Cooney State Park is one of the most popular state parks in southern Montana, with some of the best recreational offerings in the whole state.
People flock to the park to enjoy the water, and with its excellent camping options, to stay overnight. Its proximity to Billings ensures it is usually packed with people in the summer, proving particularly popular with families.
Cooney State Park Stats
- Cooney State Park covers a space of 309 acres (125 ha) on three sides of the reservoir.
- The park has an elevation 4,252 feet.
- Cooney Reservoir is a 1,078-acre (436 ha) impoundment of Red Lodge Creek, which was completed in 1937.
- The park was established as a State Park in 1970.
- Cooney State Park is open year-round.
- It is almost 50 miles from Billings.
- The park receives approximately 150,000 visitors a year.
Cooney Reservoir occupies an enormous 1,078 acres of space: Cooney State Park is just the land that surrounds it.
It was originally formed after the construction of the Cooney Dam in 1937 across Red Lodge Creek. The initial purpose of the dam and reservoir was to control flooding and to create an important resource for irrigation in Carbon County.
The reservoir still does serve this purpose, but over time it grew into a popular destination for recreational activities. With Billings less than an hour away, Cooney Reservoir makes the perfect escape in the summer. Visitors flood in from the city to cool off in the water and spend some quality time with their families.
Built in 1937 for irrigation purposes by the State of Montana, the Cooney Dam transformed the waterways of the area.
The dam impounds Red Lodge Creek, creating a reservoir for water storage. It is an earthen dam named for governor Frank Cooney.
The original dam had a height of 97 feet and a length of 2260 feet, impounding 24,200 acre-feet of water. In 1971, it was discovered that a third of the reservoir had silted in, severely limiting its storage capacity. A decade later, the dam was raised to 102 feet, and the active storage capacity increased to 28,230 acre-feet.
The water levels fluctuate greatly depending on the time of year. It hits peak capacity in the spring due to mountain runoff.
The dam is under the ownership of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Marshall Cove, North Shore, Cottonwood, Fishermans Point, and Red Lodge are the five campgrounds in Cooney State Park.
Of these five, Marshall Cove and Red Lodge are the largest, with the most facilities – they’re the only two campgrounds with available drinking water. At Red Lodge campground you will find a children’s playground, electrical hookups, and picnic tables. Marshall Cove has showers and is close to the park headquarters, but does not allow pets.
All the campgrounds are ideal for trailers and RVs, but can be a little limiting for those camping in tents. Available drinking water and showers make Marshall Cove the best option for campers with tents.
You can enjoy spectacular views from each of the campgrounds, and spend your vacation in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere.
Cast out a line from the shore or by boat – Cooney Reservoir is famous locally for its fishing pedigree. It’s an especially worthwhile venture if you’re hoping to catch some sizable walleye; this is one of the best lakes in the whole of Montana for the fish.
The brightly colored yellow perch are another angler’s favorite often found in the lake. Rainbow trout round out the main offerings found in Cooney Reservoir.
The lake boasts mountain whitefish, brown trout and longnose sucker in lesser numbers. There are many points for anglers to access the lake, but fishing by boat is the most common.
Cooney State Park isn’t limited to the summer months; it’s open for fishing all year round. Even when the water has frozen over, anglers still fish in the reservoir. It is an excellent destination for ice fishing.
Boating is so popular on Cooney Reservoir that three of the main campgrounds have their own boat launch.
Marshall Cove and North Shore tend to attract a larger concentration of boat users, while Red Lodge is a bit quieter. In the summer the water can get very busy, but the restriction in parking spaces prevents it from ever getting overcrowded.
There are over 80 campsites spread across five campgrounds in Cooney State Park. These are usually better suited to RVs than tents, with electrical hookups in the Marshall Cove and Red Lodge campgrounds. Camping with tents is still an option, it’s just less common.
The facilities available at Cooney State Park are ideal for camping. They’re very family and pet-friendly (except for Marshall Cove campground, which does not allow pets), they have flush toilets – which are open from May until September – as well as picnic areas and fire pits.
The views over the water and distant mountains are also pretty spectacular. You can really enjoy the great outdoors of Montana when camping, while the campground’s facilities make your life a little easier than being out in the wilderness.
Anyone camping is able to stay 14 days in any 30 day period.
In the summer months, Cooney State Park is packed with people taking to the water. There will be people out trying their luck fishing, people on jet skis and swimming.
You can try all manner of watersports in the park. Canoeing and kayaking are always popular, while slightly more adventurous sports like water skiing and riding a jet ski are also allowed on the lake.
Southern Montana is generally a fantastic place for an avid bird watcher. At Cooney State Park, you may be able to spot American kestrels, sandhill cranes and bald eagles, depending on the time of year.
You can expect to see a great variety of birds during your visit. There have been over 100 different species of birds documented in the park. The migratory species are especially interesting – at certain times of the year, you can even see the likes of pelicans.
Hiking inevitably takes a bit of a backseat when a large body of water is the main attraction, but the gorgeous views around Cooney State Park ensure that this is still a popular activity.
You can follow the shore of the reservoir for some lengthy out and back trails. One of the most popular is a relatively short walk hiking the earthen Cooney Dam. The reservoir is pretty big, but if you’re feeling up to it and are in fairly good shape, you could hike around the entire reservoir.
It’s worth the extra exertion to enjoy all angles of the Beartooth Mountains. Hiking in winter is particularly scenic when the lake freezes over and the mountains are topped with snow. Even if it is bitterly cold!
At only 0.9 miles long, this trail is more of a stretch of the legs than a hike. It’s a simple out and back route that runs along the historic Cooney Dam.
This is a very easy-going route, with no inclines to climb or uneven ground to navigate. It’s ideal for all skill levels and suitable for families – providing children are kept away from the water, of course.
The Cooney Dam trail is short but sweet, with sweeping views over the reservoir and surrounding mountains.