Montana road trip 2022, part III: getting lost in the Bitterroot National Forest

(Read parts I and II of this series here)

I don’t do well when I don’t have lodging reservations for each night of a trip. It makes me anxious. But Lake Como Campground in the Bitterroot National Forest doesn’t take reservations, and we really wanted to stay there, so we were forced to go without and hope for the best. To give ourselves the best chance of finding a site, we camped nearby in Hamilton the night before and headed straight to Lake Como first thing on Tuesday morning.

I know, I know, it’s a Montana road trip. But we ended up at the Idaho border on our way to the Bitterroot Mountains
Angler’s Rest Campground; our home the night before heading to Lake Como
Bitterroot River, as seen from the campground

When we arrived at Lake Como, we were pleased to find that four of the twelve sites were available. The campground is set in a forest of towering old-growth ponderosa pines. It’s a beautiful location, as is the lake. It’s easy to see why this area is so popular, and we were excited to have secured a site.

Lake Como
Como handstand
Lake Como Campground site #7
Views of Lake Como as we walked along the dam

After setting up, we headed out for the day with the goal of hiking to Camas Lakes and driving to Lost Horse Observation Point. Knowing we wouldn’t have cell service, I’d previously mapped the directions and taken screenshots. I was feeling pretty smart and prepared.

These were feelings that would quickly vanish.

From Highway 93, we turned west onto Lost Horse Road. Initially, this is a paved two-lane road that travels past some houses and farm fields and into the mountains. Eventually, the pavement ends but the road remains in good condition. After a couple miles, we reached a fork. Our directions told us to go left. A sign pointed left to Lost Horse Road. So we went left.

Starting up Lost Horse Road

The directions then told us to continue for about 7 miles (11.3 km) to Lost Horse Point. We heeded them, referring to the odometer as we made our way up the dirt road in our little sedan. There were some rough sections and some potholes, but it wasn’t too bad. It was slow going, though, and seven miles felt like forever.

The seven miles came and went, and there was no sign or obvious parking area for Lost Horse Observation Point. We figured maybe there was some rounding error and kept going. Mile eight. Still nothing. Nine. Ten. Eleven. By this point, we were confused and annoyed. But we were gaining elevation and we could see that the scenery was more open up ahead, so we pressed on. Around mile twelve, we hit a locked gate; due to a damaged bridge, the road was closed to vehicles from this point on. We would have to get out and walk if we wanted to go further.

In retrospect, this is when we probably should have realized we were not on the right road and turned around. But we’d come so far, and both the sign and the navigation had pointed us in this direction, so we stubbornly set off up the road on foot in search of the elusive high point. We walked for almost 3 miles (4.8 km), during which time we found a deer, a couple waterfalls, and lots of wildflowers. But no Lost Horse Point.

Lost Horse Road

Upon return to the car, we bumped and bounced our way back down the dirt road, stopping at the National Forest informational sign to closely examine the map… which is when we realized we should have taken the right fork… contrary to what both the directions and the sign indicated.

In summary:

1: Don’t follow the Apple Maps directions.

2: When you reach a fork in the road and the sign points left to Lost Horse Road… don’t follow it. Counterintuitively, Lost Horse Observation Point is not on Lost Horse Road. Instead, go right, following the sign toward Coyote Coulee Trailhead.

3: Once you’re on the correct road and you see a sign listing the distance to Lost Horse Point, reset your odometer and use it to guide you. There will be no sign or any other indication that you’ve reached the correct location, so precision is key.

We were fortunate that there was a car at the random, tiny, unmarked pullout that serves as the parking area, and that two people were at the car, removing their backpacks as though they had just finished a hike. This was our only clue that we might finally be in the right place.

A little searching revealed a path up the hillside. So up we went, hoping for the best. It was a short but steep climb to the top of the hill. Once there, we enjoyed a late lunch with a pretty great view of the surrounding mountains. But to be completely honest, I’m still not 100% sure this was actually Lost Horse Observation Point.

Views from what we think was Lost Horse Point
Handstand at a viewpoint along the way

It was too late in the day now to hike to Camas Lakes, so I guess we’re filing that one away for next time. We’d spent the previous afternoon in nearby Hamilton, Montana, where the brewery we I wanted to visit was closed for a special event, so we’re filing that one away for next time as well.

One thing we were able to visit during our time in Hamilton was the Daly Mansion. Marcus Daly was one of Montana’s three Copper Kings… businessmen who invested in and made millions from the copper mining industry. Most of the mining took place around Butte and Anaconda, but Marcus Daly essentially founded the town of Hamilton to house the people who worked to provide lumber to support mining operations. He and his wife initially lived in a much smaller house on the edge of town. It was renovated and expanded twice during his lifetime, and after Marcus Daly’s death, his wife Margaret had it expanded on final time to the 25 bedroom, 15 bathroom mansion that still stands today. It’s enormous. And beautiful. Tours are $15/person. We chose the self-guided option, which allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted in each room while also learning about the house from the provided pamphlet.

