Bitterroot River, Montana

Rebecca Hanlon
Last Updated: March 4th, 2023

Bitterroot River is a 135-kilometer river that flows south to north, starting from the intersection of West and East Forks near Conner, Montana. It then meanders north through the picturesque Bitterroot Valley on its way to Missoula, where it meets the Clark Fork River.

The river is home to a thriving school of bull and native Westslope cutthroat trout, making it Montana’s third most fly-fished river.

History of Bitterroot River

history of bitterroot river
Image: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

The Bitterroot River derived its name from the bitterroot plant, whose taproot was consumed by natives.

Before the European settlement, Salish people lived in the Bitterroot Valley and surrounding areas. They nicknamed the river Spet-lum, which translates to ‘Place of the bitterroot.’

In 1841, a Roman Catholic mission known as St. Mary’s Mission was set up on the river, where missionaries introduced farming activities in the area.

Father Ravalli trained the residents on how to irrigate crops and used the water from Burnt Fork Creek to construct the first grist mill in the area.

Since 1897, many dams have been constructed along the Bitterroot River.

Currently, there are over 26 dams, some of which are privately owned and operated, while others are Forest Service owned and operated. All these dams are mainly used for irrigation.

Geography & Stats of Bitterroot River

The Bitterroot River mainstream starts at the intersection of the West Fork Bitterroot River and East Fork Bitterroot River.

Bitterroot’s main tributaries are the Lolo Creek and Skalkaho Creek.

Lolo Creek is Bitterroot’s main tributary in the northern part. Due to irrigation and household water use, Lolo Creek is usually dry in late summer.

The Skalkaho Creek comes from the Sapphire Mountains and drains 340 km2, then joins the Bitterroot River again 45 km west-northwest.


The Bitterroot River is a great attraction in itself. However, there are other attractions along and near the river. These include:

Bitterroot Mountains

bitterroot mountains

The Bitterroot Mountains are a portion of the Rocky Mountains & Idaho Batholith and the largest part of the Bitterroot Range.

Formed over 200 million years ago, this expansive granite rock covers a total area of 12593 km². Its highest summit is called Trapper Peak, which is 3096 m.

The mountains border the Bitterroot River and Valley on the east, Lochsa and Selway Rivers on the west, Salmon River on the south, and Lolo Creek on the north.

Bitterroot Mountain is an excellent place worth visiting. It is suitable for adventurers as it has numerous forests, hills, streams, and grassland for exploration. Its rugged peaks are magnets for thousands of climbers and hikers.

Bitterroot Mountain offers a wide variety of recreational activities such as biking, mountain climbing, camping, wildlife viewing, hiking, and fishing. Most of the areas are public land, and you will not pay any charge for use and enjoyment.

Bitterroot National Forest

bitterroot national forest

The Bitterroot National Forest sits in east-central Idaho and west-central Montana. It is part of the Northern Rocky Mountains and sits on 1.6 million acres.

The forest has arid land with a mix of grasslands, ponderosa pine, and shrublands, where domestic livestock and wildlife share forage. The rangelands offer excellent wildlife viewing and animal grazing.

The Bitterroot National Forest managers use ecosystem management and principles of multiple usages to attain their goals. The management supports healthy, diverse ecosystems to provide valuable services to the people.

These include recreation, grazing, fisheries, wildlife, cultural resources, timber, and water.

This forest is home to alpine lakes, fast-running streams, and mountain reservoirs, providing anglers with great fishing spots.

More than fifteen campgrounds, over 1600 miles of hiking trails, and scenic bird-watching areas await any outdoor enthusiast willing to explore the Bitterroot Forest.

Bitterroot Valley

bitterroot valley

The Bitterroot Valley is situated along the Bitterroot River in southwestern Montana. It extends about 96 miles from Lost Trail Pass in Idaho.

This valley is nestled between mountains. Towards the east, there are the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area and Sapphire Mountains, and towards the west, there are Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area and the Bitterroot Range.

The Bitterroot Valley has various granite canyons on the west, including the scenic Bass Creek Canyon and Blodgett Canyon.

The northern end of the Bitterroot Valley is relatively flat and broad. It offers spectacular views of nearby towns, Bitterroot Mountains, Bitterroot River, and hayfields.

