Mystic Lake is a favorite destination near Bozeman, Montana for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers and hunters. Mystic Lake can be accessed from a couple of different trailheads but the access in Bear Canyon is the shortest. Located about 5 miles east of Bozeman, the Bear Canyon area offers hiking, mountain biking and cross country ski opportunities.
Finding the Trailhead
The trail to Mystic Lake begins at the main trailhead parking area which is alongside the Bear Canyon Road. Take Interstate 90 to Exit 309 and head south. Look for the small sign for Bear Canyon on your left about 1/4 mile from the Interstate. Turn left (east) on this road and travel about 3 1/2 miles to the parking area.
There is little hiking information at the trail head and no outhouses or water so come prepared. The parking area is large with room for many vehicles. This is a well used horse trail so at times you might find trailers taking some space in the parking area.
The trail begins right at the info sign and heads up the hill. Follow the trail up and you soon encounter the small stream in the bottom of New World Gulch. This stream will be your companion for a couple of miles as you follow it upstream. There is a looped trail that is possible to take but is very poorly signed. Unless you are comfortable with your maps I suggest you stick to the main trail. Topo maps are great or Bozeman, Big Sky, Bridger Range – National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map 723
Hiking the Mystic Lake Trail
The trail follows the stream for about 2 miles. Sometimes the trail is creek side while at other times it climbs away from the water. This first section of the hike is generally quite steep. The trail climbs steadily, sometimes up a pretty good slope. However, it’s generally a moderately easy hike. In places the trail is very rocky which can present difficulties. During spring melt or in wet weather the trail gets muddy and can be difficult.
After dropping down to the creek one final time, the trail turns to the southeast and begins to climb away from the water. This section of trail is about three miles in length and is a nice hiking trail, wandering up and down through meadows and forest. From spring through mid-summer the meadows are a riot of color from the multitude of wild flowers. In wet places clouds of butterflies provide a living kaleidoscope of swirling colors. Keep your eyes peeled as you hike as the area is home to elk, deer and other wild creatures.
The trail continues to gradually work higher until the top of a very gradual pass. From here it’s a mild downward walk along a long rounded ridge top. This is an easy stroll that makes you wonder why all trails can’t be just like this!
Exploring Mystic Lake
After a short time you can begin to glimpse Mystic Lake in the distance to the south. Gradually the trees open to present better views and soon you are looking down onto the beautiful meadow that fills the shallow valley to the north of the lake. A steep climb down brings you to the edge of the meadow and the lake seems to be within short distance.
This is where you need to decide where you want to go. If you stay on the trail it will quickly climb above the lake to the East. Here you can connect with the closed roads that are in the area and can hike on to the US Forest Service Mystic Lake Cabin.
If the lake itself is your objective there is little to gain by climbing to the East. Instead, either pick a trail through the meadow or follow the bottom of the hills on either side of the lake. While the meadow might seem an obvious choice it can be a very difficult hike in wet times. The meadow is laced with small streams and marshy areas and can be a very difficult place to hike. Beware, the insects can be bad in this area.
Fishing Mystic Lake
There are endless fishing opportunities in this area and Mystic Lake is less popular than most destinations. Although most anglers search out other waters, those who fish Mystic Lake report catching mostly brook trout. However there is a population of larger cutthroat trout which sometimes are biting. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks does not show that they have any stocking or survey records for the lake.
Mystic Lake covers 13 acres and sits at an elevation of 6,586 ft. At one time is was a major source of drinking water for Bozeman. In 1903 – 1904 a dam was built to increase the lake’s water storage. The 43 ft high dam was 400 ft long and significantly increased the storage capacity. The dam was breached by a landslide in 1984 and was permanently removed in 1985. In 2010 the Bozeman city commission considered a plan to build a new dam on Mystic Lake to increase the city’s water supply. Although the project didn’t move forward there’s no telling if the proposal will resurface.
With the history of use the lake has, it is no surprise that there are historic roads in the area. While they are not open to the public the USFS sometimes needs to use them for access.
The Return Trip
To complete your hike return following the same trails. If you are experienced and comfortable there is a second trail that runs more to the East of the New World Gulch trail. This trail is clearly marked on maps but can be hard to find when in the area. The few trail signs will not help you find this trail. The return trip is more downhill than up which can be very welcome.
The distance from the parking lot to the lake and back is about 12 miles and can be done as a day hike. However, as with most Montana hiking, your personal hiking speed and style may dictate that you approach this hike differently. Backpackers will find campsites in the area and for those who would like to camp for more than one night, the nearby Bear Lakes make for an interesting side hike. You can also make a backpacking loop by continuing past Bear Lakes to connect with the Bear Creek trail.
Mystic Lake is a great hike with easy access. Although it is a 12 mile round trip to the lake, this trail is a great place to go for a shorter hike. Wildflowers, butterflies and the chance to spot big game make this a great place to take a hike.
There are a lot of other hikes in the Bozeman area. You can learn more in these books:
Day Hikes Around Bozeman, Montana
Hiking Montana: Bozeman: A Guide to 30 Great Hikes Close to Town