Painted Rocks

Take to the water to view this collection of ancient cliffside pictographs above Flathead Lake

By Micah Drew
A cliff on the west shore of Flathead Lake known as “Painted Rocks." Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There are myriad of ways to experience the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. There’s hiking and fauna to visit on Wild Horse Island, beaches to lounge on and, of course, plenty of room for paddling, boating or going for a really long swim. 

And while the sights from any Montana lake would fill up a classic bingo card — a bald eagle snatching a fish, a paddleboarder, pristine views from the water — Flathead Lake has a unique historical offering. 

On the western shore of the lake near the community of Rollins are a series of cliffs known only as Painted Rocks for the more than 200 Native American markings found on the outcrop. 

With some similarities to other ancient petroglyph sites around the Flathead Valley, Painted Rocks have an extra aura of pristineness, as they can only be viewed from the water. The isolation from roadways or other modern interventions offers the chance to view the art with a more historically minded presence. 

It’s generally held by researchers that any place pictographs or petroglyphs are found were considered sacred places by early Native Americans. The original paintings along the lakeshore are believed to be about 3,000 years old. It is believed that the Salish started adding to the pre-existing pictographs beginning about 700 to 800 years ago. And it is believed that the Salish made their last additions sometime between 1700-1900.

In 1908, scholastic research on the site was published by the University of Montana’s Morton Elrod who visited the area several times to document the markings. Elrod documented more than 100 different or distinct markings, including at least 15 different animals including buffalo, deer and moose. Long series of vertical lines appear throughout the cliffs, in various groupings and seemingly made with different levels of care for straightness and uniformity. 

A cliff on the west shore of Flathead Lake, known as “Painted Rocks,” is adorned with early Native American pictographs, as seen on July 11, 2022. The first pictographs on the cliff are believed to be about 3,000 years old. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Elrod noted that the highest quality markings appear highest on the cliffs and seem to be the earliest in origin. 

While there is little additional written documentation about the site, sitting in a kayak, canoe or paddleboard staring up at the ancient drawings inspires a complex level of awe that breaks from a regular visit to a lake. 

Painted Rocks can only be reached via water. Put in at West Shore State Park or the Zelenzy Bay Access point for the shortest paddle.  

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