The southern end is narrow and has many trees and rock formations. The area is fertile at the bottom of the valley with a moderate climate, hence ideal for farming.




Bitterroot River is one of the most pristine fishing areas in Montana. The river provides numerous established fishing access sites, and it’s popularly known for dry fly trout fishing. The river’s West and East Forks offer 40 miles of incredible fly fishing.

More fishing sites are in the Blackfoot River, the Clark Fork River, and the Big Hole River.

The Painted Rocks Reservoir and Lake Como also offer great lake fishing. The main catches here include Brookies, Browns, Rainbows, Native Westslope Cutthroats, and Bull Trout.

Stop in one of the fly-fishing shops for guided fishing trips, license details, and advice about various fishing directions.

Hiking, climbing, and biking

The Bitterroot Valley offers terrific trails for backpacking and hiking enthusiasts. The Sapphire and Bitterroot Mountains have easy, moderate, and challenging trails like Lolo and the Lost Trail Passes.

The Baker Lake Trail is an out and back trail 2.5 miles long. It is a moderate route with many striking wildflowers, ideal for couples.

Trapper Peak is an excellent climbing place, especially for those who want a challenging route. The Trapper Creek Peak Trailhead has a steep elevation gain towards the summit; hence be well prepared.



The Bitterroot National Forest has over 25 campgrounds open throughout the year. The campsites are both public and privately owned, and every site varies in social amenities.

Some popular campgrounds include Crazy Creek Campground, Lake Como Campground, Slate Creek Campground, Paradise Campground, Indian Trees Campground, Twogood Campground, and Charles Waters Campground.

Boating and Canoeing

The Bitterroot River offers an excellent place for boat riding and canoeing right from Darby South to Missoula. Painted Rocks Reservoir and Lake Como are stunning spots for canoes, ski boats, fishing boats, and jet skis.


The Bitterroot Mountains have three designated biking trails with different difficulty levels and terrain. You can also enjoy biking at the Bitterroot Valley.

The valley has different trails, from rugged mountain trails to the Bitterroot Trail, a 50 miles route joining Missoula to Hamilton.

Wildlife Viewing and Hunting

Herds of mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, and elk, are plenty on the banks of the Bitterroot River. You’ll also spot wild ducks, heron, bald eagles, and osprey.

The back door of the Bitterroot Valley is the hunter’s paradise where you can catch big game.

Bitterroot River Facts

bitterroot river facts

  • The river is Montana’s third most fly-fished river after the Madison and Big Horn Rivers.
  • It’s a northward-flowing river.
  • The river’s watershed was created through the North America Plate’s upheaval when it slipped into and squeezed the Pacific Plate during the pre-Cambrian times.
  • The Salish people lived along the Bitterroot River before the European settlement.
  • The river is named after the bitterroot plant that grew along the river banks.
  • The river’s watershed drains 7,480 km2 in Missoula and Ravalli counties.
  • The Bitterroot River is popularly known for dry fly-fishing all year round.
  • The river has many tributaries along the way, including Lolo Creek and Skalkaho Creek.
  • Numerous wild animals live in the Bitterroot River’s aquatic and riparian habitats.
  • Many residents use the Bitterroot River water for irrigating their crops.


How deep is the Bitterroot River?

The Bitterroot River’s average depth is three feet. The actual depth varies from one point to another.

How long is the Bitterroot River?

The Bitterroot River has a length of 135 km (84 miles).

How wide is the Bitterroot River?

The Bitterroot River’s width changes as it meanders along the valley. The average width of this river is between 7-10 miles.

Where does Bitterroot River start?

The Bitterroot River starts at the junction of West Fork Bitterroot and the East Fork Bitterroot near Connor, Montana.

Where does Bitterroot River end?

The Bitterroot River ends in Missoula, where it drains into the Clark Fork River.

Which way does the Bitterroot River flow?

The Bitterroot River flows from the south to the north through Bitterroot Valley.

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About The Author

Rebecca Hanlon

Rebecca has been a travel blogger and editor for over 5 years, working with some of the biggest brands in industry. She’s taught English as a foreign language in 5 different countries, and her most fulfilling role was as a tour guide around some of Europe’s finest vineyards. She the one behind the social channels here at Discovering Montana, whilst also finding the time to perform an assistant editor role.

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