The Beaten Path is Montana’s premier backpacking trip through the rugged 943,648-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, passing by 15 glittering lakes underneath mammoth granite cliff faces. While the hike is literally called the Beaten Path, you will find that the wilderness is large enough to make it feel less travelled. A three-day trip could easily become a one-week trip with all the possible side trips to peaks and high alpine lakes just off the official 26-mile trail.
This thru-hike can begin from either East Rosebud near Red Lodge or from the Clarks Fork Trailhead east of Cooke City. Either plan a key-swap or expect a long shuttle. The shuttle involves driving the Beartooth Highway, an incredible (but long) drive up and down an almost 11,000-foot plateau. Starting the Beaten Path from East Rosebud is the preferred route for individuals seeking the stunning views up the East Rosebud Valley, even though this route has a bigger climb. East Rosebud Creek was officially designated as a Wild and Scenic river in 2018, a designation that protects it from dams or diversions.
From the East Rosebud Trailhead, the rocky trail follows the eastern edge of East Rosebud Lake before passing through open terrain with large boulders and small quaking aspens. The approach to the next lake, Elk Lake, is forested. Elk Lake has just a handful of backcountry sites, but they have a stunning view – the steep, majestic sides of Froze to Death Plateau.
Expect a steady climb from Elk Lake to Rimrock Lake. Impressive switchbacks run through a large boulder field that eventually cuts straight below a sheer rock wall. After the climb, the views of Rimrock open up. See a beautiful teal blue lake below steep mountainsides of the plateau. A wide bridge at the foot of the lake provides an easy crossing to the western side of the lake. The trail does go down to meet rocky lake shore. You’ll find that there are a few spots around the lake where people have camped for the night.
Continue your upward climb with switchbacks to Rainbow Lake, another turquoise lake that is a popular destination for backpackers. Find a plethora of campsites at the head of the lake. The sites have access to a nice shoreline but are tucked rather closely to each other. Those looking to camp somewhere less busy should push onward.
The next lake on your journey, Lake at Falls, features two waterfalls coming down the steep mountainside from Martin Lake, just out of view. The rocky landscape here does not lend itself well to camping. Just a little further on the trail gets you to Big Park Lake. Unlike the previous lakes, Big Park feels lush with its forested shoreline and green shallow waters.
The trail from Big Park Lake winds for a while through thick forest. Make speedy time through this section if there are not wild berries in season to distract you. Next up is Duggan Lake, a fairly small lake nestled at the bottom of a massive rock bowl that features the hike’s biggest waterfall, Impasse Falls. Luckily, the trail ventures up the bowl right to the top of Impasse Falls. Find the perfect vantage point on your switchbacks up. Duggan Lake surprisingly sports a few campsites.
From the top of Impasse Falls, the landscape around you becomes markedly strewn with granite boulders. Pass a slot canyon waterfall en route to Twin Outlets Lake, a lake with a rocky land belt squeezing it in the middle. After this lake, pass yet another spectacular cascade and lake. Mount Dewey makes a phenomenal backdrop for the large Dewey Lake. Find plenty of vantage points as you walk along the northern edge.
If you’re not already convinced of the beauty of the Beartooths, prepare yourself for the Beaten Path’s most scenic stretch of trail on the Beartooth Plateau. Walk through a wide boulder-filled meadow that holds onto a colorful array of wildflowers even into September. Bare granite walls line the far ends of the meadow, and you feel that your approach to the plateau is imminent. Soon enough, crest the almost 10,000-foot plateau where you'll see the sprawling Fossil Lake before you. The lake is enormous and truly unlike any other lake on the Beaten Path. On clear days, you can even see the top of distant peaks from here. Plan a lunch break to take in the landscape, and perhaps do some exploring if you have the time and energy. If you’re planning to overnight it around Fossil Lake, note that no campfires are allowed. The no-fire boundaries are marked by signs posted by the trail before and after Fossil Lake.
If you are ever ready to leave Fossil Lake, begin the long descent down to the Clarks Fork Trailhead. Don’t worry, the views do not end at Fossil Lake. The mountainsides seem to plunge straight into the alpine lakes, adding a dramatic touch to the already striking landscape. Pass the small but stunning Skull Lake and then the larger Bald Knob Lake. Ousel Lake is next, and the smallest of three along this stretch, but it seems to have the tallest cliffs along its shores. The exact names of the lakes in this area are often mixed up on maps. Be sure to check the official map from the USFS Beartooth Ranger District to help plan your trip.
After Ousel Lake there is a long series of steep switchbacks cut through the rocky mountainside down to Russell Lake. Russel Lake is lined by forest on the trail side but features good views near the foot of the lake. The forested edge does have a handful of backcountry sites that can host a large party, but these sites fill up quickly because they’re an easy distance from the Clarks Fork Trailhead.
The descent continues after Russell Lake, taking you down into the bottom of an impressive narrow canyon. The canyon leads you straight into the forest. There are a few breaks in the forest where you can see peaks in the distance, including some located in Yellowstone National Park. After crossing the boardwalk through a large open meadow, expect an uphill jaunt up to Kersey Lake. The trail does not wind down to its shores, but it does have a great view of distant peaks. Before you know it, you’re over the Broadwater Bridge and at the large trailhead.
Suggested Side Trips: