Time to explore Red Rock Lakes and the Centennial Valley


A rainbow dresses the landscape looking west from the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.   Photo courtesy of Rick and Susie Graetz


From  a cluster of old buildings just off Interstate 15 at Monida Pass, a dirt road winds its way through dry, windswept hills before easing down into southwest Montana’s high and remote Centennial Valley.

If it weren’t for one of the gems of the National Wildlife Refuge system – Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge – very few travelers would make their way through this nearly 40-mile-long valley.

Cattlemen first ventured into the place in 1876, establishing what are now some of the oldest ranches in the state. In the 1880s, determined Yellowstone National Park tourists coming from Salt Lake City traveled by train to Monida and then endured a two-day stagecoach trip through the valley to the park. It was necessary to overnight at Lakeview, now the headquarters for the refuge.

During the Homestead Era of the early 1900s, Lakeview and the surrounding area were home to almost 400 people. The town had stores, saloons and a hotel. The drought years and Great Depression, coupled with the struggle against tough winters, ended the hopes of most of the population. Many of the homesteads were bought out as land was acquired for the wildlife reserve.

The landscape and most of the activities of this 6,600-foot-high, broad and flat basin haven’t changed much in the past century. Multigenerational ranches still carry out the business of raising livestock in a beautiful setting. And wildlife is protected and abounds. Today the Nature Conservancy of Montana and other like-minded groups work with locals to see that ranching remains a viable lifestyle for their heirs and to protect the rural integrity of the valley through conservation easements.

Peaks of the 10,000-foot Centennial Mountains and the Continental Divide rise abruptly on the valley’s southern flank. The 9,000- and 10,000-foot summits of the Gravelly and Snowcrest ranges guard the drainage’s north side. The most distant tributary of the Missouri River, Red Rock Creek, gathers waters from smaller streams, then enters Upper and Lower Red Rock lakes before flowing out as Red Rock River on its way through the Lima and Clark Canyon reservoirs to the Beaverhead River.

Marshes, meadows, a creek, sand hills and the two lakes make up the almost 51,000-acre Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, of which 32,350 acres are designated wilderness. In the 1930s, the 66 trumpeter swans living here were thought to be the last of their breed. This almost extinct population led to the creation of the refuge. Now about 165 trumpeters, including 25 nesting pairs, abide in the wetlands in the summer. At one time about 25 stayed through the winter in the warm open-water springs created by geothermal activity, but now very few, if any, spend the cold season. With onset of the snow and ice, most settle in on the Snake River Plain.

Myriad other wildlife species call this wondrous valley home. Moose, mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, 260 species of birds, lynx, moose, grizzlies, black bear and wolves roam the country. The riparian areas and sagebrush covered flats and hills provide habitat for the densest breeding population of peregrine falcons and ferruginous hawks in Montana. Grayling and cutthroat trout live in Red Rock Creek.

Sand hills found on the northern perimeter of the refuge are remains of the floor of a glacial lake that once occupied the valley. Winds from the southwest and west blew the sand into hilly formations. The breezes also carried seeds with them, and now plants found nowhere else in Montana grow in the sandy soil.

June and August are best for observing the greatest diversity of wildlife. July usually has mosquito and biting fly problems. May can be excellent as birds are returning, but the weather may be cold and the land muddy. Early fall is also a pleasant time to explore the region, but from late November to the first part of April, the valley roads are usually blocked by snow.

Aside from the Monida access, a route from the Henry’s Lake area (west of West Yellowstone) over the 7,000-foot Red Rock Pass also is usable. Be sure to fill your gas tank before heading into the Centennial Valley as services are not available.

At this time there aren’t any public accommodations or eateries in the valley. Two public campgrounds are provided, one on each lake of the refuge.

Be sure to stop at the Refuge office, open weekdays, to see the swan display and other interpretive features. Call (406) 276-3536 or visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/red_rock_lakes/ for more information. 


Rick and Susie Graetz work in the Department of Geography at the University of Montana.



How much time do you spend using a computer or smart phone during a typical day?