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Home Wild Life Go Explore: 5 Alpine Lake Hikes
Aug 21 2020

Go Explore: 5 Alpine Lake Hikes

Enjoy a mountain getaway in southern Montana

Exploring Montana

With travel limited and long-term plans postponed, close-to-home adventures are the name of the game this summer. Fortunately for us in Montana, options abound for exploring new peaks, hidden trails, or some of the crown jewels of the Montana backcountry: alpine lakes. With hundreds of lakes across the state, you won’t run short of places to go, but we’ve rounded up a few of the best spots to hike to this summer. There are plenty of camping options at all of the listed lakes. Just remember to follow Leave No Trace principles and all regulations, which includes camping at least 200 feet from lakes and other water sources. 

Remember, it's important to follow all guidelines from the CDC and land-management organizations. Please stay up to date on access regulations, and always treat public lands, and each other, with respect. Access to public lands and backcountry recreation is important for our mental and physical wellbeing, and hiking responsibly can help prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Pine Creek Lake

Location: Paradise Valley; Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Distance: 10 miles roundtrip 
Elevation gain: 3,826 ft.
More trail details >>> 

The hike: The five miles from trailhead to lake gain a hefty 3,400 feet, with most of the elevation gain happening after the first mile. The trail starts off with a deceptively mellow approach to Pine Creek Falls, a popular destination about 1.2 miles from the trailhead. Continue past the falls and climb a series of steep switchbacks through dense forest. You’ll see cascades, streams, and plunging waterfalls. Right when the air is really sucked from your lungs, the trail opens up into a large bowl, with panoramic views of Paradise Valley. The trail curves around the perimeter of towering granite walls past three more of these cirques, with views of more waterfalls and wildflowers. The stunning, freezing alpine lake is worth the hike, and there are scattered options for camping around its perimeter.

Get there: From Livingston, head south on Highway 89 for about 10 minutes. Take a left on Pine Creek Road, then take a right on East River Road. A left on Luccock Park Road brings you to a large parking area. 

Nearby businesses: 

B Bar Ranch – Rest easy in a cozy cabin in the heart of Yellowstone country. The B Bar is a working cattle ranch in the Tom Miner Basin, and visitors can learn about the ranch’s sustainable practices, monitor wildlife, fish, hike, snowshoe, and more.

Katabatic Brewing Company – Housed in a historic building that used to be home to the Longbranch Saloon in the ‘70s, Katabatic's tasting room offers plenty of charm and character. After grabbing a drink, take a stroll around town – there’re plenty of art studios and boutiques to visit. 

Dan Bailey’s Timber Trails – Established in 1938, Dan Bailey’s has provided gear to outdoor enthusiasts for more than 80 years. Whether you’re in need of flies on the way to the Yellowstone River or looking for a new bike or cross country skis, Dan Bailey’s friendly staff can help you find the gear you need.

Ramshorn Lake

Location: Big Sky; Gallatin Range (Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA)
Distance: 13 miles roundtrip
Elevation gain: 1,900 ft.
More trail details >>> 
The hike: The hike to Ramshorn Lake is long, but the terrain is relatively moderate. The trail is well marked, but be sure to stay along the creek at the marked junction about a half-mile in, sticking to the Buffalo Horn Trail. The scenery along the trail alternates between trees and open meadows with views of Ramshorn Peak, before it begins the final ascent to Ramshorn Lake. This jewel-colored lake is a popular equestrian destination with plenty of space to set a tent up and cast a line. 

Get there: From Big Sky, drive 12 miles south on 191 and take the 320 Ranch turn on the left. The road passes the guest cabins, and you’ll continue on that road past ranch property to the large parking lot and signed trailhead. 

Nearby campground: Buffalo Horn Campground

Nearby businesses: 

320 Guest Ranch & McGill’s Restaurant and Saloon – If a mountain cabin or chalet is up your alley, a stay at the 320 Guest Ranch will keep you close to the trailhead in comfort. Be sure to stop by their casual fine dining establishment, McGill’s, for food and fun. 

