The Beaten Path, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

5 days traversing the Beartooth Plateau north to south

Fossil Lake and the incredible Beartooth Plateau
  • 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

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.
  • 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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

  • 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
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.

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