Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Beartooth Highway Camping and Campgrounds

There are many public campgrounds along the Beartooth Highway. Which campground is best for you will depend on a number of factors. To help you choose we’ve prepared this guide to the public campgrounds along the route. There is a page of additional information about each of these campgrounds – just click on the campground name to learn more

NameDistance From Red LodgeDistance From YellowstoneNotes
Soda Butte Campground63.5 mi4.5 miHard sided campers only – No Tents
Colter Campground61.9 mi6.1 miHard sided campers only – no tents
Fox Creek Campground56.9 mi11.1 miThis campground was closed in 2019 & 2020
Pilot Creek Dispersed Camping55.3 mi12.7 miDispersed camping sites on both sides of the highway
Crazy Creek Campground53.1 mi14.9 miEasy access to Crazy Creek Falls
Lake Creek Campground50.5 mi17.5 miLocated on Chief Joseph Highway .8 mi from Beartooth Highway
Lily Lake Campground49.mi18.5 miPartially Developed camping
Beartooth Lake Campground41.3 mi26.7 mi
Island Lake Campground38 mi30 mi
Rock Creek Road Campgrounds12 mi56 mi4 campgrounds are located on this road
Parkside Campground.4 mi from Beartooth Highway
Greenough Campground.8 mi from Beartooth Highway
Limber Pine Campground.9mi from Beartooth Highway
MK Campground2.9 mi from Beartooth Highway
East Side Access Road Campgrounds8 mi60 mi2 campgrounds are located on this road
Rattin Campground.3 mi from Beartooth Highway
Sheridan Campground1.8 mi from Beartooth Highway
West Fork Rock Creek Road1 mi67 mi3 campgrounds are located on this road
Palisades Campground Road1 mi from Beartooth Highway
Basin Campground7 mi from Beartooth Highway
Cascade Campground10.3 mi from Beartooth Highway

General Beartooth Highway Camping Information

Campgrounds are located along the entire 68 miles of the Beartooth Highway but only a couple are located near the middle of the route. Most are closer to Yellowstone Park and Red Lodge, MT. The highway is in Montana on both ends but much of the middle is in Wyoming. Campgrounds are located in both states which won’t matter to most campers but it is important if you are fishing.

Beartooth Campground Fees and Reservations

Most campgrounds on the Beartooth Highway have no reservations and are open to whoever secures a spot first. Many campsites fill during the summer months so try to plan to occupy a site early in the day if possible. It’s no fun to be searching for a campsite in the evening only to discover that every campground is full.

Except for the dispersed camping areas, all of these campgrounds charge a nightly camping fee. Fees are paid on site so be sure to have a checkbook or cash to make your payment. Credit and Debit cards are not accepted!

Beartooth Highway Campground Weather

Campgrounds along the Beartooth Highway are located at elevations ranging from 7,000 ft to 9.500 ft so be prepared for extreme weather conditions. Cold and windy conditions are common and nighttime temperatures in the 30s or colder are not uncommon. Also, rain (or even snow) storms can appear suddenly so make sure you have appropriate clothing and camping gear.

Enjoy the Night Skies on the Beartooth Plateau

Camping along the Beartooth Highway offers some of the best stargazing in the lower 48 states. These are remote campgrounds with no man-made lights interfere with the night sky. You are surrounded by vast wilderness and the air is pure and clean with no pollution to block out the stars. Finally, the higher altitude provides a thinner atmosphere and enhances the viewing.

Full moon nights are almost bright enough to read by. During the dark times of the month the sky is ablaze with the milky way. It’s a real treat to see the amazing display overhead when you are camping here.

The Beartooth Highway is Bear Country

While it is unlikely that you will encounter a bear, always be aware that grizzly and black bears call this their home. It’s vitally important that you take care to keep your campsite clean. Avoid dropping any food scraps to the ground. Keep your food stored properly unless you are cooking or eating. Most of the campgrounds have steel bear-proof food lockers at each campsite and you should always use them. When there is no food locker be sure to keep you food inside of a vehicle.

Always carry bear spray when you are in bear country and be sure you understand exactly how to use it. It’s too late to figure it out when you need it! Here’s more information about being bear aware.

Fishing & Boating at Beartooth Highway Campgrounds

A variety of fishing opportunities are available to campers. Three of the campgrounds are located on lakes while several others offer easy access to stream fishing. You always need a fishing license so make sure you have the proper license before fishing. Even though this is remote country, I’ve visited with game wardens checking boats and anglers. Make sure you are legal before you fish.

