Monday, July 18, 2016

Backpacking Off Trail in the Beartooths

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on the Montana-Wyoming border is my favourite backpacking destination in the Greater Yellowstone region. The remarkable thing about the plateau is that you are mostly above the treeline, in high alpine tundra country normally reserved for treks in places like Tibet or the high Himalaya.

If my other summer backing trip to Bechler was all about waterfalls, then the Beartooths are all about lakes, hundreds of them in fact, and you can hardly walk for more than 20 minutes without passing another one. The landscape is high altitude tundra, a bit like the higher valleys of Nepal (think Gosainkund lakes), and this makes for easy walking and even easier routefinding. If you have a good map and navigation skills you can pretty much walk anywhere. The following was my four-day itinerary, but the options are endless. Click on the following pictures to see them larger.

Day One starts at Clay Butte trailhead, west of Beartooth Lake, and heads across the plateau towards Martin Lake. This is an established trail and so you might find other hikers on this section.

Kidney Lake with the Beartooth wall behind
Wright Lake and Martin Lake
Campsite night one, Martin Lake

Day two heads off trail, east up to the three dramatic Cloverleaf Lakes, then north to Two Bits Lake at the base of the Beartooth wall. From here I climbed up to the top of the ridge for aerial views of Sky Pilot Lake and the valley of Rock Lake to the east. A scramble can take you down the ridge to High Pass Lake, which makes for a great traverse option from Rock Lakes (accessed from near Red Lodge). The route then took me back down onto the plateau and west past Donelson and Maryott lakes to drop down steeply past charming Pleides Lakes and then up the valley to Flat Rock Lake for night two.

Cloverleaf Lakes
Two Bits Lake
Sky Pilot Lake
Rock Lake
High Pass Lake
Two Bit Lake and Lonesome Peak from the north
Pleides Lakes
Flat Rock Lake

Day Three Leave your main pack at Flat Rock Lake and make a detour loop up the valley past Varve Lake and Navajo Tarn to the iceberg-full lake of Castle Rock Glacier. From here you can shortcut south to Copepod and Cladocera lakes. Then it's a short, sharp descent back to Flat Rock Lake, where you can enjoy lunch beside the stunning lake. Then follow the river downstream past Castle Lake and Summerville Lake to Green Lake, where you'll have to wade across the northwest inlet to access Lake Elaine for a sublime night three.

Castle Rock Glacier
Castle Rock Glacier
Cladocera Lake
Flat Rock Lake
South from Flat Rock Lake
Lake Elaine
Lake Elaine camp
Lake Elaine dusk

Day Four is easy; hiking around the west side of Lake Elaine, through the forest and river gorge to Granite Lake (a great lunch spot) and then uphill, past several lakes and a confusing section of trail (keep your wits about you here) to eventually rejoin the trail you took in on day 1. You'll be back in your car in the early afternoon, to reach Red Lodge or Cooke City in time for a cold beer.

Lake Elaine
Trail back to Beartooth Butte

Practical Tips
Bring bear spray and have it accessible in a holster. August and September are the best months to avoid mosquitoes, but bring bug spray any time. Invest in Beartooth Publishing's 1:100,000 Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness map and also check out the terrain beforehand on Google Earth.

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