Central Montana Hikes & Attractions Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Sioux Charley Lake – Stillwater River Trail

2023 Update – Following the historic flood of 2022, the Stillwater River Trail parking area and trailhead are closed. The trail itself is closed through the Gorge section but the bypass trail can be used to access the trail past the gorge.

photo of badly flood damaged parking lot at Stillwater River Trailhead
These photos show the damage to the parking lot/trailhead area for the Stillwaer River trail.

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The Stillwater River trail provides great hiking into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. While the trail leads to amazing riches for backpackers, there is a very popular day hike to Sioux Charley Lake. It’s a 3-mile hike on a good trail that climbs gradually for the entire distance. The trail includes a narrow gorge with raging whitewater, great mountain views, and a stream that becomes a wide, flat lake.

Directions to the Stillwater River trailhead

It’s easy to find the trailhead as it’s at the end of a one-way paved road heading into the mountains. The approach begins from MT 78 which runs from Red Lodge, MT to Columbus, MT. About 2 miles south of Absarokee, MT there is a well-signed intersection with county road 419 (the Nye Road) which heads west from the highway. Take this road for 28 miles, past the tiny towns of Nye and Roy, until it ends at the trailhead.

Nye Road (CR 419) is very well maintained all the way to the end. About 2 miles before the trailhead the road passes the Stillwater Mine which is a major enterprise. The mine traffic ensures that the road is well maintained.

Just before the end of the road, the road to the Woodbine Campground turns to the left and crosses the Stillwater River while the main road continues for a short distance to the trailhead for the Stillwater River Trail.

Stillwater River Trailhead

The parking area is paved and very large with room for horse trailers as well as many cars. There is a vault toilet in the parking area along with a hitch rail for tying up horses. A signboard provides information about the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

Pots section of the Stillwater River
The Pots section of the Stillwater River runs through a narrow gorge on a trail carved into the cliff wall.

This is prime Grizzly bear territory and it’s important to always be bear aware. Keep a clean camp and always carry bear spray. Yellowstone Park offers great advice for camping in bear country.

The Stillwater River Trail through the gorge section now ends at an impassable rock wall. A new trail will have to be blasted into the rocks before it can be used again.

The trail is obvious heading up the river. This is a heavily used trail so expect to see other hikers or horse riders. However, most horses will use a bypass trail for the first mile or so. This trail takes them up and away from the inner gorge which can be very tricky for a horse and rider to negotiate.

The wilderness boundary is only about a tenth of a mile from the trailhead and soon after the trail enters the gorge which travels alongside the raging Stillwater River. This is a really neat hike with sheer cliff walls on one side and the amazing river on the other. This section of the river is known as “The Pots” and it’s hard to imagine that a few kayakers have braved these waters.

Stillwater River trail through the gorge section

The Stillwater River Trail

The gorge section of the trail is about a half-mile that passes quickly. From here, it’s mostly a slow climb as the trail follows the river upstream. After another mile or so the trail turns north and heads up to a rocky knoll. From here you are rewarded with great views, including the first glimpse of Sioux Charley Lake lying ahead.

Looking south toward Sioux Charley Lake in the distance
After about a mile and a half, the trail leaves the bottom and heads up to a rocky knoll. From here, you are treated to your first sight of Sioux Charley Lake ahead.

The trail continues to stay above the river bottom for another mile or so. This is an easy hike on a good trail that is never very steep. When you reach Sioux Charley Lake you will find a number of delightful places to enjoy the placid scenes. However, this is a very popular destination so don’t expect solitude.

Although most people visit Sioux Charley as a day hike, there are a few campsites near the lake. The easy trail and fantastic setting make this a great place for a first backpacking trip.

Sioux Charley Lake on the Stillwater River
Sioux Charley Lake is a wide and flat section of the Stillwater River. It’s obvious how the river got its name when you see this section.

Beyond Sioux Charley Lake

While Sioux Charley Lake makes a great destination, the Stillwater Trail continues on to provide access to many miles of trails within the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. The Stillwater River Trail itself continues on for another 23 miles following the river as it climbs higher and deeper into the wilderness. Ultimately, the trail ends at the Lake Abundance Trailhead just north of Cooke City, MT.

The Stillwater trail also connects to a number of other trails heading into lightly-visited wilderness areas. To get an overview of the trails available download a copy of the US Forest Service Stillwater Trail map.

If you want to plan a backpacking trip on the Stillwater Trail, I recommend the book Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness which is a comprehensive trail guide to the entire wilderness. I always recommend that you carry paper maps of the areas you are hiking in. Unless you purchase individual topo maps, the National Geographic Absaroka Beartooth East map is a good choice.

Fishing in Sioux Charley Lake

When you walk along the gorge section of the trail you might wonder how the river ever got the name of Stillwater? When you reach Sioux Charley Lake you’ll understand. Sioux Charley is not a true lake as much a very flat section where the river spreads across the valley’s bottom. The inlet to the lake is a broad flat river and the outlet is exactly the same.

The exact size of the lake varies as the river level rises and falls. MFWP reports the lake as being a bit over 3.5 acres and a maximum depth of 3.5 ft. In my mapping program, the lake measures less than a mile from tip to tip.

In the 1930s & 1940s, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks stocked the lake with hundreds of thousands of rainbow and cutthroat trout. Today there is a small, self-sustaining, population of cutthroats and anglers occasionally catch them in the 9-inch size. However, the lake is full of wild brook trout. Most are fairly small but fish in the 8 – 9 inch range aren’t uncommon.

Who was Sioux Charley?

Sioux Charley Lake was named for a white man who grew up among the Sioux after he was captured as a baby. He lived in a cabin he built by the lake for several years. Also, he reportedly operated a road up the Stillwater River to Cooke City and ran a mail route. I’ve not found records of when or why he left the area.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to hike to Sioux Charley Lake?

The lake is 3 miles on a very good trail. Most people will make the hike in 1 1/2 – 2 hours (one way).

Is there camping at Sioux Charley Lake?

There are several backpacking campsites located near the lake. The Woodbine Campground is adjacent to the trailhead.

What kind of fish are in Sioux Charley Lake?

The lake has wild populations of cutthroat trout and brook trout. There has been no fish stocking since the early 1950s.

The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and the surrounding forests are special places that need our support. You can help advocate for these lands by supporting the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Association. They are a positive force in support of the wilderness and we all need to give them our support!