Beartooths - East/West Traverse (any/all advice welcome!)

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LarryBoy

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It's that time of year again - time to start planning out vacation! I'm planning a week-long trip to the Beartooths/Absarokas, probably in late August. Here's what I'm looking for:
  • Week-long trip (I'm not a fast hiker but I do hike long days)
  • Mostly off-trail travel
  • Traverse the "high points" (literal and metaphorical) of the range
  • No compromises in terms of scenery- jaw-dropping beauty from end to end
  • No technical terrain. 1 or 2 spots of low-end Class IV is OK. Class II or low end III will be fairly commonplace
For comparison's sake, last year I did a high-route style trip through the Winds - if you look up the Winds routes by Skurka/Burrell or Wilson/Dixon, you'll get a rough idea of what I'm hoping to do in the Beartooths. Maybe slightly tamer, as I'll be solo on this trip.

Here's a few questions to get the discussion started:
  1. What trailheads would you recommend? I'm going to have to hitch most likely. Beartooth Pass seems like a likely candidate - would I be best off hiking all the way to Highway 89 to make the hitch easier?
  2. What are the can't-miss spots? My route will take me right underneath Granite Peak (the summit itself is too technical to be a part of the route). I'm looking forward to spending plenty of time on high ridges and plateaus, well above treeline. Any specific places to pass through?
  3. Water crossings - anything problematic? Will the Stillwater River be fordable? Anything else to watch out for?
I've been playing around with a map for a while, putting pushpins in it as it gradually starts to take shape in my head. At this point, nothing is nailed down. Any and all advice is welcome!


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Wow, dude... that is an amazing (and ambitious) plan. I wish I could be of more help to you, but my familiarity (in person) with the Beartooths is nearly zero.

The forums at Backpacker mag's site had a lot of guys that know the GYA/Absaroka-BT areas very well (maybe some of them are on here too? I think I saw kcwins....) but when they changed the site interface about a year or two ago, I quit following/participating there.

Wish I could help. But I'll definitely follow your planning (and trip, if/when you do it).
 

LarryBoy

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Wow, dude... that is an amazing (and ambitious) plan. I wish I could be of more help to you, but my familiarity (in person) with the Beartooths is nearly zero.

The forums at Backpacker mag's site had a lot of guys that know the GYA/Absaroka-BT areas very well (maybe some of them are on here too? I think I saw kcwins....) but when they changed the site interface about a year or two ago, I quit following/participating there.

Wish I could help. But I'll definitely follow your planning (and trip, if/when you do it).
yeah I know there are people lurking here that know the beartooths well... show yourselves!
 

Aldaron

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My two week-long trips planned for the Beartooths were both stopped short by snow. We started at Island Lake for one of them and planned to exit at Clarks Fork. We ended up bailing at Clay Butte from the lingering snowpack and the runoff. The other trip we started at the trailhead for Lady of the Lake with plans to hike up to Sky Top Lakes. That time we were sent back to the car by an early season snowstorm. My plans this summer are to go finish a long trip there once and for all. I'm leaning towards starting at Island Lake again, and I think Sky Top Lakes are one of those highlights that need to be seen. That having been said, this trip report on the Lake Plateau also has me intrigued. But I'll probably save that for a later trip and do the Beartooth Plateau on this trip.

On the Island Lake trip, we left our car at Clarks Fork and paid a shuttle to drive us to Island Lake. When we hit deep snow we tried to reroute the trip at lower elevations and then ran into nasty runoff at Granite Lake that we didn't feel comfortable crossing. So we climbed back up onto the Plateau (yeah, that was a fun day) and managed to hitch a ride on the dirt road really quickly from just dumb luck. If you're starting from Beartooth Pass, is it doable to make it all the way to Hwy 89 in a week? I really don't know...I'm a slow hiker (the joys of being short), so I just don't know. Depending on where you leave your car, I would think that starting on the Beartooth Highway and ending somewhere else on the Highway would make hitching pretty easy. If you hitch on 89 to a place back to the Highway, it may take multiple hitches, since most people going into Yellowstone probably aren't going all the way to Cooke City and beyond.

I plan to be there in early August...remind me, and I'll update you on the trail conditions when I get back.
 
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I had a route something similar planned for a 28 day loop several years ago. I've traversed 90% of the backcountry in the Winds, mostly off trail, and 10-15 mi /day in Wind's stills give me time to wet a line or two. The BT's kicked my ass !!! Think 5-10 mi a day, on a good day ..... or less.

