Hiking and Fishing Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
“There are no shortcuts in life but it sure is nice to get off the beaten path.”
Jeep trails, cross country hiking, and high mountain fishing. Yellowfin cutthroat were hitting the red rooster tails like this is the first meal they’ve had all spring. Can you think of better things to do in Montana on a beautiful June day? We can’t. Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is epic.
The day starts with bags packed and a good cup of coffee as we hit the road from Billings to Red Lodge just an hour south. It’s father’s day weekend and there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.
Hellroaring Canyon Jeep Trail
From Red Lodge head south on the Beartooth Highway to Forest Service Road 2412. Once on the 2412, you don’t go far before a Jeep trail, the appropriately named Hellroaring Road, ducks off to the right. The Forest Service website says a high clearance vehicle is recommended but no, clearance is definitely required, and a narrow wheelbase wouldn’t hurt.
We crawl as far as we can with the Jeep in 4-high until the still melting snow blocks the track. Later in the year, after the snow is gone, it’s possible to drive all the way to the Hellroaring Plateau Trailhead. Today we’re parking at a tiny seasonal lake lower down. Even the Side-by-Sides aren’t going any farther than we made it.
We could follow the road by foot the rest of the way to the trailhead but there’s still a ways to go. Today, we’re going cross-country.
Cross-Country in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
This is not our first cross-country hike. Once upon a time we did trail work for the US Forest Service on the Olympic Peninsula. When faced with miles of road or a shortcut along the ridgeline, we usually went with the ridgeline. Combine that with a couple decades of backpacking and hunting Washington and Montana wilderness, yeah, we’re comfortable off the beaten track. Just be aware. Know your surroundings. And make sure you have a good map plus a few other safety essentials. Then, just don’t be dumb and you should be good. Always let somebody know where you’re going and when you plan to return, just in case something unexpected happens.
We crest the ridge a little out of breath, our legs are definitely feeling the ascent, but… wow. We are absolutely struck by the awesomeness of the mountain scenery that is the reward.
Tips for Cross-country Hiking
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- Wear stable footwear
- Download Google’s map of the area for offline use (and put your device in airplane mode to conserve your battery)
- Bring plenty of water/water filter
- Be sure of your footing, slow and steady
- Maintain three points of contact in those sketchy places
- If you fall, go flat… Don’t tuck and roll!
- Give yourself enough time to make it back
- Be prepared for changing weather conditions
- Carry the essentials (lighter/matches, first aid kit, pocket knife, headlamp/flashlight)
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness makes a great day trip!
These mountain lakes are really not that far from civilization. It’s only a little over an hour from Billings. How is it that it feels like we are in the middle of nowhere?
It is good for the mind and soul to get away from the busy distraction of the city and this is a great place to do it. Not a road in sight. No fellow hikers. Just us. The rushing sound of the river in the distance, wind blowing through the leaves, water lapping at the shore of the sparkling wilderness lake, and the rhythmic whir, plunk, and reel of the guys castings their lines for ‘just one more’ chance at another trout to add to the line. After a little over two hours of angling, the boys had nine good size Yellowfin Cutthroat to take home for dinner. (Here’s what the fish were biting on.)
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (Here’s their downloadable 2015 Mountain Lakes Guide for the Absaroka-Beartooth and Crazy Mountains), Daly Lake is one of the best mountain trout fishing spots around here. It is stocked every five to seven years or so. It sits at an elevation of 9670 feet and if you don’t know it’s there you would never see it.
Other things you may want to take
- Extra fishing lures
- A collapsible fishing pole makes hiking easy
- Deet-free bug spray
- Charger pack for your phone if you plan on taking a ton of photos or are using your phone for a map
- Sunblock – because of the water, elevation, and snow, we sunburned even on a cool overcast day
Red Lodge for Dinner on Your Way Out
If you crawl your Jeep down Hellroaring Road in time, you might get to try out the Red Box Car drive in. It’s on the right just before you make it back into the main part of town. We still haven’t tried this place but it’s always busy when we drive by so it must be good. It’s on our list.
Tonight we grabbed a bite at Foster & Logan’s Pub and Grill. I wasn’t expecting much even though they get great ratings on Google. They’re still open and serving food at almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night so they’re it tonight. I must say, we were quite impressed. Bison burgers, and a blackberry habanero sauce served with their jalapeno poppers. Good stuff. Good beer on tap too… bonus.