If you are boating on one of the lakes (fishing or just boating) you must first have a Wyoming Aquatic Invasive Species Inspection and a WY AIS Decal. This applies to any type of boat or watercraft you use on the water. Fortunately, the Top of the World Store is authorized to conduct watercraft inspections.

Enjoy the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Along most of the Beartooth Highway the 943,648 acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness boundary is just south of the highway. Many of the campgrounds offer easy access tot he wilderness which is a prime destination for hikers and backpackers. To get the most out of your visit I recommend you have both maps and a guide book. I especially 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]

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Fox Creek Campground on the Beartooth Highway

The 33 unit Fox Creek Campground is located along the Wyoming stretch of the Beartooth Highway. It’s in the Clark’s Fork Ranger District of the Shoshone National Forest. The campground is 11 miles from the NE entrance to Yellowstone Park and the closest community is Cooke City which is 7 miles away.

Be Aware!!! – The Fox Creek Campground was closed in 2019 for use by construction crews repairing the Beartooth Highway. It remained closed in 2020 and it is likely to be closed for another year or two. Be sure to check in advance if you are hoping to camp here.

You can find nearby campgrounds in our guide to Beartooth Highway Camping & Campgrounds.

Fox Creek Campground
SeasonJune – September
Number of sites33 sites
AmenitiesWater, Vault Toilets, Picnic tables, Fire pits, Food storage boxes, Electric hookups
AttractionsClose to Yellowstone Park and Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
Nearest CityCooke City – 8 miles

The Fox Creek Campground features 33 sites located in a forested area at just over 7,000 ft elevation. There are great views of the surrounding peaks from some of the sites. The campground is open to tents and hard sided campers. This is prime grizzly bear country and each campsite has a steel bear-proof food storage cabinet. In addition to the food storage boxes, each site has a picnic table and a fire pit. Most sites have electrical hookups which are uncommon in most campgrounds along the Beartooth Highway.

There is no reservation system for the campsites at Fox Creek Campground. All sites are only available on a first-come first-served basis. Since the campground commonly fills during peak season it’s a good idea to try to arrive as early as possible to secure a site. If the campground is full and you have a hardsided camper try the nearby Colter Campground and Soda Butte Campground. Tent campers can try the Crazy Creek Campground or the Pilot Creek Dispersed Camping Area.

There is a nightly camping fee at Fox Creek Campground which is paid onsite. You can only pay with cash or personal check so come prepared.

For more camping and campground information check out our Complete Guide to Campgrounds on the Beartooth Highway.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Blacktail Creek Trail

The Blacktail Creek Trail (trail #337) is a short trail in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. It connects the Davis Creek Trail (trail #38) in the West Boulder River drainage to the North Fork Deep Creek trail (trail #37) in the Yellowstone River drainage and the Elephanthead Mountain trail (trail #45) in the Mission Creek Drainage. Along the way, it connects to the trail to Blacktail Lake (trail #105).

Looking into the Yellowstone River Valley from the Blacktail Creek trail
The Blacktail Creek trail travels from the West Boulder River drainage into the Yellowstone River Drainage. This view into Paradise Valley shows the Yellowstone Valley far below.

The trail has two very different sections. The top section runs from the Blacktail Lake junction to a junction with the North Fork Deep Creek (#37) trail and the Elephanthead Mountain trail (#45). This section of the Blacktail Creek trail is less than 3/4 of a mile and is fairly level. The trail is in excellent condition and sees a fair amount of use from hikers heading to Blacktail Lake.

The second section runs from the Davis Creek Junction to the Blacktail Lake junction and is about 2 miles in length. This section is much steeper, climbing steadily to gain 1,850 ft. This lower section sees much less use but is generally in good condition.

Davis Creek and Blacktail Creek trail junction sign
The junction for the Blacktail Creek and Davis Creek trails is well signed.

The Davis Creek junction can be reached by following the Davis Creek trail up for about 5 miles from it’s trailhead on the West Boulder River. It’s also reached by following the Davis Creek trail down about 4 miles from the Davis Creek divide which is reached from the South Fork Deep Creek trail (#388).

The Blacktail Creek drainage
The Blacktail Creek drainage as seen from near the divide into the Yellowstone River drainage. The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness stretches into the distance.

