Campfire Lake is a beautiful mountain lake nestled below dramatic mountain ridgelines near the center of the Crazy Mountains. Trailheads on both the east and west sides of the Crazy Mountains offer options for climbing to the lake. The hike is 7 – 13 miles one-way depending on the route you choose.
About Campfire Lake
Sitting below tree line at 8,600 ft elevation, Campfire Lake is the source of the Middle Fork Sweet Grass Creek which cascades out from the eastern edge of the lake. The lake measures 35.5 acres and MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) reports a maximum depth of 30 ft with 71% of the lake less than 15 ft deep.
The lake sits in a dramatic bowl surrounded by towering walls of mountains. Much of the shoreline has tree cover mixed with shrubs, brush, and other low growth. It’s pretty easy to hike around the lake and it’s a hike that’s well worth the effort.
There are multiple established campsites around the lake so be sure to scout for a good one. With so many to choose from try to avoid creating a new campsite and avoid building any new fire rings. L:ook for a site where you can get good views of the sky because the star-filled night sky is a wonder to behold. The lake is regularly stocked with Yellowstone cutthroat trout so fishing is usually pretty good.
Directions to Campfire Lake
Four trailheads can be used to get to Campfire Lake. Two are accessed from US 191 north of Big Timber, MT on the east side of the Crazy Mountains. The other two trailheads are on the west side of the Crazies and are reached from US 89. One is outside Clyde Park, MT, and the other outside Wilsall, MT. All of the trailheads are on the Custer Gallatin National Forest and are reached by driving gravel roads.
Trailheads on the west side of the Crazies
Cottonwood Lake Trailhead – 15 miles northwest of Clyde Park, MT. Begin by following Cottonwood Lake Trail #197 for a little more than a mile to the intersection with Trespass Creek Trail #268. Follow this trail northward for about 4.1 miles to the intersection with the North Fork Elk Creek Trail #195. Continue upward for less than a half mile to reach the divide into Campfire Lake at 9,500 ft. From here it’s less than 1.25 mile dropping more than 900 ft to reach the lake. The total distance from the trailhead to the lake is 6.9 miles.
Porcupine Ibex Trailhead – 16 miles northwest of Wilsall, MT. Head east on the Porcupine Ibex Trail #267 for 3 miles to the junction with North Fork Elk Creek Trail #195. Climb steadily up the trail to 9,100 ft to reach the intersection with the Trespass Creek Trail. Continue upward for less than a half mile to reach the divide into Campfire Lake at 9,500 ft. From here it’s less than 1 1/4 mile dropping more than 900 ft to reach the lake. The total distance from the trailhead is 7.5 miles.
Trailheads on the east side of the Crazies
Big Timber Creek Trailhead – 23 miles northwest of Big Timber, MT. This is the longest route to the lake and has the most climbing. From the Halfmoon Campground follow Big Timber Creek Trail #119 for about 6 miles climbing to 10,000 ft where it crosses a divide and becomes the Sweet Grass Creek Trail #122. Follow this trail downward for nearly 4.5 miles to the junction with the Middle Fork Sweet Grass Creek Trail #123. Turn up and follow trail #123 for about 4 miles to Campfire Lake. The total distance from the trailhead to the lake is 13 miles with about 5,000 ft of climbing.
Sweet Grass Creek Trailhead – 41 miles northwest of Big Timber, MT. From the trailhead follow Sweet Grass Creek Trail #123 into the mountains for about 5 miles to the junction with Middle Fork Sweet Grass Creek #123. Follow this trail for about 4 miles to Campfire Lake. The total distance from the trailhead to the lake is 9 miles.
Campfire Lake Fishing
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) stocks Campfire Lake with rainbow trout on an 8-year stocking schedule. The next scheduled plant is for 5,310 fish to be stocked in 2024. The fish are about 2″ in length when they are stocked and it takes a couple of years for them to grow to catchable size. In 1991, FWP reported that 2-year-old fish averaged 9 inches in length.
Plan on typical mountain lake fishing. Both fly anglers and spin fishers have reported good success. Most of the lake has shallow shoreline areas and it sometimes seems like the only rising fish are in the middle of the lake!
If you feel energetic, Moose Lake is located below Campfire Lake and is home to a population of wild rainbow trout. MFWP has sampled the lake several times and captured rainbows each time. There’s no record they were ever stocked and MFWP speculates they traveled upstream to get into the lake. Unfortunately, the hike from Campfire Lake to Moose Lake drops 800 feet in a mile and a half.
Mountain Goats Galore!
The Crazy Mountains are home to one of Montana’s largest and healthiest mountain goat populations. Goats are native to the high mountains of Western Montana but they’re not native to the Crazy Mountains. In the 1940s biologists transplanted them and they have thrived since then. Today they number in the hundreds and MFWP issues a limited number of hunting permits each year.
Mountain goats have remarkable adaptations that allow them to live in the steepest and roughest mountain terrain. Normally they are almost always spotted in the steepest and most remote terrain. However, at times they move to lower elevations to seek shelter, food, vital minerals/salts, or for other reasons. Campfire Lake is one of the places they move down to and in the spring and early summer you might find them to be abundant right at the lake. In fact, they’re often found right in established campsites where they are remarkably calm and unafraid.
Campfire Lake is popular for out-and-back backpacking and also for backpackers crossing the Crazies. The route from the east to west sides of the mountains is a great experience. If possible, arrange with another party to meet and do a “key swap” along the trail. This will allow both parties to avoid doing the long vehicle shuttle that is otherwise necessary