Why I Camp Where I Do At Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

I spend a lot of time camping in my trailer and as a bird photographer my choice of a camping spot is an important one for me. I generally loathe public campgrounds because I crave solitude and quiet so I usually camp in what’s called “dispersed” campsites on BLM or National Forest lands where I have no close neighbors and quiet and relative wildness abound. But on my many visits to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana I do make an exception for reasons that should soon become clear.

The refuge has two campgrounds – one on the shores of Upper Red Rock Lake and one on Lower Red Rock Lake. The upper lake campground is beautiful and surrounded by trees that are often loaded with songbirds and it’s next to the main road through the refuge and the Centennial Valley so it’s often very busy with campers. I’ve never camped there and likely never will.

Despite it’s “shortcomings” the lower lake campground is my cup of coffee. It isn’t as verdant and lush as the one at the upper lake, shade trees are nonexistent, it’s almost a three mile drive on an even rougher road just to get there and you’re much more exposed to the afternoon wind at the lower lake but it’s where I always camp when I’m on the refuge.



lower rr lakes campground 9044 ron dudley

 1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc

This is my trailer in the lower lake campground during my last visit a few weeks ago. The image was taken from almost three miles away but my elevated position when I took the shot gives a better overall look at the setting. The campground is stark in some ways, especially when seen from this distance and angle. It’s enclosed by a rough fence and consists only of 8 or nine campsites, some fire pits and two dilapidated outhouses. You can see a small part of the lower lake on the far side of my trailer.

But I love this place for the following reasons:

  • I almost never have to share it. The few campers who dare to challenge the 27 miles of rough dirt/gravel roads to get to the refuge almost always choose to camp at the upper lake campground. In the approximately 70 nights I’ve spent in this campground over the past 6 years I believe I’ve only had neighbors twice. Quiet, quiet, quiet!
  • The view, especially to the south that can’t be seen here, is expansive and beautiful
  • It isn’t as stark as it looks. I always choose the campsite closest to the water and down there it’s really quite lush and green and birds often abound.
  • A cell signal is virtually nonexistent in the entire valley but for some inexplicable reason there’s just enough at the lower lake campground to have intermittent internet or make a phone call (that’s a well kept secret – don’t tell anyone…). I can actually write and publish my blog posts from here and have done so many times, though it can be a frustrating and laborious process with many starts, stops and hiccups.
  • The three mile road into this campground is far enough away from the “main” road that birds and wildlife in this area feel more secure and are often easier to find. Some may remember all of the images I’ve posted of the male Short-eared Owl delivering voles to his family – those shots were taken very close to this campground and road. I’ve never seen them near the main road.

But there’s yet another reason this sometimes lazy photographer prefers this campground. It isn’t unusual for me to spot interesting birds on the lake from inside my trailer, open my door, brace my lens on the door frame and photograph them from the comfort of “home”.



tundra swan 8153 ron dudley

  1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

Three weeks ago while I was eating lunch in the trailer I looked through my window and spotted this pair of Trumpeter Swans with 4 half-grown cygnets swimming closely by in formation. I jumped up, opened my screen door and photographed them until they had passed me and then went back to my turkey sandwich and chips and watched them some more as I was eating.

True, I have technically better shots of swans than this. The sun was high in the sky, the light was harsh and I have no catch lights in the eyes. But opportunities like this can present themselves any time of day at the lower campground. From most places in the upper campground you can’t even see the water because of the trees.

And the feeling I had to be able watch this family of shy birds and their natural behaviors through my window as I essentially used my trailer as a blind?



Note: I’m not sure why more National Wildlife Refuges don’t have campgrounds, especially the more remote ones. For example, neither Bear River NWR or Fish Springs NWR have campgrounds. At times I wish they did…


24 comments to Why I Camp Where I Do At Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

  • “I can actually write and publish my blog posts from here and have done so many times, though it can be a frustrating and laborious process with many starts, stops and hiccups.”

    If one of the problems you encounter is what I think it is, a plugin to Chrome called Lazarus, may be a godsend (pun intended).

  • Jean

    I can’t blame you a bit. I too love the solitaire. We never see Swans here, Geese, but no Swans. Lucky you!

  • Less people is ALWAYS a bonus. As a child, if we got to a beach and there were more than four other people there, my father moved out immediately. Mind you, there was never a glut of people when he decided to camp beside old slag heaps and disused mines. Lots of wildlife though. And lots of air. Something missing in most cities…
    Love your swans. White swans are so exotic to my eyes.

