Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area, Lake Wilderness

Three trips, always too long.

Mt. Wood as seen from Lake Wilderness

In my mind, there is only one reason to go to Lake Wilderness in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area – the fish. However, back in 2008 a friend of mine wanted to climb Mt. Wood and needed a guide. He is a “Peaker” and has accomplished the 50 high points of the US and since he lives in Montana, wanted to do all 56 county high points in the state (which he has completed).  Now I heard from Jim that the Prairie County high point was a real challenge – middle of some guys’ dry land wheat field. Ha, Ha.

As it turns out, Mt. Wood at approximately 12,640 ft is the high point in Stillwater County and the second highest point in Montana and by default, the second highest point in the Beartooth Mountains. (For those of you that don’t know, Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point is in Park County even though the only access is through Stillwater County.) So Jim and his friend wanted to go up to Mt. Wood and my son and I decided it would be a good excuse to fish Lake Wilderness.

Mt Wood, Beartooth Mountains, Montana

Early Morning of Mt. Wood from the camp on the Stillwater Plateau

Hike #1: Brutally Long

The first time I went to Lake Wilderness, I day hiked it. Yep, up and back in one day – a very long day. It was early or mid-August and I was completely hailed out by the time I got back to the truck. But the fishing was great. I only managed to fish for about 40 minutes and caught over 10 big fat cutthroats.

Hike #2: Same distance, more time

The second time, my friend Tim and I went and spent 2 nights. We caught so many fish we lost count. I think the smallest one was about 11 inches. Tim took his dog with him and the poor creature was really a mess by the time we descended the talus slope to the lake (more on that later).

Hike #3: Better plan, still too long.

The trip with Jim and Adam was really interesting as instead of losing the 1000 feet to the lake from the edge of the Stillwater Plateau, we camped on the plateau above the lake so the climbers in the party wouldn’t have to lose all that precious elevation. Water was an issue and I had to backtrack about ¼ of a mile to fill our water jugs from a small snow melt run on the plateau. However, some of my coolest backpacking campsite photos were collected on this trip. And the morning on the Stillwater plateau was one of the most fabulous and awe inspiring mornings I have ever experienced.

Rather than bore you with a bunch of stories about the trips – like finding our way out in the dark, Adam’s whining, nearly being hit by lightening, or the part where Jim had to be at work in Missoula the next day at 8 AM – I’ll just tell you about backpacking to Lake Wilderness, Mt. Wood in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

The Trip

It is advisable to have a 4 wheel drive outfit (Montanan for vehicle) to save yourself a lot of extra hiking.  From Interstate 90 at Columbus, take hwy 78 to Absarokee then about 3 miles south of the town, turn right on Mt. Hwy 419 to Fishtail. From Fishtail, head towards Nye, but when you reach Dean (small spot in a large valley with a bar and a restaurant); turn left on the Benbow Mine Road. From here it is 19 miles of rough dirt road to the “Golf Course”. Once you reach the Benbow Mine, it is good to have a GPS to help guide you through all the old mine roads. Basically, you want to stay on the most traveled ones.

The initial grade past the old head frame is really steep and you will most likely need your four wheel drive - hence the recommendation above. Essentially, you need to keep going up above the mine as much as you can, not going downhill or back to the North West. Your average direction should be south – even though you are going back and forth along the mountainside. After getting through the numerous switchbacks, you will top out on a broad ridge. The road (now really a track) will start down into the meadow known as the Golf Course. Follow the tracks to the end near the sign for the A-B Wilderness area. Please don’t drive all over the meadow - it truly is a fragile environment.

Once you are on foot, follow the trail down through the saddle and back up until it peters out on the ridge at the edge of the Stillwater Plateau. Look for the rock cairns. If you have a GPS, make sure you mark this spot. If you don’t, make sure you visually take in the surroundings and note the landmarks – like the steep (usually snow covered) bluff to the left. You will need this info to find the trail when you come back.

From the trail’s end, start across the plateau keeping to your left and keeping the same or gain a slight bit of elevation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the big canyon in front of you is Lake Wilderness, it’s not – it’s Woodbine Creek. Once you go about 5 miles, you will see Mt. Hague looming in front of you. It is on the other side of LW.  When you reach a point where you can see Lake Wilderness, you can decide to camp there or go down to the lake and camp.

