The natural wonders of Yellowstone Park don’t stop at the park’s boundary and we want to help you enjoy the Yellowstone area beyond the park. These articles feature opportunities for hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing and whitewater. For a quieter trip, there are suggestions for driving explorations.
There are great attractions on every side of Yellowstone Park but we are focused on the area to the north. Mostly in Montana, this includes the Bozeman, Livingston and Big Timber areas. It includes the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness as well as hundreds of thousands of acres of National Forest.
The Crow Mountain trail is in the Mill Creek drainage south of Livingston, MT. Mill Creek is a popular National Forest access area where people enjoy hiking, camping , fishing, skiing, snowmobiling and every other form of recreation. The Mill Creek drainage is fairly large and there are a lot of different areas to explore.
Mill Creek is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that joins the Yellowstone in the middle of the Paradise Valley. The Paradise Valley is the very scenic valley formed by the Yellowstone River as it flows north from Yellowstone Park toward Livingston, MT.
The Mill Creek area is accessed by a well signed road that heads east from HWY 89 about 29 miles south of Livingston. The road begins as paved and transitions to gravel after a few miles. The road is generally in good shape and can be driven by most vehicles. About 12 miles from the highway you will reach the Mill Creek Cabin and the campground.
Crow Mountain Trail
To reach the Crow Mountain trailhead continue on the main road past the Snowbank Campground and the Mill Creek Cabin. About 5 miles past the campground the road crosses Mill creek and begins to ascend up the hillside to the south. Leaving the creek behind the road continues to climb for about a half mile until it reaches a junction. Take the fork to the left turning sharply to the East.
This entire area of the drainage has been heavily logged in the past and you are traveling on an old logging road as you climb. There are several spur roads leading off but continue to follow the main drainage, always staying to the left. About 3 miles after leaving the creek you will reach the trailhead parking area.
Hiking the Trail
Crow Mountain Trail is USFS trail #58. This is also the trailhead for USFS trail #280 which heads up Lambert Creek. Make sure you are following the correct trail. It’s always wise to have a good map when you go hiking. You can purchase the official Custer Gallatin National Forest map by visiting a ranger station. The National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for the area is another good choice.
The hike begins at Lambert Creek as it is rushing downward to join Mill Creek far below. The trail immediately leaves Lambert Creek and parallels Mill Creek as it ascends into the mountains. The creek is on the left and as you hike it will gradually rise up towards you. Mill Creek is climbing the mountain faster than you are so you keep getting closer. This is an easy trail and a nice gentle hike. From the parking area the trail begins by following an old logging road. After about a half mile the logging road disappears and from this point on it is a standard foot trail.
I say a standard trail but anyone who has spent time hiking in Montana knows there is no such thing! This particular trail is really pretty easy to hike it is in good condition and is never too steep. On average the trail climbs less than 400 ft per mile and is never very strenuous. After a mile or so you will have reached Mill Creek and will find a crossing.
Soon after crossing the creek watch for trail 221 which heads to the north towards Pyramid Mountain and Anderson Creek. Stay to the right at this junction and after about another mile or so you will pass a small pond on your left. Little ponds like this are common throughout the mountains. While they don’t look like much, they provide water and habitat for a lot of different creatures.
The trail continues to gain elevation as it follows Mill Creek upward. After passing the pond the trail begins to steepen and continues upward toward the high mountains to the south. About a mile further the trail begins to disappear as it enters a large basin surrounded by towering sheer rock walls that rise 1,500 feet or more in a near vertical face. This is a scenic area that offers excellent off-trail exploring of the basin.
The trail basically ends at this point. There is no practical way to scale the mountains ahead but the basin itself is a destination for backpackers, hikers, hunters and horse riders. However, it sees few of any of these users. The Forest Service reports mountain goats in this area so watch for them.
While not as popular as other Mill Creek hikes such as Passage Creek Falls, Crow Mountain is an excellent hike that takes you into some high country with great views and the possibility of wildlife viewing.
