Painted Rocks State Park is truly a gem among the West Fork Valley of the Bitterroot Mountains, surrounded by beautiful, majestic pines and ample opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, and fishing.
Like many sites across Big Sky Country, it was previously home to an indigenous nation for millennia, prior to becoming a home to pioneering European settlers.
In this case, the Salish tribe and its ancestors roamed the land, possessing deep knowledge of the ins and outs of the fertile ground and waters.
However, by the early 1800s, the West Fork Valley area was rampant with fur traders and intrepid pioneers, providing the outsiders with opportunities to connect with members of the Salish tribe.
What’s with the name ‘Painted Rocks?’ This spot 24 miles south of Darby features yellow, green, and orange lichens on its huge granite and rhyolite cliffs, giving it the appearance of painted rock.
But beyond that, the area was frequently used as a hunting grounds for the Salish people, where they also gathered berries, trout, and of course, bitterroot used for pain relief and detoxification.
These days, you can still find countless wildlife near Painted Rocks State Park, from moose and bears to elk and bighorn sheep. Even more impressive are the bald eagles, blue herons, falcons, and sandpipers that fly over the grounds.
This state park is essentially a wildlife reserve with another name, a space to commune with nature and relax, away from the stresses of modern living.
Like camping? The park offers 25 first come, first serve campsites, so you’ll want to get some practice staking your tent! Keep in mind that Painted Rocks only offers two sites for larger RVs and trailers, but it makes up for the limited space with a beautiful dock, accessible boat launch, and stunning views.
Bring your kayak or canoe for even more fun on the water! Painted Rocks is open year-round, making it an ideal location for cross-country skiing and ice fishing, but we prefer to come in the autumn for the crisp, fall air.
Painted Rocks is one of the more remote state parks in the state, surrounded by mountains, trails, and numerous small towns waiting to share their unique native and pioneering history with you.
Whichever time of year you arrive, you’re sure to appreciate the opportunity to disconnect from your daily routine and take in the beauty of the Treasure State.
Painted Rocks State Park Stats
- Size: 23 acres
- Season: Year-round
- Hours: Dawn until dusk
- Nearest Body of Water: Painted Rocks Lake
- Number of Campsites: 25
- Number of Picnic Sites: 25
- Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Main Attractions at Painted Rocks State Park
Painted Rocks State Park feels like it’s nestled in between trees – because it is! But sometimes, you just want to get back into the fray and explore your surroundings.
Here are a few of our favorite nearby spots for those of you with itchy feet.
Bitterroot Fly Company
When we were looking for a high-quality fly fishing guide experience, we turned to Bitterroot Fly Company in Darby. Why are they at the top of our list? Maybe most importantly, they facilitate a true Big Sky Country experience.
Their outfitter is a third-generation Bitterroot Valley resident, providing the level of confidence and expertise we look for in fishing trips.
In other words, they’re super enthusiastic about fishing in a place that’s swimming with fish to catch! Offering full-day and half-day trip options for the Bitterroot River, as well as Clark Fork, Madison, and more, they offer plenty of opportunities to get your feet wet.
When we’re aiming for a solo experience or a small fishing group, Bitterroot Fly Company is our go-to for information on fishing licenses, rentals, water patterns, and up-to-date maps.
If you’re just looking for Montana-based gifts, their shop is also a go-to souvenir spot – a holistic Montana experience.
Once you’ve caught all the fish you can, visit the local tasting room Bandit Brewing Company to hydrate before another day on the water.
Darby Pioneer Memorial Museum
What’s not to love about historical artifacts from the past? The Darby Pioneer Memorial Museum has them in spades (We’re not historical geeks or anything!).
Here’s a fun fact: although it’s now a museum, the building was once one of the first hand-hewn homestead cabins in early pioneering Montana.
Originally owned by settler Evelin Matteson in 1886, the cabin was moved from its homestead spot to its current location. Given that historical touch, it’s a meta experience to enter this museum, knowing what it used to hold. You’ll have to visit it to see what we mean!
Our favorite part of the museum, though, is the photo of the cabin in its original location, as well as the early photographs of Darby from a not-so-distant past.
Darby also has a number of cute little parks to check out, Main Street Park, Waincrest Park, and even a skate park for the more adventurous. Nice ollie!
West Fork Mountain Crafts & Gallery
Head just a bit south to Connor, Montana for a real artistic treat: West Fork Mountain Crafts & Gallery. Of all the places for a local, handmade gift, this stop has got to be the biggest bang for your buck, all in one place.
