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  • Jere Folgert

Hiking the Beaten Path

TerraTopo Hiking Map- of -Hiking MapThe Beaten Path Hiking Trail RoutesEast Rosebud Wild and Scenic River, West Rosebud Creek, Mystic Lake Island Lake, Silver Lake, Crazy LakeFroze-to-Death Plateau and granite peakAvalanche Lake, Aero Lakes, Kersey Lake, Otter Lake, Lake Elaine, Jordan Lake, Aero, Fossil Lake, Rock Island Lake, Widewater Lake, Fox Lake, Otter Lake, Lake of the Winds, Lake of the Clouds, Princess Lake, Martin Lake, Alice lake, Boot lake, Farley lake, Crazy lake, Green lake, Granite lake, Castle lake, Summersville lake, Crystal lake, Flat Rock lake, Theil lake, North Hidden lake, Marmot lake, Maryott lake, Varve lake, Navajo lake, Turgulse Lake, Lowary Lake, Salix Lake, Snowball Lakes, Upper Arch Lake, Brent Lake, Mystic Lake hydroelectric dam,  Custer gallatin, National Forest Trails, Trail Heads, Fish Information and species from Montana Fish and Wildlife, Custer Gallatin National Forest Trailhead NumbersLake Elevations, Contours, Shaded Relief Map.

Mountain Goat on a High Plateau - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

DESCRIPTION OF THE MAP  : The TerraTopo printed map (ISBN 0-9713501-0-8) covers a portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, including Mystic lake, Island Lake, Granite Peak and the well-known 'Beaten Path' trail between Cooke City, Montana and Alpine (East Rosebud).  The map also reveals the regions surrounding Granite Peak, East and West Rosebud, Mystic Lake, and Alpine.  The map is folded on waterproof, tear-resistant paper and has an approximate dimension of 24 inches wide by 32 inches tall.  The map is folded with a size of approximately 4 inches x 6 1/2 inches.  The fold size is small enough to fit in your backpack. 

MYSTIC LAKE, ISLAND LAKE and SILVER LAKE: To reach the trailhead, take the Columbus exit from Interstate 90, and take Montana Highway 78 through Absaroka and turn west (right) toward Fishtail (approximately 17 miles from Columbus). From Fishtail, drive west and south for 1 mile and turn south (left) on West Rosebud Road. Follow this paved road for 6.3 miles until reaching a fork in the road and a large brown Forest Service sign. The sign will indicate West Rosebud Lake Road #2072. Turn left here and follow the dirt road for 14.4 miles until reaching the trailhead.


GIS Rendering of Mystic Lake - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

HIKING TO MYSTIC LAKE (from West Rosebud) provides the unique opportunity to see a hydroelectric dam in action.  The power-generation facility is located near the trailhead.  Island lake offers a getaway from the summer crowds that linger near Mystic lake though the trail to Island Lake is one of the busiest trails in the Beartooths.    Expect lots of crowds especially on weekends.

From the trailhead and parking area, hike past the Mystic Lake hydroelectric plant.  Cross the bridge that crosses the piping conduit for the power plant and continue uphill.  The trail continues to climb through Lodgepole Pine forests.  The trail takes you over a bridge crossing the West Rosebud Creek, and leads you through more Lodgepole Pine stands, spotted with Aspen trees.   Next, the trail ascends through an impressive boulder field, with boulders the size of large trucks.  This boulder field is approximately a mile long and contains a good number of switchbacks.   Looking west, you can also see the pipeline structure that is used as a conduit to move water from Mystic lake down to the hydroelectric plant.  Crest the top of the trail and you are greeted with a beautiful overlooks of Mystic Lake.  During a "normal" year with average precipitation, Mystic Lake is the deepest lake in the Beartooths, at more than 300 feet.  In years of drought, the lake is much less impressive.  Mystic lake is considered the largest lake in the Beartooths, at over 2 miles long (during a "normal" year with average precipitation).   In drought years you can virtually walk across the lake, not far from Island lake.  The trail wraps around the lake for an additional three miles once you are down at the lake level.  Numerous camping sites are situated along the lake's shore.

GIS Rendering of Avalanche Lake - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.


The West Rosebud Trail (the same trail that leads to Mystic Lake and Island Lake) is the same trail that leads to Huckleberry Lake, Avalanche Lake and the base of Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain peak.  To reach the Froze-to-Death Plateau, try this:  Once at the Mystic lake dam overlook, descend down to Mystic Lake and continue hiking for a half mile along the lakes south shore until reaching an intersection for the Phantom Creek Trail #17 branching to the left (south). The sign at this intersection is hard to spot.  Turn left and follow this trail up through the switchbacks until reaching a huge cairn above treeline. Just past the cairn, leave the trail to the south and head uphill to the plateau. On the plateau, you will see cairns in the distance heading southwest. 


