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Across Montana's Beartooths

A hike through Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to the northern edge of Yellowstone is one of America's iconic wilderness journeys
By Peter Potterfield - July 5th, 2009

Midway on my 30-mile jaunt across Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, I find myself feeling positively smug. Good weather, good company, and outrageous scenery make for a lucky combination. Even the locals consider the East Rosebud one of the prettiest valleys in the Beartooths, and after a couple of days working up through its rugged beauty, I see why. This hike has a high-octane pay off.

After a second full day under cloudless August skies, hiking through the storied waterfalls and craggy peaks of this high valley, we’re now camped in magnificent isolation on a big bench about 15 feet above one of the rock-bound lakes. Clean granite slabs stair-step down to the water from our small meadow, dotted with stunted alpine timber. A soft breeze drifts across the lake, a mere zephyr—and a gentle reminder we are living above 9,000 feet. 

The peaks of the Beartooth Range rise up all around, dominated by Castle Mountain to the east. Afternoon slides toward evening as I sip tea, enjoy the birdsong, and wait on the water to boil for the first course, the soup. My companions are just below, pulling in cutthroat trout at the rate of one about every three minutes. But, this being Montana, there will be no fish frying over the stove tonight. The ethos here is all catch and release, the way it should be in a wild place. Still, the good fly-fishing puts the finishing touch on a perfect mid-summer evening in these striking mountains.
 
By any measure, our camp is the epitome of alpine splendor, the kind of setting that reinforces why I spend so many nights each year sleeping in tents pitched in wild places. And the greater beauty of it is, we get to linger a while. We purposely planned our route to give us an extra day on our crossing of the Beartooth Range. Getting here required two days and more than three thousand feet of elevation gain, so why hurry now, right when we're in the best part of this backcountry nirvana?
 
With a full day to explore the neighborhood, Becky, Mike and I discuss over dinner the possibilities for tomorrow: peak bagging on one of the 11,000 foot mountains nearby? Fishing the granite encircled lakes? Roaming the flower filled meadows? Exploring side trails to tantalizing features off the main route? These are the kind of choices that put a smile on the face of serious backcountry travelers, especially when the weather is flawless and the landscape sublime.
 
It all started six months ago when I set out to find the best hike in Montana. The state is so rich in extraordinary wilderness that it’s actually hard to choose: Glacier or Yellowstone? The Bitterroots? The Bob Marshall Wilderness? One can hardly go wrong, but I was determined to find something special. For expert input, I asked fellow writer Mike Harrelson, a gung-ho climber and skier based in Bozeman, to help me decide. He was up for the challenge and after a few weeks of research called me with the verdict.
 
“We’re going to do a traverse of the Beartooths,” he said, “right down to the northern boundary of Yellowstone. I think you’re going to like it.”
 
Better still, Mike had yet to do the route himself, and wanted to come along. A friend of his, Becky Edwards, had done the route—in a single day, as a trail run--but wanted to savor the journey at a more leisurely pace. We had our quorum for an exceptional wilderness trip.
 
I flew into Bozeman, that growing, gentrifying metropolis (“Bozangeles” to the cognoscenti)  that serves as the gateway to Yellowstone. But it still retains its defining, unpretentious, laid-back Montana attitude. All the big, epic valleys that lead into the park—the Madison, the Gallatin, the Yellowstone—are accessed from town. But after a stop for groceries at the popular food Co-Op, and for a last double-short-non-fat latte at the Daily, we pointed Mike’s big Tundra east, not south. Two hours on I-90 brought us over to Columbus, where we drove down to Absarokee, and further south to the village of Alpine.
 
At this cluster of vacation cabins we found the trailhead for the East Rosebud and started our traverse of the Beartooths. The hike lies almost entirely in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, a land defined by rushing water and formidable peaks. One could make the argument that even in Yellowstone itself there’s nothing to rival the austere beauty. Our route will take us up the East Rosebud four thousand feet up to the sprawling Beartooth Plateau, where we’ll cross the Divide and drop down into the Clarks Fork drainage, and eventually, in two days, in to Cooke City, perched on the northern edge of Yellowstone.
 
