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 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.
There are a number of excellent books that can help you learn more about this area. I 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]