Beartooth Plateau Trail Log
August 7 through August 22, 2009
Who: JonW, superhiker
The goal was to explore to the Beartooth Plateau, a portion of the Beartooth Wilderness area, and to do this mostly off trail. We planned on spending ten days backpacking in this area, most of the time we would be above 10,000 feet.
We eventually spent ‘only’ nine days backpacking, all without resupply. A little over one day on NFS trails, about one day on off-trail routes. The balance of the time was totally off trail. We ended up being above 10,000 over 80% of the time. We were only briefly below tree line – about 5% of the time.
Overall this was a very successful trip. It was exciting, challenging, rewarding, and satisfying to be totally off trail for an extended period of time. (It will be hard to return to hiking only on trails.) The ruggedness, the beauty, the remoteness all made for an unforgettable trip.
We did not pile up mileage as the hiking was very demanding, but we did pile up memories.
Trip Day 1 – Friday, August 7, 2009
JonW picks up superhiker to retrieve car. Superhiker gets to JonW’s house around 6:00 PM and the car is loaded and we take off.
Lots of rain.
Trip Day 2 – Saturday, August 8, 2009
Lots of rain.
Arrive in Red Lodge, Montana do a little shopping (Moose Drool and Summer Honey) and eat dinner. We drive up over the Beartooth Highway. The temperature drops to the low 30’s as we go over the pass. We get to our campsite on the Chief Joseph Highway near dusk.
Trip Day 3 – Sunday, August 9, 2009
We drive into Cooke City for breakfast. Then we spend time visiting several stops near the highway, taking very short day hikes. We check out the trailhead for the following day.
We drive over to Red Lodge again for dinner and then back to our campsite.
Trip Day 4 - Backpack Day 1 - Monday, August 10, 2009
We get to the trailhead at Island Lake around 9:00.
We did our final packing and got onto the trail between 9:30 and 10:00. The packs are very heavy as they are weighed down with a 10 day supply of food.
We ripped by both Island Lake and Night Lake as well as several other unnamed lakes. We found the turn off from the official forest service trail onto the unofficial off-trail route. We passed between Mutt and Jeff Lakes. Here we encountered our first ‘rock field’ – about a quarter mile of boulders that we had to hop from one to the next. (These rock/boulder fields became all too common) This was followed by a steep climb that slowed me down with my heavy pack. Then down to Becker Lake whose east shore we followed. This was a beautiful lake. (beautiful will become an overused word, nor does it adequately describe what you see)
We went up at the end of the Becker and then down to Albino Lake. By now my stomach ailment and elevation were getting to me. We decided to set up camp and did so above the southern shore of Albino Lake. We saw five mountain goats. They went into several other campsites and were chased out. They did not bother us as our campsite was too exposed for them. We both took baths and then ate dinner. The much feared mosquitoes did not surface and we enjoyed a pleasant evening. We stayed up to 9:30 when it became obvious that the clouds were going to make the stars a bust that night. (Thankfully the mosquitoes never became a problem)
Trip Day 5 - Backpack Day 2 - Tuesday, August 11, 2009
We got onto the trail around 8:30 and hike along the western shore of Albino. The off-route trail disappeared at times and we worked our way up over the saddle between Albino and Jasper Lakes. The way up was quite steep. On the way up we came across a skeleton of a mountain goat. Once we arrived at Jasper Lake we saw additional mountain goats – about six of them. We followed the faint trail along the western shore of Jasper until we judged the time was right to leave the trail. Totally off trail we went, up towards Arrowhead Lake. Soon we were high on the ridge; we turn north towards our goal of Triskele Lake. The slope was extremely steep as we traversed north. (Stand straight up and reach out and touch the side steep)
We reached Triskele Lake and followed the stream up to Two Bits Lake. The western shore was too steep and we went to the more promising eastern shore. We found a nice site on a knoll where the stream tumbling down from Silver Tarn entered Two Bits. Once again we each took a ‘bath’. The water was VERY cold. We each rinsed accumulated sweat out our clothing and spread them on rocks to dry.
Following dinner Michael decided to hike up the drainage to Silver Tarn. He reported that there were huge snow banks still around the lake. That evening the stars were out in great abundance. The sky was clear and the Milky Way was very visible. There were many shooting stars; one left an effervescent trail across the sky. It was a beautiful evening.
Trip Day 6 - Backpack Day 3 - Wednesday, August 12, 2009
We left Two Bits Lake and headed towards Donelson Lake. The going was steep but we made steady progress. We noted the expected small tarns along the way. When we reached the crest of a saddle we saw a large lake in the distance. We took off for this lake. We checked neither our compass nor GPS. We got to this lake and took a break. There was a steep drop to lake. We followed the top of the cliff and soon saw another lake, then another. We scratched our heads and tried to make sense of where we were. Finally we pulled out the GPS and we were at Cloverleaf Lakes not Donelson and Maryott Lakes. We had turned south when we saw the large lake and we only need to climb up about 50 feet more and we would have seen Donelson.