The BT's , though flatter, are much more broken up on the small scale. What looks like miles of easy contouring is normally miles of boulder-hopping across miles of car/bus/house sized boulders, with no clear sight window ahead, that often leads to ending up in a lot of dead ends and backtracking. A 40' contour interval hides lots and lots of 35' cliffs/boulders .

In the end, I had to abort my loop and settle for wandering around for 28 days on top of the Plateau, 17 of which I never even saw a trail.

 

Aldaron

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A 40' contour interval hides lots and lots of 35' cliffs/boulders .
We experienced that going between Golden Lake and Lonesome Lake. The topo map looked like a nice, easy off-trail walk on the north-west side of Lonesome Mountain. Reality was 30' boulders that took us about an hour to go about half a mile.
 

b.stark

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The off trail travel is definitely something you need to take as you go in the Beartooths. Some stuff that looks easy on paper (and even on Google Earth) is not so simple when you get there. That said, I've only had one *really* bad day in the Beartooths for hiking, the rest of the hiking I've done there had its challenges, but if you love off trail the Beartooths are a good place.

Just a couple of my experiences based on looking through your map:

"Beartooth Plateau"

On my second ever backpacking trip, and first real of trail hiking experience, on our second day we climbed up from Flake Lake onto the Beartooth Plateau (We called it "Lightning Ridge" based on an obvious hazard) and came back down at Jasper Lake. Going up at the time for me was pretty rough, as I still hadn't figured out how to get in shape for these trips. Were I to do it again, I'd do it no questions asked. The views from on the ridge are amazing, and it's probably one of the best days of backpacking I've done.



Coming down was a huge challenge for me, lots of steep talus and snow, and I tweaked a knee which still sometimes reminds me of that hike. Again, now that I'm much more experienced with off trail travel, I wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

We came down the plateau somewhere there.


Further west, you have marked an "unnamed pass" above Bergschrund Lake. It is the pass on the left:


Won't say it's impassable, as there are a lot of crazy climbers in this world, but for a hiker, pretty sure it's a no go. If you look toward the right in the photo, up all those boulders and talus is a pass that will take you up to Elpestrine Lake. There is one spot that was pretty sketchy to me, otherwise it's plenty doable. Lots of unstable boulders and talus, but nothing revolutionary.

What the pass looks like a bit further up, it turns to the right further on and goes pretty much straight to Elpestrine Lake.


The worst of this section is that to either get to this pass, or away from this pass, you have to go up or down below Martin Lake, which is where I had my worst backpacking experience ever. It's certainly doable, and if you're in good shape and use your head while bushwhacking, it shouldn't be as terrible as what I had, but it will at best be Type 2 fun.
 

John Goering

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In my youth, long, long ago, I was in pretty good shape but Deep Lake to Pine Creek in a week??? Ain't likely gonna happen. But a decent week trip sort of east to west is Lake Fork past Keyser Brown, First/Second Rock Lakes, and Sky Pilot. Then Donelsn, Maryott, Crystal, and Castle. There is a very nice campsite at the upper end of Castle and it's very much worth a day hike from there up past Flat Rock and make a loop around Castle Rock Glacier. Then Summerville, Eratic, Till, Gravel, Desolation, Blue Anchor, and Jordan. Then Otter and Mariane and another day trip from Mariane to Summit Mountain.

If you are burned out by then or timed out, you can exit to Chief Joseph Trailhead on the "beaten path" at that point. Otherwise, take the beaten path the other direction to Fossil, Fizzel, Looking Glass, to Rough Lake. Another day trip up through Skytops, then pop over the top to Upper and Lower Aero and exit out Zimmer Creek. Be aware, slogging through the burn around Broadwater and Curl is a pain in the posterior. Personally, that would be a 2 week trip for me. My guess is that would be about 2/3's off-trail.

I did the Chief Joseph to Lake Fork section of that and spent 9 days on it. It was a very nice trip but before GPS, we got hung up a lot.
 

LarryBoy

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This is amazing advice, thank you all! Taken your advice and have the beginnings of a new route focused to the east of the Stillwater.

"Beartooth Plateau"

On my second ever backpacking trip, and first real of trail hiking experience, on our second day we climbed up from Flake Lake onto the Beartooth Plateau (We called it "Lightning Ridge" based on an obvious hazard) and came back down at Jasper Lake. Going up at the time for me was pretty rough, as I still hadn't figured out how to get in shape for these trips. Were I to do it again, I'd do it no questions asked. The views from on the ridge are amazing, and it's probably one of the best days of backpacking I've done.
That's what I'm hoping for! Million-mile views, way above treeline, the whole nine yards. High alpine has me hooked.

