Pine Creek is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that enters in the heart of Paradise Valley. While the National Forest campground attracts some, most visitors come to hike to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake. This is the most popular hike in the Livingston area. It’s easy to access and the hike to the falls is only about a mile on an excellent trail.
The Paradise Valley
The Yellowstone River valley south of Livingston is known as Paradise Valley and is truly a special place. Paradise Valley is defined by the Absaroka Mountains that rise dramatically to form the eastern boundary of the valley. The valley floor is broad and flat at about 5,000 feet elevation. The mountains rise straight in a series of peaks ranging up to nearly 11,000 ft.
Along the length of the valley a number of streams come out of the mountains and the drainages these creeks cut into the mountains provide the primary access points into the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The Pine creek drainage is on the east side of Paradise Valley about ten miles south of Livingston, MT.
To get to Pine Creek take the clearly marked access road that branches off Hwy 541 (East River Road) just south of the small community of Pine Creek. The paved access road climbs steeply for a short distance then meanders through the woods for a couple of miles. The road runs through private land so be sure to stay on the road and respect the property owners.
Pine Creek Campground
Entering National Forest lands, you soon reach a road leading down to your left (north) that accesses the Luccock Park church camp. Near here a short spur road on the right leads uphill to the south to the parking area for the George Lake Trail. Continue on the road until you quickly reach the entrance to the Pine Creek Campground.
This is a nice campground in a forested mountain setting that offers excellent car camping. There are a couple of loops to the campground and in the summer you will find friendly camp hosts on duty. The campground has drinking water, trash removal and vault toilets. There are 25 campsites each with a fire ring and a picnic table. Here are some suggestions for selecting a campsite. If you camp here make sure you properly store all foods. This is bear country!
The Pine Creek Trail
It’s a short drive through the campground to the trailhead parking area. Parking is spread out and at times it can get crowded. Fortunately, there is always more room a bit further away. This is a popular hike and its fun to see the geographical diversity of license plates in the parking lot.
The trail is well marked and begins as a wide flat easy hike. The trail soon narrows slightly but remains wide and easy and climbs gradually. A couple of hundred yards from the trail head you reach a side trail heading south that leads to the George Lake trail. When the George Lake trail was first constructed this was the original trailhead. However developing a dedicated trailhead was a much better option and today few people access George Lake from this trail.
The trail continues through the forest and you soon reach a bridge crossing Pine Creek. This is a big heavy duty bridge crossing a beautiful mountain stream. After crossing the Creek the trail begins to climb a bit more steeply. It is somewhat rockier and narrows. However, it remains an easy hike and presents little difficulty for most hikers. It’s about a mile total to the falls.
Beyond Pine Creek Falls
A sturdy bridge leads over the creek at the base of the falls and the trail continues on. From here the nature of the trail changes dramatically, very dramatically. Pine Creek Lake is only four miles ahead but, in those four miles, the trail climbs 3,000 feet. What this means on a practical level is lots of switch backs, steep climbs and long unrelenting uphill hiking. Fortunately, it’s great hiking through an interesting area.
Many people only hike this trail far enough to get to the top of the Pine Creek Falls where you can sit on the slick rock cliff top and watch the creek pour over the edge and out of sight. This is a great place to get some sun and is the turn around point for most people who are not heading to the lake.
Continuing on, the trail climbs through the woods for the next couple of miles following the creek upwards. After some distance the trail climbs out of the woods and climbs a series of steep switchbacks through a massive rock field. This is just the first of these rock fields which alternate with stretches of forest until you reach the smaller lake just below Pine Creek Lake. This is a beautiful little lake fed by a waterfall plunging down from above.
Pine Creek Lake
Making still another climb you reach a small meadow ringed by bare rock. Just beyond this bare rock lies Pine Creek Lake, a true gem of a high mountain lake. Its nestled in a cirque of spectacular sheer rock mountain peaks at nearly 9,200 ft. The 32 acre lake is fed by a cascade plunging in at the east end of the lake. While not too big around, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports it as 170 ft deep!
Much of the western and northern shorelines are bare rock. Easy to walk on and great to fish from, the lake plunges rapidly from these rocky shores. The east (inlet) side of the lake is shallower and the associated shoreline is not as steep. Hiking around the southern side of the lake is difficult. The mountain plunges straight into the lake on this side and it’s not possible to walk the shoreline. It takes scrambling up the hillside to find a place where you can circle this side of the lake.
Pine Creek Lake can be visited on a day hike or as an overnight backpack trip. Campers will find limited good camping areas so please to be sure to minimize your impacts. There is no firewood available at the lake so be sure to plan on cooking on a stove.
The trail ends at the lake and there are no trails going further from here. Very experienced back country hikers can climb the mountains to the north and northeast to cross into the Deep Creek or Mission Creek drainages. In a straight line it is not far to Elephanthead Mountain. However, this is for expert hikers only as it crosses very rough and dangerous terrain.
Fishing Pine Creek
Pine Creek is not a popular fishing destination but Pine Creek Lake is. The creek is quite steep and the trout populations seem to be pretty low. Rainbow and brook trout are found in the creek. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) stocked the creek with rainbows until 1984 when they stopped all stocking. The lower end of Pine Creek is all on private property with no access. Upstream of the forest boundary the creek is very fast and most anglers seek other waters.
Pine Creek Lake offers great fishing for Yellowstone cutthroat trout. MFWP plants cutthroats every three years which provides anglers with fish of several sizes. Flies or spinners work well and the lake can be fished from shore in many places. Some of the cutthroats move downstream into the outlet stream and even over the falls to the small lake below. If you have the time its fun to explore with a fly rod.
Hiking to Pine Creek Falls or Pine Creek Lake is one of the finest hikes in an incredible hiking area. To learn more about this hike and more than 100 other great hikes check out the book Hiking Montana.
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