Camping, Hiking and Traveling in Montana
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Island Lake on the Beartooth Plateau
Island Lake is a beautiful high-mountain lake on the Beartooth Plateau that is easily accessed from the Beartooth Highway (US 212) just a few miles west of the Beartooth Pass. Sitting at 9,518' elevation, Island Lake covers 146 acres with a maximum depth of about 100ft. Island Lake is a very popular recreation area with a US Forest Service campground, a boat ramp and beach area and a trailhead that is a popular with hikers and backpackers.
To get to Island Lake take the well signed spur road that heads north from US 212 about 1 mile east of the Top of the World Store and Lodge. The well signed access road is about 25 miles east of Cooke City, MT and about 38 miles from Red Lodge, MT. The campground has 21 sites with vault toilets and drinkable water. The campground is often busy in the summer months and is often full. Try to arrive early in the day for the best selection of available campsites.
Island Lake is a destination for many who visit to enjoy the lake - one of many high mountain jewels found on the Beartooth Plateau. At 9,518' the lake is just below tree line and forests partially surround the lake shores. However, you do not have to travel to a much higher elevation to get above the trees and it is easy to climb higher from Island Lake. The trail head is one of the most popular for accessing the high country and hikers use Island Lake for everything from day hikes to multi-day backpack excursions.
While Island Lake is on the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, the lake itself is not in wilderness. The wilderness boundary is actually the Montana/Wyoming state line which is a few miles to the north of Island Lake. If you are planning a backcountry fishing trip to the area be sure you understand where the state line is and make sure you have the proper fishing permits.
From Island Lake there are several routes that make great day hikes or short overnights. A day hike to Night Lake, Flake Lake, Mutt and Jeff Lakes and Becker Lake and back will cover about 7 ½ miles and is a great way to get a sense of what hiking in the high country is all about. Since this is an out-and-back hike you can turn around at any point so you can make the hike any length you choose.
Another excellent hike is from Island Lake to Beartooth Lake which will take you past Night Lake, Flake Lake, Beauty Lake, Claw Lake, Shallow Lake, Marmot Lake and Horseshoe Lake in an 8 ½ mile hike. This is a really fun hike if you can arrange two vehicles - one at Island Lake and the other at Beartooth Lake.
You can also use the Island Lake trailhead as an entry into the nearly 950,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. There are endless possibilities for exploring the area both through the usually well maintained trail system or through the off trail hiking that can take you to areas rarely if ever visited by humans.
The season is short at Island Lake. It is not uncommon to find snow and ice into July and by Labor Day it is not uncommon to have fall snow storms setting in. I once experience 14? of fresh snow on Labor day which kicked off a 10 day backpacking trip which saw us receive snow on 8 of our 10 days. In all honesty, there were a couple of times I questioned the wisdom of taking a wilderness trip in those conditions. I am older and wiser today and I would never take a trip facing the oncoming winter storms again.
No matter if you visit Island Lake as part of a driving tour of the Beartooth Highway, an easily accessed high mountain lake, or as a great National Forest campground or as a starting point for an exploration of the Beartooth Plateau, every visit to Island Lake is a special experience.