A Unique Crow Mountain Hike
On August 11, 2007 we set out for a day hike up to the Crow Mountain basin. The area had been experiencing hot dry days and nights and the fire danger was very high. In fact, just the previous day a fire had broken out in the Mill Creek drainage about 10 miles to the east of the Crow Mountain trail. I called the Livingston Ranger District the prior evening and they told me that there was no problem, that the fire was very small and not spreading and there was no reason to change our hiking plans.
As we drove up the canyon towards the trail head we noticed that there was a smoggy look to the skies but no sign of any real fire activity. There were no Forest Service trucks or other vehicles around and all was perfectly normal. We did a round trip up to the basin and upon returning to the car found a note on our windshield telling us there was a full drainage evacuation taking place and that we should immediately leave the area.
Needless to say, we didn’t delay our drive out and when we reached the USFS Snowbank campground we found the road barricaded and staffed by two USFS personnel. They asked if we were the vehicle parked at the Lambert Creek trail head. We confirmed that we were and the ranger replied “Thank goodness. You’re the last ones in the drainage and we’re really glad that you are getting out.”
They proceeded to tell us that a small fire which ignited the day before had blow up and was now raging out of control. The plume of smoke we saw rising as we drove down canyon was evidence of the fire’s growth. This became known as the Wicked fire and it burned nearly 25,000 acres in the Mill Creek drainage.
Located just outside of Bozeman, MT, the Chestnut Mountain Trail and Frog Rock Trail opened to the public in 2010. The trail was developed after more than a decade of hard work by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, the Trust for Public Lands, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and many others. This easily accessible trail provides great hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing opportunities. The acquisition and development of this trail is a testament to the people who worked to make it happen. All of us owe them our appreciation for working so hard to provide new public access.
Finding The Trail
The trailhead is one of the easiest to find that you’ll ever visit. Exit I 90 at Exit 316 (Trail Creek) which is about 8 miles East of Bozeman and 17 miles West of Livingston. You want to go south of the Interstate on Trail Creek Road. If you are traveling from Bozeman you will turn right at the off ramp and if you are coming from Livingston you will turn left and drive under the Interstate. The Trail head for Chestnut Mountain and Frog Rock is located right on Trail Creek Road less than ¼ mile from the Interstate. The trailhead is obvious with an information sign and parking area. Although only a few cars will fit in the official parking lot there is plenty of room for vehicles along the roadside.
It’s a good thing there’s plenty of parking as this is a popular trail. The fact that it is close to both Livingston and Bozeman insures that it will remain popular. The trail is open to all types of non-motorized use and you’ll find hikers and mountain bikers happily sharing the trail. There is no water along this trail so be sure to take plenty with you. Before you go you can download and print the Chestnut Mountain Trail Map.
The trailhead and first section of the trail are officially the Chestnut Mountain Trail (forest trail #458). The trail starts on private land with an easement for the trail. Please respect the landowners who are allowing public access and stay on the trail for this section.
This is newly constricted trail that climbs steadily in a generally westerly direction. At about .8 mile the trail intersects with an abandoned logging road and enters public land. The trail through this section is broad and not too steep. After about another .4 mile (1.2 miles total) the trail forks and the Frog Rock Trail (forest trail 463) branches off toward the west while the main trail turns south.
Frog Rock Trail
The Frog Rock Trail is a mile long spur trail that takes rock climbers to the popular Frog Rock climbing area. It is a one way spur trail and most hikers will prefer to continue on the Chestnut Mountain Trail instead of taking this branch.
Those who take the side trail are almost all rock climbers. Frog Rock is a massive limestone feature that provides excellent climbing opportunities. For many years climbers had a tough time gaining access but this new trail solves that problem. Here is an excellent source for information about Frog Rock Climbing.
Hiking To Great Views
After the Frog Rock intersection the Chestnut Mountain Trail continues to climb toward the south. As you gain altitude you are treated to views of mountain ranges in all directions. The Bridger Mountains dominate the skyline to the north. The Crazy Mountains are to the far northeast – but only visible once you climb high enough. Views of the Absaroka Mountains are seen to the east and southeast and the Tobacco Root Mountains are visible across the Gallatin Valley to the west. When the views are right you can see most of Bozeman in the valley to the west. The Montana State University Dome is very obvious on the southern side of town.
