Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Blacktail Lake

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Blacktail Lake is a small mountain lake nestled in the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston, MT. The lake is 4.2 acres and sits at 8,750 ft elevation. It’s used by day hikers, backpackers and horse packers. While Blacktail Lake is the only lake in the West Boulder drainage that has a trail to it, it can be reached using three different trails that are in three different drainages.

Finding Blacktail Lake

Blacktail Lake is at the end of the Blacktail Lake trail (trail #105) which cuts off from the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337). The Blacktail Lake trail is only about 1/3 mile in length with an elevation gain of about 100 ft. It’s a well maintained trail that sees enough use that it is almost always easy to follow.

Trail Sing for Blacktail Lake trail
The trail to Blacktail Lake is well marked. The lake is only about 1/3 of a mile on a good trail.

The Blacktail Lake trail is reached from either end of the Blacktail Creek trail. The upper section of the trail approaches from the north and is about 3/4 mile in length from its intersection with the North Fork Deep Creek trail (trail #37) and the Elephanthead Mountain trail (trail #45). The North Fork Deep Creek trail comes up from Paradise Valley just south of Livingston while the Elephanthead Mountain trail originates in the Mission Creek drainage east of Livingston. Click on a trail name to get full directions.

Elephanthead mountain viewed from Blacktail Lake
Looking to the north you will find beautiful views of Elephanthead Mountain.

The Blacktail Creek trail also connects to the Davis Creek trail which begins at the West Boulder River trailhead. This section of trail is about 2 miles in length and climbs nearly 1,800 ft. You can get full info on this trail on our Davis Creek Trail page.

Camping at Blacktail Lake

There are several excellent campsites at Blacktail Lake. On the eastern side of the lake there is a large, well-established campsite that can accommodate multiple tents. While I’ve never seen it, there is ample evidence that this camp is used by horse packers.

The lake is in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and, especially when there are no other camping parties, you can expect a solitude experience. The clear skies and high altitude provides great stargazing.

This is prime bear country so be sure to take precautions with your food storage. You should always carry bear spray (and know how to use it) when you are hiking in the area.

Blacktail Creek Drainage
From the lake there are great views of the Blacktail Creek drainage. It’s a steep 2 mile hike down this trail to Davis Creek.

Fishing the Lake

Although the lake is fairly small, it has a maximum depth of 20 feet and sustains a good trout population. It was first stocked in 1945 and has been stocked periodically since then. Since the trout are unable to reproduce in the lake it relies on stocking to provide a fishable population. The current stocking plan calls for the lake to be stocked every 8 years. When first stocked the fish are quite small but they grow rapidly and after a few years they reach a pretty good size. 4 – 5 years after stocking it’s possible to get fish in the two pound range.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks publishes stocking data for the lake. Visit their site to get full information including recent fish stocking data for Blacktail Lake

The margins of Blacktail Lake are often quite shallow and feeding fish may be quite a distance from shore. This can present difficulties to fly anglers as there are limited areas that allow for long back casts. However, being able to fish in such a beautiful place makes up for any difficulties.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

North Fork Deep Creek Trail

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The North Fork Deep Creek trail (Forest Service Trail #45) takes hikers into the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston, MT. The trail heads into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness for about 5.5 miles and it climbs about 3,500 ft in that distance. The trail ends at an intersection with the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) and the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337).

The North Fork Deep Creek trailhead is the same as for the Suce Creek Trail. It’s one of the closest trailheads to Livingston and is very easy to find. Travel south from Livingston on US 89 for about 3.5 miles to the intersection with MT 540 – the East River Road. Take this left turn and travel 2.7 miles to the Suce Creek road. The road is on the east side of the highway leading toward the mountains. Take this well maintained gravel road for about 1.5 miles to a junction the right. The turn is well marked and there is a forest service sign for Suce Creek. Turn right and follow the road until it ends at the trailhead – about 1 1/4 mile.

The entire drive from the highway to the trailhead is through private property. Don’t leave the road and always respect the rights of the landowners.

Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek Trail

Be aware as you hike this trail that the route it follows is slightly different than what you will find on the maps of the area. In recent years the trail has been improved and rerouted in places. If you are using a mapping program to track your route it will often show you off trail. However, the trail is well-used and obvious. I recommend you follow the trail and not try to find the trail shown on maps.

This view into the Paradise Valley is from the trail while still in the Suce Creek drainage

From the parking area the trail is obvious, heading straight up the open field above the parking area. After a short climb through the meadow you enter forest and immediately reach the trail junction. The Suce Creek trail is the main trail and it continues very obviously while the North Fork Deep Creek trail cuts off to the right and is a much less used pathway. Look for the trail sign and intersection as soon as you enter the woods and you will have no problem finding the route.

The trail climbs steeply heading almost straight south until reaching the divide between Suce Creek and the North Fork at about the one mile mark. The trail gains about 900 ft in this first mile but it’s in great shape and is pretty easy hiking despite the climb.

The North Fork Deep Creek trail travels through several beautiful meadows. Wildflowers and scenic vistas are part of the reward for hikers.

From here the trail turns east and after another mile (and another 900 ft of climb) the trail opens up into a meadow that provides a preview of what’s to come. From here the trail begins to undulate a bit. It mostly continues to climb but sometimes drops downward. In fact, along the next couple of miles the trail looses and regains about 475 ft. while climbing another 1,050 ft so the total climb along this section is more than 1,500 ft.

Meadows of Wildflowers

The trail travels through a mix of forest and meadow and the views of the Absaroka Mountains and Paradise Valley are incredible. This is bear country so be sure to take proper precautions. Be noisy so a bear can hear you coming and always carry bear spray.

Looking into the Absaroka Mountains from the trail.

The last mile of the trail gets even steeper and the finish is a climb of about 1,300 ft in about 1 1/4 mile. Most of this is through vast open meadows filled with wildflowers. This is a beautiful hike but it’s exposed and can be very hot on a summer afternoon!

The trail is generally easy to follow in the meadows surrounding Elephanthead Mountain

The North Fork Deep Creek trail continues on to end at the trail junction where three trails join. The Elephanthead trail (#37) heads east, the Blacktail Creek trail (#337) heads to the south and the North Fork Deep Creek trail heads back to the west.

Elephanthead Mountain

As you approach the top Elephanthead Mountain dominates the skyline. Elephanthead is a popular destination for hikers but many choose to approach on the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) which comes up from Mission Creek on the other side of the mountain. It’s also possible to get here by hiking the Blacktail Creek trail but that is a long hike and it’s mostly backpackers who come in this way.

Elephanthead Mountain stands watch over the trail junction.

Elephanthead Mountain is the dominant feature at the top of the North Fork Deep Creek trail. From here hikers can find a route to the top of the peak. There is no marked trail but it’s not hard to find a route. While this is not a technical climb, Some find the final approach to be daunting.

The top of Elephanthead Mountain is at 9,423 ft elevation. The trail junction sign is at 8,900 ft so it is a climb of a little over 500 ft vertical. The distance will depend on the route you choose.

Hiking Beyond Elephanthead

Most hikers on the North Fork Deep Creek trail will turn around at this point. However, there are options for hiking further. The Elephanthead trail (#37) continues heading eastward into the Mission Creek drainage for about 5 miles to it’s trailhead. The Blacktail Creek trail (#337) heads south and intersects with the trail to Blacktail Lake (trail #105) where you can hike to the lake or continue on to join the Davis Creek trail (trail #38) in the West Boulder River drainage.

