Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Sampling of Hikes Near Red Lodge, MT

Outdoor recreation opportunities abound in Red Lodge, MT. We spent almost two weeks in this charming town and hit the trail every single day, most often within 15 miles of our RV park. Nordic sports, hiking, fishing and hunting are all a big deal around here and information on your particular sport is easy to come by.

There is lots of wildlife in this area and we were constantly on the lookout for turkey, deer, moose, elk and bear, including grizzlies. We rarely saw any on the trail, though we talked to folks who generally saw large mammals near the trailhead. Our best wildlife sightings were always near town! Carrying bear spray is a very good idea on every trail in this area.

The local Ranger Station sits at the south end of town and has decent one page trail maps for groups of hikes in the area available for free. They also have a 1991 Beartooth Mountains Oil and Gas Leasing Environmental Impact Map that includes all trails in existence at that time and they give it out for free; we used this for our hikes off the Beartooth Highway.

I also discovered the very helpful Beartooth Recreational Trails Association (BRTA) website. Built and maintained by locals, this site gives excellent, brief hike details for everything within 20 miles of town.

Here is a brief synopsis of the trails we hiked. Access details for each of them are available on the BRTA website.

Lake Fork Trail
The local tourist magazine dubs this the "best-loved trail around". Starting out at 7,202 feet, you can hike 9.5 miles to Sundance Pass and hookup with the West Fork Trail for a very long hike or backpack. We chose to hike five miles to Lost Lake. The first three or so miles along a beautiful creek are a gentle ascent, the next 1.5 a bit steeper, but nothing too extreme. We even saw a moose at the far end of Lost Lake, too far away for a decent photo though! This is a very popular trail and you are likely to see others along the way.

Lost Lake's dramatic setting.
We saw several large (18") trout in this lake.

Parkside Trail
We hiked Parkside on a day when we wanted easy and this rolling two mile jaunt was just the ticket. Starting at 7,150 feet, the trail runs near several forest service campgrounds along Rock Creek. It goes through pretty lodgepole forest and across a meadow with a view, it's a nice leg stretcher.

View up Rock Creek Canyon.

A surprise in the forest.

West Fork Rock Creek Trail
This was my favorite near-to-town hike of our stay. Starting at 7,919 feet you can hike 11 miles to Sundance Pass and connect to the above mentioned Lake Fork trail for a beautiful backpack trip. We chose to hike about four miles before we turned around.

The first two miles of trail go through forest burned in 2008, I found the resurrection of life in this burned landscape to be endlessly interesting. Many tiny streams flow out of the mountainside, creating lush green swaths of life, small pines are sprouting everywhere and stands of young aspen provide green relief. Raspberries were ripe all along the trail and it was easy to see that flowers had been abundant just weeks before our arrival. There are also two wonderful waterfalls on West Fork Rock Creek in those first two miles.

After the second waterfall the skeletal burnt forest ends and the healthy lush forest begins, the contrast is striking. Wide spots along the creek spread into golden meadows and views into the Beartooth Mountains. Moose and elk sign was abundant here and we just knew they were watching us under cover of forest.

Sweet, tiny raspberries provided snacks and kept us alert for bears.

We've been amazed at the volume of water cascading out of the Beartooth Mountains!


Face of the Mountain Trail
This hike is best done on a cool day because there's not much shade. But the lack of trees makes for some awesome views. Starting at 5,680 feet you can take this trail for 12 miles. We chose to hike the first three miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain to a saddle with some incredible views. The first mile or so crosses private cow pasture, then the trail switchbacks its way up the original road bed to the Beartooth Pass.

Clearing the cows on the drive to the trailhead.

As we switchbacked up the mountain the views just got better and better (despite the smoke haze).
Those rock formations in front of Hans are called palisades and they jut out of mountainsides all over this area.

Once we reached the saddle we bushwacked over to some rocks to the east
and were treated to more spectacular views and rock formations.

Corral Creek Trail
Corral Creek tumbles down a steep, narrow ravine and if you get an early start (before 10am) you are guaranteed shade for some of the steep climb up this trail. The first mile of trail closely follows this pretty creek through thick lodgepole forest, then turns abruptly up the side of the mountain away from the creek, where talus slopes allow occasional views into the valley you've left behind. We hiked about two miles up this steep trail, then turned back to save our legs for a bigger hike the next day.

Corral Creek.

Willow Creek and Palisades Trails
These two trails start at the same trailhead (at 6,360 feet) but are very different. Palisades trail was our first hike in the area, we chose it because we wanted something with minimal elevation gain, a training hike if you will. The Palisades trail is kind of a roller coaster hike along a hillside with few views and no water features. It's good for a workout, but not especially scenic.

