Founded in 1898 and encompassing the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains, the Bitterroot National Forest is a federally protected region that is mostly located in western Montana but extends into eastern Idaho.
It is home to three distinct wilderness areas where virtually any development is prohibited, as well as several recreation areas, campgrounds, and trails.
The terrain in the region is predominantly mountainous, but grasslands proliferate lower elevations, many of them leased to private ranchers for stock. But as the hills climb into mountain peaks, the landscape is taken over by several species of evergreen trees, mostly Lodgepole Pine and Douglas Fir.
The forest is home to some of the densest animal populations in the region outside of Yellowstone, including even some great mammals like black bears, mountain goats, white-tailed deer, and even a small grizzly bear community. Though hunting is allowed, seasons are highly regulated by season and limited to only certain species.
This natural landscape lends itself to a myriad of activities, from hiking to horseback riding to Alpine skiing. If you’re at all a fan of the great outdoors, you’re sure to find something to entice you to visit the Bitterroot National Forest.
Bitterroot National Forest Stats
- Size: 587 million acres (642,236 ha)
- Season: Year-Round
- Major Feature: Bitterroot Mountains
- Campgrounds: 20+
Main Attractions in Bitterroot National Forest
While visitors frequent most corners of the Bitterroot National Forest, there are some regions and sights within it that attract more visitors than others. If it’s your first time there, you may want to keep some of these popular features and attractions on your radar when planning your excursion.
Carved into the eastern foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains, the glacially carved Bitterroot Canyon begins near the Idaho Montana border, continues through Blodgett Lake and along Blodgett Creek to the Bitterroot Valley.
Outdoor enthusiasts of all types visit the canyon for hiking, fishing, and horseback riding, but climbers in particular frequent the region. There are several excellent opportunities for rock climbing throughout the canyon, but the south face of Flathead Buttress is legendary for its nearly 1200 ft climb.
Partially contained within the Bitterroot National Forest, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness straddles the Idaho/Montana border. Dominated by tall granite peaks and surrounded by dense evergreen forests, it’s one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the United States.
The highest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains, Trapper Peak is over 10,000 feet tall. You can climb it via the Trapper Peak trail, an 8-mile climb up its eastern face beginning from Troy Creek Road
Historic Darby Ranger Station Visitor’s Center and Museum
Between May and October, the Friends of Darby Historical Center operates a small but mighty museum in the now restored former home of the Darby Ranger Station. The museum also serves as a visitors center where you can find maps, permits, and information about the surrounding wilderness and forests.
The Discover Bitterroot Store
In the lobby of the Forest Service office in Hamilton is the Discover Bitterroot Store where you can find educational books, maps, and even stuffed animals of local Montanan fauna. All the proceeds from the store benefit conservation efforts in the area.
Stay Overnight in the Bitterroot National Forest
The Forest Service maintains several cabins within the Bitterroot National Forest that can be reserved by contacting the nearest ranger station. They generally take reservations a week or two in advance, and fees range from $30 to $100 a night.
Gird Point Lookout • $30/night
11 miles east of Hamilton is the Gird Point Lookout, a historic viewpoint cabin surrounded by the Pintler, Sapphire, and Anaconda mountains. Although there’s no electricity or running water, propane is provided for cooking and lighting.
Wood’s Cabin • $100/night
With three bedrooms and a huge common space large enough for 15 people, this historic cabin on the north shore of Lake Como is perfect for a group outing. The cabin has two wood stoves and a woodshed stocked with firewood for guests to use.
East Fork Cabin • $50/night
Originally used as a guard station as far back as 1914, the East Fork Cabin is just near the east fork of the Bitterroot River. Though it’s a small, one-room cabin, it sleeps up to eight people. Anglers especially love the location, as the region is renowned for its excellent fishing.
McCart Lookout • $30/night
Set atop McCart Peak, just east of Sula, McCart Lookout is a one-room cabin that sleeps eight people. Sandwiched between the Pintler and Bitterroot mountain ranges near McCart Peak, the cabin has electricity, a stove stocked with propane, and an outdoor picnic area.
Medicine Point Lookout • $30/night
Between the east and west forks of the Bitterroot River just west of Sula is the Medicine Point Lookout. Formerly used for forest fire watch, this one-room cabin sleeps four and has both a wood and a propane stove, though you’ll have to pack in your own water.
Twogood Cabin • $30/night
Located a mile down Porcupine Creek off the Warm Springs Creek Trail, Twogood Cabin is a former range line cabin that has been converted to accept visiting hikers. The cabin sleeps up to eight people and has both a wood and a propane stove, though you’ll have to provide your own propane. Water can be sourced from the nearby Porcupine Creek, though you’ll have to treat it before you drink it.
