As the old adage goes, there’s a first time for everything. By the end of this review, Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site will achieve one such first here at A Crock of Schmidt. I recommend you keep reading to discover if this first is momentous, or ignominious.
Before I engage in my typical ramblings about the campground at Devil’s Elbow, I think it’s prudent to explain why we were in the Montana capital region in the first place. Like every other destination on our Yellowstone trip itinerary, geology is to blame.
My son and I are enthusiastic rock nerds and I lined up three outings during our big trip to find geological treasures. The first, and by far the most rewarding, was fossil hunting in the Green River formation near Kemmerer, Wyoming. A second was digging for quartz crystals at Crystal Park in the Pioneer Mountains of Montana. And our third and final adventure was seeking sapphires in century old gold tailings along the Missouri River near Helena.
Our hard labour was rewarded with a small bounty of raw sapphires (you can read about that here) but it did require an overnight stay nearby. After some online searching and handwringing, we settled on Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site.
Where is Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site Located?
Situated on a prominence of land on the west bank of the Missouri River near the north end of Hauser Lake, Devil’s Elbow is a Bureau of Land Management campground and recreation facility. For us, however, it was just a conveniently located spot to hole up for a night.
On one hand, it was the closest campground to the sapphire mine. The 15 mile, 35 minute drive into the Big Belt Mountains, while not perfect, was tolerable. On the other hand, the 13 mile, 20 minute drive into Helena was equally not perfect but tolerable.
It truly was a compromise, and it suited our plans well. We’d be able to enjoy our sapphire hunt knowing we had a place to sleep that night before heading to Glacier National Park and we’d be close to a city to do some laundry and stock up at a grocery store.
The First Hint of Trouble.
There was, however, a lingering concern. Our reserved mine appointment was anytime between 10:00 and 14:00. We would be arriving straight from our previous stop at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park and check-in at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site was not until 14:00.
Furthermore, hauling a trailer, even a relatively small one, all the way to Montana Blue Jewel Mine, though feasible, was not in any way ideal. There’s the added gas consumption for starters. And then there’s the road conditions. I was prepared to do it, if necessary, but after having made the drive and seeing first hand the gravel road situation, I’m glad we didn’t.
Well before our trip even started, I attempted contacting authorities associated with the recreation site about the possibility of leaving our trailer at the campground while we did our mine excursion. Just leaving it in a parking lot would have sufficed for the handful of hours we’d be at the mine.
The only response I received via email was from a website that I’d mistakenly assumed was “official” but turned out to be a Montana travel site. They had no means of answering my question. Voicemails left at the primary number shown on the actual Devil’s Elbow website (courtesy of the BLM) were never returned.
The second number eventually connected to a person, but they were not immediately involved with Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site. I share my story and get a hesitant response that it should be okay so long as nobody is in our reserved site. It was an answer that didn’t leave me feeling confident.
Fast forward to the day before our arrival, and I’m getting anxious about what we will do with our trailer. I’m again calling the advertised numbers but running into troubles. The primary phone number is telling me it is not in service, so I’m no longer even able to leave a message. Nobody is answering the second number. I decide to leap out of my comfort zone and play this in real time.
We arrive at Devil’s Elbow in the late morning. There is no manned registration booth, so we decide to drive to our reserved campsite and see if anyone is still in it. Nope, it’s empty. I call an audible and suggest we unhook our trailer in the site after which we can hopefully hunt down a staff member somewhere in the recreation area and plead our case.
We hadn’t even gotten the four stabilizers deployed when an older couple in a golf cart barrel into our site demanding to know what we’re doing. It’s the campground hosts and the woman is not pleased nor is she friendly (the man remained seated in the golf cart and never said a word).
I proceed to explain our situation and my attempts to contact someone, anyone, about our plans. Calmly and politely, I explained that we intended to unhook the trailer and then find someone to ask permission rather than circle around the grounds with the trailer in tow. I even offered to move it immediately to a parking area. She really didn’t want to hear any of it, preferring to interrupt me and repeatedly lecture me on the inappropriateness of our actions. It was not a good start.
Eventually she relented. The chastisement ceased and we were allowed to leave our trailer at the site. My wonderful wife would smooth things over a bit more afterwards, but wow, what an ugly way to start our stay. Thank goodness we were able to disappear for the next few hours and lose ourselves in some pretty rocks rather than let this unpleasant first impression foment.
Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site at a Glance
A brief look at satellite imagery reveals a rather barren landscape here. Oh, they’ve tried to grow some trees, but you’ll be hard-pressed finding any persistent shade on campsites. And even if you do, it’ll soon enough disappear since that pesky sun keeps moving.
You’ll also see that there is plenty of water around, namely the Missouri River as it transitions from Hauser Lake. Lots of water but no beaches. The river is dammed downstream filling the valley but the campground itself remains on high ground. Unfortunate for swimmers but fine for boaters.
The campground at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site is a loosely structured amalgam of four loops. Two of those loops are standard RV sites, one loop is for group camping with individual sites, and finally a small tent only loop.
Internet sources, including so-called official websites, are a bit confusing as to the campsite numbers. Sites in the group loop get counted twice leading to a misleading total. Truth is, there are 47 total campsites of which 36 are standard RV sites (all back-ins), 6 are group area sites (also back-ins), and 5 are for tents only.
Amenities include vault toilets, a boat launch, a small marina/boat dock, and a short trail. Oh, and umm … cough … a campground host. What it doesn’t have is WiFi, campground store, a dump station or … checks notes … potable water.
Standard RV Campsites
While the semi-arid climate in the Helena valley makes for an open, mostly shadeless landscape, Devil’s Elbow lessens the blow by offering large, widely spaced campsites. So wide, in fact, that most can accommodate two large RVs (or RV and boat).
We shacked up in campsite 1 in A Loop. At the time we reserved in 2022, only A Loop allowed reservations. All remaining campsites were first come, first served. Looking now in 2023, it would appear that all sites are reservable.
Our campsite was representative of most standard RV lots. A large, double wide gravel pad, mostly level, providing ample space to set up your rig. Our sixteen-foot Geo Pro and Pathfinder tow vehicle were dwarfed by the pad.
Site 1 is one of four campsites in Loop A and six in Loop B that back onto the water. Or, more accurately, back onto the hill dropping down to the water. This vantage point gives them an unfettered view of the surrounding hills and the shenanigans on the water, both of which can be somewhat pretty.
Between each campsite pad is a roughly equal-sized grass space with a large firepit. During our visit in the first half of July, the grass was still green, though hardly lawn-like. I imagine these grassy areas eventually burn out from the sun and heat as I saw no indication of irrigation occurring.
None of the campsites, ours included, have any services. There is no water or power, nor sewer. This, of course, means generators and our neighbours were no exception.
Well, that’s not entirely true. They were an exception in that they ran their generator for hours in the hot afternoon sun so that their dog remained comfortable inside their air-conditioned trailer. The couple sat outside in the shade of their own RV listening to the incessant drone of their generator. I was not impressed.
And oh boy, was it hot. Having just spent hours in the sun hunting sapphires, we returned to our exposed campsite and promptly continued baking until the sun finally set behind the hills. With no electrical hookup or generator of our own (will NEVER happen), we had no escape.
The thought of having a campfire that night never even crossed our minds. With no evening breeze to speak of, the temperature remained elevated into the night. Sure, the beating sun was gone, but it still felt too warm to engage in fire worship. Even falling asleep was difficult.
Group Camping at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site
The group camping area at Devil’s Elbow is its own loop. Unlike some other campgrounds where group areas are hidden away in isolated spaces, this loop is just another part of the main campground. In fact, if the loop has not been reserved by a group, you are welcome to treat the individual sites within it as FCFS.
I quite liked this setup for group camping, though it can’t accommodate truly large groups. But the six individual campsites around a semi-circle loop is much nicer than just an open field as is too often the case.
The six campsites are quite similar to the non-group sites save for an even larger green space between them. A couple of the sites even look to have a bit more tree cover guarding them. It’s a nice little loop that I’d have gravitated to were it available for individuals.
In the central green space sandwiched between the campground road and the loop road, is an open-sided picnic shelter, vault toilet, and small parking lot presumably for day visitors.
The picnic shelter features a shingled roof over top of a concrete pad on which six metal picnic tables reside. It’ll protect folks from the sun and rain but offers no shelter from wind. Several garbage cans are available as well.
According to the government reservation website, the group camping area has both electrical hookup and water hookup. I honestly don’t know how accurate this information is. None of the six campsites have said hookups. I did see a single water spigot, but if power does exist, it must be associated with the picnic shelter. It very well could be, but at the time I was there snooping around I wasn’t thinking to specifically look for it.
Just outside of the picnic shelter is an upright metal charcoal barbeque and a large, steel firepit.
The vault toilet is identical to all the other such structures at Devil’s Elbow. I’ll discuss them further in the sections below.
Tent Only Camping at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site
The tent only area is quite nice, tacked onto the east rim of a small, nipple-like loop at the south end of Devil’s Elbow campground. It has a handful of trees that offer a bit of shade and a promise of greater height and shelter in the years to come.
There are five such sites reservable on the website, but you’d be hard pressed to discern them in person. The tent area is a cluster of seven parking spaces facing a green space on which tents are setup. The five individual tent sites aren’t obviously labeled as such, though location of firepits and shelters will help coming to correct conclusions.
The tenting green space, in turn, looks out over the Missouri River and the hills on the far bank. With the campground path system running along the river’s edge, it’s a sharp little tenting spot.
As mentioned, each site has a firepit and an individual shelter just large enough to cover a picnic table. These are great and save campers from having to haul and setup any additional shelters of their own. They’re also a good deal more robust in high winds.
As with the group loop, the tent loop also has a vault toilet.
I’ve never been shy of my dislike for pit toilets. If I have one high-maintenance fault, this would be it. I just find them gross. And I have enough trouble when away from the home throne, if you know what I mean.
That said, these spacious concrete vault toilets weren’t all that bad. Now, it was still early in the season, but considering the heat we experienced already in July they were decidedly not too odorous. That could worsen as the season rolls on, but it was a welcome surprise for me at the time.
The structures are simple. Concrete pads with concrete walls designed to look like wood on their exterior. Hell, the roof may be concrete too, for all I know. They’re tornado proof, that’s for sure.
Each has a women’s door and a men’s door. Inside each is a spacious, single toilet with lots of room for folks with accessibility constraints. Large bars affixed to the walls help with mobility. Only toilet paper is provided.
If I had one complaint, aside from them being vault toilets in the first place, it’s the lack of lighting. There are no windows nor electrical lighting in any of these structures. At night, they’re capital dee, dark. Bring your flashlight.
Another disconcerting addon to the pit toilets at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site was the signage inside each stall warning about human trafficking. I’m all for bathroom reading, but this was most definitely a new genre for me.
I’ve never seen such notifications anywhere else we’ve camped, and it really had me wondering what the hell goes on in this part of Montana. It’s both scary and sad.
Dump Station Situation
With a total of 43 RV sites, none of which have sewer service, it’s a bit surprising that there is no dump station at Devil’s Elbow. Considering the number of large RVs using this campground, not to mention several campsites housing to two units, it’s strange campers must find a dump station off premises.
The nearest such location is two and a half miles south at Lakeside Market & Gas where immediately north of the gas pumps is a dual sided dump station. There’s plenty of room here for large rigs to manoeuvre into position.
Use of this service is not complimentary. The cost, as of summer 2022, is $15 for a motorhome of any size, $10 for a single axel trailer, and $15 for a double axel trailer. I guess if your trailer needs more than two wheels, your poops are larger? Whatever the case, it’s not cheap to dump your waste.
In our situation, being only there for a single night, we not only didn’t use our onboard toilet (as per usual) but we chose not to empty our gray water tank. We had emptied at the previous campground and used very little in our short stay. Hauling a few dribbles of dishwater wasn’t going to ruin us.
Besides, we had no water on board to use anyway!
Potable Water Situation
With no dump station at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site, there wasn’t any obvious RV filling station either. But even if there had been, it wouldn’t have been accessible!
As I mentioned above, the group site had a single potable water spigot for campers to use. Similar water sources are found throughout the campground, typically near the vault toilets. But here’s the catch.
Not only do they all have signs stapled to them stating that the water is non-potable, but the pump handles themselves are padlocked shut. You cannot use this water at all.
The campground host explained that the State or the Bureau (I’m not sure who is in charge of this matter) does not test the onsite water. It therefore cannot assure it is suitable for human consumption.
This is not uncommon, and I’ve seen it at several of the provincial recreation areas and parks back home in Alberta. Budget cuts and all that. But at home, at least, the water can still be used by brave campers or those of us smart enough to boil it first.
Not here. There was absolutely not a drop of water, potable or otherwise, to be found in the campground. Unless you were filling to scramble down the hillsides to the actual river and scoop up a bucket yourself, you were out of luck.
You can, however, fill your RV with potable water at the Lakeside Market & Gas of dump station fame. Supposedly for free. With our trailer already detached, and only spending one night, we chose to sacrifice the life-giving liquid. Probably not the wisest decision considering how hot it was that day, but we managed to stay hydrated.
Boat Launch at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site
It didn’t take too long to figure out who uses this recreation area the most. As the afternoon wore on and the workday came to a close, a steady stream of pickups hauling motorboats arrived from the city. Even on a meaningless Tuesday, there were several boats in the water with folks fishing, being pulled in dinghies, or soaking up some rays and enjoying a few wobbly pops.
The boat launch is relatively basic. It’s a concrete slab sloping into the water. There’s really only room for one boat to enter/exit the water at a time, though plenty of space to line up in wait.
Immediately next to the launch is a short dock to help with loading and unloading boats. You’d find it difficult to fish from this dock, both due to its location and short length as well all the activity it endures.
Slightly upriver from the launch, along the west bank is a small marina. There’s room for a dozen or so boats, depending on their size, to moor here. Ideal for taking a break or if you’re staying a few days and don’t want to take your boat out of the water every time you go back to your campsite.
Access to the launch is from a one-way loop that swings around from two large parking lots. There is plenty of space in these lots for single vehicles (short spaces) and boat trailers and tow vehicles (deep spaces). This is convenient for groups of friends or family to meet at the river for a bit of fun on the water.
Across from one of these parking lots, and next to the campground host’s campsite, is a fish cleaning station. It looks not unlike the group camping picnic shelter, though likely a bit shorter. It’s a covered concrete pad with a gutting table in the middle.
The Missouri River boasts trout, walleye, and salmon.
Trails and Day Use Area
Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site has a small trail system that circumnavigates much of the campground. The bulk of it is paved and its location around the perimeter is handy for getting around on foot or cycle. It also leads to some reasonably appealing viewpoints.
This is especially true at the south end where the path system extends beyond the campground to a small day use picnic area. Here you will find two of the single, picnic table sized shelters like in the tent only area. They’re situated on gravel/dirt clearings overlooking the river to the south. Hauser Lake can be seen in the distance.
Strangely, there is no dedicated parking for these day use spots. I imagine the only option available is to park in the tent area parking lot and walk along the trail to the day use shelters.
Regardless, they make for a two lovely picnic spots.
The trail isn’t difficult to navigate, though it does gain some elevation near the day use areas. As it progresses up the east side of the campground, it passes alongside the marina, neither of which are visible from A Loop campsites up above.
Beyond the campground boundaries, the trail connects with a larger network of paved and dirt trails connecting roadside pullouts and day use areas both north and south of Devil’s Elbow.
I didn’t venture beyond the campground. It was a nice stroll around, but I was too bagged after our tough day in the sun to venture further afield. Still, it’s appealing to have some paths to explore beyond the campground if you’re stay is longer than ours.
Well, you already know that the campground hosts at Devil’s Elbow are active. And they’re certainly not hard to find. They’ll even find you in some instances.
Centrally located in the boat launch parking area of the campground, it looks as if there are two host campsites available. Neither show up as reservable on the booking website. If I recall, only one was being used when we were there.
The campground host campsite has … potable water … electricity … and sewer service. I mean, it would be an awful gig if they didn’t, but I still found it kind of funny that the entire campground is void of these services save for one, maybe two, sites.
The potable water, especially. Devil’s Elbow obviously has a source of potable water present, just not enough for the plebes camping there, I guess.
We didn’t see too much in the way of wildlife aside from birds. One chirper was snacking on some kind of insect in a juniper bush behind our campsite. That was nifty to witness. And the fact it stuck around long enough for me to get a good picture was even niftier.
Not much else was seen during our short stay, though birds of prey and water birds are likely to be seen at times. The booking website also warns of black widow spiders, prairie rattlesnakes, and bull snakes. And the usual scavenger culprits, raccoons, ravens, seagulls, and magpies live here too and will mess with your belongings if you’re not storing them properly.
The REAL Wildlife at Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site
In retrospect, a black widow or rattlesnake would have been preferable to the disruption we endured as we were attempting to fall asleep our one and only night at this camground.
Without question, boating is king at Devil’s Elbow. With those boats comes noise. Noise in the form of engines and noise in the form of happy people having fun. While not wholly unexpected, this is the most active we’ve seen any boat launch at a campground we’ve stayed at. I can only imagine what this place is like on weekends. Yikes.
That being said, one expects boat activity during the daylight hours, maybe into dusk, but certainly not at night, in the dark. Boy, did I ever get that assumption rectified!
At 10:00 we settled into our beds hoping for a decent sleep before our big chores and travel day. The air in our little trailer remained hotter than usual which left us all a restless. But as darkness took hold, we were slowly drifting into slumber.
Suddenly, loud voices could be heard from outside our trailer. Then loud music. Jolted to consciousness we soon discerned that the racket was coming from the water behind and below our campsite. Site 1, you see, overlooked the boat launch.
That music was not just any music, either. I soon recognized the tune blaring clear as a bell for all the campground to hear. It was “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine.
Now, depending on your age and musical tastes, that song title might mean absolutely nothing to you. On the other hand, if you know, you know. Oh, you definitely know.
The lyrics of the song’s powerful climax are, shall we say, blunt. They won’t be heard on the radio; I can assure you. It isn’t some inane pop song.
What’s more, there is absolutely no way in hell that particular song came on by accident. This wasn’t a fluke where the music app shuffle happened to land on an expletive-laden protest song just as the boat was approaching the boat launch.
The fact they never turned down the volume or, I don’t know, shut it off completely is further proof this was intentional. They continued to blast the song for what seemed like forever as they waited for someone to move the boat trailer into position to retrieve them from the water.
Midway through this debacle … you know what’s coming, don’t you … the campground hosts scurried down to the boat launch in their golf cart, high lumen flashlights exposing the perpetrators in the night! I couldn’t make out much of the verbal exchange, but it was heated. Moreso than during our first encounter with the host lady, though this time I was fully rooting for her.
Ultimately, nothing was done. The asshole boaters loaded their craft and left the campground. The campground hosts returned to their luxury campsite, and we once again attempted to sleep. It didn’t come quickly after such excitement. Besides, I now had that song stuck in my head. It’s in no way a lullaby.
That disruption of our sleep was the final straw. As I lay there staring at my trailer ceiling, those cutting lyrics repeating in my mind, I realized something ignominious had happened. I’d just experienced my first ever 1 Baby Dill Pickle out of 5 campground review.
Devil’s Elbow Recreation Site is undoubtedly popular. For the locals, it’s a nearby place to put your water toy into the river and have some summer fun in the sun or enjoy a picnic. I don’t begrudge them for doing so, though the after dark jackassery everyone can do without.
It was the culmination of disappointments and bad impressions that ultimately led to this ground-breaking rating. Am I being too hard? Maybe. Are some of my gripes beyond the control of the campground? Probably. Do I regret my rating already? Nope.
The lack of water, potable or otherwise, is a huge strike to begin with. The generators running for air conditioning all day, the grumpy campground host, the poor communication with authorities beforehand, the heat, the general lack of shade, no dump station, no playground, and finally the late-night musical interruption (entirely purposeful) all added up to the worst stop on our entire trip.
I can see the appeal of Devil’s Elbow for some. I’m sure it will remain busy for years to come. Just don’t expect me to return. I’d rather take my chances with a hotel stay in Helena rather than endure this campground again.