Troutbirder II

Troutbirder II
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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Sam Billings campground

It's been more than two decades since I've been there. Still, I have many fond memories of this particular campground. It's definitely one of the Top Ten on my list of favorites campgrounds. The Sam Billings Memorial Campground, is up the West Fork Rd., from Darby, Montana. It was part of a family camping fly fishing trip consisting of my brother Greg his wife Bootsy myself and Mrs. T. 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. Photography was mainly by Barb The campground is surrounded by huge Ponderous Pines. The only thing comparable, in my experience, would be the Norway Pines at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota.

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!Her most serious addiction.

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). And the wives naturally made the best use of it
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. On that particular hike wives having heard unfounded rumors of large grizzly bears roaming the area along the trail chose to wear on their jackets a bunch of jingle bells. Naturally the husbands told them the truth that grizzly are actually not found in that area. However my brother and I had to add the fact that the area had the largest concentration of mountain lions in the lower 48 states to which we added the fact that the one thing that annoy the lions the most was, of course, jingle bells!
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 up to the falls, was with my brother, fly rod in hand on a several years before. 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.
On that occasion "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," well I did have some feeling chest pain, so 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. .
Now all of that is passed though perhaps someday I will just return to Montana as a tourist. My vertigo and tendency to fall even on our little placid trout streams in southeastern Minnesota, has led me to give up the sport. Still the memories are there of Sam Billings 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. 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.

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. 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.

  9. simply beautifully captured shots....lovely!

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

  11. I hear the Bitterroot range is really amazing.

  12. I love a great campground like this. They are certainly hard to find these days. We are tent campers and I don't like where "camping" is these days--giant rigs with loud air conditioners and satellite dishes on the outside. We all look at each other in disbelief. Thanks...but I like my camping to be more like actual camping.

    Thanks for sharing this treasure!

  13. It's a good place, Ray. Been there more than once. If you'd gone east of there you'd have found the upper Big Hole, also with some good fishing and scenery. Like you, wish I could experience it again, but we have memories, don't we, my friend. They'll do.

    1. You had me worried there Mike with that last post. Really glad to see your hanging in there!

  14. I remember the Montana forest fires of 2000. We had been in Calgary and the Rockies. We crossed the border at Selby (I think it was) and drove east. Even heading in the opposite direction from the fires, the air was still affected by them.

  15. Love to go on these trips virtually. I really want to go camping and take the grand-daughters. Glad you are hanging in there in mind and body, Ray! We are all good here, too.

  16. Thanks for this camping excursion and sharing great memories of a special place.

  17. A wonderful post ,,, thanks for taking us along. I loved that you included the picture of you and Mrs. T (such wonderful memories)

  18. What a beautiful place! It certainly ticked all the boxes for solitude and beauty. I think we are all remembering the beautiful places of our past ... and wishing we could be free to visit again now. I know I am!