Rock Creek drains the Beartooth Mountains south and west of Red Lodge MT. and the West Fork Rock Creek is it’s longest and largest tributary. The two branches join just outside of Red Lodge. The West Fork offers opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, skiing and enjoying a wilderness setting.
The West Fork is primarily accessed from the West Fork road which runs along the stream. There are a few developments close to Red Lodge and some housing and the Red Lodge Ski Area are accessed from the West Fork road. However, as you move upstream it quickly becomes wild country and the road ends at the edge of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.
Notable West Fork Rock Creek Points of Interest
Here are some points of interest along the West Fork Road as you head away from Red Lodge. The mileage is measured from the intersection of the West Fork Road with US 212, the Beartooth Highway which is 1 mile from downtown Red Lodge
1.0 Palisades Campground Road
2.5 National Forest Info Pull Out
2.8 Ski Run Road – Red Lodge Mtn Ski Area
4.4 Silver Run Trail Access
6.0 Wild Bill Lake
6.9 Basin Lakes Trailhead
7.0 Basin Campground
7.2 Road changes to gravel
8.3 Timberline Trailhead
10.3 Cascade Campground
13.0 End of road & West Fork Trailhead
Roadside Pullout at Mile 2.5
2.5 miles from the junction with US 212 (the Beartooth Highway) there is a well signed roadside pullout on the left (south) side of the road. This site has a few interpretive signs that talk about the Silver Run Wildlife Management Area and it’s associated elk herds. There is also a binocular installation for getting close up views when the elk are in the area.
These are the interpretive signs at the roadside pull out. Click on each sign to get an expanded view for reading.
Wild Bill Lake
Wild Bill Lake sits just off of the West Fork Road 6 miles from US212 (the Beartooth Highway) at an elevation of 6,800 ft. This unique attraction combines history and recreation in a site that is fully accessible. Wild Bill Lake features a national recreation trail for hiking and the lake has fishing for stocked rainbow trout.
Wild Bill Lake History
Wild Bill Lake was created in 1902 by the local resident William “Wild Bill” Kurtzer who saw it as a commercial opportunity. He built a dam by hand across a natural depression then dug a canal system to fill the depression creating a 2 acre lake. He stocked the lake with whitefish and charged for fishing. When state officials informed him that it was illegal to charge for fishing he established a boat rental service. As Kurtzer became successful he expanded his offerings by constructing a heated “swimming hole” and added a poured concrete dance floor next to the rock fireplace he had constructed.
Wild Bill Kurtzer died in 1934 and no one took over operating the lake. In fact, it seems that he never even owned the land it was on. An obituary was published in the local newspaper that contained details about his colorful life. After Kurtzer’s death the Forest Service took over the lake. The dam was rebuilt to create the 2.3 acre lake that exists today.
Fishing Wild Bill Lake
Wild Bill Lake is a popular fishing spot mostly used by children and people with disabilities. The lake has two fishing docks that are wheelchair accessible and trout can commonly be caught from the docks.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocks the lake 4 times each year using catchable sized trout. They usually stock more than 3,000 rainbow trout each year, often before major holidays. Most of the trout are about 7″ when stocked. It’s usually easy to spot these trout swimming in the clear waters of the lake. Be sure you have a Montana fishing license if you plan to fish here.
Hiking at Wild Bill Lake
A hiking trail follows the lake shore all the way around the lake. This is the Wild Bill Lake National Recreation Trail. It’s a short trail that is less than a half mile total. Much of the trail is wheelchair accessible which makes this a great place to take a walk.
Wild Bill Lake sits right on the West Fork Road making it a popular destination for locals. Don’t expect to find solitude if you visit. However, it’s great to see families with children enjoying the natural world.
Hiking Trails Along the West Fork Rock Creek
Besides Wild Bill Lake, there are a number of trailheads along the West Fork Road. Some of these provide short easy hikes while others take backpackers deep into the wilderness. We’re not listing every trail here so get a good map and a guide book to learn about them all. Here are some of the highlights beginning closest to Red Lodge and ending at the end of the road.
Silver Run Ski Trail (trail #102) – mile 4.4
The Silver Run Ski Trail (#102) is a National Recreation Trail that follows the West Fork with three possible loop trails. Depending on the loop you take the trails are 2.4, 4.4 and 5 miles in length. While this trail is very popular as a ski trail, it’s also great for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The trail is fairly flat with a total elevation change of about 500 ft on the longest loop.
The trailhead for the Silver Run Trail is easy to find. Take the West Fork road 4.4 miles from US 212 (the Beartooth Highway) to a left hand turn onto Silver Run Road. Cross the bridge over the creek and you will almost immediately arrive at the parking area. The trailhead is just a bit past the parking area on the Silver Run Road and also serves as the trailhead for the Silver Run Plateau Trail (trail # 64)
Basin Lakes Trail (trail #61) – mile 6.9
The Basin Lakes trailhead is almost opposite the Basin Campground about 7 miles from US 212 (the Beartooth Highway). The trail is a National Recreation Trail which helps to explain it’s popularity. The trail is so popular that it’s limited to hiking only except for horses which are allowed only during fall hunting season. It’s easy to find by following the West Fork road for about 6.9 miles from US 212.
The trailhead is at 6,900 ft and is great for day hikes to the two Basin Creek lakes which are within day hike range for most hikers. Lower Basin Lake is 2.5 miles from the trailhead while Upper Basin Lake is 4 miles. Upper Basin Lake sits at just under 9,000 ft making it about a 2,000 ft climb on the hike. Along the way hikers pass a spur trail to Basin Creek Falls after hiking just a half mile from the trailhead.
Both the Upper and Lower Basin Lakes can be fished for wild brook trout but most anglers stick to the upper lake which is deeper and has better habitat. The lower lake suffers from winter fish kills but fish drift down from above to restock the lake.