We had gone way out of our way. We determined what direction we needed to go in and kept our compasses out and available. We neared where we would crest a ridge and see Donelson when a storm blew in. The storm had wind, rain, hail, and lightning. We took shelter and put on rain gear. The storm was overhead for about an hour. Following the storm, we had to negotiate a steep drop down to Donelson over boulders, talus slopes, and snow. Once we reached Donelson we worked our way over to Maryott Lake and past that to a small lake west of Maryott. We set up on the only flat spot we could find. It was very windy this evening. We tried to set up the tarp, but it was far too windy.
This camp spot had obviously been used before, but by pigs. There were many piles of feces and toilet paper strewn all around where we were camped. This was very disappointing as I would expect more from backpackers that penetrated this deep into the wilderness area. We took care where we walked.
Trip Day 7 - Backpack Day 4 - Thursday, August 13, 2009
Happy Birthday superhiker!
We decided to avoid the very steep descent to Crystal Lake down the ‘falls’ route. We went south towards a much gentler descent. We turned north too soon. Were we went down it was VERY STEEP! We went down a gash that was jammed with boulders. We eventually reached Crystal Lake in one piece. Looking back, we saw we needed to go around a second mountain to reach the gentler slope. Where we came down the ‘going’ was more difficult than coming down near the ‘falls’. Oh well, we made it.
Then we went up through Pleiades Lakes. These were beautiful collection of five lakes. We left Pleiades and headed down towards Sierra Creek. Once again we had to navigate our way down steep, rock covered slopes. We reached the creek and it turned out to be far larger than I expected. We passed many waterfalls along the way up to Flat Rock Lake. The creek with its many waterfalls was very pretty. Once we reached Flat Rock we had to ford Sierra Creek. Flat Rock Lake is a spectacular lake surrounded by high mountains on all sides.
After we dried our feet we set off once again and reached the drainage we had to follow to Copepod Lake. This climb was very, very, very steep. We had to climb up along waterfalls and cross this stream midway up as we were better off on boulders rather than the loose talus ahead. This was a rather hairy crossing.
We finally reached Copepod and hiked to the western end. We found a likely campsite and dropped our packs there. We scouted Cladocera Lake for any likely sites but did find any. We returned to our packs and set up camp.
The scenery is just outstanding. I do not understand how it is possible to navigate this stunning, rugged area.
The skies cleared and the star viewing was once again spectacular.
Trip Day 8 - Backpack Day 5 - Friday, August 14, 2009
Our first goal was to route find our way to Hermit Lake and then follow the drainage down to Till Lake. We managed to do just that. The drainage to Till Lake was all boulder hopping. My feet were sore by this point in time and this particular descent beat my feet up pretty badly. By now I was wearing Mole Skin on the balls of both feet.
Then on to Gravel Lake, followed by Big Butte Lake. We had to ford the stream feeding Big Butte Lake. We stopped and set up camp at a small unnamed lake west of Big Butte. Once again it was very windy. It was not that cold, but the wind was very biting. We tried to star gaze but there were too many clouds. We went to bed at dusk and shortly after getting into the tent it rained.
Trip Day 9 - Backpack Day 6 - Saturday, August 15, 2009
My feet hurt a lot. We were concerned about them and how they may affect our trip. We decided to take a wait and see attitude. We would hike up along Desolation Lake. If my feet felt OK, we would continue on to Z Lake. If they hurt too much, we would turn southeast and start back.
We worked our way from unnamed lake to unnamed lake. My feet did not deteriorate so we kept moving towards Z Lake. This is a very interesting lake with many rocks showing about the surface of a lake that is shaped like its name. We turned south towards Rock Tree Lake and then followed the drainage to Otter Lake. Here we saw the first person and first off-trail route since day two. When looking at Otter Lake it looked like it would be tough to get around it. This proved to be the case. The off-trail route was indeed tough. Along the way we came across some elk bones, a few ribs, vertebrae, and a thigh bone. At the eastern end of Otter Lake we finally reached a NFS trail once more.
Just east of Otter we reached Picket Lake where we set up camp. The wind was a problem once again. It was cold and snow/hailed this evening.
Trip Day 10 - Backpack Day 7 - Sunday, August 16, 2009
We left Picket Lake and followed the NFS trail towards Shrimp Lake followed by Jorden Lake. At the southern end of Jorden Lake we had to cross a wide stream. We were able to cross without getting our feet wet, although just as water came up to my ankles.
