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 on 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.
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’s a rough drive up for a short distance to a lower parking area or 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
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.
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’s straight up the trail for about 4/10 of a mile to this same intersection.
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.
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 lakeshore. 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’s 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.
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.
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” who 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.