The Bitterroot Valley

The Bitterroot Valley

We heard that the Bitterroot Valley was a very pretty place in Montana. I have wanted to visit it for a very long time. There is so much more to the story. Yes, the Bitterroot Valley is very pretty.

Log pond on Bass Creek
Log pond on Bass Creek

We spent ten wonder-filled days in a tiny campground on the edge of the Bitterroot Valley. So for ten days we explored and played in the valley and honestly, we didn’t spend enough time there. To really get the full experience it may take all summer.

At the bottom of a lake

Like my story about Lake Gosiute which I explained in my previous post (Across Wyoming), Ice Age lakes covered much of the west. Lake Gosiute covered much of Wyoming. Lake Bonneville covered much of Utah and Lake Missoula covered much of western Montana. The Bitterroot Valley was at the bottom of Lake Missoula.

National Park Service Map of Glacial Lake Missoula. The Bitterroot Valley is the arm south of Missoula.
National Park Service Map of Glacial Lake Missoula. The Bitterroot Valley is the arm south of Missoula.

Lake Missoula

Lake Missoula was caused by an ice dam (Ice Age Glacier from Canada) that blocked the Clark Fork (of the Columbia River) and backed up water covering all of western Montana’s mountain valleys. The lake was huge.  It was the size of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. At times the ice dam was 2500 feet tall.

Notice the horizontal lines going across the mountain in Missoula. These lines are at the edge of Glacier Lake Missoula.
Notice the (very faint) horizontal lines going across the mountain in Missoula (not the trail going to the “M). These lines are evidence of the edge of Glacier Lake Missoula.

One of the interesting things about Lake Missoula is that it covered all the low-lying areas west of the continental divide in Montana. Therefore the shape of the lake was very irregular with the valleys covered and the mountain peaks remaining islands. Unlike Lake Bonneville, Lake Missoula at more than 2000 feet deep, was very deep.

The big flood

Eventually, as the Ice Age ended, the glaciers receded back into Canada. Lake Missoula broke through the dam flooding towards the Pacific Ocean. Given that so much water was behind the dam the flood was tremendous. As water poured through the breached dam the gap grew and the water volume increased to epic proportions. No flood in our lifetime equals this flood. It would be as if Lake Michigan drained into the Mississippi River, all in one day. As the dam broke, the estimates are that the wall of water may have exceeded 1000 feet.

Setting up our campsite at Bass Creek Recreation Area west of the Bitterroot Valley.
Setting up our campsite at Bass Creek Recreation Area west of the Bitterroot Valley.

This flooded nearby Glacial Lake Spokane and then all of eastern Washington. As the flood moved westward it flooded the Columbia River basin and completely filled the Willamette Valley in Oregon before continuing to the ocean. Actually, the process recurred more than forty times, give or take, all we have to go by is the geology.

The valley at the bottom

The reason that the Bitterroot Valley (and all the valleys at the bottom of Lake Missoula) is so flat is that it was at the bottom of the lake. Now the Bitterroot River runs northbound through the valley and has outstanding trout fishing. The farms along the valley are beautiful. When Lewis and Clark followed the valley northbound they recorded that it was covered by sagebrush.

Bass Creek west of the Bitterroot Valley
Bass Creek west of the Bitterroot Valley

The Bitterroot Valley is 95 miles long and runs from south of the small town of Sula at the south end to Lolo at the north end. The valley is sandwiched between the Saphire Mountian range on the east side and the Bitterroot Range on the west side. Sometimes it is called the Hamilton Valley due to the name of the largest town.

Lewis and Clark

So many places we have gone, Lewis and Clark have explored. Same for the Bitterroot Valley. At Lolo, they set up what they called Traveler’s Rest, and just before exiting the valley westbound. We stayed at an RV park just to the west of their camp.

This meadow was at our campground west of the Bitterroot Valley.
This meadow was at our campground west of the Bitterroot Valley. Travelers Rest probably looked much like this when Lewis and Clark camped there.

Lewis and Clark stopped at the Bitterroot twice, once westbound and then again as they returned to the east. The Bitterroot Mountains to the east were described by Sargent Patrick Gass of the Lewis and Clark journey of discovery. He called the Bitterroot Mountains ” the most terrible mountains I ever beheld”. Just as Lewis and Clark did (they walked, we did not) we followed their path westbound across Lolo Pass and to Washington on the west side. That however is a different story. I will get to it soon.

