WRT IV: On and Off the Beaten Path

This is part one of two on a recent western road trip.

Another year, another hiking adventure somewhere in the West. The gang is all here: Jim, the founding father of these hikes whom I have yet to travel with; Ed, who is methodically knocking out sections of the nation’s great trails; my Uncle Bob, our fearless leader; Amy and Betsy, our moral support and frequently our source of entertainment; and my cousins Rob and Alex. We are set to disappear for four nights into the backcountry.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness contains just shy of one million acres of National Forest lands across its namesake mountain ranges in Wyoming and Montana. It is best known for the Beartooth Highway, a 1930s engineering marvel that maneuvers some of America’s most spectacular switchbacks on its nearly 6,000-foot climb before disgorging its travelers into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. After arriving in Red Lodge, I take part in the expedition to drop two vehicles at the Clarks Fork trailhead up along the pass. We will come here when we get off the Beaten Path, the name of the trail we will hike this year.

The exact length of the Beaten Path is a source of dispute on our hike. Most official sources put it somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 miles, while a map in my possession pins it at 27.5, and several segments tracked by step counters suggest the real number may be closer to 30. Regardless, it does not owe its beaten status to its ease: it is a rugged climb up above the tree line. The trail provides views of 16 lakes, countless waterfalls, and offers no shortage of inviting off-trail scrambles up toward higher peaks. Most through hikers begin at the Beartooth Highway and make their way down to East Rosebud Lake, a course that leads to a net loss of 2,000 feet of elevation; as suckers for a good view, however, we trust accounts that tell us the longer slog from East Rosebud is the more dramatic way.

The hike begins at an elevation of about 6,200 feet at East Rosebud, where a large trailhead sits at the end of a gravel road for which the word “washboard” cannot quite do justice. The Beaten Path follows two creeks for nearly its entire length, climbing up into the mountains along the valley carved by Rosebud Creek and then back down along Russell. Our first climbs take us past towering serrated spires of rock: the bears’ teeth that gave these mountains their names are not literal. Lunch comes in the shade along the placid waters of Elk Lake, where several families have day-hiked in for picnics and fishing. But after Elk, the trail takes on a new tenor. An ascent begins through a boulder field, baking in midday sun, and us three millennials in the party set off at our own pace so that we can establish camp and come back to relieve any stragglers of their burdens. The altitude has some affect on Alex, who also has the indignity of needing to rescue his hat from a pool in the creek when a strong wind blasts it off on the bridge across the outlet of Rimrock Lake. The scenery forgives such misfortune, however: the falls below Rimrock and its turquoise waters tucked between the rock faces ensure us we’re climbing toward a Shangri-La.

A few more climbs, a few more bends, and we’re above Rainbow Lake, an even more vivid azure pool. We wrap along a ledge of scree to a meadow on its far end, which is our home for the first night. We dine and toast to the late Mary Ellen, who joined this crew on its very first venture into this same wilderness a decade ago. I sleep poorly. The next morning, we have our customary slow start before we begin switching up from Rainbow Lake with repeated views back. The next landmark, Lake at the Falls, lives up to its name, the waters tumbling down from great heights into its substantial depths. We eat at the outlet of Doogan Lake, where the exposed granite rising from the creek evokes the glacier-worn Canadian Shield in my mind; at the lake’s far end, Impasse Falls provides the most dramatic cascade of the trail.

Today the advance party consists of just two: Rob and I fly on up to the far end of Dewey Lake, where we scout out a camp in a few depressions between its rocky knobs and again act as the cavalry. We recover easily enough, though: debate through dinner is vibrant as ever, and later, Rob, Amy, and I spend an impromptu evening on the rocks over the lake, watching as the stars come out, bright as in Joshua Tree or the Boundary Waters and tonight enhanced by the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. However beaten this path may be, it is stunning.

In the morning I finally concede and take my first dump of the trip. Digging a hole with a trowel is perhaps the most exasperating wilderness task, but the satisfaction that comes from a successful purge can make a day. As such, I’m in good form even when the trail out from camp, despite a seemingly tamer elevation profile, proves just as rugged. Above Dewey the trees, already reduced to nothing but high-altitude conifers, begin to thin into alpine meadows dotted with pools of meltwater and rainbows of wildflowers. Snow fields remain on nearby peaks at similar elevations, and after a rest that somehow remains tiring amid plateau-top wind and relentless sun, we come to Fossil Lake, an austere, sprawling basin above the tree line that is the source of Rosebud Creek.