To reach Huckleberry Lake, Avalanche Lake and the base of Granite Peak, try this:  Continue along the trail on the south side of Mystic Lake.  After hiking 2.5 miles from the Mystic Lake Dam, you'll be approaching the west-end of the lake.  There is a small wooden bridge that crosses Huckleberry Creek (if the bridge was damaged or washed away from spring runoff look for signs or rock carnes).  Turn left after crossing this bridge and head south along the trail.  The trail up Huckleberry Creek starts immediately.  Look for rock carnes to help you stay on the trail.  After the first half-mile of hiking, the trail crosses a large boulder field near Huckleberry lake (elevation 8380).  The trail follows an easy grade for the next 1.5 miles, just to the north of Princess Lake (elevation 9,172). 


There are two primary routes from Princess lake to Avalanche Lake.   Both routes are relatively easy to find and route.  Continue south to either Snowball Lakes or Cold (Goat) Lake, both of which should lead you to Avalanche Lake (elevation 9750).   A direct route follows a cascading stream which is an inlet at the southeastern end of Princess lake.  Some scrambling and a route up a gully is required near Cold lake (Goat lake).  From Cold lake it is a fairly easy climb to the north end of Avalanche lake.  

The second route to Avalanche lake follows a trail up the ridge southwest of Princess lake to the lower region of Snowball lake.  Here too, a scramble involving talus and scree is required.  The rock walls and tall rick spires are striking.  Granite peak is clearly visible from Avalanche lake. 


Along with the Stillwater Trail, East Rosebud Trail (“The Beaten Path”) is one of two trans-Beartooth Mountain routes.  The Beaten Path 26-mile hiking trail leads through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana and celebrates the East Rosebud Creek, Russell Creek and all the scenic beauty in between.  Along the trail, there are numerous waterfalls, alpine lakes, wildlife, alpine streams, wild trout, snow-covered terraces and beautiful vistas. The trail's defacto name is the 'Beaten Path'.  The trail's official name is the East Rosebud Trail.  The East Rosebud trail and many other trails are shown on the TerraTopo map.

TRAIL #3 or TRAIL #15 ?

Years ago, Custer National Forest and Gallatin National Forest were considered separate entities.  In 2014- The Custer and Gallatin National Forests combined to form the Custer Gallatin National Forest (NF). The forest now covers land from Bozeman, MT to Camp Crook, South Dakota.  Before the two NFs combined, each of the two National Forests used their own unique trail number designation for the "Beaten Path".  USFS Trail #3 begins at the Clarks Fork trailhead and continues to Fossil Lake.  USFS trail #15 begins at East Rosebud trailhead and continues to Fossil Lake.  At the "old" delineation between Custer and Gallatin NF is where the two trails meet.

Cutthroat Trout in a Mountain Lake - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

The mountains have the power to release us from everyday life.  They provide a transformation from fear to love, by giving us permission to be romantic, cheerful, and open to the rugged beauty of wilderness.    Along the Beaten Path, we hike past dangerous waterfalls, cliffs, menacing mountains, all of which help us reach and touch the big sky.  The Beaten Path trail helps us

articulate the mountains, including Granite Peak, the highest peak in Montana.  In the shadows of the beautiful and rugged peaks, we grasp the meaning of the sublime, while being immersed in a landscape of incomprehensible enormity.  These powerful placeshelps us feel most alive.  Without wilderness, life is dull and simple.  This hike helps us reconnect with and honor nature by letting us be awed by the mountains.  For so much of history, we dominated the natural world.   The landscape along the Beaten Path helps us validate and reconsider our relationship with nature.  To be in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is to be in the sublime.  Here are a few reasons you should do this hike:


  • The trail will provide us with an escape from the buzz and noise of our modern, developed world.  Reconnect with nature by going for a hike.  An adventure with purpose.  There is a massive diversity and array of scenery, including wildlife, wildflowers, waterfalls, evergreen forests, lakes and geology.  Many hikers ramble about the trail's beautiful scenery, many of which claim it was the best trail they have ever hiked and that they would do it again.

  • ​The 26-miles point-to-point trail, allows you to push your body and mind to a new level of acceptance.  If we can do this hike, what else can we do?   The best time to visit is July through September

  • There is adequate camping locations along the trail.  If we are used to camping in designated sites, this hike will help us shake that notion.  In the wilderness, we try to leave no trace.  Find a camping site that is new and fresh.