We hit the trail that day under blue skies and bright sunshine, knowing we’re in for something special. Up through the rocky embrace of the East Rosebud, we ticked off the landmark lakes: Elk, Rimrock, Rainbow, Duggan, Lake at Falls, and pass a dozen waterfalls, most  notably the dramatic cascade of Impasse Falls. Now, two days into it, we’re halfway across, and enjoying the extraordinary rewards of our efforts.
 
The three of us are determined to make the most of the journey, and the extra days we’ve built in. This route has been dubbed the “Beaten Path.” In fact, it’s no longer the well-kept secret it once was. But perhaps the most intriguing element of this wilderness excursion is the opportunity it presents for off-trail adventures. The fact that Becky has run the route in a day but still wanted to take the time to savor it, speaks volumes about the nature of the landscape it penetrates.
 
One way to appreciate this route is to consider it a yellow  brick road, a way in to the magical high and wild. We’re talking classic American backcountry, and a lot of it. The Absaroka-Beartooth itself is nearly a million acres, with 700 miles of trails. But together with adjoining Yellowstone National Park, it becomes part of the 20-million acre Yellowstone Ecosystem. To say there’s room to explore is an understatement.  
 
For our treasured layover day, Mike and Becky opt to climb Mt. Dewey, the 11,480-foot peak that dominates our wilderness neighborhood to the south. I’m tempted, but the last forecast we saw in Bozeman hinted that bad weather is due any day. Since this is my first foray into the Beartooths, I want to explore the vast plateau up by Fossil Lake on a blue-bird day. The Beartooths have the largest unbroken area--contiguous--of land above 10,000 feet in the lower 48, and none of it is more dramatic than the plateau. I'm psyched to see it.
 
The three of us head up the trail at dawn with day packs, through outrageous wildflower gardens in peak glory. We make a problematic crossing of a roaring stream, but manage it with dry boots. Just beyond pretty Dewey Lake, in the shadow of its namesake mountain, I bid Mike and Becky good luck. They leave the trail and set out cross-country by Snowbank Lake to work their way up toward Dewey’s summit. We agree to meet back in our lakeside camp later in the afternoon.
 
I carry on another three or four miles, up to the sprawling, barren plateau, a rocky, treeless plain entirely above 10,000 feet. The azure waters of expansive Fossil Lake shimmer in the sun. Some hikers who do this route make Fossil their ultimate destination, and its wild beauty holds a raw appeal. But even under today’s cloudless late-summer sky, a cold, stiff breeze blows across the exposed plateau, reminding me of the altitude, and the remoteness.
 
Pulling a jacket from my pack, I spend the day hiking a full circuit of the lake over the rocky terrain, stopping frequently to photograph the panoramic perspective of Montana’s mountainous spine.  To the east, striking Pilot Peak points its jagged pinnacle toward  the heavens, underscoring the different geology of the volcanic Absoraka Range and the granitic Beartooths. It’s a glorious high-country amble, by itself worth the journey. I hated to leave.
 
Back in camp, Mike and Becky are ebullient  after a successful climb, but they too noted the high winds on top. Clearly, our reliably perfect weather is in for a change. So we take the afternoon to relish the sunshine, soaking in the alpine ambience of our sublime lakeshore camp and leisurely prepare an elaborate dinner. As the sky turns orange above us, we complete our nightly ritual of hanging the food bags in a tree--a high tree, as this is most definitely grizzly country—and take in a little star gazing before crawling n the tents.
 
Overcast skies and a cold wind greet us in the morning, a radical change from the benign conditions we lucked into since leaving the car. We could walk all the way out to the road on this, the fourth day, but none of us are ready to leave the wilderness.  Not yet. After breakfast and a few cups of fresh brewed coffee, we begin the hike up to the plateau. Today, the open terrain around Fossil Lake has a totally different vibe compared to yesterday. Low clouds scud across the plain on the cold wind, whipping up white caps in the waters of the lake. I was glad I had taken the time to explore this place yesterday, in its sunny glory.
 