Good maps are important if you want to travel these trails and I recommend the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West [Gardiner, Livingston] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map (721).

Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek trail is a real treat. Although the climb is significant, the incredible scenery is a great reward. Whether you are out for a day hike or heading on a backpacking trip this is a trail you ought to check out.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

George Lake Trail in Paradise Valley

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George Lake is a small, rarely visited lake in Paradise Valley south of Livingston. The lake is only about 7 acres in size and sits at 7,900 ft elevation. George Lake is at the end of a 5 1/4 mile hike into the Absaroka Mountains in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The trail is open to mountain biking and is especially popular early in the season.

When I first visited George Lake it was a very rough hike and I wrote up an account that I shared with a good friend at his urging I included it in the site. Subsequently, A Hike to George Lake has proven to be a popular article. However, that story is missing a lot of the information I typically include so, here’s what you need to know.

The George Lake Trailhead

To get to the trailhead take us 89 south from Livingston for 9.5 miles and turn left (east) onto the Pine Creek Road. Head toward the mountains and in about 1.5 miles you cross the Yellowstone River. In another mile the road ends in an intersection with MT 540 – the East River Road. Turn right (south) and follow 540 for a half mile to the Pine Creek access road. Turn left toward the mountains and follow this paved road for 2.5 miles to the spur to the George Lake trailhead.

Entrance road to George Lake
The entrance to the George Lake trailhead parking area splits off from the Pine Creek road a short distance before the Pine Creek Campground. Note that the turn is right at a cattle guard on the main road.

This access road can be hard to find as it is very poorly signed and it cuts off steeply on a bad road. The turn is right at a cattle guard – if you reach or cross the cattle guard you have gone too far. There is a small sign but watch for the road. It is a rough drive up for a short distance to a lower parking area continue on a very short way to the primary parking lot.

Some low-clearance cars could have trouble with the access road. If you are concerned continue on the main road for a half mile to the Pine Creek trailhead and use the George Lake Tie Trail

George Lake trailhead parking area
The George Lake trailhead has nothing more than a parking area and a small information board.

The George Lake Tie Trail

When the George Lake trail was built it was a spur trail off the Pine Creek Trail. While this was an acceptable solution, the Forest Service recognized that it would be best to have a dedicated trailhead and the new parking area and trailhead were developed. However, the original trail still connects the two and is now called the George Lake Tie Trail.

Pine Creek Trail intersection with the George Lake Tie trail
About a quarter mile from the Pine Creek trailhead the George Lake Tie Trail splits off toward the south.

The trail is very easy to find. Start from the Pine Creek trailhead and in less than a quarter mile you will encounter the junction. Follow the George Lake Tie trail to the south for about a half mile to the intersection with the George Lake Trail. This well-signed intersection is less than a half mile from the George Lake trailhead. It is roughly 2/10 of a mile longer to hike using the Tie trail.

If you are starting from the George Lake trailhead it is straight up the trail for about 4/10 of a mile to this same intersection.

trail sign at trail intersection
The trail junction for the George Lake trail and the George Lake Tie trail is well signed.

The George Lake Trail

The trail to George Lake comes in two parts. From the trailhead to Cascade Creek the trail is well maintained and has seen significant improvements to facilitate mountain biking. However, from Cascade Creek to the lake it is a rougher trail that is not as well maintained and climbs quite steeply.

The trail starts out climbing and keeps it up as it gradually works southward. After a couple of miles it heads almost directly south and parallels the Paradise Valley. This portion of the trail is in great shape. There is enough use that the Forest Service keeps it maintained and cleared of downed trees.

The George Lake trailhead is at about 5,600 ft and the trail climbs to about 6,900 ft in the first two and a half miles. Unfortunately, after hitting 6,900 ft the trail begins to slowly drop as it approaches Cascade Creek. For about a mile the trail runs level or slightly downhill but as Cascade Creek approaches it drops steeply down to the creek. The creek is at 6,600 ft but the 300 ft of lost elevation seems like more – especially on the return trip.

Scenic view of the northern end of Paradise Valley
Hikers are rewarded with amazing views into Paradise Valley. This view is looking toward the northwest.

Hiking Above Cascade Creek

It’s a magical place where the trail intersects Cascade Creek. The pure clear mountain stream is rushing out of the Absaroka Mountains and the dense forest cover provides a cool shady refuge. It’s a great place to take a break. From here, the trail goes almost straight up to George Lake.

This section of trail can be a challenge. From Cascade Creek to George Lake the trail climbs about 1,100 ft in about a mile. Before this section of the trail was fully cleared and maintained it was a real mess. Very few hikers managed to make it to the lake in those days. My first visit to George Lake was a very trying experience that I’ve recounted in A Hike To George Lake. Thankfully, since then the trail has had significant improvement but is still a tough climb.

George Lake appears suddenly as you approach it. The trail leads through dense woods directly to the lake shore. A couple of fire rings and some historic trash show that the lake has had both current and past use. There is good elk hunting in the area and it is possible that the trash is from 50 year-old elk camps.

The trail ends here and if you want to go further it is all off trail and there are no logical destinations to shoot for. Most people enjoy the scenery and turn around to follow the trail back.

Fishing George Lake

The discussion about fishing in George Lake is very short. There are no fish in the lake so leave your rod behind. The lake is too shallow to support fish and fish don’t survive the winter. Although the lake level rises significantly early in the year, seepage drops the level every summer.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has stocked the lake in the past. The most recent stocking was in 2010 and a survey conducted in 2011 found that none had survived. It’s highly unlikely that George Lake will be stocked again.

South end of George Lake
This photo was taken when the lake was rather full. Note the fire ring in the foreground that is mostly underwater. In a few weeks it will be on dry land as the lake level drops.

History of the George Lake Trail

The following “history” is my recollection of what happened in the past. All of this comes from my memories stretching back nearly 40 years. I was not an active participant in any of what follows. However, I was always interested and paid attention. I did some work to try and get more info but only ran into dead ends. Here is how I remember it

The original trailhead for George Lake was on private land. This was not a problem as the landowners welcomed the public to use the trailhead. In the mid-1980s (I think – I’m working from memory and it’s been a long time!) new landowners closed off the historic trailhead access. Needless to say, this was not popular with locals.

Hiker climbing the George Lake trail
A hiker climbs the George Lake trail. This is a typical section of the trail before reaching Cascade Creek. We all owe a big debt to the local sportsmen who built most of the trail.

At the time there was an active sportsman’s group in Livingston – I think it was the Park County Sportsman’s Association (again working off old memories). They were instrumental in the development of the original trail and pressured the Forest Service to create a new trail to the lake. While the Forest Service had little interest, the public was unrelenting. Finally, club members, with USFS assistance, mapped out a proposed route.

Planning a route proved to be a lot easier than building the trail. The volunteer group essentially had to fund all of the expense and provide all of the labor. Their members worked for years on the new and it was essentially completed to Cascade Creek sometime in the mid-1990s(?). By this time the volunteer effort had been significantly reduced and they had a whole new fight.

These volunteers were traditional “Sportsmen” they hunted and fished and often reached their favorite backcountry sites using motorcycles. Their entire intent in building the new trail was to provide motorized access to George Lake. However, there was a growing constituency for non-motorized trails and they pushed to make the trail non-motorized. The long and bitter battle ended with a decision that the trail would be non-motorized.

While I personally enjoy the non-motorized aspect, I’ve always felt that the dedicated volunteers who worked so long and hard never received the thanks and appreciation they deserve. Thus, I say Thank You to them and all trail volunteers.

