8 Montana Lakes Worth the Hike
Our Beartooth Mountains Hold Immaculate Lakes!
For the last several years, my hiking partner has been a baby, toddler, and then a young boy. It makes it hard to do a hike that’s longer than a mile or so (without carrying him on your shoulders the majority of the time). But sometimes, you just need to get away.
Here are (a few of) my picks for the best lakes to hike to. They’re those that may not be easy to get to, but you will definitely get to experience the Montana wilderness.
We begin our lake tour on the beaten path. Starting at East Rosebud, simply follow the canyon for about 8 miles to get to one of the hottest “far” hikes nearby. This is one of the easiest hikes on the list, and therefore the lake is one of the most popular. To get there you head past Elk Lake, past Rimrock Lake, and the good camping is at the far side of Rainbow Lake. One of the times I was there, a total of 22 other backpackers were camping nearby.
Lake at Falls
22 people isn’t a lot but it may be more than you want. And if you want to see one of the prettiest lakes in the Beartooths, then keep going for about 3 more miles until you hit Lake at Falls. As you hike around this beautiful alpine lake, you can look across and see multiple waterfalls cascading down the cliffs (2 that are there all the time, other small ones that are present during runoff). If nothing else, it’s worth a day-hike from Rainbow just to experience it.
To be the true adventurer, head all the way to Fossil Lake. Situated well above treeline at 9,890 feet elevation, this lake doesn’t thaw until late July in most years. When it finally does, however, the fishing is phenomenal! Of course, being so high up, there is little shelter; and at around 16 miles from the trailhead, it’s a bit more than a day hike away.
Moving closer to Red Lodge, Glacier Lake is one of those lakes that should thaw earlier. But due to its location in the valley (and it is pretty high up), it stays frozen well into the summer. Another one of those that would make for a great August hike, and just to experience such a vast lake at high altitudes.
The main trail heads to Glacier Lake, but if you want to veer off and take the road less traveled, turn north toward
Moon Lake after about a mile on the Glacier Lake trail. The trail is faint, and at points you really just have to traverse over the tundra, but at the very end of the valley, surrounded by rock and mountains on three sides, is Moon Lake. It’s one of those hidden gems where you can get away from it all.
We explored East Rosebud, let’s head to West Rosebud. We all know the hike to Mystic Lake, but many never make it past. Sure they may head to the end of Mystic (the lake is over a mile long, it takes a while to get to the back end), but most stay in the valley. If you turn south just past where Huckleberry Creek dumps into Mystic, you can head up the steep trail. Hike for a mile or so, and you get to Huckleberry Lake. It’s small and shallow, and I’ve never had good luck fishing it, but it’s a picturesque mountain lake.
Keep hiking past Huckleberry Lake and you get back into the alpine trails. After just about a mile from Huckleberry (and 8 miles from the trailhead), you get to a lake that many will pass on by. Princess Lake is rarely a destination, but more often a stopping point to eat lunch on the hike to Granite Peak. But it’s worth a second look! It’s high up there, but there are plenty of fish that can be seen. There are waterfalls cascading into the lake, and if you hang out long enough, I’m sure you’ll see a moose.
Continuing on, you get to the hardest lake to access on our list. Many hikers, climbers, and high-pointers know Avalanche lake because of its proximity to Granite Peak. In fact, you can look down onto its blue-green waters from the top of the mountain. But there are few that will hike to Avalanche for the sake of hiking to Avalanche. The last thousand feet or so are little more than boulder hopping, and when you get there, there is nary a tree to be seen (to be expected when you’re at 9,800 feet up). But wait until evening, then watch the glassy waters. They will soon be broken by dozens of trout surfacing. And these trout are big. Rarely fished, this lake provides some amazing fishing… you just have to hike 9 miles from the trailhead, gaining 3,500 feet, much of it pretty rough terrain.
Go Do Something
Montana has so many lakes I haven’t even scratched the surface of those that are worth the hike. What’s your favorite lake to hike to? Which one would you love to go back to?
Scott is a writer, outdoor enthusiast, beer snob, and woodworker. When he is not out exploring all of the wonders around Billings, he loves to sit down for a frosty brew at one of the many great breweries we have available to us. You can read about most of his adventures, and many of the fine brews he has sipped right here. Find out more about Scott at