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 paddleboards 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 snowmelt. The stored water is released all summer to support irrigation, stock water, 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.
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 lakeshore. 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.
Whether 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 your eyes peeled to see what you might find.
Painted Rocks is a bird watcher’s 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.