Again, this is from my memory and may not be completely accurate. If anyone knows more or can correct any errors please Contact Me.

Nearby Hikes:

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Suce Creek Trail

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Suce Creek offers hiking, mountain biking and cross country skiing access into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness near Livingston, MT. The primary hiking attraction is a 6 mile loop trail that takes you from stream bottom to a scenic ridgeline. For those seeking more, the trail continues past Livingston Peak and connects with the backcountry trail system heading deeper into the wilderness.

Suce Creek is just south of Livingston in the scenic Paradise Valley. To get there take US 89 south from Livingston for about 2 miles to Rt 540 (East River Road) which branches off to the left (east). Take 540 for about 2.5 miles to intersection with the Suce Creek Road. Turn left and take this road east into the mountains. At about 1 mile the access road turns off to the right (south) and continues on until it ends at the picnic area.

The graveled Suce Creek Road is normally in good condition. The picnic area is on the Custer Gallatin National Forest but the access road is almost all private land. Always respect the private owners and make sure you stay on public land.

Suce Creek Picnic Area

The trailhead is the main attraction at Suce Creek but the Forest Service does operate a small picnic area. The Suce Creek Picnic Area has 3 picnic table areas and a pit toilet but there is no water or trash removal. Although this is not a heavily used picnic area, it’s not unusual to find people enjoying the natural setting.

The trailhead is located right off the parking area and a small information kiosk has a few signs and postings. There is only one way to head out and that is past the sign and up the hill

Suce Creek Trail System

Map of Suce Creek trails
This map shows the trails in the Suce Creek drainage. Trail #44 leaves from the Suce Creek Picnic Area and reaches Suce Creek and the junction with trail #450 at about 2/3 mile. From this junction the #44 – #450 trail loop can be hiked in either direction. When the trails meet at the top trail #44 extends a short distance to the Livingston Peak Trailhead while trail #449 continues on to Livingston Peak and beyond. Note that the dark colored trails are open to mountain bikes while the lighter, beige colored, trails are closed to bikes.

While only a single trail leads away from the parking area, hikers have several options. Although it is not shown on the accompanying map, the North Fork Deep Creek trail splits off from the Suce Creek Trail just a few hundred yards from the trailhead. This trail heads to the interior of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

The main trail leads on until it splits about 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead. The main trial #44 heads to the right and follows along the creek. This trail is closed to mountain bikes. The left fork (trail #450) is open to bikes and heads across the creek and up the hill. The two trails join together in a few miles to form the loop trail.

If you are planning to visit the area a great map to have is: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West [Gardiner, Livingston] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map (721))

Into the Wilderness

Absaroka Beartooth WIlderness sign
Just over a mile into the hike the trail along the creek enters the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness area.

The loop makes a great hike in either direction. These directions will follow the route counterclockwise, heading up along the stream and back along the open hillsides. When the trail first splits take the right fork and stay on trail #44. before long you will reach the sign for the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The trail through this section is delightful. It’s not too steep and amazingly free of the rocks and roots that are so common in the area.

The trail continues for a short distance until it crosses Suce Creek. There is no regular bridge so exercise great care when/if you make the crossing. After crossing Suce Creek the trail continues on following Lost Creek which is a tributary to Suce. The trail continues to be good and it climbs steadily but never too steeply. After crossing Lost Creek several times the trail begins a very long shallow climb away from the creek and up the hillside.

Wildflowers along the trail
Suce Creek has a well deserved reputation for colorful flowers.

This is the last section of the hike and the trail continues on until it reaches the top of the hill. This is where it intersects trail #450 to make the loop. Although most hikers are making the loop, this area has a couple of other trails. Trail #44 does not end here but continues o a short distance to a USFS trailhead parking area for hiking to Livingston Peak. Also, the Livingston Peak Trail (#449) takes off from here.

Great Views in all Directions

The trail junction area has great views of the mountains and valleys. To the east Livingston Peak dominates the view. Looking southeast the Absarokas stretch into vast wilderness and the Paradise Valley runs as far as the eye can see to the south/southwest. Finally, looking to the north rolling hills drop down toward the Yellowstone Valley east of Livingston.

Livingston Peak from the Suce Creek Trail
The Suce Creek Trail is one way to access Livingston Peak. The trail continues on to a saddle below the peak where various scramble routes lead to the summit.
Looking into Paradise Valley from the Suce Creek Trail
The mountains and forests seem endless along the eastern edge of Paradise Valley when you look south from the Suce Creek trail.
Looking to the north from the top of the Suce Creek trail
While most of the hiking provides views of the Suce Creek drainage and Paradise Valley, from the top of the ridge there are views to the North which highlight the Yellowstone Valley east of Livingston.

From here you can continue on trial #450 to complete the loop. This trail is very different that the trail through the stream bottom. Open meadows and wooded hillsides lead you gradually back toward Suce Creek. This leg of the loop (trail #450) is shorter and steeper than the trail #44 portion of the loop.

Mountain Biking Suce Creek

Trail #450 is a fairly new trail that was completed in 2017. One of the reasons for adding this trail was to allow bike access to the area. There seem to be very few conflicts between mountain bikers and hikers. It’s likely that the limited options for bikers will keep this from ever being a very popular trail. However, it’s a close-to-town options for those seeking a quick getaway.

Cross Country Skiing

Suce Creek is a favorite trail for skiing and snowshoeing in the Livingston area. For most of the winter the road to the picnic area is impassable so skiers park along the main Suce Creek road where the forest access road splits off. This makes for a couple of miles of skiing before reaching the picnic area. Fortunately, this section of road is excellent skiing and many don’t go any further than the picnic area.

Cross country skier with the Pardise Valley behind
Suce Creek is very popular for skiing and snowshoeing. This view of Paradise Valley is along the approach road leading to the trailhead.

Once you’re on the Suce Creek trail you find the same conditions that are common to most Paradise Valley ski trails – they climb steeply and are usually too narrow to ski down safely. Suce Creek can provide good skiing when the conditions are right but watch for thin snow under trees and some steep icy turns.

While you are in the Suce Creek area you might want to visit the nearby Deep Creek, Pine Creek and George Lake trails.

Central Montana Hikes & Attractions Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

The Yellowstone River

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The Yellowstone River is one of our nation’s most remarkable treasures. It’s the last major free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, traveling 680 dam-free miles. The river begins as a melting snow bank on Yount’s Peak deep in the Wyoming wilderness south of Yellowstone Park. From here it runs north then east until it joins the Missouri River in North Dakota.

The upper sections of the Yellowstone River provide world famous fly fishing for wild trout along with unmatched recreational floating. The middle and lower sections remain quite wild. In fact, in some places it’s still the same as when Lewis & Clark explored the West.

Yellowstone River Headwaters

The Yellowstone River begins as snow melt on Younts Peak in the Teton Wilderness Area. Tiny rivulets merge to form defined creeks which become the South Fork and the North Fork. They join together on the west side of Younts Peak to officially become the Yellowstone River. From here to Yellowstone Park the river runs northward through the Thorofare Region. The landscape here provided a relatively flat and open access route for native Americans and early trappers. Thus, it was named the Thorofare.

While historically known as an easy route to traverse, today the Thorofare is the most remote area in the lower United States. The Thorofare Patrol Cabin in Yellowstone Park is farther from a road than any other building in the lower 48. Built in 1915, the Park Service uses the cabin in the summer and the cabin’s outhouse is a prized destination for hikers. It’s only 32 miles to the most used trail head!