Timberline Trail (trail #12) – mile 8.3
The trailhead for the Timberline Trail is on the West Fork road 8.3 miles from the junction with US 212 (the Beartooth Highway). Sitting at 7,640 ft, the trail offers day hiking access to Lake Gertrude and Timberline Lake as well as a gateway to backpackers heading to the Silver Run Plateau.
Most hikers follow the trail to one or both of the lakes and return on the same path. From the trailhead at 7,600 ft the trail climbs steadily gaining almost 1,500 ft in three miles to the junctions with the Bear Track Trail (trail #8). At this junction people hiking to the lakes take the right hand fork and continue on for another mile to Lake Gertrude and another half mile to Timberline Lake. Both of these lakes are loaded with brook trout.
If you are backpacking take the Bear Track trail (trail #8) which will lead you to the Silver Run Plateau trail (trail #64) or down to the Bear Track trailhead on main Rock Creek. Here is the Timberline Trail Area Map provided by the Forest Service.
West Fork Trail (trail #1) – mile 13
The West Fork trailhead is the last stop on the West Fork Road. It’s 13 miles from US 212 (the Beartooth Highway) and 14 miles from downtown Red Lodge. to get there just follow the West Fork road until it ends in the parking area. There is no camping at the trailhead but the Cascade Campground is less than 3 miles away.
The West Fork trail climbs steadily but not too steeply for about 8 miles to Sundance Lake. Along the way it passes Sentinel Falls and Calamity Falls and the scenic Quinnebaugh Meadows. All of these make great destinations for day hikes and backpackers have lots of additional options. By setting up camp in Quinnebaugh Meadows, backpackers have the option of visiting Lake Mary, Crow Lake, Sundance Lake, Sundance Pass, and a number of other lakes that can only be reached by strenuous off-trail hiking.
Backpackers can also make a great multi-day trip by heading up the West Fork trail and over Sundance Pass. Here the trail becomes the Lake Fork trail (trail #2) and heads steadily downhill following Lake Fork of Rock Creek until hitting the trailhead on the Main Rock Creek road. Here is a map that shows the West Fork & Lake Fork trails.
What is a National Recreation Trail?
A National Recreation Trail is a trail that is recognized for providing recreation access to rural and urban communities, economic development through tourism, and healthy recreation opportunities. Each trail must demonstrate that it represents its region, supports a diverse community, and is among Americas best trails.
The National Trails System Act of 1968 authorized creation of a national system of trails including National Recreation Trails. National Recreation Trails may be designated by the Secretary of Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to recognize exemplary trails of local and regional significance.
There are three designated national Recreation Trails on the West Fork of Rock Creek. They are the Silver Run Ski Trail (trail #102), Wild Bill Lake Trail (trail #62) and the Basin Lakes Trail (trail #61)
West Fork Rock Creek Campgrounds
The Forest Service operates three campgrounds along the West Fork and there are many opportunities for dispersed camping. The campground closest to Red Lodge is the Palisades Campground which sits a few miles off the West Fork Road. Palisades has less development and has no camping fee.
The Basin Campground is right on the West Fork Road 7 miles from the junction with US 212 (the Beartooth Highway). Campsites at Basin have tables, fire rings, and bear-proof food storage with vault toilets and water located throughout the campground. Campsites at Basin Campground can be reserved in advance.
The Cascade Campground is on the West Fork road 10.3 miles from the junction with US 212 (the Beartooth Highway). The campground has campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. Many sites have bear-proof food storage but some sites share a cabinet. There is potable water and vault toilets. Like Basin, the Cascade Campground does accept online reservations.
If the campgrounds are full or closed for the season you can use one of the many dispersed camping sites that are scattered along the road. While these sites don’t have improvements, many are great campsites. You can learn about all of the camping opportunities in the area in our Complete Guide to Campgrounds and Camping on the Beartooth Highway.
Fishing the West Fork Rock Creek
The West Fork Rock Creek is a typical Montana mountain stream. It’s fast and rocky with crystal clear water except during spring runoff. The West Fork is home to thriving populations of wild brook and rainbow trout and the fly fishing can be excellent. However, the season is short because winter comes early lingers late along the West Fork.
The short season means that fish don’t have much of a growing season each year. Consequently, the fish are usually very aggressive feeders. They can’t be picky because they have to eat as much as they can ion a short season. This makes fly selection easy as almost any attractor pattern will be effective. While the short growing season makes for aggressive fish, it also means that smaller sized fish are the rule. Almost all fish are less than a foot in length and most are a few inches smaller.
If you plan to fish the West Fork be sure you have a Montana fishing license. The creek is generally shallow and rocky which makes wading difficult. Be sure you are well prepared to wade the fast water and slippery rocks.
The Cascade Fire of 2008
Forest fires occur frequently in the forested areas around Yellowstone Park. Although millions of acres have burned in the past 30 years, a lot of unburned forest is still at risk. Most years see fires in some part of the ecosystem and the West Fork drainage experienced a fire in 2008. Known as the Cascade Fire it burned about 10,200 acres.
The fire started on July 26, 2008 and grew steadily. It was mostly controlled by August 10 but it’s impacts were and are significant. Forest Service personnel estimated that 50% of the fire area burned intensely. There had been no significant fires in the area since 1906 creating a lot of fuel. Additionally, a significant wind storm in 2007 blew down many mature trees providing more fuel in some areas.
Today the forest is on it’s way to recovery. New trees cover the hillsides but the areas that burned are still very obvious. Despite the Cascade Fire having burned a portion of the West Fork there is still risk of additional fires. The Forest Service is well aware of the threat fire poses and they are working to involve the public as they work to develop plans for Managing Forest Lands near Red Lodge.