  • The hike passes next to 20+ lakes.  Take time to observe the trout swimming in the clear waters, or cast a line and inspect the incredible colors that emanate from the trout's skin.  The route is great for trout fishing in the numerous lakes and streams

  • The trail is well-marked, easy to follow, and well-maintained.  If we have allocated extra time for this trek, get off the trail and explore new locations "off the beaten path".   There are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten path and extend your trip

  • The East Rosebud and Clarks Fork trailheads are not too far from civilization.   Cooke City offers restaurants, motels and a small general store.  There are campgrounds in the general vicinity of (Clarks Fork) Cooke City, giving us an extra opportunity to prepare for our trip or unwind afterward.  Absarokee and Roscoe (near East Rosebud) provide small stores and restaurants.

American Pika on Talus Slope - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.

Mountain Goat on a High Plateau - Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.


The Beaten Path, also known as the East Rosebud Trail is a popular trans-Beartooth route.  The total distance along the path is approximately 26 miles and is not considered overly dangerous or technically difficult.  A few of the switchbacks may be a little rough, especially with a heavy pack on your back.  The entire trail is well-maintained.  During the spring, expect snow and ice on the trail along with a few windblown trees across.  Bridges could be washed out due to high water flow through narrow canyons.  The Beaten Path  trail offers a wide range of vistas and sites, including waterfalls, aqua-green lakes and beautiful flora.  To enjoy the sites and views, many hikers spend at least five days and four nights on the trail, which averages out to a little over 5 miles of hiking per day.   If you plan on fishing the high country lakes, plan to spend a week or more. 


The Beaten Path is considered a thru-hike.  Begin either from the East Rosebud trail near near Roscoe or Absarokee, Montana or from the Clarks Fork Trailhead east of Cooke City, Montana.  Plan to do a  "key-swap" with a friend or relative,  or shuttle a car from one trailhead to the other.  The shuttle involves driving the Beartooth Highway, through Red Lodge, Montana.  Beginning the Beaten Path hike at the East Rosebud trailhead has a smaller climb.  Beginning the hike at the East Rosebud trailhead route has a bigger climb. 

East Rosebud Trail (# 15) is 16 miles long. The East Rosebud Trail is also known as “The Beaten Path”.  The trail begins at the southern end of East Rosebud Road (Forest Road 2177) and climbs steadily for 16 miles to Fossil Lake.  The trail continues on the Russell Creek Trail (Gardiner Ranger District) for another 10 miles to the Clarks Fork Trailhead. One of the most scenic trails in the Beartooths, this trail has a multitude of trout filled lakes, waterfalls, and cascading streams. Elevation change: 3400 feet. The trail is open for the following uses: hiking, horseback riding.  ***Please be aware that travelling in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness comes with additional regulations.  Please know what is expected of visitors before entering the wilderness.


"...I Love This Map!  Even better than Trails Illustrated" from Doug W. in Indiana

"...This map was exactly what I was looking for.  Great guide on the backside.  The Beaten Path was an awesome hike!   We got engaged! "  Jean G. Cornish,  Maine

"...Thanks for the map.  It was even BETTER than I expected..." Gary L., Great Falls, Montana 

" Hey that's a  wonderful map.  I like the field guide on the back.  Cool!"  from Mark S. in Chicago Illinois

" Really enjoyed the detailed map.  Great map!" from Bill D. in Tampa Florida

"...thanks for the great maps.  We saw three pikas.  First time ever. Are  you in Bozeman?" from Mike D. New York, New York.

"I received the map I ordered from you on Tuesday, and it's just what I was looking for. Thanks!"  From Dale G. in Wausau Wisconsin

"You guys did an amazing job on this map.  The nicest hiking map I've seen - really !"  From Bill M. Yankton, SD.

"AWARD WINNING MAP!  FIRST PLACE AWARD- Best Map in Show : Intermountain GIS Conference  !"  Brenda Billings, Montana.

"I cannot thank you enough for your map.  I did not know what to expect.  It is perfect.  My wife and I are hiking the Beaten Path Trail this August.  Your map really nice.  Thanks for sending two"! - Jim and Sally H.  Sandpoint, Idaho

"I just got your map. Thanks for sending it out so fast.   I really like the fishing or fish-stock info on the map.  Nice work. ".  - Cal in San Francisco, California. 

"I hiked this back in 1991 before that big fire near Alpine.  It is cool to know the trail is still there.  I just got the map.  I really thank you for your amazing detailed and beautiful work on this map.  Thanks."  Michael and Cindy - Rapid City, SD 

DESCRIPTION OF THE MAP  : The TerraTopo printed map (ISBN 0-9713501-0-8) covers a portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness, including Mystic lake, Island Lake, Granite Peak and the well-known 'Beaten Path' trail between Cooke City, Montana and Alpine (East Rosebud).  The map also reveals the regions surrounding Granite Peak, East and West Rosebud, Mystic Lake, and Alpine.  The map is folded on waterproof, tear-resistant paper and has an approximate dimension of 24 inches wide by 32 inches tall.  The map is folded with a size of approximately 4 inches x 6 1/2 inches.  The fold size is small enough to fit in your backpack.


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