The Blacktail Creek trail has been rerouted in places and it’s route is different than what’s on most maps. The lower trail has moved more significantly and both the Davis Creek junction and the Blacktail Lake junction are different than the maps show. Fortunately, the trails are pretty obvious so it’s best to follow the trail rather than the map.

Although the Blacktail Creek trail is a great connector trail, it’s primarily used to access Blacktail Lake. Most hikers approach from the North Fork Deep Creek trail while a few come up from the Elephanthead Mountain trail and even fewer from the Davis Creek Trail.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Davis Creek Trail

The Davis Creek trail (trail #38) runs into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness from the West Boulder River. It travels about 9 miles to the top of the Davis Creek Divide where it connects with the South Fork Deep Creek trail (trail #388). Along the way it intersects the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337) which leads to Blacktail Lake and continues on to join several other trails.

West Boulder River Access Area

The Davis Creek Trail uses the same parking lot as the West Boulder River trail. To get there drive south from Big Timber on the Boulder River Road (MT 298) for 17 miles until you pass the town of McLeod. The road crosses the West Boulder River at McLeod and reaches the West Boulder Road (also known as the Swingley Road) in less than a half mile.

Turn right (west) and stay on the road as it climbs through the West Boulder valley. In 7 miles there is a well signed intersection for the West Boulder forest access. Turn left (south) onto this gravel road and follow it until you reach the campground and trailhead about 7 miles ahead.

signs at West Boulder trailhead
Signs at the West Boulder River access area show the way to the various trailheads and the campground. Be aware that the road runs right through this site and continues as a private drive.

If you are coming from Livingston you can take the Swingley road all the way. This is a scenic drive on a generally pretty good gravel road and is a much shorter route than heading through Big Timber. If you come this way you will reach the access road after traveling 24 miles on the Swingley road

Davis Creek Trailhead

The large parking area is used for several trailheads including the Davis Creek trailhead. There is parking along both sides of the road with a large unloading area for horse trailers. Never park in any way that blocks part of the road because the road continues on as a private drive.

If you are camping in the West Boulder Campground follow the signs that lead to the campsites. The Forest Service also operates the West Boulder Cabin which is available as a nightly rental and is in the same direction as the campground.

West Boulder River seen from the Davis Creek trail
From it’s trailhead the Davis Creek trail crosses the West Boulder River and begins to climb providing scenic views of the river below.

To get to the Davis Creek trailhead from the parking area follow the signs toward the campground and cabin. There are signs for the trailhead and you should have no problem finding the trail which begins at the large bridge crossing the West Boulder River.

Lower Davis Creek Trail

After crossing the bridge the trail can be a bit confusing as there are a number of trails/roads right past the bridge. However there are plenty of signs as the trail begins to climb up the hillside. The trail is in good shape but from mid-summer on it can get overgrown with dense vegetation. There are some excellent berry patches along the trail which means there are often bears around. Always be Bear Aware!

Typical trail on lower Davis Creek
The lower sections of the Davis Creek trail run through stretches of grass and shrub. By mid-summer the trail can be somewhat overgrown but is usually easy to follow.

The trail heads basically west and in about 4 miles it intersects with the Canyon Creek Trail (trail #56) which is a steep and rugged trail that heads north toward Shell Mountain. In another 1 1/4 mile or so the Davis Creek trail reaches the junction with the Blacktail Creek trail (# 337). The 5 miles from the trailhead to the Blacktail Creek trail climb a total of 1,200 ft so it’s not as steep as many Absaroka mountain trails.

The Davis Creek trail has been rerouted in places and most maps show the old trail route. The intersection with the Blacktail Creek trail has changed so follow the trail not the map. The intersection is now nearly 1/4 mile west from what is shown on the maps. Normally, the trail is obvious so follow the trail and you should do fine.

Davis Creek and Blacktail Creek trail junction sign
The junction for the Blacktail Creek and Davis Creek trails is well signed.

Upper Davis Creek

The Davis Creek trail heads generally west until it’s intersection with the Blacktail Creek trail. From this point it turns south and follows the creek for about 2 1/4 miles. This section is in good shape and climbs about 400 ft per mile. However, from here the trail turns west and climbs ever more steeply.

Until the trail turns it follows Davis Creek. When it turns west it follows an unnamed tributary upward. There is no trail heading up the main Davis Creek but hikers can travel off-trail following the creek. This is the only way to access Davis Lake or McKnight Lake, both of which are nestled high in the mountains far from the trail. Few hikers travel into this area but some do make the hike. Don’t even consider heading into these off-trail areas unless you are expert in wilderness travel and the use of map and compass.

