Camping, Hiking and Traveling in Montana
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Crystal Lake in the Big Snowy MountainsThe Big Snowy Mountains are another of the small ranges that dot central Montana. They are south of Lewistown Montana and area a fascinating mountain range for those interested in exploring new places. This is a significant range of mountains measuring as much as 10 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. The highest peaks are at 8,600 ft and there are many miles of ridge line that can be followed at 8,000ft or higher. The primary loop hike into the Big Snowy Mountains begins and ends at Crystal Lake and is officially recognized as the Crystal Lake National Recreational Trail. This is a fantastic loop trail that begins and ends at the campground. The hike is about 12 miles in length and starts with a tough 2,000 ft climb in the first three miles. After you reach the top it is easy hiking along the mountain tops. Be sure to take the side hike down to the ice cave to explore an unusual feature. There is no water available on this hike so be sure to take all you need with you.
The Crystal Lake Campground is a typical US Forest Service campground. It is laid out in a single large loop with campsites located on both the inside and outside of the loop. There are about 30 campsites total and, as is typical for USFS campgrounds, most sites are fairly close together. However, there is adequate privacy and a few sites are somewhat isolated. Each site has a picnic table and a circular steel fire pit. There is running water available seasonally but don't count on it early in the season or in the fall. For more information about camping at Crystal Lake contact the Lewis & Clark National Forest. The Forest Service charges a camping fee during the peak summer months but early and late season visitors are allowed to camp for free.
Crystal Lake itself is very interesting. This 45 acre lake is a natural feature found at about 5,700 ft elevation and is a very shallow lake. In the spring after snow melt the lake reaches a maximum depth of less than 15 feet. The Big Snowy Mountains are actually quite dry. They get good winter snows but no consistent rain in the summer, so, little water enters the lake after snow melt. Since the rocks underlying Crystal Lake are porous limestone, water seeps out of the bottom of the lake all year long. By late summer the water level falls dramatically and by fall the lake is little more than a large shallow pond. The open water of the lake is far from the shoreline and a broad expanse of soft mud surrounds the lake.
Crystal Lake is so shallow in the winter that it typically freezes solid, killing any fish that are in the water. Consequently, to provide fishing opportunities, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocks rainbow trout into the lake twice a year. These are typically small fish, usually about 8 inches in length, that grow quickly. Crystal Lake normally gets 1,000 fish stocked at a time and can provide excellent angling at times of the year. It is located in Montana's central Fishing District and standard regulations govern the lake. To learn about the fishery resource and any management changes to Crystal Lake visit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The low fall water levels not only shrink the size of the lake, but they make the remaining trout very vulnerable to predatory birds. Although there are patches of aquatic vegetation, the shallow clear water makes it almost impossible for the trout to hide successfully. This makes for great bird watching opportunities and Crystal Lake in the fall can be an excellent place to view Bald Eagles and other large raptors.
There is an excellent hiking trail that winds around Crystal Lake. This trail is about 1 3/4 miles in length and has very little elevation change. It is a great trail for almost anyone and alternates between forest and open areas. There are nice benches overlooking the lake that have been installed in several places that are great places to take a break and watch the lake. This is a great trail for bird watchers and other nature lovers.
Crystal Lake is quite easy to find. From Lewistown MT, take US Highway 87 north 8.7 miles to Forest Access sign (Crystal Lake Road). Turn left onto the graveled Crystal Lake Road and go about 5 miles to a Y intersection. Bear left and go 4 miles to Recreation Area sign. Turn left at sign, continuing on Crystal Lake Road, and go nearly 13 miles to the campground. The Crystal Lake Road begins as a well maintained two lane gravel road. As you approach the mountains the road narrows and the last 6 miles are single lane and paved. The roads are well signed and you will have no problem. If you are coming from Harlowton or points south, there is a well signed turn on US 191. Head east, following the signs until you reach the intersection with the road from Lewistown and turn south (right) and continue on to the lake. It seems odd that the lower sections of the road would be gravel and the upper paved. However, the last nearly 6 miles are single lane and are steep and twisty in places. There is a steep drop off right at the edge of the road so be sure to drive safely on this section.
The Big Snowy Mountains are often overlooked but they offer a lot of great recreation opportunities for those looking for an off the beaten path location. If you ever have the chance to visit the Big Snowy's be sure to do so and you will not be disappointed.