The trail beyond the intersection continues on the old road bed for another ¾ mile or so until it becomes a newly constructed single track trail. The trail climbs steadily through both forest and meadow in a series of long switchbacks. Some of the meadows near the ridge are spectacular fields of wildflowers.
The trail reaches the Chestnut Mountain ridge line at about 4.6 miles, having climbed 2,200 feet from the parking area. From here the trail continues on and eventually connects to trails from Goose Creek and Bear Canyon. However, most people choose to turn around and return after reaching the ridge and enjoying the views.
The Chestnut Mountain Trail offers easy access to hiking, biking and climbing opportunities. The trail is in great shape and takes you to some fantastic views. As with many trails in the mountains, this one climbs steadily and unrelentingly from the trailhead. As a passing biker commented on his way back down to the trailhead “I sure didn’t expect it to be this steep.” In all it’s an excellent trail and most hikers should find this to be a great trail to explore.
Twin Lakes are probably the most popular hiking destination in Montana’s Crazy Mountains. The Crazy Mountains are an island mountain range north of Interstate 90 in the Livingston/Big Timber area. The trailhead for hiking to Twin Lakes is located in Big Timber Canyon near the Halfmoon Campground. This popular access is the beginning point for the Big Timber Creek Falls, the Crazy Mountain Crossing backpacking trail, the trail to Blue Lake and the trail to Twin Lakes. If you visit, expect to find other hikers and campers enjoying this spectacular area.
The trailhead is approached from US 191. About 11 miles north of Big Timber there is a well marked turn onto the Big Timber Canyon Road that runs west toward the Crazy Mountains. Follow this gravel road for about 2 miles until a signed junction where you bear to the right. Continue on for about 10 miles until the road ends at the Halfmoon Campground, Halfmoon Picnic Area and the Big Timber Canyon trailhead. The trailhead parking is located on the right as you arrive with the road continuing on to the left where it enters the campground and picnic area.
Twin Lakes Hiking Trail
Beginning from the trailhead the trail climbs steadily but not steeply to Twin Lakes. The trail follows an old road bed so it is wide and fairly level. However, it is a very rocky trail so hiking is not always easy. About 1/8 mile from the trailhead there is an unmarked side trail to the left which leads to Big Timber Creek Falls. The Falls are an impressive sight and this short side trip is worth taking.
Continuing on, the trail stays wide and easy to follow. There are two crossings where the trail crosses Big Timber Creek. Each crossing has a large sturdy bridge so there is no concern for hikers. Big Timber Creek is a popular whitewater destination for extreme kayakers and you might find them enjoying the rushing waters. If you’d like to learn more about the whitewater be sure to read our page about Big Timber Creek Falls.
As you climb the trail you are treated to great views of the approaching mountains and soon you reach a junction where a well signed and maintained trail leads to the left (south) toward Blue Lake. This trail junction is about 2 1/2 or 3 miles from the trailhead. Twin Lakes lie about another mile and a half ahead.
Lower & Upper Twin Lake
The first of the Twin Lakes reached is Lower Twin Lake or East Twin Lake. It sits in a spectacular basin at 6,750 ft, surrounded by high mountains peaks. The lake is about 10 1/2 acres and is really very shallow. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) reports a maximum depth of 7 ft. Most of the shoreline is very gradual and the surrounding lands are often swampy, especially in the spring.
Upper Twin Lake is just s short hike from Lower Twin Lake. Upper Twin is another beauty, bordered on the south by a sheer mountain rising to more than 10,000 ft. The lake is just under 7 acres and only 6 ft deep.
Both of these lakes are really more like giant pools in Big Timber Creek than they are like lakes. Each is very shallow and MFWP reports that there is a channel running through each. There are no barriers between the lakes and the creek so fish can move freely throughout the system.
Fishing Twin Lakes
Upper and Lower Twin Lake have good fishing for rainbow trout that are hybridized with Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Fish stocking records are spotty but the lakes have received plants of rainbows, cutthroat and brook trout over the years. The current population seems to be self sustaining
MFWP has both gill net and angling data recorded for each lake and the creek. This data shows that most fish are in the 6″ – 10″ range. However, they have records of fish over 14″. Anglers generally report good catch rates for both lakes.
The mountains above Twin Lakes hold snow late into the year and the steep terrain is often visited by backcountry skiers. Skiing these peaks is only for experts who have the skill, equipment and experience to undertake such an effort. It is a 4 1/2 mile hike to get to the bottom of these mountains and many skiers will hike in, climb to the top, ski down and hike back out all in a day.
There are a few accounts on the web of skiing in the Twin Lakes area. If you do a search you can find both videos and articles about skiing the Twin Lakes Couloir. Here is one video of a descent from the top.
Camping At Twin Lakes
Lower Twin Lake is bordered on the north by flat lands that provide plenty of camping opportunities. However, the snow stays late and it’s not unusual to find the ground snow covered or very wet. Reports are that the mosquitoes can be very bad at Twin Lakes! I have no reason to doubt this so be sure you are prepared, especially if you are camping.
NOTE: The US Forest Service has instituted a permanent fire ban in the entire area surrounding Twin Lakes. Do not plan on building a fire of any sort.
Besides the fire ban, make sure that you take bear avoidance measures. This can be bear country so always be prepared.
Camping at Twin Lakes is a wilderness type experience. The night skies can blaze with the millions of stars that sweep across the sky on a dark and moonless night. The majestic views and the quiet that only the wood s can provide will leave you with lasting memories.
Into The Crazies
At Upper Twin Lake the trail skirts the lake on the north and continues on toward the interior of the Crazy Mountains. Backpackers often use this trail to other Crazy Mountain destination or even to do a full crossing of the mountain range. However, for day hikers this is a good place to turn around after taking photos and memories of the Twin Lakes.
Anyone continuing on into the Crazies needs to be aware that much of the land, including many steep mountainous areas, is privately owned. Be sure to know where you are and stay on the marked trails which are all located where there is either public land or an easement.
Crazy Peak, the highest point in the Crazies, is actually privately owned and so are a number of the lakes on the maps. In some cases you can secure permission to access these lands. Contact the US Forest Service ranger station at (406) 932-5155 for more information about specific areas.
Twin Lakes are great for a day hike or overnight into the beautifully Crazy Mountains. They are easily accessible and are popular with all hikers. The lakes hold trout for the angler and the scenery is second to none
Here are some other attractions in the Big Timber Area
Big Timber Creek flows out of Montana’s Crazy Mountains north of Big Timber, MT. Running east out of the mountains, the creek gradually turns southward and flows into the Yellowstone River just east of Big Timber. Most of the creek travels through private lands but the headwater areas are on the Custer Gallatin National Forest National Forest.
The Crazy Mountains are an island mountain range that many people know because of the way they dominate the horizon north of Interstate 90 in the Livingston/Big Timber area. The Crazies offer a number of great hikes but suffers a lack of access. Fortunately, the Big Timber Canyon trailhead provides access to popular day hikes and backpacking opportunities.
Big Timber Creek is accessed from US 191. About 11 miles north of Big Timber there is a well marked turn onto the Big Timber Canyon Road that runs west toward the Crazy Mountains. Follow this gravel road for about 2 miles until a junction where you bear to the right, again toward the mountains. Continue on for about 10 miles until the road ends at the Halfmoon Campground, Halfmoon Picnic Area and the Big Timber Canyon trailhead.
The Halfmoon Campground is a typical USFS campground with picnic tables, fire rings, outhouses and drinking water. There are only 12 campsites which are open to tents, trailers or RVs. If you plan to camp here the USFS cautions “This campground does not use a reservation system, it is managed on a first-come, first-served basis. Be aware the campground may fill up on weekends & holidays during the summer months and you should arrive in the early afternoon to ensure there is a space available for the night.”
While the area is open year-round, the primary season for the campground is Memorial Day to Labor day and there is no water available during the off-season. There is a nightly camping fee and about half of the campsites are accessible. The access road is not suitable for vehicles longer than 32ft.
Besides the campground there is the Halfmoon Picnic Area and a large parking area for the trailhead. For a closeup look at the area here is the Halfmoon Campground Area Map.
Fishing Big Timber Creek
Big Timber Creek offers varied conditions for anglers. The lower creek which is on private land reportedly offer some amazing fishing. Unfortunately, there is no public access to these waters. From the Forest boundary upstream the creek is open to fishing. However, much of the creek is too steep for fishing so you have to search out places to fish. Most of the best fishing water is higher up the creek closer to Lower Twin Lake.
