Mystic Lake

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

backpacking Mystic Lake, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Mystic Lake

This is by far, one of my favorite places to go. Not only is it close to my home in Laurel, Montana, but it always has fish to be caught and fantastic scenery. Not to mention, it is reasonably easy to get to. Of course, this is a plus and a minus as everyone else likes to go there too.

Mystic Lake is a natural lake situated in a huge glacial valley gouged out at the end of the last ice age that was raised to a higher level (30 feet) by man back in the 20’s and 30’s. This was accomplished with the addition of a small concrete dam at the end of the lake. A tunnel was then mined through the unbelievably hard rock and a pipeline (originally wooden) built along the rock face of the south facing ridge above the West Rosebud River to a small (4 megawatt) power plant below. Can you even imagine hauling sacks of cement and mixing hundreds of cubic yards of concrete with 1930’s technology to construct the dam? We are such wimps these days.

As a result of the dam and the construction, a very nice trail was built to the lake and used by untold numbers of pack animals in the past. Regardless though, the trail is still steep in places and switchbacks up a massive talus slope. I am always amazed at the people I see on that trail wearing flip flops or tennis shoes. My feet hurt just looking at their feet!

A Bit of History

From what I have been told, the Mystic power plant supplied most all of Billings, Montana electrical power when it was first built. It still runs today and is an essential part of the power grid in Stillwater County. There are a few power company employees that live at the site and operate the plant. However, having been up this road in the winter, I don’t know if they stay year-round. Between the snow and the wind, the road can be impassible to wheeled vehicles for much of the winter season.

The first time I ever went to Mystic Lake, it was not inside the wilderness area – that being 1989. I actually rode my mountain bike up the trail – well, actually I pushed it for most of the way. It was Memorial Day weekend and the upper half of the lake was still frozen over. Not knowing the fishing or how to fish the lake, I didn’t catch any fish. The bike allowed for a quick trip back down the hill though!

As I noted before, the trial is very steep in places and in 1979 a boy scout slipped and fell to his death as the trail bends around a large granite outcropping. When I first went to Mystic, a plaque was mounted at the site of his fall. Today, the plaque has been moved down to a boulder just above the power house. And just a couple of years ago, another man was killed when he was scrambling up the rock slopes at the lake over look causing a rock slide to bury him. And again, at the conclusion of one of my trips, a man perished from a heart attack right on the trail as he was going up (he was not associated with me).

So while Mystic is “easy to get to”, it is still wilderness and is unforgiving to those that let down their guard even for a short time or for those that are not in at least moderate physical condition.

Also, the wooden pipeline has been replaced with a steel line. Sometime in the early 90’s, a large rock slide smashed a big section of the wooden pipeline to splinters and the power company almost abandoned the project. However, they did build a new steel line over the next several summers (using helicopters, not mules) and a friend of mine bought what was left of the redwood staves that constituted the original pipe. He built an entire barn from the staves – that was a pile of wood.

Shortly after the steel pipe was finished, an act of congress moved Mystic Lake inside the wilderness boundary.

Mystic Today

As noted above, Mystic is inside the A-B Wilderness boundary, so I can’t ride my mountain bike up there anymore (not that I would anyway). The scenery is dramatic, the fishing good – even when it is slow – and the summer weather can be mixed. In 1998, the last year of significant moisture for the next 10 years, my dad and I spent most of 4 days in the rain – during the last week of July! The flowers are usually thick in places and on the north facing slopes, the forest resembles a temperate rainforest – complete with moss, copious amounts of water, flowers, and lush vegetation.

Mystic is 7673 feet above sea level (I am assuming when it is full), three miles long and about a ¼ mile wide at its widest point. Paul Marcuson (Fishing the Beartooths), never got an accurate reading due to the normal afternoon winds, but he did get a reading of 205 feet deep. This is huge body of really cold water – largest in the entire Beartooth Range – and it has the ability to create its own wind and weather.

Backpacker's campfire at Mystic Lake, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Backpacker's campfire at Mystic Lake, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

There are numerous great camping sites along the southern shore and the numerous streams that flow down from the snow above are cold, clear and good drinking water. However, Mystic gets a lot of use from day hikers, destination backpackers and climbers passing through to ascend Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point. There is also a trail that takes off from Mystic to Phantom Lake so lot of folks use the area at the bottom of Phantom Creek as a staging area to assault the really steep trail up to Phantom. One Forest Service employee told me that they believe about 5000 people a year come to Mystic between Memorial Day and Labor Day to fish, swim or just hike through.

Firewood is usually in abundance except in the areas that get a lot of campers like the upper end flat next to Huckleberry Creek. A stove is defiantly optional except in the time of fire closures – which were all too common during the 10 years of drought.

Due to the frequency of use, please be extra careful when you hike here. Pick up trash you see left by others and try to camp in places already impacted by others to keep the “backpackers urban sprawl” to a minimum. Bury your potty products well and do not camp in locations near the lake.