Many hikers only come in this far on the trail as there is excellent fishing and hunting in this area. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reports that the upper creek is home to Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Although I’ve not fished here, it does look like good water. I’ve found well used campsites which lead me to believe it is popular for hunters

Meadows and mountains near the Davis Creek Divide
Just below the Davis Creek Divide the trail travels through large meadows and patches of forest. Along most of this section the trail is almost non-existent. This picture was taken while standing on the trail. You can see that the trail is almost impossible to follow.

The Davis Creek Divide

The trail leaves Davis Creek behind and climbs through forest and meadows to the Davis Creek Divide. It’s only about 1 1/3 mile to the top but the trail climbs about 1,500 ft in that distance. To make it even harder, the trail is very poor in this section. In fact, it is easy to completely lose the trail at times. The meadow crossings are the worst and in many areas there is no sign of a track at all. There are some cairns in a few places but they are often not close enough together to provide dependable guidance.

Very few hikers travel this trail so make sure you have good maps. I recommend both paper and phone app maps for anyone hiking here. Fortunately, as you head higher along the trail the divide begins to become obvious. Look for the saddle high up the mountains and it will help guide you. The final approach to the divide is a hike up a steep bare hillside.

From the top of the divide you can either turn around and retrace your path or continue on. If you continue the trail becomes the South Fork Deep Creek trail which leads down into the Yellowstone Valley.

Looking toward the Yellowstone River Valley from the Davis Creek Divide
The top of the Davis Creek Divide is a broad flat area covered with gravel and very little vegetation. This view shows the Yellowstone River valley far below in the distance. The Davis Creek trail becomes the South Fork Deep Creek trail at this point.
Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Blacktail Lake

Blacktail Lake is a small mountain lake nestled in the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston, MT. The lake is 4.2 acres and sits at 8,750 ft elevation. It’s used by day hikers, backpackers and horse packers. While Blacktail Lake is the only lake in the West Boulder drainage that has a trail to it, it can be reached using three different trails that are in three different drainages.

Finding Blacktail Lake

Blacktail Lake is at the end of the Blacktail Lake trail (trail #105) which cuts off from the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337). The Blacktail Lake trail is only about 1/3 mile in length with an elevation gain of about 100 ft. It’s a well maintained trail that sees enough use that it is almost always easy to follow.

Trail Sing for Blacktail Lake trail
The trail to Blacktail Lake is well marked. The lake is only about 1/3 of a mile on a good trail.

The Blacktail Lake trail is reached from either end of the Blacktail Creek trail. The upper section of the trail approaches from the north and is about 3/4 mile in length from its intersection with the North Fork Deep Creek trail (trail #37) and the Elephanthead Mountain trail (trail #45). The North Fork Deep Creek trail comes up from Paradise Valley just south of Livingston while the Elephanthead Mountain trail originates in the Mission Creek drainage east of Livingston. Click on a trail name to get full directions.

Elephanthead mountain viewed from Blacktail Lake
Looking to the north you will find beautiful views of Elephanthead Mountain.

The Blacktail Creek trail also connects to the Davis Creek trail which begins at the West Boulder River trailhead. This section of trail is about 2 miles in length and climbs nearly 1,800 ft. You can get full info on this trail on our Davis Creek Trail page.

Camping at Blacktail Lake

There are several excellent campsites at Blacktail Lake. On the eastern side of the lake there is a large, well-established campsite that can accommodate multiple tents. While I’ve never seen it, there is ample evidence that this camp is used by horse packers.

The lake is in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and, especially when there are no other camping parties, you can expect a solitude experience. The clear skies and high altitude provides great stargazing.

This is prime bear country so be sure to take precautions with your food storage. You should always carry bear spray (and know how to use it) when you are hiking in the area.

Blacktail Creek Drainage
From the lake there are great views of the Blacktail Creek drainage. It’s a steep 2 mile hike down this trail to Davis Creek.