Bob says our time above the tree line will be life-changing. My 2021 to date has been one of tedium, delight in things that are only fun because they were not much available over the previous year and brightened by an usually large number of escapes to other places. July in particular was freighted by weighty family events of very different flavors, and while I do not normally advocate for running away from things, a week and a half somewhere else was definitely in order. Pent-up energy erupts in bursts up and down these slopes, and no lack of sleep can slow me. Finally, up here near the top of the world, I find a comfortable pace.

We wrap around Fossil’s probing arms and make a brief climb to the height of land on this hike, a small mound of stones at 10,000 feet. This feels like something one might find in the Himalaya, and I half expect to see Buddhist prayer flags fluttering around the stones. We make our contributions to the pile and begin the descent of Russell Creek, the relentless sun sapping our energy. We come to a crossroads of sorts between Unnamed Lake with Island and Ouzel Lake, struggling to tell which campsite is the one other hikers told us to take, but Alex finds a sprawling one just up from Ouzel that offers views down the whole valley of Russell Creek. This will be our home for the next two nights. I place my tent on a ridge overlooking the others and set up the hammock, while Rob dives into Ouzel, his reactions to the frigid water audible from over our small ridge; I supplement our bourbon supply with my mezcal, and the mix of freeze-dried dinners seems best this night. Finally, I sleep through a night, though there are still interruptions in the forms of hooves and silhouettes of mountain goats, visible along with the stars and Perseids through my open tent fly.

The next day is a rest day of sorts, but only Jim and Ed really hang back, and the other six of us set out on an adventure off the Beaten Path. (Yes, we made these jokes incessantly.) In consultation with Bob’s creatively cut and laminated USGS survey maps of the area, Rob and I calculate a route and lead the party across a boulder field on the opposite site of Ouzel. We scramble up a knot-filled, ankle-turning grassy slope studded with rocks and ride a ramp up to a small plateau. Here we cross open parks and skirt ponds, eventually traversing a saddle to a view down to Lake of the Clouds, a deep, lonely deposit of snowmelt that slips down a cliff toward Russell Creek below. We summit two small peaks on either side of our perch, one an arm reaching up toward Mount Rosebud beyond, the other with a stunning, broad view down the full valley of the Russell, out across an endless march of ridgelines past the Beartooth Highway toward jagged Pilot Peak and its towering neighbors. It is as good as they come.

We scramble back down, waylaid occasionally by false trails and questionable cliffs, before we find the route we took up. The ensuing hammock session is among the best I’ve ever had, and later, I dip my legs in Ouzel and wash myself off. I could repeat days like this one unendingly. The mountain goats return in the night, and again, I find some measure of sleep, peace brought about by comfort in my cocoon and pleasure at a day’s work and the poetry of N. Scott Momaday and, yes, I confess, a healthy helping of melatonin.

Our final day on the Beaten Path starts with an aggressive descent down to Russell Lake, yet more of the intrepid trail builders’ endless switchbacks taking us down to this lake where we can see the trout milling about even from some distance. Below the lake, Russell Creek sinks beneath a boulder field, gurgling steadily as we follow it. The forest spreads into stands of mature pines flecked by blowdown, providing little shade; our plan for lunch along Kersey Lake is temporarily foiled when the trail unexpectedly turns up an exposed ridge, and we are gassed by the time we settle in on the other side. Thankfully, the end is near. We push on to the Clarks Fork, the motorcycles on the Beartooth Highway welcoming us back to civilization. I drive Betsy, Alex, and Rob back down the great road, and we gawk at the switchbacks and shake our fists at the terrible driver in front of us and finally clean up before dinner at an old downtown Red Lodge hotel.

As usual, hiking is a jumble of emotion. We delight in beauty and yell angry things at hills, depending on our moods. Hours of preparation and veteran wilderness competence occasionally collapses into farce, a fate from which none of us are immune: there is the failed flush of the water filter that forces frantic purification by tablet, and the realization that the missing container of booze has, in fact, been in a side pocket of one of our backpacks the whole time, never in a bear can and practically begging for a nighttime visitor. Chicken fettucine accidentally becomes tuna fettucine with a hint of chicken, and we endure the usual struggles of sunburn and frequent pack adjustments and, in my case, the loss of a basket on a hiking pole serendipitously overcome when Bob finds a matching one at a later campsite. By the fourth night, I decree that even the tastiest freeze-dried options begin to lose their luster.

But these mishaps only enhance our tales of the trip, and several in the party rank this among the best hikes the group has ever done. We have followed the Beaten Path and beaten out a few new paths along the way, the views and satisfying aches worth every small annoyance. These chances to escape do not change a life overnight, but they do give spurts of inspiration that can, in time, come to form the basis of something. It is up to those of us who tread these paths to make good on that promise.

Here is Part 2.