Daly Mansion
Main staircase
Living room
Formal dining room
One room of the Murray Suite; where Dr. Murray – the family physician – and his family would stay when they visited
Second floor sitting room
Gerard Suite; where their daughter Molly and her family would stay
Master bedroom
Daly family office
Hamilton and the Bitterroot Mountains as seen from the back porch of the mansion

All in all, this was a lovely (albeit confusing) introduction to the Bitterroot Valley and Mountains, and we will absolutely be returning to the area on a future road trip!

The Important Stuff:

  • Lake Como: from Hamilton, drive 12 miles (19 km) south and turn west onto Lake Como Road. Drive about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the end of the road to reach the lake, beach, and campgrounds ($25/night, no reservations). The road is paved all the way to the lake and passable by any car
  • Lost Horse Observation Point: from Hamilton, drive 9 miles (14.5 km) south and turn west onto Lost Horse Road. At the fork, turn right onto FS Road 496 toward Coyote Coulee Trailhead. Stay right and follow signs to Camas Lake Trailhead and Lost Horse Point. When you see the sign listing the distance to Lost Horse Point, reset your odometer and use it to guide you to the small parking area
  • Daly Mansion: open daily June 6-Oct 1 from 10am-4pm (website); $15/person for guided or self-guided tours

43 thoughts on “Montana road trip 2022, part III: getting lost in the Bitterroot National Forest”

  1. Putting Lost Horse Observation Point close to but not on Lost Horse Road is just sadistic. Funnily enough, earlier today I was rereading an old post about climbing Mount Elbert and we had something kinda similar happen in that we got the same (bad, it turns out) directions from several people and hiked the wrong route. It’s such a bummer when that happens, especially when time is limited. Well, you saw some beautiful stuff – both human-made and natural – on this part of your trip. And you scored a campsite at Como Lake. I can see why you were so eager to get a spot there. It’s so pretty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Someone else pointed out that perhaps this is why it’s called Lost Horse Point. I’m going to go with that theory since it makes me feel a little better about how much we struggled to find it 😂

      We’re planning to climb Elbert in a couple weeks, weather permitting, so it’s good to know that there’s some confusion. I’ll have to be very careful when I look up the directions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lake Como looks like a lovely camping spot – I love ponderosa pines. The unknown flower is a type of mariposa lily – not sure which one as there are many but they sure are pretty! I’ve never seen bear grass in person before – I believe it’s quite common in the North Cascades but it doesn’t seem to grow on the Canadian side of the border.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve only seen them once, in Joshua Tree NP. It was a bright orange variety, which was great for me as orange is a favourite colour of mine 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no idea that there was a Lake Como in the US! But Lake Como in Montana is just as stunning as the one in Italy, if not more! Crisp blue skies and waters…you certainly got lucky with good weather in Montana!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I get stressed about those first-come first-served campgrounds too. Glad to hear you were able to find a site. That sounds like quite the adventure to get Lost Horse Point. Talk about confusing signage or lack thereof. At least the scenery was nice along the false path.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, after living in a city where maps directions are usually not a problem, this trip reminded me that gps directions tend to be lacking in more rural areas.


  5. I love your side adventure. You kept going and got some great scenery and waterfalls. That’s a win in my books!

    Bear Grass!!! I JUST learned about this last month when I saw it for the first time in Waterton National Park. I guess that is the most northern and easterly it grows. It’s probably pretty common where you are but darn rare in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hate it when signs, maps, GPS are all wrong and time is wasted looking for what ain’t there. Sometimes, you get a nice surprise and other times you just get frustrated. Still looks like you managed to make the best of it Diana. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like your first comment, I always like to plan ahead and have reservations before I travel. Never trust a GPS and always have a map to give you directions. Maybe because I am old school.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The Mansion looks pretty cool. If you ever get the chance visit The Biltmore in NC. G.W. Vanderbilt owned at one time what is roughly todays Pisgah National Forest.
    Maps….. Google Maps has never taken me to the wrong place but what happens here is that some county roads will become private roads so google will take me to a locked gate where you can just turn around and find another way. It knows the road is there but doesn’t know it is private.
    No matter if you found the right Point or not you got some good views!


  9. I would be more than happy to camp at Lake Como – it’s a lovely site between the high trees and what a super view over the lake and mountains. Well, at least you had lovely views on the wrong trail 😉.


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