Backpacking the Beartooths

While Yellowstone is one of the Rambling Family’s favorite places, we just couldn’t leave our pup Slim Jim home in favor of their no dogs on trails policy. So, our backpacking goal for this trip was the Beartooth mountains, just northeast of the park in the Custer-Gallatan National Forest. Oh, we still ‘did’ Yellowstone, just, tourist-style instead of Rambling style.

We stayed a night at Grant campground, thanks to a lucky last minute reservation snag (someone must have cancelled). It was decent; we usually head to the northern portion of the park, so it was fun to see new-to-us geysers at West Thumb and get lost on the deserted trail system attempting to get to the park grocery, only to find it closed 5 minutes prior. sigh. The kids also love the sites at geyser basin, so we popped in there and took the trails around to see our faves like Castle and Daisy Geysers spewing their vents.

But then it was an extra long detoured-through-Cody because both roads north in Yellowstone were closed. We were shut off from the northern section of the park. Oh, well, we decided to skip it and drive to the Beartooths, and our destination: Beartooth Lake. We grabbed a boondock campsite along the way somewhere in the National Forest, so in the morning we didn’t have far to go and were able to get a parking space at the trailhead. Then, we loaded our packs for three days out in the wilderness.

Backpacking Route Details:

  • USGS Quad for Beartooth Butte – free at National Geographic (when giving your email address)
  • Two small parking areas available before and after Beartooth Lake Campground
  • Roughly 8 miles round trip
  • Roughtly 750 ft elevation gain
  • Looped three trails: 619 (Beartooth Cr Trail), 520 (Beartooth High Lakes Trail), 621 (Beauty Lake Trail)
  • Plenty of camping near the lakes about halfway along the High Lakes Trail

Looping anti-clockwise meant we started with the hill climb, but it was a gorgeous late summer day and all the flowers were out to great us. We got a little mixed up with the trail split where Beartooth creek empties into Beartooth Lake. Depending on snowmelt, there are lots of routes through this marshy zone. We ended up just picking a route which petered out, so we headed toward the obvious open meadow below the scree slope. The trail obviously follows this gentle rise, and we figured we’d pop back onto it. Then, Zoe spotted wild strawberries and we forgot about looking for a trail. We picked and ate, and Avi gathered flowers and found his own little flower cave to hang out in while snacking.

Eventually, I nudged them on and we easily found the trail heading up, and up. We took lots of breaks for smaller legs to rest, but also just to take in the beauty of the scenery and enjoy the fresh air. By the time we reached our first trail junction, the boy child was pouting a bit about his legs and pack. Zoe, however, just kept pressing. She’s a backpacking fiend!

Lucky for Avi, though, the uphill climb ends just after the junction. From the high point we got our first glimpse down onto the High Lakes. So pretty! It is remote and unforgiving, but we had such amazing weather that the blue lakes, green scrubs and pines, and orangey grey granite looked pristine.

We spent a while choosing the best campsite; a little flat spot on a high wide peninsula between two lakes. It was tucked back behind some trees quite far from the trail. It was a wonderful spot for a couple days of lounging.

Zoe even swam in the freezing water! She kept trying to get to one of the little islands via a ‘slightly underwater’ landbridge, and even had Slim Jim around her neck the one time. But he fell in, and came running back to me. Eventually she just swam out and warmed up on the rock. Getting back was another story. Avi tried to help by finding a big stick and then they tried using the 550 cord to make a rope bridge with no luck. Again she had to just suck it up and jump in the freezin water to swim back. After that we stayed dry! Mostly we read, or we explored, we wandered, we watched hawks. Slim Jim ran around like a crazy dog, rolling in the soft grass and attempting to catch marmots. In the evening, when the mosquitos started to swarm, we retreated into the tent for some Uno and stories and chatting. My favorite conversations happen in tents!

The hike out went past more pretty lakes, and I would’ve loved to stay another night but we were getting toward bingo food. Beauty Lake was especially lovely as the name implies; though it’s quite large and I like the small ones for camping.

At our lunch break we passed a game warden and his son on horses heading up the High Lakes trail. How cool for that kid to tag along with dad! He said they were heading up to Native Lake for some samples and “how many other folks have you seen heading up?” Only a few, really. I felt like we nearly had the place to ourselves.

After such a soul refresher, it didn’t feel pressing to get back on the road. Zoe requested routing through the northern part of Yellowstone, since we missed it on the way in and it’s really a favorite to see the bison and elk. So, we did. It was out of the way by a long long way, but who cares on a road trip like this. We spent the whole afternoon lazily driving in the parks east entrance from Tower to Mammoth, and walked around a vacant Mammoth Hot Spring at dusk.

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