Willow Creek trail ascends, mostly gently, 900 feet over two miles. Much of the trail follows Willow Creek and crosses numerous tiny streams and there are a couple of old mining remnants along the way. It ends abruptly and anticlimactically at a dirt road. This is an easy, pretty trail close to town.

Ruffed Grouse in display mode crosses the Willow Creek trail.

An old mining shack slowly returns to the forest.

Lastly, though this is not one of the close-to-town trails, I wanted to share our second drive and hike off the Beartooth Highway. You can read about our first day on the Beartooth Highway here. Once again we did not drive the entire Highway! I guess we'll have to return some year to finish the drive.

On this day we were very fortunate to see two separate groups of Mountain Goats on the tundra near the highest point of the highway.

When we stopped to check out the second herd of goats we saw a group of people clustered on the hillside. I'm snapping photos like crazy, while Hans hiked further up the hill and closer to the goats. He notices that there is a goat on the ground in front of these people and he sees a rifle. Sadly, these people had killed one of the goats, this happened to be the first day of hunting season, September 1st.

Neither of us is a hunter, and though we can appreciate that hunting is legal, we were incensed and heartsick to see this beautiful creature killed right off the Scenic Beartooth Highway. There was zero sport involved in this shooting as the goats were munching happily on the hillside, oblivious to the fact that it was September 1st. Apparently in Wyoming it is legal to shoot an animal 30 yards off the road. As you can imagine, this put a damper on our spirits for the rest of the day.

Mountain goats congregate under the ski lift near the high point of the Beartooth Highway.

I don't know how anyone can shoot these beautiful animals...

We continued on to Beartooth Lake where we hiked a wonderful nine mile loop called the Claw Lake Loop. The trail begins at 8,900 foot Beartooth Lake and gains about 1,000 feet overall. The trail is extremely difficult to follow in the vicinity of Beartooth Lake (and would be very marshy during spring and early summer) but if you have the 1991 map from the Forest Service you can figure it out, we did!

Beartooth Butte overlooking Beartooth Lake.

Lonesome Mountain (11,409 ft) dominates this incredible high alpine view.

The trail follows a chain of lakes for at least a mile.

Beartooth Butte is a remnant of a 500 million year old seabed. 


  1. What an amazing time you two had! We fell in love with the Beartooths when we lived in Yellowstone. We hope to get back there in the next couple of years. You have given us some great hiking tips. I have not yet seen a pika in the wild. Great capture Lisa! And those mountain goats are truly beautiful. I don't understand hunting for sport.

    1. This area is amazing and I really liked the town of Red Lodge. I'd happily return!

  2. Aaargh! Now you'll have to wear your fluorescent vests to keep from being shot too! Congrats on that pika sighting and picture. That's the kind of shot we can all get behind.

    1. :-) yes indeed, there are less lethal ways of shooting things!

      It's kind of scary hiking during hunting season, isn't it?

  3. Great pictures and stories. Looks like we have more places to ad to the list.

  4. What a great bunch of lovely hikes! Yes, there is some amazing scenery in that part of the west. Sad about the mtn goat.....yes, it doesn't sound very sporting to shoot a goat right off the highway.

  5. Just gorgeous, Lisa. We'll use your blog as our hiking guide when we get to the area. And we'll be sure to carry bear spray at all times -- it sounds like it's a good idea even close to town! :-) Your wildlife sightings and photos are terrific. But very sad about the inhumane goat hunting.

  6. Thanks for the hiking information:) We've never done anything here but ride the motorcycle twice and stay in a hotel in Red Lodge. It is a special motorcycle road for sure:) One day it would fun to hike around the area. Very cool that you saw two groups of goats. I dont' even want to discuss what happened to that poor goat! Disgusting! The lakes and view are just spectacular. Now you must return one day to drive the road in June after they open it all the way. You will be amazed at the difference when all is frozen and snow all around. Quite gorgeous. So lgad you enjoyed the area:)

  7. We really have to get there especially now that you have detailed us the trails to follow. Montana is really beautiful.
    My heart sank when I first read about those people killing a mountain goat :(
    Good job Hans for shooing those cows, now you are showing them you are the king of the road not them :) ha ha.

  8. We have not yet been to the Beartooths but it's been on our radar. Looks like great hiking!
    Sure hated to read about the goat.

  9. Beautiful country. We drove the Beartooth Hwy from NE Yellowstone to Billings. My husband is not a hiker so we didn't stop and walk these lovely areas. I am enjoying the trails vicariously through your posts. Thank you!