ski boats to stand up paddle boards and everyone is having a great time.

Nestled in the mountains at 4,713 ft, Painted Rocks is easy to access. The lake is on the West Fork Road (Route 473) which splits off from US 93 17 miles south of Hamilton, MT. The paved road follows the West Fork of the Bitterroot River southeast for about 20 miles. This is a very scenic drive.

Painted Rocks Reservoir

Painted Rocks Reservoir is formed by a dam stretching across the West Fork canyon. As you approach the reservoir on Route 473 the dam is quite obvious. The 565 acre lake was created in 1939 when the dam was first constructed. The dam is 143 feet tall, stretches 800 feet and can store up to 45,000 acre-feet of water.

Painted Rocks Reservoir is an important water storage facility. Each year the reservoir fills in the spring from snow melt. The stored water is released all summer to support irrigation, stockwater and to benefit fish & wildlife. The annual filling and draw-down of the reservoir means that the lake level changes a lot depending on the time of year.

Photo of motorboats on Painted Rocks Reservoir
Beautiful blue waters and scenic mountain vistas make Painted Rocks Lake a great place to spend some time. Rarely crowded, the lake offers recreation opportunities for all types of boaters and anglers.

USFS Recreation Sites

The Painted Rocks Recreation Area is in the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger District. Painted Rocks and the surrounding forests are used for hiking, backpacking, fishing, hunting, mountain biking, cross country skiing, snowmobiling and more. The Forest Service has a lot of access in the West Fork Ranger District.

The main boat ramp at Painted Rocks is the Little Boulder Bay Boating Site at the north end of the lake. The site is paved with a good boat ramp and plenty of parking. There is no camping at the Little Boulder Bay access but there are vault toilets. The Little Boulder Bay access is the most popular access for day use boating. When the lake level is low in late summer this is often the only boat ramp that reaches water deep enough for a boat launch.

Little Boulder Bay is the first site visitors reach when arriving at the lake. Continue on a short distance to reach the Slate Creek Access which has two sections. A developed camping area and a boat launch area. Slate Creek is a major tributary to the reservoir and there is an access road that leads east, away from the lake. The campground is just up this road. There are 7 sites with picnic tables and fire rings. The campground has vault toilets but there is no water. The boat launch area is on a short spur road running down to the lake shore. While there are no developed camping sites here, it’s not uncommon to find trailers camping here. There is a vault toilet at this site.

Painted Rocks State Park

Painted Rocks State Park is a 23 acre park located at the south end of the lake. The Park is operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a “primitive” park and features camping, and lake access. There is no water or trash removal. The park is open daily on a year-round basis. At 23 acres the park itself is actually rather small. The campground, boat launch area and picnic area take up almost all of the property that is part of the park. However, most of the adjacent lands are National Forest so it seems like a larger park.

Painted Rocks State Park is a fee area. For day use, there is no charge for any Montana resident. However, there is a $5.00 day use fee for non-residents. There are fees for camping which vary according to campsite type and other factors. For more information download the Painted Rocks State Park Brochure.

Wether you camp at the state park or at the USFS campground, you will surely enjoy the dark skies at night. With no significant sources of light pollution when the sky is clear the night views can be awe inspiring.

Fishing at Painted Rocks

Fishing is always popular at Painted Rocks. The fish species found in the lake include cutthroat, rainbow and brook trout, as well as native bull trout. Other fish found in the lake include Mountain Whitefish, Largescale Sucker, Longnose Dace, Longnose Sucker and  Redside Shiner.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the lake receives up to 3,000 angling days per year. Historically MFWP conducted annual stocking of the lake. Records show that stocking began in 1940 and the last plant was in 1984.

Besides the reservoir, anglers will find excellent fishing in the West Fork. The river is very popular and is fished from the Painted Rocks outlet to it’s junction with the main Bitterroot. In recent years there has been concern that the West Fork is seeing too much fishing pressure and MFWP has adopted special rules for the stream. Be sure you know the regulations if you fish here.

Birds and Wildlife

Painted Rocks is surrounded by the wild. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, and moose inhabit the area. In addition, bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the area in the 1980s. Keep you eyes peeled to see what you might find.

Painted Rocks is a bird watchers delight. The lake is a stopping ground for a variety of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and Bald Eagles are common and many forest birds inhabit the wooded areas. Peregrine falcons are occasionally spotted after being reintroduced into the area in the 1980s. If you are fortunate you may catch a glimpse of one of these speedsters. Learn about the birds in the area using the Bitteroot Forest Bird Checklist.

Exploring Beyond Painted Rocks

There are lots of things to do besides enjoying the lake. The many trailheads in the area offer access to everything from day hikes to major backpacking trips. There are many miles of roads to be explored on bicycle or vehicle. Do your own exploring in the area and you will find there is a lot to see and do.

I recommend that you get a good map of the area to learn about the roads, trailheads and other campgrounds. Bitterroot National Forest maps are great and you can buy them in person at forest service offices. The DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has topo maps of the entire state and is a great resource.