Fishing the Lake

Although the lake is fairly small, it has a maximum depth of 20 feet and sustains a good trout population. It was first stocked in 1945 and has been stocked periodically since then. Since the trout are unable to reproduce in the lake it relies on stocking to provide a fishable population. The current stocking plan calls for the lake to be stocked every 8 years. When first stocked the fish are quite small but they grow rapidly and after a few years they reach a pretty good size. 4 – 5 years after stocking it’s possible to get fish in the two pound range.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks publishes stocking data for the lake. Visit their site to get full information including recent fish stocking data for Blacktail Lake

The margins of Blacktail Lake are often quite shallow and feeding fish may be quite a distance from shore. This can present difficulties to fly anglers as there are limited areas that allow for long back casts. However, being able to fish in such a beautiful place makes up for any difficulties.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

North Fork Deep Creek Trail

The North Fork Deep Creek trail (Forest Service Trail #45) takes hikers into the Absaroka Mountains near Livingston, MT. The trail heads into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness for about 5.5 miles and it climbs about 3,500 ft in that distance. The trail ends at an intersection with the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) and the Blacktail Creek trail (trail #337).

The North Fork Deep Creek trailhead is the same as for the Suce Creek Trail. It’s one of the closest trailheads to Livingston and is very easy to find. Travel south from Livingston on US 89 for about 3.5 miles to the intersection with MT 540 – the East River Road. Take this left turn and travel 2.7 miles to the Suce Creek road. The road is on the east side of the highway leading toward the mountains. Take this well maintained gravel road for about 1.5 miles to a junction the right. The turn is well marked and there is a forest service sign for Suce Creek. Turn right and follow the road until it ends at the trailhead – about 1 1/4 mile.

The entire drive from the highway to the trailhead is through private property. Don’t leave the road and always respect the rights of the landowners.

Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek Trail

Be aware as you hike this trail that the route it follows is slightly different than what you will find on the maps of the area. In recent years the trail has been improved and rerouted in places. If you are using a mapping program to track your route it will often show you off trail. However, the trail is well-used and obvious. I recommend you follow the trail and not try to find the trail shown on maps.

This view into the Paradise Valley is from the trail while still in the Suce Creek drainage

From the parking area the trail is obvious, heading straight up the open field above the parking area. After a short climb through the meadow you enter forest and immediately reach the trail junction. The Suce Creek trail is the main trail and it continues very obviously while the North Fork Deep Creek trail cuts off to the right and is a much less used pathway. Look for the trail sign and intersection as soon as you enter the woods and you will have no problem finding the route.

The trail climbs steeply heading almost straight south until reaching the divide between Suce Creek and the North Fork at about the one mile mark. The trail gains about 900 ft in this first mile but it’s in great shape and is pretty easy hiking despite the climb.

The North Fork Deep Creek trail travels through several beautiful meadows. Wildflowers and scenic vistas are part of the reward for hikers.

From here the trail turns east and after another mile (and another 900 ft of climb) the trail opens up into a meadow that provides a preview of what’s to come. From here the trail begins to undulate a bit. It mostly continues to climb but sometimes drops downward. In fact, along the next couple of miles the trail looses and regains about 475 ft. while climbing another 1,050 ft so the total climb along this section is more than 1,500 ft.

Meadows of Wildflowers

The trail travels through a mix of forest and meadow and the views of the Absaroka Mountains and Paradise Valley are incredible. This is bear country so be sure to take proper precautions. Be noisy so a bear can hear you coming and always carry bear spray.

Looking into the Absaroka Mountains from the trail.

The last mile of the trail gets even steeper and the finish is a climb of about 1,300 ft in about 1 1/4 mile. Most of this is through vast open meadows filled with wildflowers. This is a beautiful hike but it’s exposed and can be very hot on a summer afternoon!

The trail is generally easy to follow in the meadows surrounding Elephanthead Mountain

The North Fork Deep Creek trail continues on to end at the trail junction where three trails join. The Elephanthead trail (#37) heads east, the Blacktail Creek trail (#337) heads to the south and the North Fork Deep Creek trail heads back to the west.

Elephanthead Mountain

As you approach the top Elephanthead Mountain dominates the skyline. Elephanthead is a popular destination for hikers but many choose to approach on the Elephanthead Mountain Trail (trail #37) which comes up from Mission Creek on the other side of the mountain. It’s also possible to get here by hiking the Blacktail Creek trail but that is a long hike and it’s mostly backpackers who come in this way.

Elephanthead Mountain stands watch over the trail junction.

Elephanthead Mountain is the dominant feature at the top of the North Fork Deep Creek trail. From here hikers can find a route to the top of the peak. There is no marked trail but it’s not hard to find a route. While this is not a technical climb, Some find the final approach to be daunting.

The top of Elephanthead Mountain is at 9,423 ft elevation. The trail junction sign is at 8,900 ft so it is a climb of a little over 500 ft vertical. The distance will depend on the route you choose.