Won't say it's impassable, as there are a lot of crazy climbers in this world, but for a hiker, pretty sure it's a no go. If you look toward the right in the photo, up all those boulders and talus is a pass that will take you up to Elpestrine Lake. There is one spot that was pretty sketchy to me, otherwise it's plenty doable. Lots of unstable boulders and talus, but nothing revolutionary.

The worst of this section is that to either get to this pass, or away from this pass, you have to go up or down below Martin Lake, which is where I had my worst backpacking experience ever. It's certainly doable, and if you're in good shape and use your head while bushwhacking, it shouldn't be as terrible as what I had, but it will at best be Type 2 fun.
I tried to fit Bergschrund Lake into this trip but just couldn't... as you point out, there's no way to go through there without making the heinous ascent/descent through the Martin Lake area. Not that I'd mind making it, but if my trailhead is at Beartooth Pass, it doesn't make sense to gain and loose that much elevation if that's where my trailhead is. Having read your trip report, do you think that you weren't in the right state of mind to tackle it, or do you think it was the dehydration and insane steepness that wore you down?

If you're starting from Beartooth Pass, is it doable to make it all the way to Hwy 89 in a week? I really don't know...I'm a slow hiker (the joys of being short), so I just don't know. Depending on where you leave your car, I would think that starting on the Beartooth Highway and ending somewhere else on the Highway would make hitching pretty easy. If you hitch on 89 to a place back to the Highway, it may take multiple hitches, since most people going into Yellowstone probably aren't going all the way to Cooke City and beyond.

I plan to be there in early August...remind me, and I'll update you on the trail conditions when I get back.
I'm coming around to your line of thinking - two points on the Highway should make for a much more straight-forward hitching experience. Nothing worse than getting stuck in the middle of a big multi-hitch.

I had a route something similar planned for a 28 day loop several years ago. I've traversed 90% of the backcountry in the Winds, mostly off trail, and 10-15 mi /day in Wind's stills give me time to wet a line or two. The BT's kicked my ass !!! Think 5-10 mi a day, on a good day ..... or less.

The BT's , though flatter, are much more broken up on the small scale. What looks like miles of easy contouring is normally miles of boulder-hopping across miles of car/bus/house sized boulders, with no clear sight window ahead, that often leads to ending up in a lot of dead ends and backtracking. A 40' contour interval hides lots and lots of 35' cliffs/boulders .

In the end, I had to abort my loop and settle for wandering around for 28 days on top of the Plateau, 17 of which I never even saw a trail.
Oh, the humanity! Those 28 days sure look amazing though!

That's really good advice regarding slow travel. I had just a taste of that in the Winds - the Alpine Lakes Basin is really slow and tedious going; I imagine that's a useful comparison to the Beartooths?

In my youth, long, long ago, I was in pretty good shape but Deep Lake to Pine Creek in a week??? Ain't likely gonna happen. But a decent week trip sort of east to west is Lake Fork past Keyser Brown, First/Second Rock Lakes, and Sky Pilot. Then Donelsn, Maryott, Crystal, and Castle. There is a very nice campsite at the upper end of Castle and it's very much worth a day hike from there up past Flat Rock and make a loop around Castle Rock Glacier. Then Summerville, Eratic, Till, Gravel, Desolation, Blue Anchor, and Jordan. Then Otter and Mariane and another day trip from Mariane to Summit Mountain.

If you are burned out by then or timed out, you can exit to Chief Joseph Trailhead on the "beaten path" at that point. Otherwise, take the beaten path the other direction to Fossil, Fizzel, Looking Glass, to Rough Lake. Another day trip up through Skytops, then pop over the top to Upper and Lower Aero and exit out Zimmer Creek. Be aware, slogging through the burn around Broadwater and Curl is a pain in the posterior. Personally, that would be a 2 week trip for me. My guess is that would be about 2/3's off-trail.

I did the Chief Joseph to Lake Fork section of that and spent 9 days on it. It was a very nice trip but before GPS, we got hung up a lot.
I don't own a GPS, and will happily do a route without it. That being said, my maps are always loaded on my phone as a backup when traveling off-trail. :) I wonder if it's possible to stay a touch higher through the Castle Rock Glacier area. It looks like it; I think the big question would be exposure of campsites.

I've taken everybody's great advice and come up with a new route. I welcome everybody's comments! In particular, the route I've put together is only ~35 miles long, plus the on-trail mileage needed to get back to the Highway (likely to Cooke City). I'm looking to add another 35 at least, as I'll have probably 7.5 or 8 hiking days. I'm thinking about turning the hike into a loop, turning to the north and looping back to my car at Beartooth Pass.