The Thorofare is remote and wild but it does see visitors. Backpackers and horse pack trips visit the area during the short summer. The section that is in Wyoming is very popular with big game hunters. To get a great understanding for this special area I recommend the book Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Lake

The river enters Yellowstone Park from the south and flows into the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake. Before entering the lake the river flows through dense stands of willows and is amazing wildlife habitat. Fishing is reported to be excellent but anglers have to be constantly aware of bears. Since the dense willows are more than head-high it can be very unnerving to travel through this area.

The Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake is only open to non-motorized boats. Anyone who wants to visit this area must paddle in or backpack along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Either of these would be a trip of a lifetime for most.

Waterfalls and Canyons

The Yellowstone River drains out of the north end Yellowstone Lake and flows through the majestic Hayden Valley. The meandering river changes character dramatically as it flows over the majestic Upper and Lower Falls into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This section of the river is wild, remote and inaccessible. In fact, it is illegal for visitors to try and descend to the bottom of the canyon. The yellow colored rock walls of the canyon that give the river it’s name.

Photo of the Upper Falls on the YEllowstone River in Yellowstone Park
The Yellowstone River is wild and remote through most of Yellowstone Park. Seen here, the 109 ft Upper Falls is in the Canyon area. Just downstream the Lower Falls is almost three times as high. Below the falls the river races through a deep and inaccessible canyon.

The canyon walls gradually lower and the Yellowstone River merges with the Lamar River near Tower Junction in Yellowstone Park. From here it runs through the remote Black Canyon as it heads toward Montana.

Yellowstone River in Montana

Right at the Yellowstone Park border the Yellowstone is joined by the Gardiner River. This junction, which is right in Gardiner, MT is where floaters are allowed to be on the river. From here the Yellowstone River runs north through Yankee Jim Canyon and the famous Paradise Valley until it reaches Livingston, Montana. It’s worth noting that the north flowing Yellowstone is unusual for major rivers in the US where most flow in a southerly direction.

Through the Livingston area the Yellowstone River makes a gradual sweeping turn to the east and the river runs east/northeast for nearly 500 miles across the state of Montana before joining the Missouri River at Fort Union North Dakota.

Photo of the Yellowstone River near Emigrant, MT
The Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley south of Livingston, Montana. This is the “Blue-Ribbon” fishing section that attracts fly fishers from around the world.

For its entire length the Yellowstone River is unaltered by any major dams making it the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. As a free-flowing river the Yellowstone experiences an annual flood cycle that results in significant water flow changes over the course of a year. When the snow melts in the spring the river gets high and flooded and as the dry days of summer arrive the river gets low. This is an annual cycle that the river has seen for millennia. Today the fish, animal life and habitats are much the same as they were when Lewis and Clark visited the area more than 200 years ago.

A Floater’s Paradise

Floating on the Yellowstone River is a cherished activity with lots of opportunity. 540 miles of the river are open to floating, from Gardiner, MT to Fort Union, ND where the Yellowstone River joins with the Missouri River. On the Yellowstone you can find just about any type of water imaginable. Beginning as a whitewater river as it leaves Yellowstone Park, the Yellowstone is a crystal clear and cold trout stream in the upper section. As it flows downstream the river becomes slow, sluggish and muddy as it reaches its confluence with the Missouri.

Deer fawn on the river bank
The river remains very wild and most floaters see a wide variety of bird and animal life while enjoying the river. Deer are common along the shorelines and it is not uncommon to see spotted-coat fawns.

The 540 miles of floatable river outside of Yellowstone Park is generally described as having three sections; the upper, middle and lower. The upper river section is world famous as a trout fishing mecca. The water in this section is clean, clear, quite cold most of the year and generally fast flowing. The stretches of the Yellowstone are not formally defined but the upper section is generally considered to be the stretch of river from Yellowstone Park downstream to somewhere around Columbus, Laurel or Billings, Montana.

Yellowstone River whitewater is found in the the upper 17 miles of the river after it leaves Yellowstone Park. This video shows what it is like to float through Yankee Jim Canyon at low flows.

The Middle Yellowstone

The middle section of the Yellowstone is a transition section for the river as it switches from being a mountain stream to a prairie river. The river becomes larger and gradually slower. The water gradually gets murkier and is not as clear as it is on the upper section. Water temperatures are cool but can be very warm in summer. The high temperatures on this section often exceed the lethal tolerance level for trout and there are far fewer trout found in this section.  

Yellowstone River near Billings, MT
The Yellowstone River retains much of it’s wildness even here near Billings, MT.

The middle Yellowstone has a diversity of fish species as cold-loving trout species give way to warm water fish such as bass, sauger and paddlefish. Despite the fact that the river is often paralleled by Interstate 90 and passes through Billings (Montana’s largest city), the middle Yellowstone remains wild. Much of this section is undeveloped and large cottonwood river bottoms with braided channels make chains of islands. Lots of birds and wildlife can be spotted on this section of the river.

As the Yellowstone transitions from the middle to the lower sections it becomes a big slow-moving muddy river. The gradient is low and the rock and cobble bottoms found upstream have gradually been replaced by sand and mud. The fish inhabiting the lower Yellowstone are almost exclusively warm water species yet fishing opportunities can be tremendous.

Lower Yellowstone River near Glendive, MT
As the Yellowstone continues eastward the river becomes wide and slow. The surrounding countryside flattens, the rocky shorelines are replaced by mud and the mountains are left far behind.

As with the middle Yellowstone, the lower Yellowstone River has a sprawling river bottom. There are many large wooded islands that are being rapidly invaded by non-native Russian olive and salt cedar. The very lowest part of the river is in oil country. Don’t be surprised to see oil & gas activity on the riverbanks, especially after crossing into North Dakota just before the confluence.

Attention Boaters

Beginning in 2019 Montana has instituted mandatory aquatic invasive species inspections on every watercraft that enters from another state. This applies to all boats and not just motor boats. The state operates roadside inspection stations on many highways as they enter the state so watch for signs. This is important and you can face significant penalties if you don’t comply. Information about the Montana Aquatic Invasive Species Program

Camping Along the River

Camping on the Yellowstone is a great way to really experience the river. From Gardiner to Billings you can plan a trip that will allow you to camp at public sites. However, there are lots of opportunities for setting up camp in undeveloped places along the river. Almost all of the lands along the river are privately owned and it is never OK to camp on private land without permission.

That said, there are camping opportunities that you can pursue. In Montana everything between high water marks is considered public land and is open to float camping. The state rule says camping is not allowed unless “it is necessary for the enjoyment of the surface water and the campsite is not within sight of any occupied dwelling or the campsite is more than 500 yards from any occupied dwelling, whichever is less;” On the Yellowstone there are many small islands and gravel bars that fall into this classification and with a bit of care you can usually find a site.

A sandy location smoothed out for a good tent site
Taking a few minutes to prepare a good tent site can make a big difference. Here the sandy soils have been smoothed out to eliminate any slope and to provide a flat surface with no rocks, sticks or bumps. This campsite was on sand in a river channel that floods each year so all traces of the leveling will soon be erased. Never do this type of site leveling in any area with stable soils. Disturb natural lands as little as possible.

You can never count on finding a good camping site on demand. Consequently, I recommend you begin looking for a good site early and if you find a good spot go ahead and make camp. It’s no fun being on the river as its getting dark and all you can find is posted private property. I’ve been forced to spend the night on my boat because of not setting up camp early.

Yellowstone River Fishing

There are great fishing opportunities along the entire Yellowstone. With everything from clear icy mountain streams to slow, warm, muddy waters there is fishing for almost every angler.