Hiking Beyond Elephanthead

Most hikers on the North Fork Deep Creek trail will turn around at this point. However, there are options for hiking further. The Elephanthead trail (#37) continues heading eastward into the Mission Creek drainage for about 5 miles to it’s trailhead. The Blacktail Creek trail (#337) heads south and intersects with the trail to Blacktail Lake (trail #105) where you can hike to the lake or continue on to join the Davis Creek trail (trail #38) in the West Boulder River drainage.

Good maps are important if you want to travel these trails and I recommend the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West [Gardiner, Livingston] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map (721).

Hiking the North Fork Deep Creek trail is a real treat. Although the climb is significant, the incredible scenery is a great reward. Whether you are out for a day hike or heading on a backpacking trip this is a trail you ought to check out.


2020 Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan Released

On July 9 the US Forest Service released the final plan for the Custer Gallatin National Forest. This is very significant as the plan will guide actions and activities in the forest for many years.

The plan has been in preparation for more than 4 years and there have been multiple opportunities for public comment. The final plan seems to make no one happy so it’s probably a true comprise. There is a ton of information available from the USFS about the 2020 Custer Gallatin Forest Plan

If you have questions Forest Plan Revision core team specialists will be conducting a webinar on Thursday, July 23 at 10:30 a.m., 3:00 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. (All times MST) – log-on to: (mobile device compatible) 

Although this is the final plan there is still an opportunity to object to the plan. For the next 60 days objections can be filed at

The plan is long overdue as the lands were being managed under two different forest plans. The Custer Forest Plan which was adopted in 1986 and the Gallatin Forest Plan which was implemented in 1987( the two forests were merged in 2014). The 247 page plan is comprehensive and it is obvious how much work went into its preparation.

As might be expected, the plan provides for a host of activities that most hikers don’t participate in but the plan does call for:
7 New Wilderness Areas (126,657 acres)
13 Backcountry Areas (208,960 acres)
10 Recreation Emphasis Areas (224,610 acres)

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

The Lights of Anvil Lake

by Stan Clements          

It was probably the best I had ever seen the stars in my life.

It was the night of the new moon. The air was cold and dry. We were at high altitude, in wilderness miles from the lights of the smallest of towns. It was dark out. It was really dark out, good old country dark, here in Montana’s Beartooth Wilderness. My friend Bob and I had maybe the most adventurous drive of our lives over the Goose Lake Jeep Trail, just to get to the spot where we donned our packs. We walked and climbed into this rugged country, bushwhacking off the official trails, to reach remote Anvil Lake.

We had camp set up about fifty yards from the shore, just above lake level. Our tent was barely visible in the glow from the campfire. Two backpacks leaned against trees. It was a perfectly clear, cloudless night. Not a breath of wind disturbed the flames climbing from the fire, its smoke rose straight up.

In my usual restless manner, I wandered back and forth from the fire ring to the lake shore. Bob was accustomed to such behavior from me; he stoically tended the fire, perhaps silently amused at my pacing. Once I got away from the cheery glow of camp, I could see a glorious sky, full of stars. On one of my trips to the water’s edge, I couldn’t help noticing that two stars near the horizon were so bright as to cast a reflection upon the still waters of Anvil Lake, a wake of white light. On each of my successive trips to the shore, this apparition seemed to grow brighter, creating an ever greater impression upon me. I finally decided Bob Should See This.

I walked back to the fire and told Bob he should come see this sight I had found. Bob grunted, but stood and walked towards the lake. He saw the starlight on the water, and suggested that we hike up the bluffs that lined one side of the lake. We climbed upward in silence, in darkness only slightly altered for a few feet in the beams of our flashlights. We reached a spot high on the bluffs, to me it seemed as wide as a highway.

I looked up at all the stars, and then down at the lake. I was suddenly frozen by one of the most spectacular sights I have seen. It was dark enough, clear enough, and calm enough for the waters of Anvil Lake to reflect the stars in the sky. To me it looked like candles in paper bags were scattered all over the lake. The reflections were bright, like dozens of luminaries resting on a slate surface that was the big black lake. It took my breath away. I marveled at it in silence. Finally, I stated to Bob, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Have you?”

“Me neither,” Bob replied. “I’m just looking at it and enjoying it.”

We were in the right place at the right time. The incident was a good example of how Bob and I worked together. One of us gets an idea, and then the other takes it and runs with it. Years later, there was still awe in our voices whenever we mentioned “The Lights of Anvil Lake.”

