The Beaten Path, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Fossil Lake and the incredible Beartooth Plateau

Nearly every year, two of my college friends and I go on an epic backpacking adventure somewhere in the West, always a different destination. I made a list of them this year and thought I’d share:

  • 2009: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  • 2010: Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
  • 2012: Yosemite National Park, California
  • 2013: Trinity Alps Wilderness, California
  • 2014: Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
  • 2015: Glacier National Park, Montana
  • 2016: Joshua Tree National Park and Idyllwild, California (climbing trip)
  • 2017: Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park, California
  • 2018: Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon
  • 2019: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  • 2021: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

(No trips in 2011 or 2020.)

Two years ago, for our 10th trip, we pulled out all the stops to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Last year, our trip was canceled due to Covid. So this year, we were more than ready to return to the mountains for a great week in the wilderness. And with one of our group now living in Bozeman, heading back to Montana was an obvious choice.

We wind up in grizzly country a lot. Out of 11 trips, four of them have been in legit grizzly-bear habitat: Yellowstone, Glacier, Alaska, and now the Beartooths (I also did Yellowstone solo once). I’m happy to report that our “no grizzly encounters” streak continues.

Trip Specs

  • Route: The Beaten Path — a one-way traverse of the Beartooth Plateau. East Rosebud Trailhead ←→ Clarks Fork Picnic Area.
  • Mileage: ~26 miles (I clocked nearly 30 over five days of GPS tracking)
  • Elevation: 8,200 gain, 6,500 descent. We chose to do the route from northeast to southwest (East Rosebud → Clarks Fork), so we had net-gain elevation. The opposite direction is net-loss and easier. We wanted to end near Cooke City and enjoy a challenge.
  • High/low points on trail: northwest corner of Fossil Lake at 9,958 feet, East Rosebud trailhead at 6,253 feet. (Clarks Fork is about 8k.)

Map

Check out my Gaia folder here with the route and our campsites:

Itinerary

  • Day 1: Shuttle from Clarks Fork (near Cooke City, Montana) to East Rosebud. Leave 9 a.m., arrive just after noon. On-trail shortly after. (More info on shuttle below.) Hike ~8.5 miles with ~2k gain to southwest side of Rainbow Lake.
  • Day 2: Hike ~6.5 miles with 1.8k gain to northwest side of Dewey Lake.
  • Day 3: Hike ~3.25 miles with 800 feet gain to northwest corner of Fossil Lake. Day hikes/fishing in afternoon.
  • Day 4: Hike ~2.5 miles with ~500 feet descent to southwest corner of Ouzel Lake.
  • Day 5: Hike ~8.5 miles with ~1.5k descent to Clarks Fork.

We’d hoped to get to Fossil Lake on Day 2 so we could spend a true zero-day there, but it wasn’t meant to be. We wound up with two short backpacking days in the middle, which was fine but not ideal since each day requires full breakdown/packing up of camp and uses up the morning. This put a damper on our day-hike ambitions, but we still had some great downtime at Fossil and Ouzel lakes.

There are a few options to optimize for a zero-day up high:

  • Get started in the morning on Day 1 instead of afternoon, and go farther than Rainbow.
  • If you don’t get that early start on Day 1, push through to Fossil Lake on Day 2. (We were glad we didn’t, but others could do it.)
  • Hike the entire way out to Clarks Fork from Fossil on Day 5, about 11 miles and 2k down.
  • Alternatively, you can hike the trail the opposite way, from Clarks Fork to East Rosebud. With the easier elevation profile, you’d probably have no problem fitting in a zero-day.

This is, of course, entirely predicated on your fitness, priorities, and setup. Some people do this whole route in one or two nights. We came into this trip with 5 days/4 nights to use.

Shuttle/taxi info

We took the Red Lodge Taxi shuttle driven by Rhonda at 9 a.m. at Clarks Fork. After about a 2-hour drive over the incredible Beartooth Highway (one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever witnessed), we stopped in Red Lodge for gas, then continued on to East Rosebud. We arrived just after noon and hit the trail shortly after.