Fly fishing rules on the upper stretch of the river. Beginning at Gardiner the Yellowstone is famous for it’s excellent trout fishing. While almost everyone fishes with flies, some prefer artificial lures or even bait. If you plan to keep fish to eat you must be very careful. It’s catch and release fishing only for cutthroat trout and there are special regulations on some sections. Always check the regulations!

The Yellowstone gradually slows and warms as it moves east from Livingston. Smallmouth bass begin to be captured and ling fishing is very popular with some anglers. This is still suitable habitat for trout and they remain the main target. As the river continues on the trout become more isolated but they are still caught, even to the east of Billings. There are never distinct boundary lines for fish and gradually sauger, catfish, and many other fish are eagerly sought.

As the fish species mix changes so too do angling methods. While fly fishing dominates the upper river, artificial lures and live bait become the norm. Also, the upper river is almost completely non-motorized but becomes widely used by power boats.

Fishing for Dinosaurs

One of the most unusual fishing opportunities in North America is the annual paddlefish season at the Intake dam near Glendive, MT. Paddlefish are ancient creatures that are little changed from the days of dinosaurs. They are very long lived – up to 60 years and the largest recorded in Montana was 142 pounds. However, it is unusual to catch one over 100 pounds. They are closely related to sturgeon and, like them, produce massive amounts of eggs that are prized for caviar. There is actually commercial caviar produced in Montana from paddlefish eggs.

Anyone who wants to can fish for paddlefish but there are limits on how many can be harvested each year. Paddlefish swim upstream to spawn every spring and they concentrate in the waters below the Intake irrigation dam. Here, anglers line up to try and catch them by snagging. They cast out heavy treble hooks and bring them back in long pulls hoping to snag into a giant fish. There is a limit of one fish per person per year and they total harvest is limited. If you want to catch one plan to be there when the season opens as they can quickly reach the quota in a good year.

Learn more in this video:

Every inch of the Yellowstone River is amazing and you will be rewarded if you explore any part. There are a number of excellent books about the Yellowstone River. I particularly recommend:
Montana’s Yellowstone River: From the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri
Downriver A Yellowstone Journey
Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River: An Angler’s Guide

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

A Hike to George Lake

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Note: This is an account of a hike to George Lake I sent to a friend of mine. It is a lot more personal than most info here and I hope you find it useful. For more complete information we have a page on the George Lake Trail.

Wednesday June 18, 2003. I arrived at the George Lake trailhead at about 9:00. The trail and lake are part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The trailhead is up the Pine Creek drainage and the parking area is on the right (south) just before the campground. At one time the trail took off from the Pine Creek Trailhead but now has its own parking area.

George Lake is south of Pine Creek and the trail travels along the tree line just above private property in Paradise Valley. The trail was constructed in the late 1980s by a local sporting group after a private landowner closed off the historic access. The trail is 5 – 5½ miles in length and gains about 2,000 feet in elevation. However, there is a significant creek crossing that adds about 800 ft of vertical on a round trip.

George Lake is a small lake, about 5 or 6 acres. It is quite shallow and doesn’t sustain fish. I’d known about it for many years but never had a desire to go there. In fact, almost everyone I know who has tried to get there has not been able to find it. This is because the last ½ mile or so of trail was never really finished.

On this day I wanted a good hike to get a tiring workout. With snow still in the shadows I was afraid that many of the trails I considered more desirable would be sloppy with mud or deep in snow so I decided that George Lake was a good choice. After about a half mile I arrive at a trail sign indicating George Lake is 5 miles. Scrawled on the sign is the comment “There is no lake! The trail just ends”. Of course this fits with what I already had heard.

It begins as an easy trail and I set a swift pace. The trail climbs gradually as it crosses the mountainside and I make pretty good time. The trail is in good shape and is wide and clear. After a 20 minute hike I hear the jack hammer sounds of a woodpecker pounding away. In fact, I hear two, one close and one off in the distance. A short stop reveals that the closer bird is high in a dead tree above me. Needless to say, I can’t get enough of a look to make an ID.

It’s a nice day to be hiking in the woods and off to my right I get occasional views into Paradise Valley. The Yellowstone River snakes through the valley. Swollen and brown it flows swiftly, racing to get to North Dakota as quickly as possible. There it will visit a series of artificial reservoirs losing its energy and its ability to recharge the flood plain.

After hiking for about an hour and a half I reach the approach to Cascade Creek. Cascade sits far below me in the ravine it has carved out of the Mountains. I follow the twisting trail down to the creek. where I cross on a downed tree. I pick up the trail and begin the long upward climb to get back out of the Cascade drainage.

It’s here that the trail begins to deteriorate. What was a nice, level and well maintained trail becomes a narrow track. As I reach the ridge line that defines the Cascade drainage I turn up hill and follow the trail nearly straight up. Unfortunately this is all the farther that trail maintenance crews have gotten in recent years. Although I can follow a clear trail it is frequently crossed by downed trees. Sometimes they are singles and other times there are big stacks. Climbing over the trees and climbing up the hill I’m following a trail that is rapidly vanishing.

I reach a point where the trail vanishes into a massive pile of downed timber. Careful scouting shows that by going straight up the hill I can find the trail above me. I stop to build a cairn so that I find this spot on the way down. I am nearing the top of the ridge that I am climbing and I see that there will be some sort of level bench ahead. It must be on this bench that the lake is found. However, the trail is almost gone. I am following the blaze marks on trees until they vanish and I am left with no indication of a trail anywhere.

I’m determined to get to George Lake but I also don’t want to get lost. The trail I’ve been following is very faint and if I just take off cross country I’m not likely to find the trail when I want to leave. I spend ten minutes searching for a landmark, trail sign, blazed tree or anything to indicate my path. I know where I think the trail should go but there is no sign that is correct. Before I give up I will try one more thing. I build a cairn out of sticks and branches that I can use as a landmark and I set off in the direction I think the trail should go. I have decided to walk until I can?t see my mark anymore.

As I reach the limit to go without losing my way I see a faint trail. A few yards more and I realize that I’ve found the trail – the poorly defined, non-maintained, barely visible trail. I will push on. Five minutes later I hit the lake. The trail ends at the lake – literally at the lake. It is cut through the trees right to the lake shore. Trees surround the lake to the very shore on all sides. Across the lake I see snow banks on the lake shore and a myriad of insects swim in the waters.

I sit by the shore and have a drink of water and a granola bar. It’s 12:30 and it has been a real effort to get here. I am not enjoying this because there is a nagging voice that says I need to follow my trail out before I get lost. No more than five minutes and I’m on my feet heading back. My fears are totally misplaced and I unerringly find my trail out. Past the cairns, through the downed trees and back on the trail. As a bonus, soon after leaving the lake I’m treated to the sight of several Elk moving away from me through the woods.

By this time I’m confident of achieving my other objective of getting a good workout. I am getting tired and am thinking that it will be nice to knock off the 4-5 remaining miles. I set a good pace and head down the hill. As I walk I see a trail branching off that I don’t remember from the trip up but I’m tired and don’t explore. I continue down, straight down! This doesn’t seem right. I don’t remember going up this much hill but I’m on a good trail, well maintained with blazes on the trees. This must be right – wrong!!!

I finally breakout into meadows of wild flowers and I know I’m in trouble. All of the meadows were far below me as I hiked up. If I’m in meadows I’m on private property. I screwed up big time. For the past 20-30 minutes I have been walking straight down now I must turn around and go straight up.

As I trudge up I worry and worry. Although I’m on a definite trail that is marked and has seen feet, I know it’s not where I should be. I’m tired, my knees hurt and I know I am 4-5 miles from my car. What if I hike up and up and only get back to the lake. Maybe I’m wrong to keep going up but if I go back down and that is wrong then I have to go up all this again. Realizing that I must be decisive I set my sights on getting to the place where I noticed the side trail. I continue to trudge up until I reach that point and start down the other trail.

I quickly realize that this is the right trail. It’s leading me back down to Cascade Creek and I am back on track. Unfortunately, I’m exhausted, I’m sweating hard and I’m almost out of water. At least I know where I am and where I’m going. As I hike I think about the wrong trail. It almost certainly was the old trail to the lake. The trail that was abandoned when the access across the private property was eliminated. That explains why it was a “real” trail and why the trees were blazed. I just wish I would have been more observant on my way up so I had noticed it joining our trail.

Back down to Cascade Creek where I successfully cross the log on shaky legs. Now the climb out of the creek. From there it is mostly downhill to the car. Just up from the creek I encounter a young couple and they are more lost than I was! They thought they were on the trail to Pine Creek Falls! I explain their problem and they turn around and head back, quickly leaving me in their wake.

For me it is a long, painful, uneventful walk back. My pace gets slower and slower – I am beat. Finally I reach the trail sign and know it is only a half mile to my car. My pace has slowed to a crawl and I’m barely moving. Thank goodness it’s all downhill. At last I reach the parking area.

In all this was an OK hike. I had a lot of enjoyable hiking and If I hadn’t gotten lost on my way back it would have been about the right length to leave me very tired which is what I wanted. I got a very intense workout and went to a place where few go, where I had never been and where I will likely never go again.

Here are some nearby trails:

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Beartooth Lake

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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.

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 snow storm its not unusual so 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 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 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. Its 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 in 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 water fall 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 is 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.

Photo of Beartooth Butte
Beartooth Butte dominates the horizon to the west of Beartooth Lake. The massive rock formation was deposited millions of years ago when the area was covered by an inland sea. Beartooth Butte is a well know collection location for fossil hunters.

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.   

Learn More
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]

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

The Lights of Anvil Lake

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by Stan Clements          

It was probably the best I had ever seen the stars in my life.

It was the night of the new moon. The air was cold and dry. We were at high altitude, in wilderness miles from the lights of the smallest of towns. It was dark out. It was really dark out, good old country dark, here in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness. My friend Bob and I had maybe the most adventurous drive of our lives over the Goose Lake Jeep Trail, just to get to the spot where we donned our packs. We walked and climbed into this rugged country, bushwhacking off the official trails, to reach remote Anvil Lake.

We had camp set up about fifty yards from the shore, just above lake level. Our tent was barely visible in the glow from the campfire. Two backpacks leaned against trees. It was a perfectly clear, cloudless night. Not a breath of wind disturbed the flames climbing from the fire, its smoke rose straight up.

In my usual restless manner, I wandered back and forth from the fire ring to the lake shore. Bob was accustomed to such behavior from me; he stoically tended the fire, perhaps silently amused at my pacing. Once I got away from the cheery glow of camp, I could see a glorious sky, full of stars. On one of my trips to the water’s edge, I couldn’t help noticing that two stars near the horizon were so bright as to cast a reflection upon the still waters of Anvil Lake, a wake of white light. On each of my successive trips to the shore, this apparition seemed to grow brighter, creating an ever greater impression upon me. I finally decided Bob Should See This.

I walked back to the fire and told Bob he should come see this sight I had found. Bob grunted, but stood and walked towards the lake. He saw the starlight on the water, and suggested that we hike up the bluffs that lined one side of the lake. We climbed upward in silence, in darkness only slightly altered for a few feet in the beams of our flashlights. We reached a spot high on the bluffs, to me it seemed as wide as a highway.

I looked up at all the stars, and then down at the lake. I was suddenly frozen by one of the most spectacular sights I have seen. It was dark enough, clear enough, and calm enough for the waters of Anvil Lake to reflect the stars in the sky. To me it looked like candles in paper bags were scattered all over the lake. The reflections were bright, like dozens of luminaries resting on a slate surface that was the big black lake. It took my breath away. I marveled at it in silence. Finally, I stated to Bob, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Have you?”

“Me neither,” Bob replied. “I’m just looking at it and enjoying it.”

We were in the right place at the right time. The incident was a good example of how Bob and I worked together. One of us gets an idea, and then the other takes it and runs with it. Years later, there was still awe in our voices whenever we mentioned “The Lights of Anvil Lake.”

Note:Anvil Lake is one of hundreds of special places in the Absaroka-Beartooth (AB) Wilderness. Its a little known and rarely visited lake, far from any developed trail. Off trail hiking in the AB is an amazing experience but not for the beginning backpacker. This is rugged, remote country with more grizzly bears than humans and you cannot expect assistance if you run into trouble in these remote areas. For those who are committed you can find more about Anvil Lake and other great places by studying the maps and books available about this special place. I recommend:
Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness East [Cooke City, Red Lodge]

Note Two: This story was written by the late Stan Clements who had a mighty thirst for wild places. He was a good friend who is greatly missed.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Yankee Jim Canyon Whitewater and History

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Yankee Jim Canyon is a short, narrow canyon on the Yellowstone River about 13 miles north of Yellowstone Park. The canyon has the largest rapids on the Yellowstone River outside of the Park (boating on the Yellowstone River is banned in Yellowstone Park). Yankee Jim Canyon is less than five miles long and the whitewater rapids are confined to the first couple of miles. Rafting and kayaking are popular and there are a number of whitewater rafting companies located nearby.

The Upper Yellowstone

The Yellowstone River exits Yellowstone Park in Gardiner, MT and for the next 18 miles it runs through canyons cut into the surrounding mountains. Gardiner itself is split in half by the river with a bridge connecting the two sides. The canyon here is very steep and the wild river is quite narrow. The mountains gradually pull back to form a shallow valley in the Corwin Springs area which continues to Yankee Jim Canyon.

Upstream of Yankee Jim the Yellowstone River has two very different sections. The 8-mile section that begins at the Yellowstone Park boundary is mostly fast water and whitewater. The river descends quite rapidly and there are a number of class II rapids. This is a popular stretch for floating and several raft companies offer guided ufloats on this stretch.

At Corwin Springs, MT the character of the river changes significantly. The gradient becomes very gradual and the river gets flat and slow for five miles before entering Yankee Jim Canyon. The Canyon is very obvious from the river. As you approach from upstream you are drifting through a broad flat valley while watching the mountains pull together into a deep V shape canyon approaching ahead. The river itself is much like the surroundings. Broad and flat during the approach and narrow and steep in the canyon.

Hwy 89 closely follows the Yellowstone River on its journey from Yellowstone Park to Livingston. In Yankee Jim Canyon the road is quite close to the river. In fact, there are paved pull outs above several of the rapids. On the opposite side of the river is an abandoned railroad bed which once served as the primary means for tourists to access Yellowstone National Park. Today the rail line is long abandoned but in a few places the rail bed is very obvious perched above the river.

Photo opf Yankee Jim Canyopn at low river level
The Yellowstone River has dramatic seasonal differences between low and high water. In the narrow canyon sections the river will commonly have a more than 20 ft difference in elevation. Of course, this has a dramatic impact on the rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon. This is a low water shot of a diminished rapid. Note the abandoned rail bed cut into the canyon wall.