Note:Anvil Lake is one of hundreds of special places in the Absaroka-Beartooth (AB) Wilderness. Its a little known and rarely visited lake, far from any developed trail. Off trail hiking in the AB is an amazing experience but not for the beginning backpacker. This is rugged, remote country with more grizzly bears than humans and you cannot expect assistance if you run into trouble in these remote areas. For those who are committed you can find more about Anvil Lake and other great places by studying the maps and books available about this special place. I recommend:
Hiking the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness East [Cooke City, Red Lodge]

Note Two: This story was written by the late Stan Clements who had a mighty thirst for wild places. He was a good friend who is greatly missed.

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Pine Creek Falls and Pine Creek Lake

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!

Photo of Pine Creek Falls near Livingston, MT
Pine Creek Falls is a beautiful place to visit. It is only a mile from the parking lot on a well maintained trail. This is a very popular hike for good reason!

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.

Photo of side falls at Pine Creek Falls
At high water flows Pine Creek Falls splits and flows over a second, smaller 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.

Here are some nearby hikes that you will enjoy

Yellowstone Area Hikes and Attractions

Natural Bridge Falls and the Boulder River

The Boulder River is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that originates high in the Absaroka Mountains south of Big Timber, MT. Natural Bridge Falls is the main attraction on the Boulder but the river and surrounding lands provide incredible opportunities for fishing, camping and exploring.

The Boulder River Valley

The headwaters of the Boulder River are in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This vast wilderness borders Yellowstone National Park and is one of the wildest areas in the lower 48 states. The Boulder begins from snow melt in the high mountains. It travels nearly 30 miles through US Forest Service land before leaving the mountains. The river canyon opens into a broad open agricultural valley. The Boulder River has long been renowned within Montana for its excellent recreation opportunities. Many residents will tell you that the Boulder is one of their favorite places to visit.

State Hwy 298 parallels the river until the National Forest boundary where it becomes the Boulder River Road. Heading South from Big Timber, MT, Hwy 298 is an excellent paved road that runs through a broad valley studded with family ranches. This is productive agriculture land and the working ranches that fill the valley remind us of the traditional Montana lifestyle. The lands surrounding the river are private property and its difficult to access the river through this stretch.

About 16 miles south of Big Timber is the tiny town of McLeod, MT. The first post office in the Boulder valley opened here in 1886. Don’t expect to find much here today. The town is at the junction of the West Boulder and main Boulder Rivers. The West Boulder River is a sizable tributary that is well known for its fly fishing and great hiking trails. A gravel road intersects with Hwy 298 near McLeod. This road is called the East Boulder Road but becomes the Swingly Road after a bit. The Swingly Road travels cross country to the outskirts of Livingston. It makes a great drive as well as providing access to hiking trails and other explorations.

Past McLeod, Hwy 298 continues south toward the rapidly approaching mountains. It’s about three miles to the East Boulder River where an access road leads to several trailheads in the East Boulder Drainage. The East Boulder is a significant mining area that was first developed in 1893 when Ansel S. Hubble, one of the first prospectors in the area, filed claims in the drainage. Today, the East Boulder Mine is a major underground mine that producing large amounts of platinum and palladium.

Natural Bridge Falls as seen in low water. The dry creek bed is obvious above the falls. The river has completely gone underground upstream of here and works its way through the porous sandstone to where it shoots out to become a surface river again. In high water the entire creek is pouring over the edge as well as through the underground channels. Prior to its collapse in 1988 the creek was spanned by a natural bridge that gave the park its name.

Natural Bridge Falls

5 miles south of the East Boulder junction the paved road ends and you enter the Gallatin National Forest. Almost immediately the Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area is on the left. This Forest Service day use area is a fantastic place to visit and well worth the trip to see.

At the Natural Bridge Falls the Boulder River pours over the lip of a 105 foot tall limestone rock layer. This rock is soft and easily eroded and historically there was a beautiful natural bridge that spanned the river here. Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge collapsed in 1988 and all that remains are memories and photos. However, the falls remain and they are spectacular.

The limestone rock layer erodes easily and several major underground channels have been cut through the rock. In low water the entire river goes underground above the falls. The river erupts from several places to come bursting out of a cliff wall. At high water these streams are joined by the bulk of the river pouring over the lip.

