What’s the best hike you’ve been on lately? Mine is this gorgeous hike in the Beartooth Mountains of southern Montana.
From the minute my feet hit the trail, I had this John Muir quote imprinted on my brain; “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
That’s always excellent advice. While I didn’t have a week to spend in the woods, it was meditative (and practically medicinal) to take a day to climb a mountain.
This rugged stretch of forest is part of the 943,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which includes Gallatin, Shoshone, and Custer National Forests. The trees spill over the Montana border into Wyoming. Red Lodge Montana sits to the east of the peaks, with the famed scenery of Yellowstone National Park to the south.
This is the place where two mighty mountain ranges meet.
The Absaroka Range is igneous. “Absaroka” is the Crow word for the bird from which the Crow nation draws its name. Both mountain ranges are part of the Crow homeland.
The Beartooth Mountains’ jagged mountain peaks, lakes, and waterfalls were chiseled by glaciers thousands of years ago. These are some of the oldest rocks in the world, rich in nickel and chrome.
We saw a mine site a few miles from where we laced up our boots and hit the trail. I hope that it doesn’t cut any further into the untamed beauty of this place.
We set out on a cold, foggy fall day for a hike in the Beartooth Mountains. We hiked down to Lake Sioux Charley, a distance of about six miles.
I was traveling with a small group of travel bloggers from all over the world as part of an excursion before TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange) conference. It was interesting to hear what hikers from Australia and Mexico thought about this particular part of the American west.
The crew from Austin Adventures, which operates excursions on all seven continents, picked us up in Billings and drove us about an hour and a half south for our hike in the Beartooth Mountains, which I’d describe as a moderately strenuous hike. (I always struggle with how to describe a hike’s difficulty, since everyone’s definition of difficult is so different.)
We tackled 930 feet of elevation gain at a nice, leisurely pace. We got a good work out and managed some uphill and downhill sections that required a little forethought, but it was a doable hike for anyone in good physical condition with no mobility issues.
Most of us were experienced hikers, so we weren’t too worried about the terrain. The biggest challenge was staying out of the mud puddles, which quickly formed in the chilly drizzle.
The temperatures hovered in the 40s and 50s, so everyone heeded the email sent out from our Austin Adventures guides which recommended layers, rain gear, and a warm hat.
When you hike in the Beartooth Mountains, it’s important to remember that this region has its own microclimate. Snow remains on the peaks for most of the year, even when it’s hot elsewhere in the state.
I didn’t invest in any special gear (other than upgrading my rain jacket, which was long overdue) and I was cozy and warm in my layers of Dri-Fit baselayers and fleece.
The only time I felt the chill was when the mist cleared and we stopped for a trailside picnic along the banks of Lake Sioux Charley. As my fingers went numb (I’d packed a hat, but not gloves), I was glad to be back on the trail, climbing through the evergreen forests along the banks of the rushing rapids and crashing waterfalls of the Stillwater River.
The bright green of the trees, the mossy rocks, and the incredible aqua-colored water made such a pretty parting image. We were damp and pleasantly tired but grinning. A beautiful place is exhilarating.
The Beartooth Mountains are a stunning place to hike, striking and wild. If you’re nervous about hiking on your own, guided or group hikes are a smart way to get started.
I’d go back again in a heartbeat. It’s the perfect place to wash your spirit clean.
What about you?
What are your favorite hikes?
Do you prefer mountain hikes or other landscapes? Why?
Which hikes are on your bucket list?
What tips do you have for cool weather hiking?
If you liked this story, you might also like this one about hiking Bear Lodge (a.k.a. Devils Tower) in nearby Wyoming.
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