Anglers willing to search out sections of the stream with appropriate water will find healthy populations of rainbow trout. Most are in the 7″-10″ size range but fish larger than 14″ have been documented. These waters have been stocked with both rainbow and cutthroat trout but the rainbows have had the best success. Although the cutthroats are gone, some of their genes remain as many of the rainbows show signs of hybridization.
MFWP reports indicate that brown trout are found in the creek below the campground. It’s always possible that you could catch a brown or two when you are fishing Big Timber Creek.
Big Timber Creek Falls
The Big Timber Creek Falls are a series of falls that split a narrow rock canyon. The falls twist through the rock and there are no good places from which you can view the entire stretch. However, there are great views of the lower falls and I recommended this hike to all waterfall fans. The character if the Falls changes with water levels so be sure to visit more than once if you can.
The Big Timber Creek Falls are reached by following the main trail into Big Timber Canyon. After about 1/8 mile a well marked side trail (left side of trail) leads to the Falls . The Big Timber Creek trail continues on to the interior of the Crazy Mountains. This trail is the access for a number of popular hikes, including the popular day hikes to Twin Lakes and Blue Lake.
Kayaking Big Timber Creek
Big Timber Creek offers some of the most famous extreme whitewater kayaking in Montana. This is water for experts and it’s common to find kayakers on the water when the creek flows are good. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could ride a boat through the Falls but many kayakers have accepted the challenge. However, there is a lot of top quality class V & V+ whitewater along sections of the creek above the falls. This mile of so above the falls is the goal of most boaters.
An internet search will turn up lots of stories and videos about this famous creek. The Montana Eddy Hop blog has a good description of the Big Timber Creek whitewater run, complete with photos. Also, check the EGCreekin site which has this excellent account of running the Big Timber Creek Falls. And then there is this video which is typical of the many videos on the Web.
A number of hikes in Montana follow great kayaking creeks so don’t be surprised to see boats on other creeks while you are hiking. For another story of extreme kayaking in Montana be sure to check out our page about Natural Bridge Falls.
Visit If You Can
Big Timber Canyon offers a lot for everyone. It has excellent camping and picnicking. The Falls are a natural wonder to sit and enjoy. Big Timber Creek offers excellent fishing opportunities and the trailhead provides access to Crazy Mountain trails. The Crazy Mountains are a great place to visit and Big Timber Canyon is a gateway to the best of the Crazies.
Here are some other places of interest in the Big Timber area:
The Beartooth Highway (US Hwy 212) is one of the most spectacular routes in the continental United States. The highway travels through high-altitude wilderness terrain for 63 miles between Red Lodge, MT and the North East Entrance to Yellowstone Park at Silver Gate, MT. This article travels the road beginning in Red Lodge and ending in Yellowstone Park but it can easily be driven in reverse
While it’s often called the Montana Beartooth Highway it actually travels through Wyoming for a portion of the route. The highway travels almost entirely through US Forest Service lands and the 944,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary is close to the road in many places. While most people experience the Beartooth Highway as a scenic drive and as an access to Yellowstone Park, the road offers great access to hiking, fishing, camping and other recreational activities.
Unmatched beauty surrounds you as you travel over the Beartooth Pass and along the Beartooth Highway. This drive is often found on lists of America’s Most Scenic Routes and the US Forest Service designates the Beartooth Highway as a “Scenic Byway”. The route is spectacular when driven from either direction. There are pullouts to admire the views and there are a number of campgrounds and recreation areas that offer opportunities to enjoy the area. Be aware that there are very few commercial services along the road.
Red Lodge, Montana
Red Lodge, MT is a typical Montana mountain ski town. The ski area, Red Lodge Mountain, is just 7 miles from the city. There is no resort at the ski area but Red Lodge fills with skiers during the season which typically begins early (around Thanksgiving). Red Lodge is also the home for spring and summer skiers who drive the Beartooth Highway to access great skiing – often well into July.