The Natural Bridge Falls parking area is right next to the road where the highway ends and the gravel road begins. There are handicap accessible outhouses, paved trails, interpretive signs and numerous river overlooks. This is also the trailhead for the Green Mountain Trail which is reached by crossing the river on the sturdy bridge. Casual visitors will want to cross the river and follow the trail heading downstream. It is a short walk to the vantage points opposite the Falls where the photos on this page were taken. The hike is about a 1/4 mile on gentle trail through a mixture of clearings and forested areas.

Kayaking Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is an impressive falls. At high water the Boulder is a significant river and the water shoots over the falls with an amazing force. The Boulder River has always been the playground for boaters (mostly kayakers) and it’s easy to imagine that many have looked at the falls and wondered if it would be possible to survive an attempt at jumping the falls.

One man decided that he had to find out and in 2008 Bozeman native Ian Garcia kayaked over the falls. Ian is a noted waterfall jumper and had studied this for years. Ian survived the jump but did have a swim after being ejected from his boat. Read more about kayaker boats over Natural Bridge Falls.    

Photo of kayaker jumping Natural Bridge Falls
At high water the Natural Bridge Falls is a very impressive sight. The water flowing over the lip is enhanced by the flows erupting from the underground waters. If you look closely you will see Ian Garcia in his kayak going over the top of the falls. Although he was ejected from his kayak, Ian was able to swim out of the maelstrom at the base of the falls.

Although most boaters avoid the Falls, the upper Boulder is popular with whitewater kayakers who come to enjoy it’s wild waters. The 20 plus miles of river above Natural Bridge offer some very difficult waters and serious boaters flock to the Boulder for spring run off. If you want to float these stretches of the river you must be prepared. This website is not the place to get the info you need. Do your homework and don’t consider boating on the Boulder until you are certain you are prepared for the boating conditions.

The Upper Boulder River

From Natural Bridge the road continues for about 25 miles, making a very deep incursion into the heart of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This road can be very rutted and slow driving so don’t ever plan to hurry. There are a number of private in-holdings along the road but most of the land is National Forest. There are about a half dozen USFS developed campgrounds along the road. These all have toilets and some have water. Most charge a small nightly fee. In addition, there are many dispersed camping spots on forest land along the road and river.

Besides the camping opportunities, the USFS operates the Fourmile Cabin as a rental cabin. The cabin is about 15 miles south of Natural Bridge Falls. It sleeps 4 and is available for a modest fee on a reservation basis.

Into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

Beyond the end of the Boulder River Road there are jeep trails that lead even higher and further. There was a history of mining on the highest mountains in the area and there are private mining lands at the top of Independence Peak, which is to the east of the River. I don’t recommend that you try to travel these 4wd roads. Rather, stay with the main road which ends at about 8,000 ft elevation in a meadow surrounded by 10,000 ft peaks. From here there are trails into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. This is beautiful mountain country.

The Upper Boulder is classic mountain terrain and there are great hiking trails that take off from trailheads along the road. The upper sections of the Boulder River are just over the mountains from the Paradise Valley of the upper Yellowstone River. Head west from the upper Boulder and you will encounter Crow Mountain which is reached from the Mill Creek drainage on the other side of the mountains. 

If you want to visit these areas make sure you have appropriate maps. USGS topo maps are available from local hiking stores. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness West National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map fully covers the area and the DeLorme Montana Atlas & Gazetteer has topo maps of the entire state.

Fishing The Boulder River

The Boulder River is a famous fishery and fly fishermen from afar visit to fish for the wild trout that inhabit it’s waters. The Boulder River is a very popular fishery for native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish as well as for wild brown and rainbow trout. The river is open to fishing all year long but most anglers find the best success in summer and fall. There is a reason that people come from around the world to fish here

The upper river has almost unlimited access as the road runs very close to the river for many miles. Since this is almost all Forest Service land you can fish wherever you think it looks likely. However, below the forest boundary access is a lot tougher. Just outside of McLeod there is a Montana State Fishing Access Site located on the river. The Boulder Forks Fishing Access Site offers great access to an excellent fishing section of the Boulder River.

The Boulder River drainage makes a great place to escape into the mountains of Montana. It offers great hiking, camping, fishing and, for the very experienced, great whitewater boating. This is a wonderful place to go for a quick escape or for an extended expedition. Natural Bridge Falls is a very spectacular natural feature that anyone interested in Montana should see. Be sure to take the opportunity to visit this great area.

Nearby attractions in the Big Timber area: