Sundance Pass

Backpacking Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Sundance Pass, Lake Fork and West Fork of Rock Creek.

Quinnebaugh Meadows, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

To Catch a Fish

All kinds of Wildlife Encounters

Having been part way up the Lake Fork of Rock Creek on two other occasions and once up to Quinnebaugh Meadows, my 13 year old son and I hatched a plan to do the whole loop – starting out on the Lake Fork of Rock Creek, traversing Sundance Pass and then back down the West Fork of Rock Creek. The plan was 5 days or 4 depending on our mood. And I have to say, other than the Beaten Path, this was by far the most incredible trip I have been on.

We had our friends, the Henning’s, help us drop our vehicle at the West Fork trailhead, and then they walked with us up the Lake Fork until we hit a wide spot in the creek about 2 miles in. After fishing for some tiny brook trout for a couple of hours, the Hennings turned back and Morgan and I continued – through a thunderstorm – to an area near Lost Lake where we pitched our first camp.

Unfortunately, Montana was suffering through the last year of a major drought so camp fires had been restricted. It made cooking our fish on the cook stove a bit challenging. We also had the humorous experience of a marmot getting into some of our food items after I had gotten up early to shoot some photos. I came back to camp to find this big fat marmot with his head in a bag of crackers I had stupidly left on the ground at camp. I never thought in my wildest dreams that a critter would be that quick and bold.  I was only gone from camp for 10 minutes, for crying out loud. Obviously, this guy was used to raiding camps as he was not afraid of me. The up side is I did get a couple of photos of the miserable critter.

After cleaning up the marmot damage, we took a day hike up to Black Canyon Lake – absolutely one of the most beautiful spots in all of God’s creation. This was my second time to BC Lake, and I must warn you, the hike is not for the faint of heart.

BC Lake was created by the biggest rock slide I have seen other than possibly the Quake Lake slide of 1959 (no I was not there and am not that old). There are boulders the size of small houses all over the side of the canyon as you head up to Black Canyon Lake. The dam itself must be 800-1000 feet high and it takes some serious boulder hoping at the bottom and near the top too. But once you break over the crest and lay your tired eyes on the beauty of BC, you will not regret the strenuous hike.

Black Canyon Lake, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Black Canyon Lake, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

In 1999 when I went to BC with my friend Jerry Bruesch, the fishing started out slow, but picked up in the afternoon. We landed seven nice fat cutthroats. In 2007 we only managed to catch one big 16” fish though. Typical high altitude fishing – good one day, and bad the next.

The next day, Morgan and I broke camp and headed up Sundance Pass after a stop at Kersey Brown Lake to catch a pile of small fish (that we threw back). In 1999 a Forest Ranger told us that Montana Fish and Game had introduced cutthroats into Kersey Brown and they wanted everyone to release the cuts and keep all the brookies to allow the cuts to take over. Of all the fish Jerry and I caught in ’99, we only caught one cut and a pile of brookies. The system seemed to be working as in ’07, Morgan and I only caught a couple of brookies and a dozen 8-9” cuts. Way too much fishing fun.

After the fishing and photography reprise, we began the grueling hike up Sundance. While it is quite long, it is a gorgeous hike (see the photos). It turned off really warm that day, so we were glad to be hitting the elevation. Although, we consumed most of our water on the ascent. A rest stop at September Morn Lake and several photo stops along the way helped to break up the exertion and allow our body’s time to adjust to the climb and elevation. The trail was designed for pack animals so it is well maintained and the grade is not too bad on the Lake Fork side. Once we got to the top, and witnessed the glory of the Beartooths in front of us, Morgan exclaimed, “It was worth the hike Dad!”

We could look below and see the trail crossing the West Fork below us and I told Morgan we’d be making camp in about an hour.  After a good 30 minute rest, we started the descent. And an hour later, Morgan stops, leans against a rock and says, “Dad, we’ve been walking forever and we are not any closer!” And indeed, it sure seemed to be the case.

The trial builders in 1966 must have had in mind that no one would come up here on foot, so they set the grade at about 5-6% making many switchbacks along the route to keep it easy for pack animals. While this is nice for horses and easy on your knees, it makes an incredibly long trip when you‘re on foot. I estimated that a 1500 foot elevation drop on a 5% grade would result in 5-1/2 miles of trail! Yikes. No wonder Morgan was complaining!

However, the funniest story of my backpacking career occurred at the bottom of this trail that evening.

Ghosts

By the time we had made it to the creek, we were exhausted. Eleven miles of hiking over an 11,000 foot pass was enough to whip all but the toughest hikers into a state of blithery numbness. We struggled to make some supper and to find a place to hang our food (not many trees at this place). About dark, we finally crawled into the tent and fell into a sleep like only an exhausted backpacker can experience.

Whitetail Peak, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

Whitetail Peak, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

However, sometime during the night, I awoke with a massive headache and could not locate the flashlight. Turns out I had lost it along the way and Morgan’s light was in his pack outside. The night was moonless and about as dark at it gets, but the stars were bright and offered just enough light for me to make out the pack location. As I stumbled over to the pack, a “thing” went by me in the night. No sound; just a movement.

Immediately, my heart stopped as this “thing” was way too close – feet away. My eyes were wide open now, but unable to focus on anything in the near total darkness.

Then another one. Moving fast, whitish and no sound. Then another – and another. My head screamed “run”, but my legs refused to move. I yelled at Morgan to get up as there was something out here. He woke - and only as a teenager can do, “Wha? Huh?”

Fear turned to rage as it does in most men, and I leapt upon the pack with fury. Finding the small light, I flicked it on and saw – nothing. Only blackness beyond the photons of light. Then fear returned. “What were those things? Ghosts? Bears? But bears are not white – at least not in Montana.” As I picked out the aspirin and returned to the tent, heart still pounding, it finally dawned, “Billy goats! Morgan, they were Billy goats!”

“Huh? Oh that’s cool.” And back to sleep he went.

As I lay awake hoping the drugs would work their magic, I became aware of a presence again. I never really heard anything (other than the bubbling creek), but it is more like I could sense something. I rolled over, unzipped a portion of the tent and shown the light outside. Lo and behold, there they were. Two nannies and two kids about 50 feet away and looking back at me.  I woke Morgan again and he did get up long enough to look out the tent. With more genuine emotion, he did manage to say, “Really cool.”

West Fork Trail

The descent down the West Fork was uneventful except for catching some monster cuts from the meandering creek – which by regulation we had to throw back. We camped at Quinnebaugh Meadows and managed a day hike to St. Mary’s Lake where Morgan caught some really big brook trout. It was well worth the steep hike up to St. Mary’s just for the view let alone the great fishing. Unfortunately, my eyes were tired by then and my photos were mostly out of focus. Bummer.

Just below Quinnebaugh, we fished more and managed to take out a bunch of brook trout on our last leg of the trip. The West Fork trail is just like the Lake Fork, gentle grade, wide, and well beaten. From Quinnebaugh, it is about 7 miles back to the trailhead.

So here’s the trip:

The best time is August. With the winters turning back serious again, the snow at the top of Sundance probably won’t be gone before the 1st or 2nd week of August. Unless you are prepared for snow trekking on very steep grades, wait until August. To prove my point, in 2008 Morgan and I went up to Goose Lake on the south side of the Beartooth’s out of Cooke City. The last week of July found the 10,000 foot Goose Lake still completely frozen over. So much for global warming.