The cost for the shuttle was $420 before tip. That price tag may cause some sticker shock, but I would definitely recommend the shuttle. A shuttle car situation is prohibitively arduous. Assume you’re starting at East Rosebud: Two cars drive to Clarks Fork → Leave one car, drive 3.5 hours to East Rosebud → Hike to Clarks Fork → Drive one car 3.5 hours to East Rosebud → Two cars drive onward. Plus the cost of gas and your own limited vacation time. So it’s well worth it, especially split between multiple passengers.

The only other option for the one-way hike is to do a key drop between hikers heading in opposite directions and drive each others’ cars to a meeting point after. A lot can go wrong in that situation, but backcountry texting makes it a lot more feasible than it used to be.

Frontcountry info

The night before we hopped on the shuttle at Clarks Fork, we found a dispersed camping site off the Lulu Pass Road north of Clarks Fork. The campsite was free and nothing special. Note that this is definitely 4WD territory, and it being dispersed camping, you’ll have to bring/filter your water and dig a hole for #2. (Leave no trace, damnit! I’m sick of seeing your toilet paper.)

Cooke City is an old-west mining town just outside the northeast entrance of Yellowstone. It’s home to several restaurants (I’d definitely recommend the Miners Saloon for a burger and a beer or three, but the bistro also looked good), hotels, a gas station or two, and no cell signal. The Log Cabin Cafe two miles west in Silver Gate is where it’s at for breakfast though — excellent coffee and a tasty eggs/bacon/etc. breakfast on Day 1.

On the other end of the trail, there isn’t a damn thing around East Rosebud for miles besides some private houses. Plan to be driving for a while to find even a gas station.

Bears

No grizzlies or black bears this time, although we did see a tiny black bear rooting around right next to the road in Yellowstone, causing a traffic jam.

One of our group members called the forest service ranger station before our trip and they had no reports of bear activity on the trail. However, we did spot what we were pretty sure was a large bear track in the mud on our last day.

Bear canisters are not required on this trail (only bear bags), but we brought them anyway because most of the Beartooth Plateau is treeless. There are some low, scattered trees around Fossil Lake, but I was glad to not be trying to hang a bag there. The ranger also mentioned the possibility of hanging from a rock outcropping, but again I was happy to not be messing with that.

We did use a bear bag the first two nights in the woods so that we could leave one bear can at home; we’d eaten enough food by night 3 (when we’d planned to be at Fossil) to fit into our cans.

Everyone we encountered on the trail had bear spray, and many of them also had sidearms (usually in a chest holster).

Day hikes and fishing

I’m a big day-hiker — one of the biggest reasons I carry a big backpack up high is so I can carry a small backpack even higher. I had a little less time than I would have liked for day-hiking on this trip, but we still enjoyed a fun scramble near the southeast corner of Fossil Lake in the shadow of Mount Dewey (11.4k), where we could spot Granite Peak (12.8k, the highest in Montana) in the distance. Summiting Mount Dewey would definitely be doable if you had a full day at Fossil Lake to make a run at it.

The plateau is easily the best place for day-hiking on this trail, since the terrain opens up dramatically and allows for easy overland travel. Much of the rest of the trail is nestled deep under canyon walls with limited options for extended exploring. You can see this effect on the map, with no other trails intersecting the Beaten Path for the vast majority of its length.

Our lone fisherman had good luck almost everywhere he cast his fly rod, catching some gorgeous cutthroat and small brook trout. I’ll stop there, since according to a sticker I saw in Cooke City, they “still hang backcountry bloggers in Montana.” 😳

Calm before the storm

Lightning

On night 3, at Fossil Lake, our highest and most exposed campsite, a storm moved in. It pelted us with small hail one minute and cleared up the next. We were in and out of our tents three or four times. During one long break, I scrambled up to a nearby ridge to get a look to the west, and we were obviously not out of the woods yet.

