Willow Creek Reservoir

Last Friday marked what would’ve been one of my best friends’ 46th birthday. Jer spent most of his life outdoors, exploring Montana, so every time I go camping I wonder if he’d like the camping spot. He was a mountain guy, so I’m not sure Willow Creek would be his favorite. But the Rocky Mountain Front is right there, so it’s close to the mountains. Not sure if that counts. I like to think he’d be happy just being outside, regardless of whether or not it was in the mountains, or the prairie.

Rocky Mountain Front
Rocky Mountain Front

When I moved back, I started exploring–first with Google Maps, then with my truck. I had no idea there were so many reservoirs in Central Montana. Over the past few years, I think I’ve decided that Willow Creek is my favorite. The shoreline is all public, dotted with dispersed camping sites. It’s best to get there mid-week before holiday weekends, because the spots fill up and nobody’s fond of the folks who try to squeeze in between two dispersed sites. Gotta leave some room to stretch out. Our basic rule of thumb is that if we have to tie the dogs up, the neighbors are too close.

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The dogs love Willow Creek

Water levels were drawn down earlier this year to allow for dam repairs, then stocked with big trout when the reservoir filled back up. We haven’t been able to catch a small trout this year–all of them have been in the 16 to 20 inch range. We’ve been fishing from a little raft with an electric trolling motor, using copper spoons, and haven’t been skunked yet.

Willow Creek West Shore
It’s a reservoir, so levels get low at the end of summer when the farmers need the water

It’s Central Montana, so wind is almost always a factor. Be strategic with your camper placement–the wind ususally comes from the SW, so park accordingly. The proximity to the mountain front also means potential grizzlies–though we’ve yet to see one while camping. Never hurts to keep the bear spray handy, just in case.

Camp site
Use your campers as wind blocks

The area is perfect for star gazing, and if you find the right spot, you can use the mountain front to frame the bottom of your shot. If you’re a wildlife photographer, you’ll find the usual assortment of birds, and the pelicans make great models. You’ll also find cows–they roam free around the reservoir.

Milky Way
Milky Way over the Rocky Mountain Front
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Pelican at Willow Creek Reservoir

On the south side of the lake there’s a boat ramp with a few standard camping spots and outhouses. Wind blocks are build around the picnic tables.

If you forget anything, or run out of beer, Augusta is only a 10-15 minute drive from the lake. And if you’re working remotely right now, AT&T has a decent enough signal in certain spots to push through a few emails. I wouldn’t trust it for any video conferencing, though. Verizon coverage seems to be about the same as AT&T. I got a better AT&T signal from the west side of the lake, but it depended entirely on where I was standing.

I’m still not sure if Jer would be a huge fan of prairie camping, but it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. He’d be right there by the camp fire, PBR in hand, happy to be out of town for a weekend.

Fire

Copper Creek

My buddy Chad and I have been camping off and on since I moved back to Montana. He lives in Western Montana, I live in Central Montana. He likes camping in the mountains, I like camping in the high desert/prairie. So we trade off. Copper Creek, (the one by Georgetown Lake, not Lincoln,) is one of his favorite spots, so one day last August I loaded up the camper and headed West to camp with Chad and his family.

Rewind

Let’s go back to 2018 first. I didn’t have a camper, but the dog and I were content to sleep in the back of the truck (under the topper.)

We met Chad at East Fork Reservoir and set up the truck. It was pouring rain, but I set the tarp up off the back of the truck and borrowed Chad’s Mr. Buddy heater. Long story short, it was cold and wet, and the dog and I ended up spending the second night in Chad’s camper. Which is actually one of the main reasons I ended up buying a camper. I guess I’m admitting that I’m too damn old to sleep in the back of my truck.

At any rate, we took a drive up to Copper Creek so he could show me where he usually camps. His spot was already taken, (which was why we were camping at East Fork,) but I quickly realized why it was his favorite place to camp. Awesome open areas bordering a small creek, dispersed camping so no nearby neighbors, great scenery. Burn scars from a relatively recent forest fire swept through parts of the landscape. It was fascinating to me that one tree could be burnt to a crisp, but another tree ten feet away was just fine.

The rain poured all weekend, but I promised I’d come back to camp the following summer.