At the highest point on the plateau, a huge trail cairn, more pyramid than trail marker, marks the divide between the East Rosebud and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone. As we drop down the other side, we notice subtle changes in the landscape.  The wild flower displays are even more vibrant here than on the other side, and the terrain takes on a  a slightly softer, more benign character.
 
The high country here is dotted with lakes set into rocky basins, and meadows snugged up against huge granite faces. And while there aren't the dramatic waterfalls of the East Rosebud, the interesting backcountry travel on this side confirms the popular reputation of this Beartooths traverse: the scenery just never lets up. Acting on an inside tip from a Bozeman hiker, we take a side trail and walk out into an expansive meadow beside Russell Lake. Well out of the alpine zone and into the forest by now, this last, chilly night would show us a quieter, more low-key side to the wilderness. We savor our last evening: Mike grabs his fly rod, Becky opens up her F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I try to catch up on notes.
 
The next day, we're out to the busy Clarks Fork Trailhead by noon, and haven't far to go. I'm staying at the Skyline Guest Ranch, located across the street from the parking lot. Better known as a dude ranch, with riding and fly fishing, it's big and comfortable, and I'm ready for the shower. Once we're presentable, we make the two mile drive into town for a long, luxurious dinner.
 
The fact is, being back in civilization has its advantages, and tomorrow holds still more. Cooke City is just minutes from Yellowstone, and a dawn start will let us take in the wildlife of the legendary Lamar Valley and still be back for breakfast. And one of the highlights of doing a hike that ends here is the drive back over the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge. Charles Kuralt called Highway 212 the greatest road in America, which winds for 64 miles thorugh the Beartooths, much of it above 10,000 feet. It's hard to make decent time on this highway, with vistas that include Pilot Peak and Beartooth Peak slowing you down.
 
And when Mike finally drops me off at the airport, I find myself not just sorry to leave, but actively plotting how to to get back to Yellowstone country. The trip across the Beartooths makes me crazy to see what else is out there.  

Getting There
Montana makes it easy to plan an adventure vacation, visit Montana’s official web site for tips, maps, addresses and other information.
 
Bozeman is the gateway to Yellowstone country, but for the Beartooths, Billings is a viable option for staging. The drive to East Rosebud Lake will take approximately three hours from either city. For information on conditions and regulations in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, contact the Ranger District in Big Timber, Montana, 406-932-5155. or the Custer National Forest, 406-657-6200.
 
For a one way hike, you’ll need to stash one car at the Clarks Fork Trailhead  near Cooke City before driving to the trailhead at East Rosebud Lake, or arrange a pick up. At the end of the hike, when you walk out of the Beartooths  out to the trailhead on Highway 212, lodging options await a few miles to the west in Cooke City. But I stayed at the Skyline Guest Ranch  (1-877-238-8885), located right there,  right at the trailhead. The Skyline  has spacious, comfortable rooms (I recommend the Gallatin Room) and cabins, but also offers fishing expeditions and horseback rides--and a really big breakfast. For lunch and dinner in Cooke City, the Beartooth Café in Cooke City and the Log Cabin Café  (406-838-2367)  in neighboring Silver Gate are local favorites. A little known fact is that  the Sinclair station has an internet kiosk where for a few bucks you can check your email
 
Not far from the East Rosebud Trailhead, in the hamlet of Fishtail, Montana Hanna’s   (a former stage coach stop)  offers outstanding dining that’s frankly surprising that far out in the boondocks (406-328-6780). Other local dining options include the infamous Grizzly Bar & Restaurant (and its storied Grizzly Burger) in Roscoe (406-328-6789).
 
When headed back over the frankly incredible Beartooth Highway to Bozeman (or Billings), you go through Red Lodge, where the Bridgecreek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar (406-446-9900) is the place to stop for lunch or dinner. If you’ve got the time for further adventure in this corner of Montana, consider a dude ranch experience (I did, following the old travel adage of  when in Rome . . .). I suggest  horseback trips and world class fly fishing at  the Hawley Mountain Ranch (877-496-7848) on a remote stretch of the Boulder River, or rafting on the Stillwater River with Adventure Whitewater Rafting  ( 406-446-3061).
 
See the sidebar on the scenery and guest ranches of Yellowstone country.
 

 


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