Beartooth Lake is a spectacular high-mountain lake located along the famous Beartooth Highway (U.S. Hwy 212). The lake is a popular destination that offers fishing, boating, camping, hiking, and backpacking in a pristine alpine setting. Beartooth Lake is immediately adjacent to Hwy 212 which is both good and bad because it makes access very easy but it also promotes heavy use.
Beartooth Lake is easy to find. It’s about 23 miles east of Cooke City (40 miles west of Red Lodge) on the Beartooth Highway (Hwy 212) The lake is visible from the highway and the turn to the lake is well marked. The main development is a US Forest Service campground with 21 sites that are available on a “first come” basis. Be aware that the campground is often full during the summer months. In addition to the campground, there is a boat launch area and a major trailhead for backpackers exploring the Beartooth Plateau backcountry.
If the Beartooth Lake campground is full you can find additional options in our guide to Beartooth Highway Camping & Campgrounds.
Beartooth Lake Camping
The campground at Beartooth Lake is operated by the Shoshone National Forest and administered from their Clark’s Fork District Office in Cody, WY. Camping is available for tents, trailers, and RVs with vault toilets and potable water available. The campground does not offer hook-ups and is not handicap accessible. There is a nightly camping fee with a maximum stay limit of 16 days.
This is bear country and the Shoshone Forest has implemented special food storage requirements that read “All food and attractants, pop, beer, canned goods, toothpaste, lip balm, game meat, garbage, dog food, livestock feed, etc. need to be suspended at least 10 feet high and 4 feet from a post or tree or stored inside a vehicle, bear-resistant container, or hard-sided trailer.” Always follow these storage procedures!
At 8,900′ Beartooth Lake is subject to severe weather conditions any time of the year. While it is not common to have an August snowstorm, it’s not unusual. Be sure to account for changing weather when you visit. Also, campers need to be aware that it can often get quite cold at night (sometimes well below freezing) – even in the middle of summer.
One of the great things about camping here is the night sky. This is essentially a wilderness area and there are no lights in the area to diminish the views and, at nearly 9,000 ft, the skies are less dense and much clearer than almost every other area in the lower 48 states. I don’t have the words to describe how incredible the night skies are! Here’s an account of the night skies at Anvil Lake, a backcountry lake at a similar altitude.
Hiking and Backpacking
Beartooth Lake is a jumping-off point for many hikers and backpackers. There are a number of different trails and hiking opportunities that range from short day hikes to multi-day wilderness experiences. This is an excellent gateway into the surrounding high country wilderness
Beartooth Lake is situated between two other trailhead areas; Island Lake to the north and Clay Butte to the south. There are trails that connect these three sites and hikers can choose trips that use vehicles at different access points or can start and finish right from Beartooth Lake.
The trailhead at Beartooth Lake can be hard to find. It’s at the north end of the site and many hikers find it easiest to park at the main picnic area rather than driving in to the actual trailhead where parking is limited.
This is a great place to get an introduction to the high-altitude wilderness. Since you are beginning your hike at high elevation there is not a lot of hard climbing to do on the nearby trails. In fact, this is a great place to bring kids. The trails will take you to a number of different smaller lakes and the scenery is incredible. For those who are confident in their backcountry hiking skills, there are many opportunities for off-trail hiking and exploration.
While there are a lot of different hikes here I’m not going to discuss specific trails. For lots of trail details I recommend you purchase one or more of the excellent hiking guidebooks that are available. (I’ve included a couple of suggestions below).
Fishing & Boating Beartooth Lake
Beartooth Lake is popular with both boaters and anglers. While the lake is open to motorized boating, it is much more popular for paddlers. The lake 110 acres with a maximum depth of 85ft. Beartooth Lake is the terminus of three lake systems draining down from higher on the plateau. From the lake’s outlet, Beartooth Creek begins a rapid descent to its junction with the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River. It can’t drop any faster than it does at Beartooth Falls, a 100 ft beauty of a waterfall that is reached by an easy hike on the trail at the outlet of the lake.
Beartooth Lake is a popular fishing destination. Like most of the lakes in the area, it’s populated by brook trout which easily reproduce to provide lots of fish. While many of the neighboring lakes only hold brook trout, Beartooth Lake has more variety. Each year Wyoming Game & Fish stocks the lake with 2,750 rainbow trout and 2,750 cutthroat trout. In addition, the lake has a small population of lake trout which have been stocked to try to reduce the population of brook trout. A few of these lake trout get very large and occasional reports of 20 pound plus fish being caught. However, fish this size are very much the exception and the average lake trout is well under 20 inches. The rainbow and cutthroat trout are often about a foot in length while the brook trout tend to be smaller.
The shorelines of Beartooth Lake are a mixture of coniferous forest and open meadows. For the most part, a shore angler can count on being able to fish most of the shoreline of the lake. Of course, anyone with a boat can access all the water of the lake.
Beartooth Butte Geology
When you visit Beartooth Lake your eyes will be drawn to the large butte dominating the opposite (west) shore of the lake. This is Beartooth Butte; a formation that has a completely different geologic origin than the surrounding area. During the Devonian period (420 – 360 million years ago) this entire region was covered by a vast sea. For several million years sediments deposited on that sea bottom were compacted tighter and tighter to ultimately become sedimentary rocks. The resulting layer of rock, named the Beartooth Butte Formation, was at least 150 ft thick and covered all of the Beartooth region. Today, the layer has been eroded away everywhere except here at Beartooth Butte.
The sedimentary rocks that make up Beartooth Butte are loaded with fossils from the various organisms that died and were buried in the ancient ocean. Geologists and rock hounds visit Beartooth Butte to sample rocks from the formation. Some of the oldest known plant fossils in North America can be found here.
Although Beartooth Butte is the namesake of the Beartooth Butte formation, remnants of the rock layer are found in other mountain locations in Montana and Wyoming. These locations are hundreds of miles apart but there is no doubt that they were once connected as part of the same inland sea. Learn more about Beartooth Butte Geology in this download.
There are a number of excellent books that can help you enjoy this area. I especially recommend:
Day Hikes in the Beartooth Mountains
Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Fishing the Beartooths – An Angler’s Guide
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness East [Cooke City, Red Lodge]