Are you looking for an RV adventure off the beaten trail? If so, look no further than Painted Rocks State Park. Located 24 miles south of Darby, Montana, Painted Rocks State Park is situated along the southern shoreline of Painted Rocks Reservoir and features colorful rock formations, plenty of activities, and a campground suitable for RVs on the smaller side. The 24-acre state park was created in 1963 and is within the West Fork Valley of the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. Painted Rocks State Park was named after the colorful lichens of yellow, orange, and green, which drape the black and grey granite and rhyolite cliffs.
The surrounding area of Painted Rocks State Park was once the original homeland of the Salish Indian Tribe. The Salish tribe revered the area for its plentiful food that includes numerous berries, fish, and animals to hunt. They first encountered fur trappers in the early 1800s, and by 1820, the West Fork of the Bitterroot was a significant corridor for both European and American fur trappers.
Today, Painted Rocks State Park offers plenty of activities within a rugged landscape. Activities include hiking, biking, fishing, and watersports. Wintertime also brings things to do in Painted Rocks State Park like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. The primitive campground is pack-in/pack-out with no services available for RVs or motorhomes. The campground can only support RVs 25 feet in length or smaller, so keep this in consideration before you plan your journey.
Weather at Painted Rocks State Park in the summer has temperatures in the 70s to mid-80s with minimal rainfall. Wintertime temperatures are in the mid-20s, along with plenty of snowfall. Peak season at Painted Rocks State Park runs from April until September.
Painted Rocks State Park will be one of the more challenging state parks that you will have to drive to during your time RVing within the United States. There are quite a few different ways to get to Painted Rocks State Park from Montana State Route, with the most popular being by taking the West Fork Road. Traveling south from Darby is a challenging drive through rugged mountains and narrow roads. Along this drive, you will encounter plenty of hairpin turns and numerous curves that follow the banks of the river. If your rig is on the larger side and you are traveling at a slow speed, you should use turnouts when possible to allow for steady traffic flow. Once you arrive at Painted Rocks Reservoir, just north of the park entrance, you will encounter two hairpin turns that are also challenging to navigate.
The area is quite remote, and there are no major towns or cities within a close drive, so you must come prepared for this trip. You will need to haul in all of your water since there is no potable water available at the park, so it is best to get your supplies when you are closer to a town. Darby is the closest town to the park at around 24 miles to the north and the perfect place to get supplies.
When you arrive in the park, you will find more comfortable driving conditions. There is one somewhat narrow road, and caution should be used while driving on this road. You may find congestion in the park around the boat ramp and campground area if you are visiting during the weekends in the summertime, but besides these times, the park is not usually too busy. There will be plenty of parking if you just plan to visit for the day, but most travelers will opt to stay the night since this park is quite remote.
Camping at Painted Rocks State Park is made possible by one campground that is located within the park. This campground features two small loops and 25 primitive campsites; the campground offers campsites with shade from trees and privacy from others who are staying next to you. Please note that Painted Rocks State Park Campground is a primitive campground that follows the pack-in/pack-out rules as there is no garbage service. There are no services available for RVs, and vehicles are limited to 25 feet in length. There are some amenities at each campsite, including a fire ring, picnic table, and a gravel parking pad, which may require leveling. There are no showers, but there are vault toilets.
You are encouraged to fill your water tank and empty your holding tank before arriving at your campsite. The nearest dump station is located in Darby, which is 24 miles to the north. There is no potable water on-site. Generators may be used from 8 AM until 9 PM. Pets must be restrained at all times by a six-foot leash, and all sites operated on a first-come, first-served basis only.
RVers should pack their binoculars and make the most of some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities available within the Montana state parks. The Bitterroot Mountains provide excellent rugged terrain for wildlife to survive in peace, which means that there are plenty of local creatures wandering around. While sitting next to the reservoir, you can expect to spot a variety of wildlife in the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains. Wildlife sightings include bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, black bear, and plenty of birds. Bird species you can see include osprey, blue heron, golden eagles, plenty of ducks, and Canadian geese.
Wintertime at Painted Rocks State Park is loaded with fun for visitors of all ages. For the kids and those who are kids at heart, there are some great opportunities for sledding down one of the park's nearby hills. Cross-country skiing is also popular among the park’s roads throughout the campground. Snowshoeing is the easiest form of wintertime fun at the park. Snowshoers will find trekking around the reservoir perfect with a marked trail that circles the lake. The winter solace at the reservoir is ideal for peace and quiet, so if you plan to visit during this time, remember to pack your snow gear!
Hiking is popular at Painted Rocks State Park due to the gorgeous surroundings. There are plenty of shorelines to explore around the reservoir, and the park is packed with easy to moderate hiking that is suitable for people of all ages and skill levels. As you hike around the lake, you can take a picnic lunch and stop at a secluded cove for a bite to eat and relaxation. Other hikes starting at the park will take you into the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, which offer moderate to difficult trails that will take you to elevations of more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
If you love to fish, you will be excited to hear that fishing is a very popular activity on Painted Rocks Lake. Fishing at the park can be done all year-round from the shoreline or by boat. Once you dip your line in the lake, you can expect to catch a variety of fish, including west slope cutthroat trout, brown and rainbow trout, brook and bull trout, and mountain whitefish. Trolling is also allowed, and fly fishing can bring in a big fish during the early spring.
Boating, kayaking, and canoeing are popular watersports at Painted Rocks State Park. There is a convenient boat ramp connected to the campground that you are free to use during your visit. The ramp is suitable for boats of all shapes and sizes. While out on the reservoir you will be surprised at the wonderful scenery and colorful lichen-draped rocks that give the reservoir its name. Before you launch your watercraft, check with the Montana boating regulations for licensing and size limits. Water levels can be low after August 1st due to irrigation and public water use of the reservoir.
Biking at the park is perfect for families looking to get in a little exercise while enjoying their time relaxing at Painted Rocks State Park. The road through the park offers easy peddling with plenty of places to stop and enjoy the scenery. Other biking options include starting at the park entrance and following a portion of Route 473 to the northern part of the reservoir where you will be rewarded with incredible vistas of the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains. You will need to bring your own bike as none are available for rent from the park.
While there are no reservable picnic areas within Painted Rocks State Park, there are plenty of great areas suitable for a picnic. Our pick of the 23 acres that make up Painted Rocks State Park would be to throw down a picnic blanket near the lake and watch the sunset over the gorgeous mountains. If you have any food that you would like to cook (maybe a fresh catch of fish if you are lucky), you could use the grills in the campground before your picnic, so you have some fresh food to enjoy.
For RV travelers who are looking to learn more about the surrounding area, there is a great little museum that is well worth checking out. Located within the town of Darby, the Darby Pioneer Memorial Museum features one of the original homestead cabins that was first built in the area. Dating back to 1886, the cabin was relocated to its present location in the late 1950s and is now home to many photos and historical artifacts from the days gone by. The museum is open during the summertime, and no appointment is necessary if you would like to visit.