Red Lodge is located at 5,570ft elevation and the top of the ski hill is at 9,416ft. However this pales next to the Beartooth Pass which is at 10,947ft – 1,500ft higher than the top of the ski area and more than a mile higher than Red Lodge! Obviously, with the highway gaining a mile in elevation there are some steep climbs between Red Lodge and the top of the pass.
Climbing the Pass
As you leave Red Lodge on US 212 you drive up the Rock Creek valley which starts from town as a broad flat valley bottom that quickly narrows dramatically as the mountains pull in on both sides of the road. If you have extra time you can fully explore Rock Creek by taking Forest Road 71 which heads west just outside of the city.
About 10 miles from Red Lodge US 212 begins a very steep climb up the mountain walls on the east side of the canyon. For the next 10 miles the road climbs a series of twisty switchbacks and hairpin turns to reach the Rock Creek Vista Overlook which, at 9190′, is about 3,500′ higher than the road in the canyon bottom below.
The Rock Creek Vista Overlook is a must stop location. As you drive up the tight switchbacks there are views and glimpses of the surrounding area. However the overlook gives you the opportunity to really enjoy the views. Take the very short walk to the overlook and you will be delighted by the views of Rock Creek Canyon below and the Hellroaring Plateau across the canyon.
One of the most interesting sights is the vast expanses of bare rock that you see on the Hellroaring Plateau. The plateau is mostly above 10,000′ elevation which puts it above the tree line. All that grows are shrubs and low growing plants. Getting above tree line is a rare experience for most. Usually you cannot access the alpine environments without a significant hike. However, the Beartooth Highway takes you through miles and miles of alpine terrain. As you travel on the road past the Rock Creek Vista Overlook you continue to gain elevation and soon you are driving above tree line and you get a first-hand look at this unique environment.
What is the Tree Line
The tree line marks the highest elevation at which trees grow. Above the tree line it’s too cold, or is snow-covered for too much of the year for trees to survive. Lands above the tree line are called the Alpine Zone and you will only find shrubs, low growing plants and lots of bare rock. The harsh climate above the tree line is created by elevation. In the western mountains the temperature will generally drop between 3 and 5 degrees F for each 1,000 feet of elevation change. This results in significant temperature differences as you gain elevation.
The elevation where trees cannot survive will vary significantly from place to place. The tree line boundary is very uneven and is more of a transition than an actual line. Besides elevation there are several factors that will dictate the elevation at which the alpine tundra becomes the dominate vegetation.
In the Rockies tree lines on north-facing slopes are lower than on south-facing slopes. The shaded north-facing slopes hold the winter’s snowpack much later into the spring and summer which considerably shortens the growing season on these slopes.
It’s an easy assumption that harsh winter temperatures dictate where the tree line will occur. However, researchers say it’s actually summer that is most critical. While the trees in these areas are well adapted to harsh winters, they are poorly equipped to survive a mid-summer freeze and summer frost appears to be the primary factor in determining the tree line.
The Beartooth Plateau
Just a couple of miles past the overlook the road leaves Montana and enters Wyoming. Other than a few signs there is little indication that you have crossed the state line. You are now driving on the Beartooth Plateau which is the largest high elevation plateau in the US. The Beartooth Plateau is composed primarily of ancient rocks more than 4 billion years old – some of the oldest rocks in the world. The huge plateau is home to the Beartooth Mountains which contain some of the highest peaks in Montana, including Granite Peak, Montana’s highest.
While the word plateau may give you a vision of a relatively flat area, the Beartooth Plateau is actually far from flat. There are many undulations and it is common to gain or lose hundreds of feet in a short distance. Looking across the plateau you see nothing but lots of change in the landscape. Enjoy the spectacular vistas!
A bit further along , at an altitude of 10,730′, is the Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area (formerly the Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp). Weather and snow permitting, Beartooth Basin is open from late May to early July each summer. The ski area’s two lifts provide 1,000 vertical feet of access to 600 acres of terrain. In the past, this was a private ski area that was operated as a training ground for teams of aspiring ski racers. However, in the past few years, the ski area has opened to the public.