After dark, the lightning moved in. Not ideal to be sitting inside an aluminum cage above treeline as thousands of lightning bolts spark in the clouds overhead. Luckily for us, the brunt of the storm missed us to the south, but we had a tense hour or so in our tents. I briefly climbed out to enjoy the show just as it was starting. I haven’t seen such an active electrical storm since growing up on the plains of Nebraska.

Random notes

  • The scenery on Day 1, southwest-bound out of East Rosebud, was staggeringly beautiful — one of the most scenic entry trailheads I’ve encountered outside of Alaska. One hell of a way to start a trip. The last day into Clarks Fork was considerably less dramatic — the opposite of what I’d expect given their elevations. On Day 2, Lake-at-Falls and Impasse Falls were absolutely stunning, as well (Impasse being perhaps the largest waterfall I’ve seen in the backcountry).
  • Part of the beauty of this route is that it’s one-way — no backtracking. But if you don’t want to deal with the one-way logistics, you could do an out-and-back. In that case, I would definitely recommend doing it from East Rosebud for the reasons above. The climb to the plateau is bigger, though.
  • There isn’t an abundance of established campsites on this trail. The terrain is rugged and tight; flat, established spots are precious few. The ones that do exist tend to be clustered in one usable area near a lake. One fellow hiker described the group of campsites near Rainbow Lake as the “Rainbow Lodge” because of the closely spaced 8–10 campsites that during the high season are apparently full every night. Other lakes that had obvious clusters of campsites were Dewey, Ouzel, and Russell. Fossil Lake is massive and the shoreline is never-ending — it would take all day to scout the whole thing for a great campsite. We’d heard the northwestern corner offered more flat and protected possibilities than the east (which is true) and camped there. But there are likely more idyllic sites than ours on Fossil if you’re willing to look.
  • Water was easy to find but not quite as available as I’d expected. You spend a lot of time on side slopes climbing/descending the canyons, out of reach of the rushing river below. There are plenty of lakes and small streams for fill-ups, though. I brought my BeFree gravity system, which is great for camp, but it slowed down dramatically on Day 2, so I was happy to have my trip-mate’s pump filter on hand. A Sawyer with two bottles would likely be fine if that’s your preferred method.
  • We did this trip the last week of August and it was already starting to feel like fall. The season is short up here. Go during summer or be prepared for cold and moisture.

Gear/food

Here’s my final gear list.

I brought what has become my standard kit and was pretty happy, although I was a little chilly early in the trip with temps a bit lower than expected (I’d bring my bigger puff next time). And I’d still love to trim some more weight, especially in food, footwear, and luxuries.

The piece of gear I’m most obsessed with right now is my sun hoodie (wore it nearly every day). Very happy that I brought my insulated sleeping pad. And after a few trips, I’m still satisfied with my switch to phone/battery from camera/GPS and won’t be going back. Gaia (my map/topo app) is great, a steal at $20/year.

For food, we did something different this year: Each of us planned and cooked one dinner for the group (plus one dinner on our own). Dehydrated meals were all the rage for a while and I’ll still bring one occasionally, but they’re actually very inefficient space-wise — and not that good. We were able to use significantly less space with our dinners, and they were much tastier. I love the experience of a communal dinner, as well. There are some things that are worth the extra effort, and that’s one of them for me.

Our dinners were:

  • Quinoa with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and salmon (I usually make this with couscous and that’s a bit better)
  • GF pasta with tomato-alfredo sauce, chicken, and pepperoni
  • Spicy pad thai with nuts and other accoutrements

I also changed up my breakfasts and lunches on this trip, trying to go simpler and smaller, which mostly worked but needs a few tweaks. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will admit that after all these years of backpacking, I’m still pretty bad at calculating how much food I actually need.

Mount Dewey in the back

Wrap-up

I didn’t look at many photos of the Beartooths online before this trip, and I’m glad because I was absolutely blown away by the scenery. This mountain range and plateau are much more rugged and dramatic than I expected. A truly awe-inspiring place.

I also had a terrific time in Montana generally, with lots of good beer and great scenery even from the front seat of my friend’s truck. The sky really is bigger there. I’ll be back for sure, maybe next year.

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Matt Savener

Matt Savener

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