Troutbirder II

Troutbirder II
Click on Mark Twain to jump to Troutbirders book review blog

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sam Billings

It's been more than a decade since I've been there and its may have changed. Still, I have many fond memories of this particular campground. It's definitely one of the Top Ten on my list of favorites. The Sam Billings Memorial Campground, up the West Fork Rd., from Darby, Montana. The campground can be found about a quarter of a mile off the blacktop next to Boulder Creek. That creek feeds the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. The campground is surrounded by huge Ponderosa Pines. The only thing comparable, in my experience, would be the Norway Pines at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park.

The small town of Darby sits in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula and Hamilton, Montana. Its main attraction to Mrs. T is a world class ice-cream shop!

What's so special about this place that I like so much? Let me count the ways.
1. The short road into the campground is narrow and winding. This tends to discourage the riff-raff with their huge rigs. Pop-ups and small campers do just fine.
2. Potable water is not available, so you have to bring your own. Of course, a bracing dip in the creek will wash the sweat off, if you dont mind its 32&1/2 degree temperature (just kidding... sort of)
3. Three-foot diameter Ponderosa pines are scattered in the campground. It's also worth a hike 4.5 miles up Boulder Creek trail to the falls.
The trail gently ascends through big pines, fir and spruce with streamside understory of western yew, Oregon grape and kinnikinnick. Moose are common. Watch for pikas and marmots in talus slopes.

My first trip to the falls, was with my brother, fly rod in hand. It wasn't the 4 plus miles that did me in. It was the several thousand feet gain in elevation. Also, being totally out of shape didn't help either, as the above picture reveals...ugh.
"It just around the bend," my brother kept looking back and yelling. Finally convinced, as Redd Fox used to say on Sandford and Son, "it's the Big One," I sat down on the trail, composed myself for the inevitable, and decided to enjoy the mountain view. Five minutes later, having taken some deep breaths, I determined instead the problem was oxygen deprivation. And more imporantly, I could hear the roar of the falls just around the next bend.
4. The trail head to the falls accomodates horse campers and backpackers for access to the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness. It was on this trail, that I saw my first and only Great Gray Owl, sitting right above me.
5. Solitude. On most occasions, when I've been there, the campground was sparsely populated.

6. Wildlife. Yes, the wilderness area has the highest concentration of mountain lions in the lower forty-eight. And grizzly bears have been re-introduced. Drumming of pileated woodpeckers and scents of vanilla waft from big pines, where brown creepers nest under peeling ponderosa pine bark. Moose tracks etch the mud by the spruce-lined creek. Butterflies - blues, swallowtails, and admirals - crowd sunny openings near Boulder Creek. At night, a saw-whet owl hoots from a high limb above the campground. It doesn't get any better than all this.
7. Trout. Cuthroats and cutbows abound in the creek. Not big ones. Pan sized. Mmmm Mmmmm Good!

For bigger challenges, and catch and release, the West Fork and the Bitteroot itself , do just fine.

In the summer of 2000, there were a series of really bad forest fires throughout the West. One of the worst was in the Bitteroot National Forest, adjacent to and on both sides of the Bitterroot Valley. Darby, Montana became the control center for the firefighters taking on this terrible blaze.
This awesome picture was taken in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana on August 6, 2000 by a fire behavior analyst from Fairbanks, Alaska by the name of John McColgan with a Digital camera. Since he was working while he took the picture, he cannot sell or profit from it so he should at least be recognized as the photographer of this once in a lifetime shot. .

Sam Billings Memorial Campground - one of my favorite places in The Great American West.


  1. It is so beautiful and looks like someone would have solitude and peace. That forest fire photo is awesome but scary. I hate hearing about such fires. It makes my heart sink. Not only for the land devastation but for the wildlife. Seeing the deer in that photo seemily unaware of the danger is so tragic.

  2. Your description sounds just wonderful, and I can see why it would be on your favorites list.
    Awesome photo by Mr. McColgan!

  3. I could disappear into this forest forever and never come back out again. Looks like a WONDERFUL place.

  4. A great post and pictures. I have always enjoyed the picture by McColgan. Your post remindes me of many places in the West. Good job.

  5. Yikes - that fire picture gives me goosebumps! Other than that, though, your post makes me want to go camping!

  6. Great camping site! And the photograph is magnificent.

  7. Nice post, Troutbirder (as yours always are!)
    I've seen the photo of the mulies taking refuge in the creek before, but it never fails to haunt me.
    Have you read Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire? If not, it should go the top of your list! It's about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, very enlightening.

  8. Excellent post and wonderful photos. I remember the last photo of the Elk in the fire-washed river when it came out on the internet. An absolutely, stunning, once-in-a-lifetime photo.

  9. Nice post! We are headed to visit my sister and then to yellowstone and the tetons..before heading to oregon.
    We hope you are joining the BwBTC bird outing this Saturday!
    I look forward to meeting you..though we may be one of the big rig ..riff raff you are talking about..LOL
    we live full time in a motorhome and have done so for almost eight years..
    cant fit in some of the smaller campgrounds but we do love being in the wild and prefer state and national forest campgrounds.
    Hope to convise you that big rigs arent all that bad. :)

  10. Great pics and memories. I love those big old Ponderosas. Much like Yellowstone after '88, the land has recovered from fires and is now lush. Within a few years of the fire, the elk population about doubled because there was so much more food (the heavy pine overstory blocked out sun for grasses & forbs).

  11. Thank you for the comment on my blog post. I am so pleased to hear the news about the adoption process. It must be an exciting time for your family. Congratulations grandpa. I am eager to hear all the news when it happens. These children are truly blessings from heaven.

  12. What a wonderful place. I've never been there, so the photos and information were appreciated.

    Have you read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson? If not, you'd better get it! He has quite the sense of humor. He shares his experiences of hiking the Appalachian trail... I won't say any more. :-)

  13. Sounds like a gorgeous area! Was the campground damaged in the fire too?
    Sounds like I need to add Darby, MT to my "bucket list!"

  14. simply beautifully captured shots....lovely!

  15. A beautifully descriptive post as always. I am learning so much about your part of the world.

  16. I hear the Bitterroot range is really amazing.