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RED ROCK LAKES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE - Thank God for the road, that long, dusty gravel stretch into and across the Centennial Valley, an occasionally bone-rattling, teeth-jarring out-of-the-way path to a birder's paradise.

If that road ever gets paved, the Centennial Valley will surely change.

But for now the Centennial remains an isolated valley in Montana's southwest corner, a quiet home to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

At least 232 species of birds have been recorded at Red Rock, but the refuge is most famous as the recovery site of trumpeter swans, a species once thought extinct.

Paradoxically, the refuge is world-known but little visited, said refuge manager Danny Gomez. He estimates just 15,000 to 20,000 people visit annually, this in a place only about 40 miles from Yellowstone National Park, which pulls 3 million people through its gates each year.

"We're just off the beaten path," said Gomez, who's been the manager for 14 years.

Nearly two-thirds of the refuge's 45,000 acres is designated wilderness.

"It's certainly a wildland setting," Gomez said.

Refuge staff, valley residents and visitors appreciate the "primitive, rural landscape," he said.

"I really don't know anyone who wants the road paved," Gomez said. "They're concerned about what might happen, if that might change the valley, the development that might follow paving."

The refuge Web site urges visitors to check the spare tire and top off the gas tank before coming, and to drive high-clearance vehicles during rainy or snowy periods. There are no services in the valley.

What the valley holds instead is immense quiet, a quiet sometimes so complete it seems a physical presence, like an empty audio palette on which birds paint their music.

Hunkered in rushes beside the lake, it's so quiet one notices the breeze softly tousling the grass. Then there's the honk of a Canada goose across the water, the warble of a meadowlark behind you, the keening of a red-tailed hawk overhead.

"Oh, it's just amazing what you see here, amazing," said Jane Rock, a birder from Missoula. "We camped a couple nights at Upper Red Rock and the birding has just been spectacular."

"And nobody around," added Jane's sister, Linda Johnson, who was visiting from Iowa.

Thanks to habitat ranging from alpine wetlands to 10,000-foot peaks in the Centennial Mountains, the refuge holds an incredible wildlife array besides birds.

Moose and antelope forage within sight of each other. Mink and weasels are seen along the lake shore. Coyotes are commonly seen. Cougars are infrequently sighted in the forest.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the national wildlife refuge system, and the diverse habitat preserved at Red Rock is as good an example as any of why Teddy Roosevelt created the system.

The best time to visit the refuge is May through September. Roads are closed by snow in winter. Summer rains can make roads all but impassable so check weather and road conditions before coming.

From Monida, on the west side of the Centennial Valley, it's 28 miles of gravel to Refuge Headquarters, located about midway between Upper and Lower lakes.

Coming in from the east, visitors cover about 24 gravel miles from Henry's Lake to Upper Lake Campground.

Upper Lake Campground is sheltered, somewhat, from the valley's notorious winds by willow trees and brush along the lake shore and the foothills of the Centennial Mountains behind it.

Lower Lake Campground is on a table-flat, wide-open site. Its virtues are unlimited vistas and birding right outside the tent screen.

Camping is free at both sites, but pack out what you bring in; there's no garbage collection here.

Bring mosquito repellent and layers of clothes including rain gear: Weather can vary wildly.

Canoeing is allowed on Upper Lake after July 15 (it's prohibited earlier to protect nesting trumpeter swans), but anyone venturing onto the lake should do so in early morning.

Afternoon winds can be fierce enough to leave canoeists wind bound on the shore opposite camp, Gomez said. Usually, but not always, the winds subside in the evening, and stranded boaters can return to camp. Those who don't want to camp may find lodging at Elk Lake Lodge, a few miles north of the refuge. A rustic, family owned lakeshore resort, the place generates its own electricity and maintains a bank of batteries.

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