They’ve got exquisite beadwork, leather work, paintings, jewelry, and more, created by the owner and other local artists.
Sometimes, West Fork even offers leather working classes, if you time it right. Unpretentious, quaint, bursting with creativity, and plenty of drinks available: we love this cozy spot.
You’ll know you’re there once you get to the tipi – you can’t miss it!
Old West Antiques and Candy Store
Last but not least, you don’t need to be a kid to visit the Old West Antiques and Candy Store.
Unlike West Fork, they focus on much more than crafts: Old West has delicious fudge, collectibles, nostalgic candies, and everything huckleberry you could possibly need (Check out their Huckleberry Starter Pack with lotion, lip balm, syrups, and more!).
Speaking of body care, we love their bath bombs, soaps, and body butter (hello, cedarwood!). Truly, there’s a gift for everyone at Old West Antiques and Candy Store – even you! But you can’t eat a bunch of candy – or can you?
Afterward, check out the cute, family-owned Montana Cafe for a delicious Honey Cured B.L.T. to eat along with your candy. Score!
Recreational Activities at Painted Rocks State Park
There’s plenty to do in the heart of the mountains, whether you’re at Painted Rocks State Park or in the surrounding areas. Let’s get into some of our favorite activities!
Hiking & Biking
There’s no lack of places to explore at and around Painted Rocks State Park! If you’re feeling adventurous, hike up Boulder Peak or Piquett Mountain in the Bitterroot Mountains, but another option is the Lake Como Loop Trail – more on that later!
All three spots are great for both hiking and biking, although if you’re looking for an intermediate biking route, we highly recommend Warm Springs Ridge. It’s one of the best biking trails in the area, and it’s certainly a challenge! Good luck!
Swimming & Fishing
We already mentioned Bitterroot Fly Company for their fishing guides and rental opportunities, but this area has plenty of spots to relax in the sun.
Check out Darby Bridge Fishing Access Site for rainbow trout, brown trout, and mountain whitefish, or head up to Slate Creek Bay Boating Site deep in the Bitterroot National Forest. We love that they also have a campground if you’re feeling adventurous!
But of course, the best spot to fish – since you’re already there – is Painted Rocks State Park: so many trout. You’re going to be swimming in trout!
As for swimming, Painted Rocks State Park is also recommended for a refreshing dip. Check out Little Boulder Bay and the Slate Creek Access on site.
Just know that you’re going to be sharing the water with plenty of fish, so don’t be surprised if you get a few dips at your toes!
Beyond the 25 first-come, first-serve sites available at Painted Rocks State Park, we’ve got a few recommendations for a place to rest your weary bones after all that biking and trout fishing!
First on the list is Little West Fork Campground, a remote but well-kept campground that ensures you’ll get that Montana experience. And when we say Montana experience, you know we mean primitive camping! Bonus points here for having the Old Nez Perce Indian Trail nearby!
But we also encourage you to check out Alta Campground, filled with ponderosa pines and right next to the beautiful West Fork of the Bitterroot River. Sites fill up quickly for this beautiful site, so act accordingly!
Lake Como Loop Trail – Length: 7.9 miles
It’s no secret we love waterfalls, so Lake Como has skimmed its way to the top of our list. And it’s also a really cool Choose Your Own Adventure experience: do the whole loop for about 8 miles or trek a 6-mile out and back on the north edge.
We recommend bringing a lunch to eat once you get to the waterfall, but don’t forget your sunscreen! And you should probably wear waterproof shoes, since you may be crossing over a stream or two (Don’t say we didn’t warn you!).
Bonus: the paved path is wheelchair accessible. This is a gorgeous loop, no matter which adventure you choose.
Baker Lake – Length: 2.6 miles
At an elevation of almost 850 feet, Baker Lake will replenish your spirit with wispy wildflowers, but it can get steep at some points. For that reason, we recommend this trail during the late summer months – July to September. You’re up for a real challenge if you visit Baker Lake in the wintertime. Feel free to edge even further towards Middle Lake or Gem Lake, but Baker Lake is a beauty on its own.
Darby Discovery Trail – Length: 1.5 miles
An easier hike, the Darby Discovery Trail is relatively short, especially compared to its friends on this list – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. In fact, Darby Discovery is great for biking for this exact reason!
Along this same vein, it’s incredibly kid-friendly. Might be the perfect time to pull out some of that nostalgic candy from Old West Antiques and Candy Store! Enjoy!