Missoula

Our campground in the Bitterroot Valley is an easy drive to Missoula and we did that several times. Usually, our mission was to attend the weekly farmer’s market and street fair. We did this on a previous visit ( here is a link, Montana Remote) later in the season and found the offerings better than any other farmer’s market we had ever seen.

The giant tent and food trucks at the street fair.
The giant tent and food trucks at the street fair.

This time we were there too early in the growing season so the vegetables were not as spectacular but the street fair was in full swing. The best part of it was the food trucks all lined up around the huge covered patio.

The downtown "street" fair in Missoula. This section was at the park along the river.
The downtown “street” fair in Missoula. This section was at the park along the river.

Sadly, another treat for us in Missoula apparently didn’t survive the Covid shutdown. Even though we mentioned them in the Montana Remote post Tia’s Big Sky (Tia’s Tacos)was closed permanently.

Pretty good lunch from a food truck at the street fair.
Pretty good lunch from a food truck at the street fair.

Bass Creek

To explore the Bitterroot Mountains and get a better view of the valley we took the trail westbound from our campsite and up Bass Creek. We got as far as a pond created by a log jam. I swear that the trail was at least four miles uphill but only two miles back downhill. Overall it was a very pretty hike and Bass Creek was running fast, from one small waterfall to the next.

Bass Creek west of the Bitterroot Valley
Bass Creek west of the Bitterroot Valley

Lake Como

Lake Como is in one of the canyons to the west of the Bitterroot Valley. We targeted it as a great place to kayak and we were right. It was so beautiful. Again our kayaks were so easy to use, even after the wind picked up in our faces on the way back to the beach where we launched.

Tami and Scott launching their kayaks on Lake Como west of the Bitterroot Valley.
Tami and Scott launching their kayaks on Lake Como west of the Bitterroot Valley.

Lake Como is located on Rock Creek which flows east to the Bitterroot River. Rock Creek and Little Rock Creek both feed the lake. Both creeks start in the Selway/Bitterroot wilderness area.

In 1910 farmers dammed the creek creating a lake to provide water for agriculture. Since then it has become a target for fun seekers. It is very popular with locals from Hamilton and Darby. On the south side of the lake, near the dam is a boat launch. We launched from the beach on the north side of the lake. The Forest Service made the beach and ropes off a swim area.

Tami took this picture of West Como peak while kayaking on Lake Como.
Tami took this picture of West Como peak while kayaking on Lake Como. As we exited the swim area we paddled along the north shore getting closer and closer to the last remaining snow field of the season on West Como Peak.

Conclusion

It is not really a conclusion, but over and over again teachers have told me that it is incomplete to not have an introduction or conclusion. I do my best to connect the random ramblings in my head to life around me. Overall (in the summer) I find the Bitterroot Valley fascinating and wonderful. In the winter I suspect that I would find it also wonderful, measured in snow depth and cold winds.

The afternoon was the perfect time, with perfect weather, to just sit and watch the clouds.
The afternoon was a perfect time, with perfect weather, to just sit and watch the clouds. In Big Sky country, watching the sky is a daily requirement.

Some more links about and with our Hurricane Prima Kayaks

Kayak Adventures

Hurricane Kayaks

Lake Crescent

Not going back

The Bitterroot Valley

Links

National Park Service Ice Age Floods

Missoula Out to Lunch at Riverside Park

Missoula Downtown Tonight at Riverside Park

Peoples Saturday Market

Missoula Handmade Summer Made Fair

10 thoughts on “The Bitterroot Valley”

  1. Sounds like you two had a wonderful time. Lake Missoula being 2000 feet deep is incredible! Beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing

  2. Once again your photography and comments capture the area magnificently. We feel we are there with you. And the history and geology lessons provide very meaningful context. Very special. Thank you two!

  3. We will be there next week.

    In north-northeastern Idaho till tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing that county in the next 2-3 weeks.

  4. Where did you stay in the Bitterroot valley? Would you recommend any specific campgrounds?

    Comment transferred from Lolo Pass.

    1. We stayed at the Charles Waters Campground in the Bass Creek Recreation area. It is a National Forest Campground on the Lolo Mountain side of Bitterroot Valley north of Stevensville.

      We loved it. But it doesn’t have hookups and the cell service is poor.

  5. Pingback: Southbound in the Willamette Valley - FoxRVTravel

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