Traveling at High Altitude
The Beartooth Highway continues through the bare rock/tundra/scrub terrain that is found in the high country. You reach the Beartooth Pass at 10,947ft where there is an overlook that offers panoramic views in all directions. 10,947ft is a very high elevation and, particularly if you are a visitor from lower elevations, you might notice the “thinner” air especially if you do any walking or hiking.
It’s not only “thin” air that you have to be aware of. The high country along the Beartooth Highway is a different environment than anything you are accustomed to. Temperatures are always much cooler here and often it is cold! While most summer days are beautiful, it is common to have storms and fronts move through that bring cold temperatures and snow. Often temperatures will be in the 30s and 40s even in the middle of the summer. Being above tree line, there is no shelter from the strong winds that often whip across the area. You should always be prepared for bad weather.
As you start down the west side of the pass you soon encounter the Top of the World Store which is located at 9400ft just a few miles west of the pass. This is the only place to purchase anything between Red Lodge and Cooke City. Fortunately, the store is well stocked with the necessities that you might need. They offer accommodations, gasoline, groceries and much more, even the official Wyoming invasive species boat inspections that you need to boat on Wyoming waters.
The Top of the World Resort is located between two of the most popular public recreation sites. Beartooth Lake is just a few miles to the west and offers a campground, boating, fishing, trails for day hikers and a major access point for backpackers heading out to explore the Beartooth Plateau. Island Lake is a few miles to the East of the lodge and also offers camping, fishing, boating and hiking. There are other access points along the highway as you travel toward Yellowstone and all offer opportunities for exploring the area.
Chief Joseph Scenic Highway
Continuing on, Highway 212 reaches its only significant intersection when it is joined by Wyoming Route 296 also called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. This road follows the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River as it begins its dramatic rush downward. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is another truly spectacular drive. It travels through breathtaking scenery as it drops downward toward Cody Wyoming. The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is 47 miles in length and joins US 120 about 17 miles north of Cody.
I run out of adjectives to describe how impressive all of the roads I’m writing about are. If you have a chance to explore the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway take it. Along the way you will experience a drive across Wyoming’s tallest bridge, the Sunlight Creek Bridge which spans its namesake creek. This is actually quite a short bridge but the drop below is impressive – about 300 feet straight down. If you continue on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway you will enjoy great mountain scenery as you make your way towards Cody.
While exploring WY 296 is a great trip in itself, the Beartooth Highway continues west from the intersection with WY 296. Hwy 212 continues on as the ever spectacular scenery unfolds. You are gradually losing altitude as the road travels downward from the Beartooth Pass. This stretch of highway travels through Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. There are several campgrounds and trail heads. The trails into the surrounding mountains offer access to great wilderness camping, fishing and backpacking. The border between Wyoming and Montana is not far to the North and if you are planning to fish along this route you need to be sure to have the appropriate fishing licenses.
On to Yellowstone
As you approach the western end of the Beartooth Highway you arrive at the very small town of Cooke City, MT. Cooke City has a colorful mining history and today is a center for outdoor recreation. In the summer Cooke is the gateway to the Beartooth Plateau and in the winter it is a world-famous snowmobiling destination. As you drive the single street through town you’ll find full services with gas, food, shopping and more.
Another couple of miles and you encounter the even smaller town of Silver Gate, MT. This tiny town consists mostly of tourism related businesses and is on the border of Yellowstone National Park. The NE entrance of the Park is just past the last of the Silver Gate buildings. This entrance is open year-round as the route through Yellowstone is the primary road to Cooke City in the winter. From here you have all of Yellowstone Park to enjoy but that is talk for other articles.
The Beartooth Highway is a remarkable feat of road building that offers one of the most scenic drives in America. If you have the opportunity to drive the road take it. Plan on at least 2 hours to travel between Red Lodge and Cooke city – even more if you plan to spend time hiking or recreating. Plan your trip for the summer months if possible and enjoy a real treat of an experience.
Island Lake is a beautiful high-mountain lake on the Beartooth Plateau in Wyoming. It’s easily accessed from the Beartooth Highway (US 212) and is just a few miles west of the Beartooth Pass. Sitting at 9,518′ elevation, Island Lake covers 146 acres to a maximum depth of about 100ft. Island Lake is a very popular recreation area with a US Forest Service campground, a boat ramp and beach area and a trailhead that is a popular with hikers and backpackers.