Warning, going into the lake cirque is not for the faint of heart. You must traverse about 700 yards of steep, miserable talus – some of which is not stable. Then you have to go down the steepest of hill sides and pick your way through the trees to find your way to the lake. THIS IS THE TOUGHEST PART OF THE HIKE AND IS VERY DIFFICULT - but not near as bad as coming back out! (See the photo.)

Descent into Lake Wilderness

The formidable descent into the lake cirque

Camp sites.

If you chose to camp at the lake, there are many good sites all around the lake and the water coming out of the lake is good. Just filter it through a device first. There is plenty of firewood, but be careful. Those old limber pines are full of pitch and will go up in an inferno if they ever got started.

If you decide to stay on the plateau (to save carrying your pack to the lake or in preparation to climb Mt. Wood), plan your water use carefully and note places to get water well before your get to your camp area. There is no firewood available on the

Backpack camp in the Absaroka Beartooth Wildnerness

Early morning on the plateau with the sun on Mt. Hague

Stillwater Plateau.

Fishing.

This is the main reason to endure the long hike, (Adam’s GPs said it was about 5 miles from the truck to where we camped) is to fish Lake Wilderness for the monster cuts that populate the deep waters. I think Paul Marcuson’s book estimates the lake depth at about 120 feet.

The first time I went, I caught one fish on a worm as my poor feet were too tired to stand. After that, nothing. I switched to a Thomas Cyclone (after resting my poor feet) and was casting the surface like all good lure fishermen do. Nothing. Then my line tangled after a cast. I frantically worked on the kinks all the time fearing the lure would snag the bottom and I would lose it. The instant the line was straight again, I jerked hard on the pole to get the lure up off the bottom – POW! Fish on!

Following that initial success, I intentionally let the lure sink to a count of 10 before closing the bale and hauling back on the rod with a single heave. Almost every time I got a hit. On both the second and third trips, we employed this same tactic to great success.

On the other trips, we also took our fly rods and had a blast catching and releasing big 12-16 inch cuts from the deep waters. A simple Adam’s pattern seemed to work the best. Just float it out there on a bright day and you will catch fish. This is a great location to practice your fly fishing skills as there are good places with plenty of room for a back cast and the great gobs of fish will help you hone those fine skills you need to hook and land a sizable trout on a fly rod – while catching real fighting fish.

The last trip we made, the lake outlet was chock full of spawning cuts. The largest trout I have landed on my fly rod was there in the outlet. Not much of a fight as I was in the willows at the lake’s outlet and the fish was actually under the tip of my 9’ rod.

Wild Cutthroat trout

Lake Wilderness cutthroat

One last note about the fishing, you will not find better tasting trout anywhere in this world. I can see the bright red meat and almost taste the delectable flesh in my mouth even as I write this. And don’t worry about depopulating the lake. Very few people endure this hike and the lake is overflowing with fish. At one point, Morgan frightened the spawners in the in the outlet, coming out from under a large undercut boulder, the water turned black with trout. I have never seen anything like it – ever.

Wilderness Maps

The Mt. Wood, (duh?) USGS topo map contains the entire foot route. HOWEVER, THE 1939 VINTAGE MAP SHOWN HERE DOES NOT SHOW THE ROAD CORRECTLY. Or you can get the interagency map of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Area. Click here for a pdf: Wilderness Map w routes to LW

Beartooth Outfitters

I don’t know of any outfitters that will carry your stuff on horseback to Lake Wilderness. While several outfitters do trips into the wilderness areas, the Stillwater Plateau is nearly impassable to horses and there is no way for horses to get into the lake. And I have heard that going down or up Woodbine Creek is nearly impossible for neither man nor beast.

Backpacking Necessities

  • Enough days of cooking fuel for your entire trip if you plan on staying on the plateau.
  • Sunscreen and sun glasses.
  • Rain gear, you are almost guaranteed to get wet.
  • Layers of clothing and sleeping bags.
  • Tent – if you are going to stay on the plateau, you are really exposed to lighting, wind and rain.
  • Mosquito dope. The really high powered stuff. However, on the plateau, we didn’t have any trouble with ‘squitoes. Maybe it has to do with the lack of water!
  • Tough boots.
  • Basic survival gear.
  • Water tablets or a purifier. While most all of the small creeks are fine, anything out of the lakes could contain giardia. The available water on the plateau is fine – it was snow about a minute and a half before you put it in your bottle.

The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness is a huge place (4 million acres) with many places to go. As far as wilderness areas go, it is one of the larger in the lower 48. Please be safe when hiking or backpacking in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness – as you would any wilderness area - and respect it and its fragile eco-system.