Magruder Ranger’s House • $100/night
A former ranger station on the Selway River, the Magruder Ranger’s House is a two-story, five-room cabin that sleeps up to six people. The Forest Service provides propane and wood for the stoves and there is running water that services an indoor bathroom with a shower. The road leading directly to the cabin is drivable, so it’s a great option for those who don’t care to hike in.
While the park is open to the public year-round, campground season generally runs from Memorial Day until Labor Day, with some sites open until fall for hunting season. The Forest Service allows dispersed camping as long as you follow the rules they prescribe.
Below you’ll find a sampling of campgrounds within the Bitterroot National Forest, but you can also check out the complete list of campgrounds managed by the Forest Service.
Alta Campground – $15/night • Reservations Required
On the west fork of the Bitterroot River, five miles from Painted Rocks Lake, Alta Campground has sites suitable for tents and RVs with potable water, vault toilets, and picnic areas.
Deep Creek Campground – Free • No Reservation Required
Though it’s just a small campground with only 3 campsites, Deep Creek Campground has excellent fishing and room for RVs up to 30 ft.
Indian Creek Campground – Free • No Reservation Required
Though there are only two campsites available, Indian Creek Campground is free and has hitch sites for horses. The sites can accommodate trailers up to 25 ft.
Sam Billings Memorial Campground – Free • No Reservation Required
Total, Sam Billings Memorial Campground has 12 campsites, but one of them is massive with room for 20-50 people. The campground has a few vault toilets but no running water.
Warm Springs Campground – $12/night • No Reservations Required
A large campsite known for its cutthroat trout fishing, Warm Springs campground has both individual and group sites and picnic areas fitted with fire rings.
Charles Waters Campground – $15/night • No Reservation Required
With 26 campsites to accommodate visitors with cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and even on horseback, the Charles Waters Campground is a fully-equipped facility in the Bass Creek Recreation Area. A site host is available from Memorial Day until Labor Day.
Lake Como Campground – $25/night • No Reservations Required
Also called Lower Como, Lake Como Campground has both tent camping sites and full hook-ups for RVs. Facilities include running water, electricity, picnic areas with fire rings, and access to a sandy beach and boat ramp on the lake. Three sites are fully handicapped accessible.
Rock Creek Horse Camp – $12/night • no reservations required
Suitable for small trailers, Rock Creek Horse Camp is on the northern end of Lake Como and is perfect for those bringing a horse. Some trails stem directly from the campsite for horseback riding, and it has facilities for stock like hitch rails and feed bunks.
Activities in Bitterroot National Forest
Because of its diverse geological and natural landscape, the Bitterroot National Forest is a prime location for rafting, fishing, hiking, and more. Rather than source all your own gear and plan your own routes, you can hire an experienced, local guide to plan an adventure excursion for you.
Lost Trail Ski Area
Family-owned and operated since it opened in 1938, Lost Trail Ski Area is a Montanan local favorite. They operate within the Bitterroot National Forest via a use permit issued to them by the Forest Service, and its prime location near the Montana/Idaho border on the Continental Divide gives them notoriously great snow.
Bitterroot Adventures is an adventure tourism outfit that specializes in ATVs and snowmobiles. They offer both guided tours and rentals during the winter months.
Bitterroot River Rafting Adventures
If you’re looking for a leisurely river float or fly fishing excursion, you can book a guided tour with Bitterroot River Rafting Adventures. They can arrange trips for singles up to larger groups.
Montana Hunting Fishing Adventures
Offering hunting and fishing tours, Montana Hunting Fishing Adventures has trips as short as a day up to their week-long comprehensive Fishing Guide School.
Trail Routes in Bitterroot National Forest
The trails of Bitterroot National Forest range in difficulty and length, and although they are technically open to traverse year-round, many of them may become impassible or difficult to navigate in the winter due to snow. At higher elevations, snow can remain well into summer, though they are usually clear by the middle of July.
In total, there are over a hundred designated hiking trails throughout the forest, but here is a selection of some of the forest’s most popular paths.
This nine-mile trail begins near Darby off of Forest Road #5638 and connects to the State Line Trail that runs along the Montana/Idaho border. It’s a popular trail for horseback riding as the trailhead has plenty of parking for trailers.
Running Creek Trail
This trail is about 9 miles long, winding through the forests outside Darby. It ends at the Running Creek Ranch where you can reserve a lodge for the night to recharge for the hike back.
Holloway Lake Trail
This trail begins at the end of Sweeney Creek Road and continues to Holloway Lake. Visitors can traverse the trail on foot, on horseback, or by motorcycle.