About the Refuge

Centennial Mountains

Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
27650B South Valley Road
Lima, MT 59739


  • Establishment

    FDR Signing

    The National Wildlife Refuge System, within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages a national network of lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants. More than 560 Refuges encompass more than 150,000,000 acres, including large marine national monuments.

    On April 22, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Red Rock Lakes Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, which was renamed the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1961. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 7023 established Red Rock Lakes “as a refuge and breeding ground for wild birds and animals.”

    Since the refuge boundary was established, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has acquired lands from willing landowners or by receiving donations. The Service currently owns 51,386 acres within the approved boundary. The refuge also manages conservation easements totaling 23,806 acres. 

  • Description

    South Centennial Road

    Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge has often been called the most beautiful national wildlife refuge in the United States. The rugged Centennial Mountains, rising  to more than 10,000 feet, provide a dramatic backdrop for this extremely remote Refuge in Southwest Montana's Centennial Valley. Red Rock Lakes NWR encompasses primarily high mountain, wetland-riparian habitat--the largest in the Greater Yellowstone Area-- and is located near the headwaters of the Missouri River. Several creeks flow into the refuge, creating the impressive Upper Red Rock Lake, River Marsh, and Lower Red Rock Lake. The snows of winter replenish the refuge’s lakes and wetlands that provide secluded habitat for many wetland birds, including the trumpeter swan, white-faced ibis, and black-crowned night herons. The Refuge also includes wet meadows, willow riparian, grasslands, and forest habitats. This diversity provides habitat for other species such as sandhill cranes, long-billed curlews, peregrine falcons, eagles, hawks, moose, badgers, bears, wolves, pronghorns and native fish such as Arctic grayling and westslope cutthroat trout. 

  • Visiting

    Visitor Biker 150

    Although much of the refuge lands were originally homesteaded at the turn of the century, refuge management has restored much of the naturalness to the area. This approach gained Red Rock Lakes NWR the distinction of being designated a National Natural Landmark. Because it is one of the few Wetland Wilderness Areas in the country, we continue to manage for primitive wilderness values. Here humans are visitors, with minimal permanent impact on the landscape, and wildlife move freely with minimal human interaction. Physical facilities are limited and commercialism is minimized, creating a rare, uncrowded, do-it-yourself experience. In keeping with the wilderness spirit, visitors are free to explore the country the way wildlife see it.  

    Visitors to Red Rock Lakes NWR should be prepared for spectacular scenery in a remote wilderness setting. To maintain the wilderness and solitude sensation, facilities are minimized and few roads are present.  Cell phones have spotty coverage at best, and there are no services (no fuel stations, groceries, etc.).  Recreation off the established roads involves non-motorized or non-mechanical means of transport. This approach provides wildlife and wildland viewing and enjoyment opportunities in an uncrowded setting. 

  • Management and Vision

    Management Bill West

    The refuge management focuses on maintaining natural area and wilderness values. In this context, management first provides habitat for migratory birds and endangered species followed closely with an emphasis on native wildlife such as moose and several sensitive species. Water is managed to provide nesting habitat for swans, waterfowl and fisheries. Much of the Refuge already has substantial natural habitat diversity; management seeks to enhance those natural area values where appropriate, and maintain them where natural processes are functioning well.

    The majestic Centennial Valley of southwest Montana is an expansive mosaic of mountain wetlands, shrub lands, and forests framed by dramatic mountain peaks. Partnerships and conservation programs have helped the valley to maintain its biological integrity, a working landscape that remains largely undeveloped.

    To this end, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is a conservation leader in the Centennial Valley working to maintain and restore natural processes to create and sustain native habitat for migratory and resident fish and wildlife. Visitors have a sense of solitude and wildness that lifts their spirits and stirs their souls. This first-hand experience with the refuge encourages people to participate as stewards, not only of the refuge, but also of the natural resources in their communities.

  • Special Facts

    Painted Milkvetch Rare

     Special Facts 

    Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is located in the middle of an important wildlife corridor linking the Greater Yellowstone and Bitterroot ecosystems ■ protects over 82,000 acres of the Centennial Valley in southwest Montana—the least developed valley of its size in the state ■ encompasses the largest wetland complex in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem ■ contains 3,300 acres of sandhills habitat—a place that contains several regionally rare plants (like the Painted Milkvetch at left) and invertebrates ■ represents one of the most diverse refuges in the contiguous United States, with 45 identified vegetation associations ■ played an integral role in the continental restoration of trumpeter swans ■ continues to provide critical nesting habitat for a tri-state flock of trumpeter swans ■ supports a large portion of the last native population of Arctic grayling in the contiguous United States ■ provides habitat for one of the highest-density wintering moose populations in Montana ■ is in an area that has a rich paleohistory as a gathering spot for people and wildlife throughout time ■ occurs in an area of early non-native exploration and settlement, and has historic buildings originally constructed by the Works Progress Administration ■ has broad range of partnerships that are integral to every aspect of refuge management, including hunting, fishing,and research ■ provides visitors with a multitude of wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities in a remote, peaceful, beautiful setting ■ encompasses a 32,500-acre designated wilderness area. 

  • Historical Background


    The Centennial Valley was well known to the Shoshone-Bannock, the Nez Perce, and other nomadic tribes as a favored travel route between the headwaters of the Big Hole River and the Yellowstone country. The wide stretches of uninterrupted native grasslands provided grazing bison with ample feed and served as their traditional summer range. Settlement by Euro-americans did not occur until 1876. Herds of livestock were driven into the valley and homesteads sprang up in scattered locations. In the early days, market hunting for waterfowl and big game brought some revenue to local residents, but most settlers concentrated on livestock and sporadic lumbering. The long winters, great distances to market, and small land parcels combined to make subsistence difficult. Few survived the depression of the 1930s.  

    The Monida-Yellowstone stagecoach line passed through Red Rock Lakes NWR on what is now South Valley Road and Red Rock Pass Road. Originally established in 1898, the four-horse drawn stagecoaches carried passengers between the railroad station in Monida and West Yellowstone and Henry's Lake. A note from the Madisonian newspaper from August 28, 1902, notes that the stage line "has carried over 12,000 passengers to the National Park this season and are having all they can handle every day. They have had to put on extra teams to accommodate the large number of tourists." The grand era of stagecoach travel in West Yellowstone ended in 1917 when touring cars replaced the stages. A plaque near Shambow Pond commemorates the site of the half-way house used by stagecoach travelers on their way west.  Trumpeter swans and other waterfowl can now be seen on Shambow Pond.  

    Red Rock Lakes NWR invites you to view and enjoy the nearby historic buildings and artifacts. Please be advised, however, that altering, defacing, or removal of any historical materials from refuge property is prohibited.  Shambow Pond and the immediate area surrounding it is closed to all public use and access.