Beyond the Basecamp Excursion: Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Written by Greer Schott on at

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Photos by Abbie Digel

Big Sky is known as the Basecamp to Yellowstone. But the national park, if you can believe it, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond park borders the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem spans 20 million acres, with Big Sky right in the thick of things.  

So with Big Sky as Basecamp, we’re taking this summer to more thoroughly explore our backyard: one of the last remaining large and intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone.  Whether it’s a hike up Lone Peak on Big Sky Resort property or venturing out to a pristine camping site in Idaho, we’ll dish on the best excursions beyond your Basecamp.  First stop?  Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

The Trip: Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Travel Time: Two hours south of Big Sky Resort, venture down for a day trip or overnight camping trip
Why Go:  This wildlife refuge is like the Serengeti of Montana – you’ll cross paths with sandhill cranes, bald eagles, moose, elk, pronghorns, and bears, but nary another human.

Itinerary:

Day 1

10:00am: Hit the road from your Basecamp at Big Sky Resort, heading south past West Yellowstone and into Island Park, ID.

12:00pm: Stop at the Last Chance Bar and Grill at the TroutHunter lodge for lunch on the patio overlooking the lush banks of the smooth and winding Henry’s Fork river. 

1:30pm: Hit Flat Ranch Preserve visitor’s center for intel on local flora, fauna, and the latest grizzly sightings before heading onto the back roads leading to your campsite.

2:00pm: Drive past Henry’s Lake and back across the Montana border, where dirt roads quickly take you into more remote wilderness.  Stretch your legs at Hell Roaring Creek, the utmost headwaters of the Missouri River that flow down from the Continental Divide towering directly above you.

3:00pm:  Pick out the prefect waterside campsite at Upper Red Rock Lake in the heart of the wildlife refuge.  You’ll spot nesting swans on the ultra-clear water, soaring bald eagles, and bounding pronghorns.  This is Grizzly country too, so dinner leftovers go in bear-proof food storage containers at the well-kept campsites.

3:30pm: Get your camp, hike, and boat on – canoeing is allowed starting July 1st.  Daylight lasts well past 9pm, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.

Day 2

12:00pm: After a leisurely morning playing and packing up, head back to your Basecamp.  On your way back towards Big Sky in the afternoon, stop by the glassy water at Big Springs to feed giant trout where one hundred and twenty million gallons of water flow from the ground to form the Snake River. 

Evening: Arrive back in Big Sky in time for a Bison Chipotle Quesadilla at Whiskey Jack’s and a soak in the hot tub.  Back at your Basecamp, unwind with a Huckleberry Martini and start planning tomorrow’s adventure.

-  Greer

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Pronghorns in the Wildlife Refuge

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Set up camp next to one of the Red Rocks Lakes, where well-kept campsites have clean bathrooms, fire pits, and bear-proof food storage containers.

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Swans nest on the Red Rock Lakes.

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Sandhill Cranes wander through meadows in the Wildlife Refuge.

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The view of the Henry's Fork river from the TroutHunter patio.

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Henry's Lake

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Lunch on the patio of TroutHunter.

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Moose Crossing!