Questions:

1) Would it be a scenic letdown? A lot of the north side is forested, and I'm not necessarily keen on spending most of my time below treeline. Not that there's anything wrong with hiking in the trees, but it's a pretty different kind of hike from the high-alpine route on the Plateau on the south side of the crest.
2) Would it be possible? I sketched out a couple of possibilities to get to the FTD plateau (with Blue and Green markers). The Blue is avoidable if it's nasty, the Green are pretty much the only way I can see to get to the north side of the crest, aside from all the way down to West Rosebud (I'm looking to stay high if at all possible; see above).

I'm thinking climbing onto the FTD via a probably-heinous thousand-foot-climb from just north of Avalanche Lake. From there, cross the FTD, drop down to East Rosebud, and from there... (something, to be continued; probably involves climbing onto the East Rosebud Plateau, dropping down past Lake Mary, over Sundance Pass, up to Black Canyon Lake, and rejoin my original route across the high ridge ["Lightning Ridge"] back to the car.)

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Sorry I can't contribute much. But I am eager to see what others can offer (as well as what you eventually do). My wife is not fond of going off-trail (at least with a backpack on, she doesn't mind day-hiking offtrail from a base camp); she has never been to the Beartooths (yet!) and I hope to introduce her to some of the easier off-trail routes there. (But not the one you're plotting!) This looks like an awesome trip, I must say. Very excited for you.
 

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John Goering

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Sorry I can't contribute much. But I am eager to see what others can offer (as well as what you eventually do). My wife is not fond of going off-trail (at least with a backpack on, she doesn't mind day-hiking offtrail from a base camp); she has never been to the Beartooths (yet!) and I hope to introduce her to some of the easier off-trail routes there. (But not the one you're plotting!) This looks like an awesome trip, I must say. Very excited for you.
My wife doesn't mind off trail, but she has real problems with a lot of exposure and hence, we don't do a lot of ridge line stuff. I think Larryboy's red line is doable. What happens at Sawtooth Mtn? At that point, I'm sure I would want a Jeep waiting at the Goose Lake hiking trail trailhead but walking out the Goose Lake Jeep road wouldn't be to big a deal.

I would make one change to the red line: At Fossil, dive over the divide to Oly Lake and then to Cairn. Pretty easy to hike around the east side of Cairn and then over the ridge to the west into the Sky Tops. I think Cairn is my most favorite place in the Tooth's.
 

LarryBoy

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My wife doesn't mind off trail, but she has real problems with a lot of exposure and hence, we don't do a lot of ridge line stuff. I think Larryboy's red line is doable. What happens at Sawtooth Mtn? At that point, I'm sure I would want a Jeep waiting at the Goose Lake hiking trail trailhead but walking out the Goose Lake Jeep road wouldn't be to big a deal.

I would make one change to the red line: At Fossil, dive over the divide to Oly Lake and then to Cairn. Pretty easy to hike around the east side of Cairn and then over the ridge to the west into the Sky Tops. I think Cairn is my most favorite place in the Tooth's.
Is it possible to head north from Cairn instead and follow the drainage up right underneath Granite?
 

John Goering

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Is it possible to head north from Cairn instead and follow the drainage up right underneath Granite?
The Cairn Lake drainage sort of dead ends at Cairn Mountain but when you go over the ridge to the west of Cairn Lake into Sky Top Creek, that drainage does indeed butt against Granite. Relative easy hike right up to Sky Top Glacier at its south foot. Some stellar scenery right there.

And that buttress at the NE corner of Cairn Lake: You can hike the 200' elevation gain and go over it, but there is a fantastic lay-back about 30' above the water if so inclined.
 

LarryBoy

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The latest version has been drafted! Abandoned the idea of an east-west traverse, as it seemed like mostly "filler" miles from the Sawtooth Mountain area westward. So instead I'm planning a semi-loop (with an easy hitch from point A to point B on the Beartooth Highway). There's only two significant sections of trail - from Froze-to-Death Plateau to Rainbow Lake, and from the top of Silver Run Plateau to the northern trailhead. those are also the areas where the trail spends time below treeline. I tried to stay high but I've concluded it's just impossible to make a loop hike in the BT's without dropping into a big drainage at least once.

Thoughts on this route?

Also if you turn your head sideways the shape of the route looks kind of like a poodle dog.

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LarryBoy

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I'm ditching the FTD-Plateau route. It doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the route (too much trail walking, long below-treeline stretch between East Rosebud and Rainbow Lake). Instead gonna try and explore the Grasshopper Glacier area.

Red is the main route, green is what it used to be. What do you guys think?

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