Then up around the shoulder of Crazy Mountain and then down to Farley Lake where we turn left on another NFS trail towards Lake Elaine. We left the NFS trail at Lake Elaine and went along the north shore of Lake Elaine. Here we crossed a particularly difficult stretch of boulders that also appeared to have been crossed by horses. I cannot understand how horses could have crossed these boulders, but there were tracks on either side of them.
We worked our way towards Green Lake. We reached Sierra Creek which had gathered considerable water from our previous ford of it and it was now even wider. Once again we had to take off our boots and wade across this stream. Here we picked up a NFS trail once again.
We followed the trail to Trail Lake and then Wright Lake where we set up camp in a sheltered spot. After dinner superhiker hiked up to Heart Lake. There was a beautiful waterfall that went into Spogen Lake downstream from our campsite. Soon after his return we got a lot of snow and hail. This coated the tent and by morning had turned into a layer of ice.
Trip Day 11 - Backpack Day 8 - Monday, August 17, 2009
When we got up the tent was covered in ice. We broke the ice off and set the tent in the sun to melt and dry. It had gotten cold during the night. Our water bottles were partially frozen and there was still snow in the shade when we finally left camp.
On the trail we passed a pond that still had skim ice after 10:00. Snow remained in the shadows past then. By now the trail was completely beat up by horses. They are ruining this section of trail. We found the turnoff to Hidden Lake along an unofficial off-trail route. The trail was pretty obvious up to Hidden Lake. This is another gem of a lake. The trail followed the eastern shore of the lake. About halfway down the lake we got ‘cliffed out’ and had to hike in the lake for a about a hundred feet. I never thought I would have to hike in a lake. Pretty interesting. At the eastern end of the lake we lost and found and lost and found, but mostly lost the trail. The hiking was very hard. We were in the woods without a trail, in very steep terrain. Eventually we found a trail/animal run and started to make progress up the drainage. There was supposed to be a trail up towards Abandoned Lake. We thought we were at the point of the turn and so we did. We grunted up a very steep slope. After a little while we began to doubt our direction. Checking the GPS, map, and compass we determined we were off track. We had turned too soon. What to do? We could return back down the drainage and hike further and then make the turn. Or we could go across country following our nose up the cliff that we could see. We were now above tree line and could see where we were going and we much preferred this choice. So we set our sights on the needed direction and chose the path we would have to follow up the cliff. Back and forth we went, up higher and higher. We topped out exactly where we expected to and then lake hopped to our camping site. We found a good site sheltered by a large boulder near a very small unnamed lake looking down at Abandoned and Lonesome Lakes. After dinner superhiker decided that he wanted to climb the nearby Lonesome Mountain and so he did.
He got back shortly before dark. The evening was crystal clear. We waited for the sun glow to diminish and once again we were treated to a stellar display. (pun intended) We stayed up fairly late just in awe of the spectacle.
We had planned on a 10 day hike. Eight days now lay behind us. We were in a position that we probably would be out tomorrow as there were no good choices to extend the trip by a day and we didn’t like the idea of hiking for only several hours each day. Well this would play out tomorrow as we made progress along the way.
Trip Day 12 - Backpack Day 9 - Tuesday, August 18, 2009
We dropped down the slope to Abandoned Lake, then hiked to Lonesome Lake and followed the southern shore. After we passed Lonesome Lake we turn south and went towards the very southern point of T Lake. We crossed the stream at this southern point and found the off-trail route located here. From this point on we would fly. Past Finger Lake and Horseshoe Lake where we would pick up the NFS trail. Then past Shallow Lake, Claw Lake, Beauty Lake, and on to Night and finally Island Lake and back to our car. We were out around 1:00 and we had put more miles behind us this day than any other. I guess that trails do make hiking easier!
We drove to the Top of the World Lodge and paid $s for a shower. Boy that felt great! We went into Red Lodge again to call home and eat another dinner. We did not have reservations in Yellowstone until the next day so we drove to the same campsite we had stayed at before and set up camp.
Trip Day 13 - Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Yellowstone: Lamar Valley, bison, Blacktail Plateau Drive, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Artists Paint Pots, Yellowstone River, Upper Falls, Lower Falls, dinner at Canyon Lodge.
Trip Day 14 - Thursday, August 20, 2009
Yellowstone: Mud Volcano, Firehole Lake Drive, Firehole Canyon Drive, Fountain Paint Pots, Midway Geyser Basin (with Grand Prismatic Spring), Old Faithful, lunch at Old Faithful Inn, West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Beautiful drive along scenic Route 14
Stay in a motel in Buffalo, Wyoming
Trip Day 15 - Friday, August 21, 2009
Devils Tower National Monument
Wall Drug Store in Wall, North Dakota
Bad Land National Park
Trip Day 16 - Saturday, August 22, 2009