First Day: Lost Lake is about 5.5 miles in and about 1/3 mile from the main trail to the left of the nicely constructed pack bridge over the creek. However, there are plenty of really nice sites all through the timber between the creek and the lake. I recommend you camp in the sites that have had obvious human impacts and leave the unused sites alone. Leave No Trace backpackingMy philosophy is to continue to use the sites already impacted and thus minimize “backpacker suburban sprawl.” I even recommend leaving your camp fire ring in place to encourage others to use the same site. I know this goes against the current “Leave no trace” philosophy, but in areas that get a lot of use, it makes a lot more sense to concentrate the impacts to a small area, instead of spreading them everywhere.

Another option is to go the extra 1-1/2 miles to Kersey Brown Lake and camp there. However, moose frequent this area and in ’99 we had a close encounter with a cow and her calves. Jerry got so nervous (the yearly was still hanging around with momma and her new calf) that he actually retrieved his gun from the tent. The yearly was within 35 feet of us, but was simply curious.

Later that morning in ’99, my camera lens had fogged up due to the massive amount of moisture we had gotten the night before, and I had it laid out in the morning sun to de-fog when the new calf, came within 20 feet of me trying to figure out what I was. Momma was a safe 100 yards away out in the lake when this occurred otherwise I would have beat feet for a tree! So, no photos of the calf. Rats.

Black Canyon Lake: If you want, take the hike to Black Canyon Lake. If you are shape for it, you will not regret it. The beginning of the trail goes through some really boggy areas and is hard to get through. After that, it starts the ascent up a long ridge through some nice lodge pole. You will break out of the forest and will see the massive rock dam that created the lake in front of you. DO NOT TAKE THE FAUX TRAIL TO THE LEFT. It will take you into the house rocks and you will regret it. Stay to your right, go down and cross the creek in the boulders just above the water running out from under the rocks. It is tough, but it will save you lots of grief. Once you are on the other side of the creek, go along side the creek until you see a trail headed up some tundra type ground. Follow this trail until it peters out in the rocks again. After that, look for the cairns someone was so kind to build. They will help you along the best route. At the top of the dam, take a breath and enjoy what God has created! When I show photos of BC to others, they immediately think it was Banff or Jasper National Parks.

Next Hiking Day: The ascent up to September Morn Lake is a really good trail, but you gain lots of elevation. Some folks stop at SML to spend the night before the main trek up the pass. This is probably a good idea, unless you are pressed for time. It is only about 2-3 miles from Lost Lake to SML. Make sure you stop to enjoy the view of the glacier valley as you go up. First Rock and Second Rock Lakes are visible as you head up the pass.

Sundance: This is the big kahuna. Once you get a few hundred feet above SML, you run out of the trees and are in pure alpine country. The sun can be brutally bright up here so sunglasses and sun screen are the order for the day. Also, lots of water. The water along the path is good stuff, so before you hit the main switchbacks, fill your canteens. The air is thin and dry up here, so exertion will cause your body to lose lots of moisture through the very act of breathing.

When you get to the top, take in the “Wow Factor”. As Morgan said, it is worth the hike. Travel to Red Lodge to backpack Sundance Pass

Going down the other side, is a chore as noted above. I never cut trails, but we did here. We carefully chose a route that would take us over rocks so we did not damage the fragile tundra found near the bottom of the trail. Cutting the shallow switchbacks probably saved us another ½ mile of weary hiking.

We camped at the bottom about 100 feet from the creek in the open. The tundra-like terrain made for a really comfortable sleep (other than the goats) and since we couldn’t have a campfire anyway, it didn’t matter. Of course, if thunderstorms are threatening, you might want to camp in the trees.

Next Day (4): There are several more lakes up the trail following the main trail, not to mention a half dozen other lakes on the benches above. Morgan and I didn’t have the poop to try any of those lakes, so we chose to head down to Quinnebaugh. We stopped along the way to catch some huge cuts from the meandering creek though.

Next Day (5): As noted above, a side trip to St. Mary’s Lake is worth the effort. We left our packs and only took our fishing gear and my camera. As it was, the climb was enough to about do me in.

Quinnebaugh is a heavily used place and lots of folks day hike up to enjoy the views. Please camp on used sites and don’t use the meadow area for camping. If you stay back in the trees, you will find better sites and more firewood than if you camp out in the meadow.

Next Day (6): The trail out is easy, but long. Watch out for horse packers. Lots of them use these trails.

Fishing

We have always done well fishing with worms or flies along the creeks landing enough brook trout to fill our bellies each evening. The lakes can be a bit more challenging, but in ’99 Jerry used real grasshoppers at Black Canyon Lake

West Fork of Rock Creek, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

Big Cutthroat Trout, West Fork of Rock Creek

with success. I also used the trusty Thomas Cyclone to land a few in ’99 and the only fish we caught in ’07.

Kersey Brown Lake is the fishing spot of the trip. No big bruisers, but lots of fun especially on a fly rod. September Morn Lake we did not fish in as we were set on climbing the pass. I hear it is typical high altitude lake though – good some days and bad others.

We tried everything we had in our arsenal of tackle in Sundance Lake, but to no avail. I am sure there are fish in there; they just weren’t interested that day.

West Fork Creek, below the lakes, is the best fishing on the trip. On several occasions now, we have landed 12-15” cuts from the creek (which we promptly put back due to the regulations). The fly rods worked the best with grasshopper patterns. That is more fun than should be legal – landing a 15” cut on a fly while standing in some of the most dramatic scenery in the world.

St. Mary’s Lake was most eventful on worms or the grasshopper patterns again. Morgan had the knack, while I went mostly fishless. He managed to land several big, fat brook trout on his fly rod. They were really tasty too. We would have stayed longer, but a monster thunderstorm was working our direction and I did not want to be up that high with lightening around us.

The West Fork creek below Quinnebaugh is full of brookies and fun to catch. Occasionally, we have caught the big cuts, but mostly the brookies. Small, but good eating. Again, the flies or worms are the ticket.

For additional information on fishing, buy the book, Fishing the Beartooths, by Pat Marcuson.

Wildlife

As noted above, the wildlife in this area is plentiful. We have had camp raiding marmots; seen picas, porcupines, moose, mountain goats, deer, elk and birds of all shapes and sizes. While I have never actually seen elk in this area, we have found their sign all around Quinnebaugh Meadows. The only thing we have not seen is a bear or a mountain lion – thank God. I like bears and lions, just as long as they stay a safe distance away.

Please give the wildlife a wide berth – especially the moose. Cow moose can be very dangerous when they have young. A few years ago, a Red Lodge resident was killed by a moose behind his rural home outside of Red Lodge.

Maps

The Alpine and Mt. Maurice quadrangle cover the entire route. The best maps to get are those put out by Ralph Saunders and are available at The Base Camp in Billings, MT.  Ralph’s maps are plasticized and don’t leave you map-less after a thunderstorm.

backpacking Sundance Pass, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Alpine/Mt. Maurice USGS topo

Outfitters

Guides and outfitters to carry you over Sundance on horseback are few. There are a limited number of permits given out for the Beartooth Wilderness. This is a nice trip on foot, so pack animals are not really needed. Also, be aware that the trial to Black Canyon is not pack animal friendly, so you will have to go it on foot.

You may also contact the outfitters to arrange a vehicle drop if you wish. There are also some taxi services in Red Loge that will pick up at either end.  

Necessities

  • 4-5 days of cooking fuel.
  • Sunscreen and sun glasses for the hike over the pass.
  • Rain gear (you will get rained on)
  • Layers of clothing and sleeping bags.
  • Tent. (See under “Rain gear”.)
  • Mosquito dope. The really high powered stuff.
  • Tough boots. You will find out how sharp the granite can be especially going to Black Canyon.
  • Basic survival gear. There is no cell reception along the route except at the top of Sundance.
  • Pepper spray. Grizzly bears are in the area, but very few.
  • Water tablets or a purifier. While most all of the small creeks are fine, anything out of the lakes could contain giardia.