Taking Cover in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

My hike to Mystic Lake and Island Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

 Monday July 19, 2010


I always put a lot of time and effort into planning my trips out west. In fact, I probably do more research than is socially acceptable.  But, I want to make sure I see and do everything that I want to, since I know it can take a while for me to return.  After all, I live in Western New York, about a 24 hours’ drive from Denver, which I often consider my entry to the west.

In 2009 I went on a 3-week vacation to the southwest. So, the following summer I decided to return to my favorite places in the mountains.  I planned on focusing on Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks, but I wanted to spend one day somewhere else that I hadn’t been.  I spent some time deciding between the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on the Wyoming-Montana border and the Wind River Range about an hour and a half southwest of Jackson Hole.  I wanted to fit in one good, long day hike before moving on to the National Parks.  I didn’t want it to be too difficult since I planned on it being my first hike of the trip, and I usually try to work up to the more difficult hikes.

Anyways, I ended up deciding on the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness following several recommendations on Backpacker Magazine’s message boards.

I arrived in Red Lodge, Montana after three long days on the road. It is a cool touristy hamlet beneath several mountains that I had been driving towards for quite a while.  Red Lodge is like many other small ski resort towns.  It is full of hotels, shops, and restaurants.  It has easy access to the mountains for skiing, hiking, and other outdoor recreation options.  It’s also less than 70 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

I found a hotel room in Red Lodge, Montana. Then I grabbed dinner at a restaurant named Bogarts and readied my backpack for the following day’s hike before going to bed.

The following morning I was up early and on the road before 7:00 a.m. I was heading to the West Rosebud Trailhead, which is the starting point for multiple trails within the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.  My drive to get there was terrible.

I had to travel less than fifty miles, but it ended up being the hardest drive I had ever made. The first half of the trip wasn’t bad, but once I turned off Route 78 things got nasty.  For twenty miles I bounced along rocky dirt roads.  It got more gravelly, rocky, and bumpy the farther I went.  There were also a lot of curves and turns and I surely would have gotten lost if it weren’t for the GPS directions that I got from my phone.  It was a miracle that it worked in the middle of nowhere.  I was afraid I was going to pop a tire, get stuck, or get lost.  It took an hour and a half, but I finally reached my destination.

I parked in a small parking lot and then walked past a small cluster of houses on my way to the trailhead. There is a dam on Mystic Lake, the first lake I would see on my hike and the houses are for the people who work for the power company and work on the dam.  I started the 12-mile roundtrip hike to Island Lake at 8:50 a.m.

I followed the level path into a very dense forest. It was obvious I was strolling directly into prime bear habitat.  There were signs at the trailhead, but I was expecting that and used to that.  Much more than the warning signs, it just felt like bear country to me.  It was very quiet and I felt very alone.  I had seen several cars in the trailhead parking lot, but I wouldn’t see a soul for miles.  It was also deceivingly dark due to the thick canopy of trees overhead.  I banged my hiking poles together often, which made an unnatural metallic sound to alert the bears of my presence.  There were bears out there, that I knew, but thankfully I didn’t see any.

After a couple of miles the incline became more noticeable. I began to climb out of the cover of the dark woods.  That alone, was comforting.  Dirt switchbacks led me to the base of a rocky exposed ridge that I would have to climb up and over.  It was the steepest portion of the hike, but it still wasn’t too difficult.

I reached an amazing vista atop the ridge. The wondrous, royal blue Mystic Lake was laid below me.  It was a true beauty.  There were grand mountains on its flanks.  Granite Peak, the tallest mountain in Montana, is among the mountains that surround the lake.  I had climbed about 1,200 feet up so far and decided to take a break for a few minutes to catch my breath and take in the fantastic view.

Mystic Lake
Mystic Lake


The lake stretched out before me with the Mystic Lake Dam to my near right. The lake is a natural one, but the dam has increased its size and depth.  It was a little strange seeing a dam fairly far out into the wild.  However, when I learned that the dam has actually been there long before the area received its wilderness designation, I decided I couldn’t really complain about it.

Mystic Lake Dam
Mystic Lake Dam


Soon I started my descent to the shore of Mystic Lake. It didn’t take long to go down the opposite side of the rocky ridge.  It was nice to enjoy impressive views of the lake along the way down the trail.

Once I reached the lake I took another leisurely break upon a small sandy beach. I had a snack there, took some photos, and enjoyed simply relaxing there.  Listening to the water gently slurp its way up the sand was comforting, especially compared to trudging through the dark, seemingly bear-infested, forest.

View from the Mystic Lake beach
The view from the beach

I left the beach and rejoined the trail to head towards Island Lake. The pathway wound back and forth between the forest and the eastern shore of Mystic Lake.  I passed over a handful of thin creeks on their way into the lake.

I walked past a few backcountry campsites. There were several small backpacking tents and tarps set up in the woods. For the first time, I saw numerous bags of food suspended from ropes tied to trees.  This reiterated the presence of bears.

I continued, with a heightened sense of alertness. I felt like my eyes and ears were working harder than normal.  I also continued to make noise with my hiking poles and occasionally yelled the customary “hey bear.”

There was a small wooden bridge near the end of Mystic Lake and then I reached its end. I had walked along its scenic shore for nearly three miles.  Right after saying goodbye to Mystic Lake I climbed a small dirt hill, sparsely covered by trees.

On the opposite side of the hill was Island Lake. It is a smaller, attractive lake surrounded by thick evergreen forests.  The hulking mountains I saw from the ridge over Mystic Lake looked considerably closer and more imposing.

Island Lake
Island Lake

I saw a couple of hikers, the first ones of the day, on the other side of a gushing creek that connected the two lakes. I stopped there to photograph Island Lake and took a closer look at the weather.  The temperature had noticeably dropped, the wind had picked up, and dark clouds had begun to spread across the sky.  It felt like a storm was coming and that it would likely arrive sooner than later.

Cloudy Granite Peak

I started the hike back toward the trailhead at a faster, more deliberate speed. Within a few minutes rain started to fall.  I stepped under a tree and sealed my camera in its case within my backpack and put the rain cover on my pack.  Then I resumed my fast paced hike.  I didn’t mind a little rain, but I was almost six miles from the trailhead and I was expecting the storm to get much worse before it would get better.  I found out very soon that I would be right.

Just a few minutes after the rain began, lightning shot across the sky. The lightning was immediately followed by ground-trembling thunder.  The bad thing was that the thunder was getting louder, closer, and coming more often.  I wasn’t a few miles from a big storm; it was right on top of me.

It looked like the rocky ridge above Mystic Lake was in the middle of a war zone. The lightning appeared to be coming down on the exposed ridge that was directly in my path.  I was almost out of the woods, near the beach, and the storm was raging with a fury.  There was no way I was going to try my luck hiking over that ridge to reach the trailhead any time soon.  So, instead I figured it would be safest to remain in the forest.

I hunkered down under some pine trees for a while. I sat on top of my backpack for insulation just in case (I had read that it’s a good idea in a thunderstorm).  I also figured I might as well try to get comfortable, since I could be there a while.  I ate a granola bar and sat and waited patiently.  I was a little scared and a little bored, but I stayed mostly dry under the trees.

After close to an hour the storm was reduced to a sprinkle and the lightning had ceased. I emerged from the forest and walked to the beach where I met a few backpackers.  They had just come out from under a rocky ledge.  They had a dog with them and said they were camping nearby for the night.  We all agreed that the worst of the storm was over.

I headed up the ridge quickly since I was still a bit nervous. However, that didn’t stop me from pulling out my camera for a couple more quick photos of the stunning lake.  Clouds concealed the surrounding summits and caused the water below to appear a milky gray.

Storm over Mystic Lake

I headed down the opposite side of the ridge and made my way through the thick forest toward the trailhead. I had to put my raincoat on a few times due to the inconsistent rainfall.  Just after 3:00 p.m.  I reached the trailhead.  So the hike took me a little over six hours, which isn’t bad considering how much time I had to spend waiting out the storm.


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8 thoughts on “Taking Cover in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Add yours

  1. Isn’t the Beartooth Plateau just beautiful? I love it there!

    Though I’m a little sad to hear about the state of the road, as this hike is on my to-do list. I don’t think my car would make it up there.


      1. Don’t blame you one bit, every canyon offers its own unique experience. It’s never fun going through tough times but it sure makes it more memorable. Come check us out on your next visit! We offer recommendations and route suggestions. We would be more than happy to help you out! It is a big place, if you only get to come every now and than you better go to a good one 😉 thanks Matthew


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