  • Jane Shipp

    I love the lower lake! The reflections in the lake are gorgeous, and birds are all around. And I enjoy the swallows that nest under the eaves of the outhouses! The upper lake always felt cramped to me and enclosed. I prefer the wide open spaces where one can see forever. The antelope like the lower lake, too.

    Actually, I think the roads are better than they were several years ago. (At one time there was talk of paving that road, and there was so much objection to that idea on the part of folks that love the Centennial that the idea was dropped.) It would be catastrophic if they paved it and all of the tourists visited!

    I like your image. It has a good feeling!! Such a beautiful place!

    • Jane, it sounds like you and I are two peas in a pod.

      Agreed – the road is significantly better than it was just a few years ago. I once had 4 flat tires on that road (trailer + pickup) in a single trip!

      I hadn’t heard about the proposal to pave the road – whoever brought that one up should be tarred and feathered. I still wish they hadn’t paved the road to Bear River NWR!

  • Looks like a great place Ron. I am glad you get to enjoy it in solitude. Pretty cool that you can connect to the outside world to write your blog articles too!

    • Ed, I hate the thought that I have to remain “connected” to the outside world while I’m camping but given my self-imposed blogging schedule there’s no other way.

  • Patty Chadwick


    • Dick Harlow

      Patty, Synchronicity is so appropriate here. Most of Ron’s readers I’m sure are his choir!

  • Patty Chadwick

    Arwen’s comment made me think. I really do enjoy meeting new people…have almost always found them interesting, informative and enjoyable, but in the “wilderness” do everything I can to avoid even the slightest trace of them…just weird, I guess….or schizoid…..

    • Susan Stone

      Patty, from my point of view, the whole point of being in the wilderness is to be alone (or with someone special to share it with, but who understands about the wonders of wilderness). It’s not strange at all. To me, those who want large groups in the wilderness just don’t get it.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’ve heard of “getting all of your ducks in a row”, or something like that, but this is taking it to the max!!! What an unusual, beautiful shot!!! And what a beautiful family…I can easily identify with your campsite comments and the rationale for your choice…can remember (vividly!) my first KOA and “designated campsite” experiences after years of “minimal impact” free-camping!!! Talk about “culture shock”!!! Two experiences in particular haunt to this day…one was when someone’s camper generator-run air conditioner ran all night (Saguaro Nat. Park in AZ) , another was when my next door camper neighbors watched their, volume turned up high, TV most of the night , and when another’s car alarm/horn beeped all night (Page Dam–or should I say, DAMN PAGE)… Luckily, I could often find a ranger who clued me into a more remote, “secret” place..and “kept and eye” on me for the night…

    • Patty, On an earlier trip this summer to the Centennial Valley I camped near (not in) a public campground just off the freeway. Another camper pulled in and parked his trailer much closer to me than he had to and then ran his generator the entire night even though they were apparently asleep because all the lights were off. Either they forgot it was on or perhaps they were running some kind of medical equipment that required electricity. Either way, my night was ruined and I found a more secluded spot the next morning.

  • Susan Stone

    I hear you about solitude. There are some places where solitude allows you to absorb what’s there, and noise just ruins it. It’s how I feel when I’m out at Hueco Tanks but not guiding a tour. The Swan family is beautiful, even without catch lights.

  • The swan family was lovely. I hope to see more of them. For me, sometimes I like camping in crowded areas just because I like meeting new folk. 😀 But I do love the quiet too.

    • I’ve occasionally met new people while camping that I enjoy, Arwen. But in my experience the low-life campers are far more common in public campgrounds than considerate folks so I no longer toss those dice and lose far more often than I win.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Great shots and interesting info. I just hope that your solitude is not destroyed by your post. If you find 15 other campers there the next time youarrive, you’ll kno7. LOL

    • Dick Harlow

      Charlotte, 20 years ago or even 15 years ago if I had read what Ron posted, I would have found a way to find that campsite, and he might have had a small camper near him!! LOL

    • I thought about that before I posted, Charlotte, but decided that anyone willing to drive that road to get there deserves the solitude at the other end.

  • Dick Harlow

    OK you sold me on this place, 20 years too late!! I’m with you on privacy, solitude, quiet, etc. Man I would have paid $$ for a place like this to camp. When we camped we always pulled into camp grounds to find the most secluded spot. Also, we would travel after Labor Day for many years just to avoid the crowds.
    I envy those wide open spaces and the chance to see wildlife in a secluded area without other humans around. Health wise those days are gone!
    Thank you for sharing this it is much appreciated.