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On the southern fringes of the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, Painted Rocks State Park was officially established when the dam for Painted Rocks Lake was constructed. Painted Rocks get its name from a particular stretch of granite rock slab that’s perpetually covered by colorful lichens. The hues range from vivid green to yellow to orange. The valley in which the lake now rests was once used as a corridor for fur traders and trappers in the early 1800s, and before the arrival of white men, by the Salish Native Americans to travel to their hunting grounds.
The closest town is Darby, which is about 30 miles to the north. This small town of around 800 residents has a few restaurants, shops, and a couple of churches. However, for greater variety in dining options and shopping as well as access to emergency medical care, Hamilton, MT, is just under 50 miles to the north. Search for an RV in Ravalli County, MT, and prepare to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime RV camping trip.
Although Painted Rocks State Park is a smaller state park, with only 23 acres to its name, the neighboring lake, Painted Rocks Lake, is about 565 acres, and national forests also surround this state park. Fishing and boating on the lake against the backdrop of the rugged mountains is an idyllic experience. Boats ranging from small jet ski boats to foot-powered boats trundle up and down the length of the lake. Fishermen duck into quieter coves to cast flies into the water, seeking trophy-sized rainbow, bull, and cutthroat trout.
There are a handful of national forests that ring Painted Rocks State Park, and the two closest are Bitterroot National Forest and Salmon-Challis National Forest. Bitterroot National Forest is a sprawling 1.6 million acres of pristine wilderness. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and with so many options for adventurers to explore, it’s quite easy to achieve true quiet and solitude, particularly as one moves away from the more popular areas. It’s not uncommon to share the trails with a wide variety of wildlife, including elk, deer, black bear, and moose. Once virtually extinct from Montana, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and peregrine falcons were reintroduced in the 1980s and now sustain healthy populations. Look skyward. The falcons share the vast blue sky with bald eagles, ospreys, and other migratory birds and waterfowl.
When winter descends upon the region, bringing bitter cold and deep snow, the fun doesn’t stop. The trails are opened to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and even dogsledding. There are a few ski areas nearby. Lost Trail Ski Area (aka Lost Trail Powder Mountain) features 69 runs, eight lifts, and a snowboarding area. With an average annual snowfall of 325 inches, it’s a rare year that Lost Trail needs to supplement the snowpack with artificially made snow.
Skip the long commute from the closest hotel by renting a camper instead. RV camping at Painted Rocks State Park means more immediate access to the serene lake water at the crack of dawn. It grants you a better chance of seeing wild creatures emerge from the woods on a misty morning for a drink of water. It also means, far from the light pollution of towns and cities, astronomical bodies and celestial objects can be seen with the naked eye.
Painted Rocks State Park RV campground is a smaller one with only 25 sites. The campground operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the max length of vehicles is 25 feet. Though the lake is a mere few feet away from most sites, there is no running water or potable water. On the upside, there is a boat ramp for campers to use, and all sites have a fire ring or a grill, which is great for roasting s’ mores on a quiet evening. There is a bathroom with vault toilets, as well.
Should space run out, which does happen occasionally during the summer months, there are a few other options in the area. Just a few miles up the road, Rombo is an RV campground in Bitterroot National Forest. Although it is similarly a primitive campground, it has gravel sites and drinking water via faucets.
For more amenities, consider RV camping at Camp Sula in Sula, MT. Camp Sula is comparatively more luxurious because the camp offers full or partial hookups, a mini-golf course, and a fishing pond for new fishermen to learn the skill. There is also an on-site general store and restaurant.
Though the towns are small and far apart, they’re worth visiting on your way in or out of Painted Rocks State Park. The residents are friendly and welcoming, eager to swap news about wildlife sights or current events going on around the world. Many operate small museums and other curiosities that can serve as a good opportunity to stretch one’s legs after a long ride in an Airstream rental. In Hamilton, MT is the Daly Mansion. The original owner, Marcus Daly, may well have inspired the rags-to-riches fairy tale. He first got his start as a dirt-poor immigrant and slowly clawed his way up to attain the title of “copper magnate.” The Daly Mansion is one of the few examples of Colonial Georgian-Revival architecture in the west, and it is open to self-guided tours.
Hamilton frequently holds festivals and community events throughout the year. Of all the events, the Hardtimes Bluegrass Festival is a favorite for many locals and visitors. Held annually in April, the festival spotlights local and national bluegrass bands, including Kenny Stinson & Perfect Tym’n and Trinity River Band.
Darby Pioneer Memorial Museum is housed in one of the first - and original - log cabins built in Montana. Inside, many tools, artifacts, photographs, and maps used by the original settlers are on display, proudly sharing the area’s history and culture.