The Yellowstone is a Wild River

The Yellowstone River is undammed and flows fluctuate significantly on an annual basis. In the early summer the river becomes swollen with snow melt and grows dramatically in size and power. The US Geologic Survey operates a river gauge station at Corwin Springs and has recorded flow information since the1890s. Low flows are often below 500 cfs (cubic feet per second) and high flows reach above 30,000 cfs. This is a huge difference and the characteristics of river floating are markedly different at different flow rates.

This is especially true in Yankee Jim Canyon. I urge you to make sure you understand the river level and its effect on the rapids when you plan a float. The information here is just a rough guideline and is not intended to be the basis of any decision you may make about floating. You can always check on the flow level at the Corwin Springs Gauge Station

This the same rapid as the photo above but taken from upstream at much higher water flows. The rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon are not technical in nature but at high flows there is some big water.

The Rapids of Yankee Jim

The Yellowstone River’s biggest whitewater is in Yankee Jim Canyon. While this section is fairly mild in low water it can be life threatening during runoff for those who are not properly prepared. The following information is based on my personal experiences. I guided this stretch of river for more than a decade in the 1980’s – 90’s and have made more than 1,000 trips through the canyon. The following descriptions are based on my rafting experiences and are not specific to kayaking.

Yankee Jim’s Revenge

As you enter Yankee Jim Canyon the river’s pace increases and the first rapid comes very quickly. This rapid, commonly known as “Yankee Jim’s Revenge”, can be very difficult. At certain medium high to high flow levels the rapid has a dangerous wave that’s very hard to avoid. The wave itself is quite deceptive and most people who stop and scout from the highway look at the waves and don’t consider it to look like any sort of a problem. However, the unique hydraulic of this wave has flipped many a boat.

The entrance to the rapid is an obvious V left of center. At high water the wave shows up as a breaking wave about two thirds of the way through the obvious set of waves that are otherwise great fun rollers. Unfortunately, if you’re riding the rollers you’re likely to hit the bad wave unless you pull hard to escape. It’s possible to enter the rapid in the V and cross above the wave to avoid it. However, at higher flows, especially at flood levels, it’s more prudent to stick to the eddies and skate your way down the left-hand shoreline. I always recommend you avoid hitting the wave.

Through the 1980s I probably saw 100 boats flip on this wave, including 18 ft rafts with a dozen passengers. However, its been years since I floated the canyon at the concerning flow levels so the shape of the wave may have changed.

Big Rock Rapid

The next rapid you come to in Yankee Jim Canyon is a classic pool and drop rapid called the “Big Rock” rapid. The rapid is obvious because of the house-sized rock splitting the river in half. At most flows this is the biggest rapid in the canyon and is great fun. As long as you avoid the rock you can bounce your way through the waves but the best run is on the right-hand side of the rock.

The first drop into the rapid is a pretty steep drop and as you approach from upstream it almost looks like the river just ends in a flat line. If you are in a multiple boat situation watch the boat in front of you as it briefly vanishes from sight and pops up on top of the first wave below.

Big ROck Rapid in Yankee Jim Canyon at moderately high water
While most of the rapids in Yankee Jim Canyon get larger in high water, the Big Rock Rapid actually smooths out. Here the Big Rock is just covered. At most flows, this house sized rock towers above the water.
The Boxcar Rapid

Below the big rock rapid is a stretch of fast water and it’s a straight shot down the middle of the river with the Boxcar Rapid approaching just ahead. The Boxcar Rapid is the narrowest point in Yankee Jim Canyon and you can see the sheer rock walls coming together ahead as you approach. Just above the Boxcar Rapid is a stretch of waves that vary in size based on flow. Run them right down the center. The waves rush you towards the choking narrows where the force of the river is piled into a narrow dogleg turn with a big rock in the center of the river.

The real danger in Boxcar comes at maximum flood levels. At extreme high water the hydraulics between those two cliff walls are really significant and it is best to be avoided. Even at ordinary high water this rapid can be a white knuckle experience. At low flows it can be hard to imagine the nasty water of flood levels.

The massive wave that forms in Boxcar Rapid at flood levels is very dangerous for most boaters. However, if you have the skills, it can be very exciting!

Boxcar Rapid gets its name from a train crash that occurred here. The railroad ran right next to the river on a sheer bank. There was a derailment and several cars went off into the river. For many years there was railroad debris from the crash scattered ion the river bank. Today all that remains are the stories.

From here out the canyon walls pull back from the river and the remaining white-water is of little consequence. However, it’s still a beautiful float in a beautiful canyon. Few people realize that there’s excellent fishing for native cutthroat trout on this stretch of the river.

History of Yankee Jim Canyon

Yankee Jim Canyon was named for one of the early settlers to the area. “Yankee Jim” George was a miner who never struck it rich and settled down in the mouth of the canyon. The canyon was a significant barrier to horse and foot traffic so Yankee Jim built a road. He turned it into a toll road that was pretty much the only way through the canyon. Yankee Jim operated a prosperous business charging people that traveled his road. He later added to his business by building a small guest house.

Yankee Jim George was a well-known local character full of many quirks. For example, to move stock through on his road he charged a nickel a head for cows but a dime a head for sheep – it was widely known that he hated sheep.

Yankee Jim Meets the Railroad

Unfortunately for Yankee Jim, the railroad had plans to make their way through the canyon to reach Corwin Springs. The railroad made Yankee Jim an offer for his road but he didn’t like that idea one bit and turned them down.

The railroad wasn’t going to take no as an answer so they reached into their bag of tricks and sent back east for help. Soon a negotiator arrived with a couple of cases of whiskey. He visited Yankee Jim and by the time they were done talking the whiskey was gone and Yankee Jim had signed away all rights to his road.

The railroad built Yankee Jim a new road that went up and over and twisted around. Needless to say, this was pretty much the end of Yankee Jim’s business. The railroad ran along the river and went right by Yankee Jim’s house. Every day he’d hear the train coming and he’d run outside shaking his fist and cursing as it passed by.

Yankee Jim Meets the President

Yankee Jim George was a famous storyteller. He was so good that Rudyard Kipling praised him for his ability to tell a yarn. Yankee Jim’s stories of fighting bears, wolves and Indians had people amazed at his tales of bravery and daring do.

The story goes that in 1902 when Teddy Roosevelt came out to dedicate Yellowstone National Park he heard stories about Yankee Jim and decided he wanted to meet him. The President was staying in his private rail car which was set up at Corwin Springs about 5 miles away. The president sent one of his officers on a horse down to see Yankee Jim. The messenger told Yankee Jim that the president would very much like to make his acquaintance and would like to have him come visit. Yankee Jim reportedly looked at the messenger and told him “If Teddy wants to talk he knows where I live”.

Well, of course, this upset that young officer to no end but Yankee Jim refused to change his mind. The officer had no choice but to ride back to Corwin Springs where he had to face the president. He nervously approached the President and said “Very respectfully Mr. President, but Yankee Jim says you tell Teddy that if he wants to talk he knows where I live.”

Legend has it that by the time Roosevelt quit laughing he had saddled up his horse and ridden down to Yankee Jim’s cabin where they spent the rest of the day swapping lies. Now this might not all be the truth, but it sure makes a good story.