I truly recommend you be prepared for wet weather. This year my youngest son and I spent 3 days at Mystic and only got rained on briefly twice. Of course, the wind about blew us away on day three. Then, five days later, my oldest and his friends decided to spend a single night at the lake and spent 80% of the time in a soaking rain. He really regretted not taking a light rain jacket with him on his trip!

Now the entire drainage includes Mystic, Island, Silver and Star Lakes. And there are even more locations to go on the benches above Mystic. However, I will save those stories for another time.

Fishing Mystic Lake during our backpack trip

Fishing Mystic Lake during our backpack trip

Fishing

Fishing is almost always productive at Mystic. The lake is full of big, fat cutthroat/rainbow cross breeds that average in the 10-16” range. Occasionally, someone will hook a monster, but for the most part, you will catch lots of pan sized, good fighting colorful trout that are delectable to eat.

The best bet is a Thomas cyclone or worms. Early in the year (June), we did really well with some larger black fly patterns and our fly rods. Grasshopper patterns also work well. The best fishing is found at the upper end of the lake – an extra 3 miles of walking along the lake’s length – but well worth it. One time I saw some guys that had day hiked up just to fish the upper end and they claimed everyone in the party had caught at least 60 fish each. Naturally, they put them all back to catch another day.

The limit on keepers is 5 fish per day. But don’t be concerned about depleting the fish population. One evening as we were going up on a Friday night after work, we topped out on the overlook and witnessed the surface of the lake dimpled with literally thousands of riser rings. I would venture to guess that there are more fish in Mystic than there are people in Montana.

Maps

The Cooke City quadrangle shows all of Mystic Lake, and the Alpine quadrangle shows the power house and part of the trail. If you are only going to Mystic, you really don’t need a map. The trail is well marked and traveled. If you are planning on going out of the drainage, I recommend you do take a map. And I recommend the plasticized maps produced by Rocky Mountain Surveys.

Directions

The nearest major airport is Billings, Montana.

From Billings, it about a 2-1/2 hour trip to the trail head at the power house. You travel west on I-90 and exit at Columbus, MT about 45 miles from Billings. You head south up the Stillwater Valley on Hwy 78.  Keep going through Absarokee until you see the sign to Fishtail and Nye. Turn right onto Hwy 419 and drive through Fishtail (although you may want to stop at the Fishtail General Store for one of their monster cinnamon rolls) and then about 1 mile out of town (there ain’t much to Fishtail), make a left turn onto the West Rosebud road. There is a sign that says Mystic Lake at the turn. Drive up the paved road for about 8 miles and then just before the pavement ends, there is a turn to the left to head up the remainder of the West Rosebud road to the power house. This is a well used and traveled road, but it can get a bit rough at times. You will pass Emerald Lake and West Rosebud Lake. After you think you have driven to the edge of the world, keep going until the signs say to stop. You are at the trail head. Sometimes parking can be a challenge as there are only so many spots available. From here it is on foot.

Outfitters

Guides are out there that will hike to the lake with you and teach you how to fly fish in its ultra-clear waters for those fish noted above. Unfortunately, I don’t personally know of any.

Horse travel is not allowed on the Mystic trail. This is due to the high amount of foot traffic on the trial and the Forest Service is attempting to minimize horse/human incidents. So you will be hard pressed to find an outfitter that will pack you up to Mystic. One possible method would be to have the outfitter pack you up to Phantom from the East Rosebud side and then walk down to Mystic and then out to a waiting vehicle at the trail head – but that sounds like a bunch of silliness to me.

Necessities

  • Rain gear, (about an 80% chance of getting rained on)
  • A stove or a sure way to get a fire started in the rain. On our 1998 trip, we couldn’t get even get the wood to burn using Sterno!
  • Layers of clothing and sleeping bags. In July, the temps can be very pleasant if not going to the warm side. I usually just take a vest and a rain jacket. I always have my Gortex rain pants with me though as too many times I have walked through tall grass after a storm and been soaked from the waist down.
  • Tent – you will hate life w/o it.
  • Mosquito dope. However, I am amazed at how few ‘squitoes we have encountered on the last few trips.
  • Tough boots. The talus slope will make a believer out of you. I also would not go w/o Gortex lined boots.
  • Basic survival gear.
  • Pepper spray. In all the years I have been going to Mystic, I have yet to see a bear track, a bear turd, or any other bear sign – let alone an actual bear. I have heard stories about people seeing bears – which they erroneously claim to be grizzlies. I seriously doubt the validity of these stories. However, on this last trip I may have stumbled across a wolf track.
  • Water tablets or a purifier. I don’t use the water tablets up here. I am just careful to collect my water from one of the many small, cold, fast moving streams in the area. After all, 15 minutes before you drink it is was probably snow!
  • Fishing gear – duh!