Back to 2019

A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Copper Creek, an old high school girlfriend called to say that she was taking her kids on a road trip in her RV. Based on her route, it looked like our paths would cross right around Deer Lodge, so we planned to grab lunch. Plans didn’t quite work out perfectly, so we ended up meeting in Drummond, instead.

After lunch at the Rough Stock Saloon, (great place, by the way,) her kids asked if they could do some camping, so the whole crew caravanned to the Copper Creek camping spot with me. We met up with Chad and his family–not at the spot he had shown me the year before because it was occupied–but at an equally awesome spot just down stream.

That night was full of campfires, s’mores, stories and a wickedly awesome full moon.

The next morning, our camp guests left, so Chad and I decided to do some exploring. We ran into Philipsburg to grab some dinner and check out the brewery. Dinner was at Bricks Pizzeria and Pub, and we weren’t overly impressed. Everyone was friendly and the food was good, but it was slow. So slow, in fact, that after watching his drink sit on the bar for 10 minutes, Chad finally walked over from our table to grab it himself. The brewery was awesome. I grabbed a growler of something or other, and we headed back to camp. We toyed with the idea of coming back for some kind of festival that was going on that night, but decided we’d just end up getting ourselves in trouble.

Back even further

Way back when–I’d say back when I was in my 20s–my best friend’s parents owned a gallery in Philipsburg. I only visited once or twice, but I’ve heard stories. So many stories of shenanigans that went on in that little town. If I remember correctly, there were two bars, and I’m pretty sure my buddy managed to get temporarily kicked out of both of them. Good times. It’s an awesome little town.

Back to 2019, again

The small creek by our campsite was full of tiny brook trout, so we spent a little time fly fishing it. We must’ve caught and released 20 or more fish in one morning. Hoping to catch something more substantial, we drove over to Moose Lake to see what we could catch on worms. The short answer? Nothing. And it didn’t matter. Just getting out of town to sit by a lake for a bit was rewarding enough. (That’s something people tell themselves when they don’t catch fish.)

The rest of the weekend was spent exploring, fishing, and target shooting. The dogs wore each other out on a daily basis, and the camp cooking was delicious.

And the wrap up

Copper Creek, (again, the one by Georgetown Lake, not Lincoln,) is an awesome place to spend some time. Plenty of dispersed camp sites, and an actual campground if that’s more your style. Moose Lake would be great to paddle around on in a canoe, but it’s surrounded by private residences, so it’s not the idyllic beauty I’d prefer to see in the mountains. Philipsburg is the closest town, so you can pick up groceries, fill a growler with local beer, or grab some gas. Get there early, as there are no reserved camping spots. Keep your fires in the fire pits, and make damn sure they’re out before you leave.


Places and things mentioned in this post

Copper Creek Campground
Bricks PIzzeria and Pub
Philipsburg Brewing
Rough Stock Saloon

Lake Alva

I have one of those dogs that is terrified of fireworks. Every year, I drug the poor guy and hope for the best.

This year, we decided to go somewhere without fireworks.

Lake Alva is just a bit north of Seeley Lake. There’s a great fireworks display in Seeley, but Alva is far enough away to escape the sound. I met a few friends there, and proceeded to relax.

Diego got carsick for the first 3 years of his life. He eventually learned to relax in the car and seems to actually enjoy going for rides now. I wasn’t sure how he’d do in a boat. He doesn’t swim. If I throw a stick too far into the lake, he’ll just stare at me and wait for me to fetch it myself.

But he did great in the boat. Didn’t even seem to phase him.

I’ve reached that age where it takes too long to recover from sleeping in a tent. I picked up a camper last winter, and am not ashamed to admit I enjoy having some of the comforts of home. It actually is like sleeping at home, but I get to wake up with a better view.

My step-brother has a little country store/gas station in Swan Lake, so I took a drive up there to see him on the 4th. If you’re ever up that way, swing by O’Connell’s Qwik Stop. Tell ‘em Daniel sent you. And get a pizza. Seriously—that shit was delicious. The crust and sauce is home made. It was better than Howard’s.

On the 5th, I decided to put the drone up to see what I could see. Of course, everything I saw was amazing. It really is surreal knowing I live in a state this incredible.

It was a great weekend with old friends, and some new ones. Diego did great on the boat, and with the kids.

The only glitch in the get-away-from-loud-noises-for-the-4th plan was that we got home just in time for a huge thunderstorm and a late celebration by the neighbors. So Diego ended up getting drugged anyway.