Learn More
There are a number of excellent books about the Yellowstone River and the Upper Paradise Valley. I particularly recommend:
Montana’s Yellowstone River: From the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri
Paradise Valley On the Yellowstone (MT) (Images of America)

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

West Boulder River

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The West Boulder River is a favorite place for camping, hiking and fishing close to both Big Timber and Livingston, MT. Popular with day hikers and backpackers, the West Boulder Meadows are an ideal place for a first ever backpack trip. The combination of excellent hiking, camping, fishing and scenery make this a very special place.

The West Boulder River originates high in the Absaroka Mountains and the entire upper drainage is in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. After leaving the wilderness the river quickly enters private lands and joins the main Boulder River in McLeod, MT. The Boulder continues flowing northward for about 20 miles until it enters the Yellowstone River at Big Timber.

Getting to the West Boulder River

To get to the West Boulder trailhead drive south from Big Timber on the Boulder River Road (MT 298). This great drive travels up a broad valley with fantastic scenery in every direction. Stay on this paved highway for 17 miles until you reach the tiny town of McLeod. You will cross the West Fork as you are passing through McLeod and reach the intersection with the West Boulder Road (also known as the Swingley Road) in less than a half mile.

Turn right (west) here and stay on this major gravel road as it follows the river. After 7 miles you will reach a well signed intersection for the West Boulder forest access. Turn left (south) onto this gravel road and follow it until you reach the campground and trailhead about 7 miles ahead. Note: the Swingley Road continues on to just east of Livingston. This is a very scenic but rough road – if you are coming from Livingston, consider taking this 24 mile route.

The West Boulder access road travels through private property all the way to the campground. Please respect the property rights of the landowners and don’t ever leave the road right-of-way. The campground and trailhead parking area are completely surrounded by private property so again, please do not trespass.

Photo of West Boulder River trail along a hillside
The West Boulder River trail is generally in great shape. This view is typical of the stretch at the top of the switchbacks you encounter just after crossing on the bridge. Looking up canyon the, the meadows are about a mile ahead. The trail continues on until it crosses the mountains and descends into Paradise Valley.

Trailhead, Camping & Cabin

The West Boulder River trailhead area is part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest and includes a campground, a Forest Service operated cabin and a parking area for hikers and horse riders. This is also the parking area for the Davis Creek Trail. This is a fairly high use area and it’s not uncommon to find hikers and horses at the trailhead or on the trail. There are no services at the trailhead so be sure to arrive fully prepared. The West Boulder River trail continues on far beyond the West Boulder Meadows and a fair number of backpackers and horse packers use the trail.

The West Boulder Campground is open all year but the access road may be impassable at times. The campground has no services except vault toilets. There is a camping fee which is paid on site as there is no reservation system. There are only 10 campsites and the campground does fill a few times each summer. Plan to arrive early to get a site.

The West Boulder Cabin is available to rent by the night. This is a forest service cabin so understand that it is rustic. Reservation are required to stay in the cabin and need to be made at least three days in advance. Cabin reservations are not made through the local office so use the info on the West Boulder Cabin to make your reservations.

West Boulder Trail

The West Boulder Meadows are a couple miles of easy hiking from the trailhead.. The Meadows are popular with anglers, as they provide great fishing for wild trout.

The parking area for the trail is large and well signed. The road continues past the parking area but do not drive further! Everything ahead is private property, including the road. From the parking area the trail starts by hiking on the road for 50 – 100 yards past the cattle guard that is right at the parking area. After this short distance the trail heads off to the left at an obvious intersection. This is the beginning of an easy hike that gently climbs through the forest.

Photo of the West Boulder River Meadows as seen from above on the trail approaching the meadows
The West Boulder Meadows sit in a beautiful mountain canyon. The fire that burned through in 2006 left lots of standing dead trees but has really opened up the views.

This heavily used trail is in great shape and it’s mostly smooth and easy hiking. After a mile of so you enter a section of forest that was thoroughly burned in the 2006 Jungle Fire. This major blaze burned a lot of the back country in the Boulder River drainage. The burn on the West Boulder was pretty significant and the contrast between the unburned and burned areas is rather dramatic. While many believe the burned forest somehow looks unattractive, I find that it has charms of its own. Fields of wildflowers spring up, there is lots of lush new green vegetation and the views really open up so you can see a lot more. In particular, this fire seems to have spurred a lot of new Aspen growth.

Soon the trail reaches the very sturdy bridge that crosses the West Boulder. After crossing the bridge the trail enters the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and begins to climb. After a couple of switchbacks the trail levels out and the follows the creek through a nice canyon area. This section is through burned forest and there are great views of the creek below and the surrounding mountains. Continue to follow the trail for about another mile until you reach the West Boulder meadows.

West Boulder Meadows

There is no doubt that you will know when you reach the West Boulder Meadows. The canyon becomes a very flat valley for about a half mile and the river slows and meanders through beautiful meadows. The big slow pools formed in the meadow are great habitat for fish, wildlife and birds.

Photo of a large pool in the West Boulder River Meadows
This pool is found right where the meadows begin. Its slow clear water is filled with cruising trout which fisherman can spot and cast directly to. There is a nice camp site located in the trees on the right.

There are several good backpacking campsites in the meadows making this an excellent place for an overnight hike. With the fairly short hike on a good trail makes this a perfect place for a first ever backpacking overnight. Be aware that the bugs can be bad at times. This is a very dark area so plan on world class stargazing.

Fishing the West Boulder

The West Boulder Meadows are very popular with anglers who come to fish for the wild trout that inhabit the cold clear waters. Through the meadows the river is clear and slow, making it a great place to spot feeding trout and to “sight fish” by casting directly to fish you can see. The trout in the West Boulder come in all sizes and it’s not uncommon to find multiple people in fishing in the Meadows during good fishing months.

If you have the Meadows to yourself you can start fishing right at the outlet end where the Meadows end and the canyon section begins. The long deep pool that is right above this outlet usually holds a number of nice fish. Start with this pool and gradually fish your way upstream  for a memorable angling experience.

The fish here are all Yellowstone cutthroat trout that have been hybridized with rainbow trout. Historically the river was stocked but today the fish are all wild and reproducing. Management agencies have thoroughly inventoried all of the waters in the West Boulder drainage looking for genetically pure populations of the native cutthroats. However, none of the pure strain fish have been found. You can learn more about these efforts in the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Conservation Strategy

Into Deep Wilderness

For those interested in exploring the West Boulder further, the trail continues on past the Meadows for many miles. About 5 miles further on you reach the junction with Falls Creek, a major tributary. A smaller meadow area called Beaver Meadows is another 3 miles or so along the trail. According to MFWP there is a fish passage barrier just above Falls Creek and the West Boulder is fishless upstream of that point.

The trail continues on until it steeply climbs up and over the Mill Creek pass. From there it’s downhill into the Yellowstone Valley. This is an excellent multi-day backpacking trip that begins at one trailhead and ends at another. Along the way you will intersect other trails which offer access to much of the Absaroka back country.

If you want to explore the wilderness beyond the West Boulder Meadows I urge you to get a good map or maps. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West Map is excellent and highly recommended. The DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has large scale topo maps of the West Boulder and of all of Montana. Of course, Topo maps of the area are very helpful and the USFS has good maps but you may have to buy them in person.

Despite the great backpacking opportunities, most hikers will stick to the 6 mile round trip hike into the West Boulder Meadows and there are few better short hikes than this. I especially recommend this as an easy overnight backpacking trip. The West Boulder Meadows are a beautiful place with world-class fishing opportunities and the trail is a great hike. Be sure to try this one if you ever get a chance.  

A description of this hike and many others can be found in Hiking Montana which is a book that every hiker should own.

While you are in the area you might want to visit: