The largest National Forest in the state of Montana, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was originally established in 1908 as two separate regions that were merged together in 1996. It is located in Southwestern Montana and is home to several distinct mountain ranges.
Evergreen forests dominate the mountainous landscape of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. These forests are composed mostly of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, though you’ll also find spruce, juniper, and several types of19th-century deciduous trees peppered throughout.
Its protected status allows animal populations to thrive within its borders. Several species of large mammals live in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest including grizzly bears, cougars, and lynxes, and it’s even home to a small gray wolf community that migrated from Yellowstone after the wolf repopulation program.
Visitors to Beaverhead-Deerlodge can enjoy over 1,500 miles of hiking trails, 250 miles of snowmobile routes in the winter, and several opportunities for boating, swimming, and fishing within its many lakes and rivers.
Some activities – like hunting or backcountry camping – require a permit, so be sure to check the regulations in place within the forest in advance of your trip.
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Stats
- Size: 35 million acres
- Season: Year-Round
- Major Feature: Pioneer Mountains
- Campgrounds: 50+
Main Attractions in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest encompasses a region that was integral to the settlement of Montana, and there are many historic sites from this era that visitors can tour today.
From former outposts of the Forest Service to important landmarks from Lewis and Clark’s original early 19th-century survey, there’s a great deal of history tucked away within the forest.
Just outside of Dillon is Crystal Park, a day-use-only park with a naturally dense collection of quartz crystals. Though the clear and smoky varieties are most common, occasionally a visitor will find a purple one, more commonly known as amethyst.
There’s a $5 fee per car for the parking lot, but otherwise, visitors can tour the site freely during opening hours. There’s a picnic area, toilets, and water available onsite.
A prime remaining example of one of the many Civilian Conservation Corps sites built throughout the nation under FDR’s leadership, the Birch Creek CCC Campgrounds are open to visitors year-round.
Six of the original 15 buildings still stand, and the interiors of the Army Headquarters and the School Building are open to tour in the summer.
Spanning the border between Montana and Idaho, Lemhi Pass connects the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with the Salmon-Challis National Forest. It is part of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail, as their party passed through here in 1805. It is on both the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.
A scenic drive that connects the town of Wise River to the Grasshopper Creek Valley, the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway follows the river through the Mountains. You are welcome to simply drive the byway to admire the scenery, but the Forest Service has put together a tour you can follow that highlights the most important stops along it.
Nearly 160,000 acres of forests on either side of the Continental Divide, the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness is known for its huge population of mountain goats and high-elevation terrain that generally remains snow-covered until mid-July. There are a number of trails throughout the wilderness, though facilities at trailheads are often limited.
Of a total of four, three sections of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness lie within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest: the Spanish Peaks, Taylor Hilgard, and Monument Mountain acreages.
Much of the wilderness is at high elevations, so portions of it may be inaccessible in the winter despite the area being technically open year-round.
Stay Overnight in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The Forest Service maintains several cabins within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that visitors can rent by the night. Each one has different seasons: some are only available in the summer, while some make the perfect base camp for cross-country skiing in the winter.
Total, there are over 20 cabins available, but below you’ll find a sample of some of the best and most popular ones. You can check out the entire selection on the USDA’s website.
Hells Canyon Guard Station • $25/night
Originally used as an outpost for ranchers, the Hells Canyon Guard Station was donated to the Forest Service in 1910. It sits about 30 miles from Whitehall and now serves as a recreational cabin for up to four people. It has both a wood and propane stove, running water, and facilities for horses.
Birch Creek Cabin • $20/night
Deep within the Pioneer Mountains lies the Birch Creek Cabin, a former CCC camp outpost. Though there’s only running water available in the summer, it is nonetheless popular with cross country skiers in the wintertime. The property has an outhouse, and inside you’ll find a propane stove and electricity. There’s room for four to sleep in the loft.
Vigilante Cabin • $50/night
One of a handful of former guard stations on the property, the Vigilante Cabin is a three-room cabin that sleeps up to six people. Though the cabin is plumbed, water can only be used in the summer. For visitors in the fall, winter and spring, there’s an outhouse about 100 yards east of the cabin. The electricity – including the refrigerator – can be used year-round.
Stony Cabin • $20/night
Originally used by the Forest Service to accommodate traveling rangers, Stony Cabin is well over 100 years old. It doesn’t have running water, electricity, or garbage service, but there’s a campground across the road where you can access all of these amenities if need be.
Canyon Creek Cabin • $20/night
A one-room log shack formerly used by the Forest Service, Canyon Creek Cabin is open year-round, though it’s far easier to reach in the summer. In the winter, snow often prevents vehicles from traveling the last six or so miles down the road, so be prepared to hike in on skis or snowshoes, or be prepared with a snowmobile.
As it is the largest National Forest in Montana, there are over 50 campgrounds that range from just a few sites to several acres in size. While even last-minute travelers can usually find a campsite within the forest, be sure to double-check that your preferred locale has the amenities you need like water or room for an oversized trailer.
Keep in mind that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has a strict forest-wide Food Storage Order to protect campers from bear attacks, and bringing in firewood from outside the region is forbidden to prevent the spread of pathogens that affect trees.
Below you’ll find a sampling of campgrounds within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, but you can also check out the complete list of the over 50 campgrounds managed by the Forest Service.
Racetrack Campground and Picnic Area – Free • No Reservations
Easy to reach for car campers, Racetrack Campground is only 11 miles south of Deer Lodge off Interstate 90. It has camping for both tents and RVs, and drinking water is available. It’s located right by Racetrack Creek, a boon for any anglers in your party.
Madison River Campground – $15/night • Reservations Required
At nearly seven acres, Madison Campground is one of the largest in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. You’ll find it 34 miles south of Ennis just off Highway 287, and it has sites large enough to accommodate trailers and RVs up to 30 ft. The campground has toilets, running water, and garbage services available.
Wade Lake Campground and Picnic Areas – $15/night • Reservations Suggested
Because it is extremely popular, Wade Lake Campground saves half of their sites for walk-ins to dole out on a first-come, first-serve basis, while the other half must be reserved in advance. The facilities include toilets, drinking water, and space for trailers up to 30 ft. At the lake there is a boat ramp with an ADA accessible fishing area.
Copper Creek Campground – Free • No Reservations
Though it’s a quaint campground, every site at Copper Creek Campground has its own firepit. The grounds are located steps from Copper Creek, and there is potable water and vault toilets onsite.
Philipsburg Bay Campground – $15/night • Reservations Required
Right on the shores of Georgetown Lake in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, Philipsburg Bay Campground is perfect for boaters and water skiers, but will also please mountain bikers and hikers. While most of the 69 campsites are first-come, first-serve, there are a small handfull that can be reserved in advance during the summer. There is a $5 day-use fee if you don’t plan on staying the night.
Willow Campground – $8/night • No Reservations
Just off the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, the Willow Campground has sites for tents and trailers up to 20 ft. It’s located right by the Wise River, so anglers will have opportunities for fishing. Water and vault toilets are available in the summer.
Riverview Campground – $15/night • No Reservations
With 21 first come, first served campsites, Riverview Campground offers last-minute tent and RV campers well-appointed sites in a beautiful setting. Sites can handle trailers up to 30 ft, and water is available in the summer.
Reservoir Lake Campground and Picnic Area – $8/night • No Reservations
Reservoir Lake Campground and Picnic Area sits along its south shores, and has vault toilets, drinking water, and a boat ramp. The sites can be quite small, so the campground is best for car camping, or converted vans under 16 ft.
Activities in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
Rather than plan your own adventure excursion, you can put your trip planning in the hands of an experienced guide. Within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, there are licensed, local tour operators that can plan an outing for you.
Offering customized horseback rides, Wolfpack Outfitters specialised in trail rides inside the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. If you’re limited on time or aren’t an experienced enough trail rider, you can opt for one of their one-hour ranch rides instead of their multi-hour mountain treks.
The perfect place to pick up any gear you could possibly need for your fishing excursion, The Tackle Shop in Ennis also sells trail maps, permits, and fishing tours that you can book right in the shop. Packages range from half-day floats to multi-day fishing treks.
Trail Routes in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
Trails within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest aren’t strictly for hiking, as many of them can be used by visitors on horseback, mountain bikes, or even skis in the winter. The range in length and difficulty, and there are even a handful of ADA accessible paths available in the region.
In total, there are over a hundred designated hiking trails throughout the forest, but here is a selection of some of its most well-worn paths.
Once the site of a lookout tower, the peak of Haystack Mountain offers impressive views of the Boulder River Valley. From the beginning of the trailhead, it’s about a four-mile hike, though you’ll have to reach this point via an additional mile-long hike from Forest Road 1538.
A four-mile out-and-back route that culminates at a pristine Alpine lake, the Louise Lake Trail should suit any intermediate hiker. Though you can drive to the trailhead, don’t attempt the last two miles of the Forest Road without a 4×4 with a generous clearance.
Though the entire Continental Divide Trail extends from Mexico to Canada – about 3,100 miles total – day hikers can utilize much smaller portions of it for short excursions. This trail passes through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, with the portion between Raynolds Pass and Bison Mountain within its boundary.