Lava Lake

Location: Gallatin Gateway; Gallatin Canyon (Lee Metcalf Wilderness)
Distance: 6 miles roundtrip 
Elevation gain: 1,600 ft.
More trail details >>>

The hike: The trail to Lava Lake is the only hike that takes off from its namesake trailhead, and it's impossible to miss. The wide, rocky path climbs moderately through the trees start to finish, with a few rock-hopping stream crossings and one brief open area. Eventually, you'll cross a sturdy bridge and switchback up to the lake. Because the trail is treed in for its entirety, the first true view comes on the banks of the picturesque lake, which is surrounded by evergreens and craggy peaks. 

Get there: From Bozeman, take 191 south through Gallatin Canyon for 36 miles. The signed turnoff for the parking lot is on the right. 

Nearby campground: Greek Creek Campground

Nearby businesses: 

Inn on the Gallatin – Why not make your day hike a weekend getaway? Stay in a cozy cabin on the Gallatin River and make more time for fly fishing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding – the sky’s the limit!

Fossil Lake

Location: Cooke City; Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness
Distance: 20 miles roundtrip
Elevation gain: 3,400 ft.
More trail details >>>

The hike: Fossil Lake is one of the pinnacles of the popular Beaten Path, a 26-mile point-to-point from Cooke City to East Rosebud. Fossil Lake sits above 9,000 feet on the Beartooth Plateau, and is surrounded on all sides by the expansive Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Hikers can access Fossil Lake from Cooke City or East Rosebud, but starting at Cooke City results in significantly less elevation gain. From the Clarks Fork trailhead, hike through the trees along Russell Creek, traversing the edge of Kersey Lake before climbing through a canyon with multiple rocky overlooks. The trail continues climbing steadily before opening up onto the plateau. which is dotted with lakes and surrounded by epic peaks. The trail heads towards Fossil Lake, and signs note that campfires are prohibited around the water. 

Get there: The Clarks Fork trailhead is right outside Cooke City. Take I-90 East to exit 408 for Columbus, then continue towards Red Lodge and over the Beartooth Highway. The trailhead is about four miles east of Cooke City, on the same road. Alternatively, you can get to the trailhead by driving from Gardiner through Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. 

Campground near trailhead: Colter Campground

Nearby businesses: 

Skyline Guest Ranch – Nestled north of Yellowstone National Park, Skyline offers backcountry pack trips and guided fishing trips, if you want to make a weekend of your stay. 

Campfire Lake

Location: Clyde Park; Crazy Mountains
Distance: 12 miles roundtrip
Elevation gain: 2,654 ft.
More trail details >>>

The hike: A moderate hike with one 1,000-foot lung-buster of a climb will get you to this gem of a lake tucked in the photogenic Crazy Mountains. The Trespass Creek Trail is easy to follow, meandering along a creek through a draw before diving in and out of trees and open meadows. The climb up the pass is steady but well designed, switchbacking the whole time. Crest the ridge for a breathtaking view of Campfire Lake below before winding down the other side of the pass to the edge of the lake. 

Get there: From Livingston, take the Clyde Park exit to Highway 89, heading north. You’ll turn right onto Cottonwood Bench Road, following the road to the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead. From the north, take 89 to Wilsall and head east. 

Camping: Primitive campsites near the lake. 

Nearby businesses: 

Crazy Mountain Momma’s – Stop in Wilsall for a cup of coffee, and breakfast or lunch, on your way to or from the trailhead.

The Bank Bar & Vault Restaurant – Formerly the Wilsall Bar & Cafe, The Bank Bar & Vault Restaurant is owned and operated by the folks that own the Muddy Creek Ranch. In addition to serving their own 100% grass-fed beef, you'll find everything from pizza to sandwiches on the menu.

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Maggie Slepian

Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana. When she's not in front of a computer, she's usually backpacking or trying to teach her cat to walk on a leash. Outdoorsy pictures can be found here, and contact info and portfolio clips here.