Island Lake is just off US 212 (the Beartooth Highway) about 25 miles east of Cooke City, MT and about 38 miles from Red Lodge, MT. Unfortunately; there are no mile markers along the highway so you need watch for the signs which are quite obvious. The access is by a short spur road that heads north from US 212 This road is accessible to all vehicles and leads to the campground and boat launch area.
Camping at Island Lake
The Island Lake Campground has 21 sites for all tents, trailers or RVs. There are vault toilets and water is available. The campground is very busy in the summer months and is often full. Plan your arrival for early in the day for the best selection of available campsites. The US Forest Service charges a nightly camping fee and, as of 2020, they do not take reservations.
If you camp here be prepared for cold temperatures any time of the year. Summer is short at Island Lake and it’s not unusual to find snow and ice well into July. Summer ends quickly and it’s not uncommon to have early snow storms by late August. In fact, I once experienced 14″ of fresh snow on Labor Day.
If you are fortunate to have clear skies when you camp you’re in for a real treat as the stargazing is amazing. The air at this altitude is thin and clear and there are no light pollution sources. This provides for unforgettable views of the night skies. The stargazing is best during the dark of the moon but a full moon at this altitude is amazingly bright. Read about a night of stargazing at nearby Anvil Lake
Fishing & Boating
Fishing and boating are very popular with visitors to Island Lake. The lake is open to all types of watercraft, including motor boats. There is a large boat launching area with a boat ramp and plenty of room to hand launch. Although the lake is open to motorboats, most of the use is non-motorized. At 9,518′ the lake is just below tree line and forests partially surround the lake shores.
Brook trout are very abundant in Island Lake and it’s usually not too difficult to catch them. However, they can be very picky and sometimes they don’t bite at all. Island Lake is in Wyoming and you need a state license to fish. If you don’t have a license you can get one at the Top of the World Store which is only about a mile from Island Lake.
This is the “Beartooth High Lakes” area and there are a number of other lakes within easy walking distance and almost all of them are full of brook trout. A few nearby lakes have other trout species and Beartooth Lake has rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and lake trout. Fishing the High Lakes region is amazing and Island Lake is a jumping off spot for heading into the wilderness where there are hundreds of lakes waiting to be explored.
Important! If you are planning a backcountry fishing trip to the Island Lake area be sure you know where you are, where the state line is and make sure you have the proper fishing Licenses. Island Lake is in Wyoming but the Montana state line is not far away.
The Island Lake trailhead is very popular for accessing the high country and hikers take off from here for everything from day hikes to multi-day backpack excursions.
NOTE:This website is not a hiking guide and you should never use this information found here as directions! I strongly recommend you purchase a good map of the area and a guide book is very useful!
For any length hike in this terrain you need to be prepared. This is high altitude hiking which comes with special risks. Here’s just a few: Altitude Sickness is always of concern Sun Exposure – the sun is very intense at this altitude Changing Weather – it can quickly switch from sunny to dangerous Bears – this is bear country – bring bear spray if you have it Before you venture too far from the parking area make sure that you know all dangers and that you are fully prepared.
Several routes from here make great day hikes or short overnights. A hike that visits Night Lake, Flake Lake, Mutt and Jeff Lakes and Becker Lake and returns will cover about 7 ½ miles. This is an out-and-back (one way) hike and you can turn around at any point to make the hike any length you choose. This trail is a great way to get a sense of what hiking in the high lakes country is all about.
The hike from Island Lake to Beartooth Lake travels past Night Lake, Flake Lake, Beauty Lake, Claw Lake, Shallow Lake, Marmot Lake and Horseshoe Lake in an 8 ½ mile hike (one way). This is a great hike if you can arrange two vehicles – one at Island Lake and the other at Beartooth Lake.
The Island Lake trailhead is an excellent entry point into the nearly 950,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. There are endless possibilities for exploring the area both through the trail system or through the off-trail hiking (only for exert hikers) that can take you to areas rarely visited by humans.
Whether you visit Island Lake while driving the Beartooth Highway, for a great wilderness-type camping experience or as a starting point for an exploration of the Beartooth Plateau, your visit to Island Lake is sure to be a special experience.