“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
~ Lewis Carroll, ‘
This is a long overdue trip report from a hike I did in the Beartooth mountains last year. I’ve got to say I was blown away by the rugged beauty of this range. Jagged granite peaks, sweeping glacier carved valleys, turquoise lakes; my only regret was not having more time. That being said, it just provides me with that much more incentive to return in the not too distant future.
At a Glance
Distance: 55 miles (89 km) approx.
Start: Lake Fork Trailhead
Finish: Colter Pass
Time: 4 days
When?: Mid-September, 2016
Getting There & Away:
- The Lake Fork Trailhead is situated about 11 miles out of Red Lodge, MT. I got a ride there from Billings (about 1hr 30 min) courtesy of a Korean lady by the name of Misook. Looking back on this particular trip, Misook’s kindness, generosity and unique sense of humour, are amongst the things I remember most. If you happen to be reading, thanks again Misook!
- Post-hike, I hitched from Colter Pass back to Red Lodge via HWY 212.
Maps / Information:
- I pieced together this shortish route based on information from Summitpost.org and a couple of very useful Caltopo routes from a hiker by the name of “LarryBoy.” I’d call it a reconnaissance-type hike; really only scratching the surface of what the Beartooth range has to offer.
- This was the third hike of my most recent trip to the States. The first two were traverses of Colorado’s Sangre De Cristo Range and Badlands National Park. I followed the Beartooth hike with a ramble through Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
- Some easy trail walking at the beginning and end, mixed together with extended sections of challenging cross country hiking and scrambling.
- Anyone considering this trip should ideally have a good amount of off-trail hiking experience.
An abbreviated first day saw me set off from the Lake Fork trailhead around 6pm. I hiked for just over an hour, during which time I saw three moose, before making camp on the southern side of the creek.
The initial section along the Lake Fork Trail was easy walking on a well defined path. Great views from just above Keyser Brown lake. After a few hours of mostly gradual climbing, I reached a snowy Sundance Pass (45.10429 / -109.56855) and was treated to more impressive vistas to the west.
The sky was clear, but conditions were both cold and very windy. I descended down snow-covered switchbacks to reach Fork Rock Creek. From this point the path ended, and I ascended steeply north and then north west to Ship Lake. The winds were still blowing strongly, but I found a sheltered spot (45.11557 / -109.5929) to have a bite at eat, and plan my route up Bowback Pass.
This was a tough scramble. A combination of ice and loose rock made for very slow going. With storm clouds moving in, I eventually reached the pass (45.11868 / -109.61604) by mid-afternoon and was afforded a fantastic view back to the east.
From the notch, I descended on more gradual, snow-free terrain past Lake Susanne. A couple of hours later I made camp (45.12156 / -109.64726) in the trees a little west of Elephant Lake.
The third day ended up being shorter than expected, due to a combination of some tough cross-country terrain and inclement weather. I began proceedings by heading down the valley via the north side of Elephant Lake.
Staying high above the true right side of the creek, I made tortoise-like progress; in hindsight it may have been easier terrain on the other side of the valley. I eventually descended steeply to the beautiful Rainbow Lake. Just SW of there I linked up with a well-defined trail that led to Lake at Falls (not a typo).
Midway between Lake at Falls and Echo Lake, the main trail doglegged south (45.12685 / -109.73491) over a wooden footbridge. I continued west, following the course of Granite Creek for about a mile to Echo Lake. By the time I arrived it was closing in on 3pm. With storm clouds headed in my direction and a potentially tough climb ahead, I decided to treat myself to an early finish.
It turned out to be an excellent decision. After setting up camp (45.13003 / -109.74599), I enjoyed a quick dip in the lake, followed by a Sumo-size meal of beans, cheese and corn chips. As a bonus, my early stopping time afforded me the chance to finish almost half of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. It was a book that I had first read as a teenager back in Australia some thirty years ago. Snug under my sleeping quilt, warm food in my belly, immersed in an incredible story of survival; I listened to the sound of steady rain on my tarp. I recall that my final thoughts before falling asleep were of gratitude.
The day began with a steepish cross country climb NW from Echo Lake. After topping out, I collected some water from a crystal clear stream (45.1415 / -109.75458) and began what was probably the most scenic stretch of the trip. A multi-hour traverse of a boulder filled valley, lined with impressive granite peaks on either side. Bathed in sunshine, the hiking was challenging at times, but the vistas were amazing and as with the previous two days, I seemingly had the whole place to myself.
I eventually made it to the Lowary Lake, situated in the shadows of Granite Peak (Montana’s highest mountain). Is it just me, or do the views you’ve had to work for always seem to resonate that little bit more? If the scenery is pretty, that’s just icing on the cake. That being said, who doesn’t like icing on their cake at the end of a long, tough stretch of hiking?
Continuing onwards through more rocky and snowy terrain, I eventually reached the base of Granite Peak. I had hoped to do a side trip to the summit, however, with yet another afternoon storm heading in my direction, it was an easy decision to continue south towards Sky Top and Cairn lakes.
I ended the day camped on the northern side of Rough Lake at a little over 10,000 ft (45.12191 / -109.81836). The last hour of hiking was done in steady rain, however, this was just an appetizer for what was to come. Literally moments after I had finished pitching my tarp, the wind picked up and it started to bucket down. Over the next few hours it continued to pour, but warm and dry under my shelter, all I could think of was what a fantastic day of hiking it had been. In my mind, I was already planning a return visit to the Beartooths.
The following day I awoke to clear skies. Even after all these years, I still get a kick out of opening my eyes the morning after a huge storm, to find that all my gear is still dry and my tarp held up well. Little confirmations from Mother Nature that you’re doing OK.
From my campsite above Rough Lake, I made my way west to Upper Aero Lake. From there I continued SW to Lower Aero lake, skirting around it’s southern tip, where I stopped for some granola with a view.
From this point I continued west to the Broadwater River. The last part of this stretch was down a steep rocky gully. An easy ford later and I was back on a well defined pathway (45.09873 / -109.88519). I then headed south on clear and easy to follow trails, eventually reaching the finish at Colter Pass by mid-afternoon. It took a further three hours before I finally got a ride back to Red Lodge.
As luck would have it, it was buffet night at the Red Lodge Pizza Co restaurant. Suffice to say I did some damage. After eating my and four other peoples’ fill, I picked up a couple of pints of ice cream to go and waddled off to a nearby hotel. The following morning, I would begin hitching down to Riverton, Wyoming; the jumping off point for the final leg of my US journey.