Sean Jansen

 Montana's Greatest Through-Hike

   ~Sean Jansen


The Beaten Path is a 26-mile thru-hike, point-to-point trail that climbs its way up and over the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains. The range runs east to west covering nearly one million acres of granite and forest. Boasting over 30 mountain peaks skyrocketing beyond 12,000 feet, cradling Montana’s highest peak. Over 300 alpine lakes, thousands of creeks, numerous specie of trees and plants and the largest unbroken area of land over 10,000 feet outside of Alaska.


The Beaten Path dissects it, following the East Rosebud Creek, now declared Wild and Scenic, up and over the range via East Rosebud Trail and down to Cooke City via the Clarks Fork Trail. The side you choose to start is decided upon you. Although many start on the south side, or Clarks Fork drainage.


The East Rosebud starts at an elevation of 6,280 feet. The trail reaches a height of 9,967 feet. The elevation of the Clarks Fork is around 8,000 feet. So the theory to start on the Clarks Fork side is that you climb less, which may be true. But the Clarks Fork is forested at the start. Where as the East Rosebud bursts into granite, views, and water like a switch from cable to direct TV. The trail instantly climbs and doesn’t hesitate to mellow until the top. But the views around each bend, lake, and stream are far worthy of the struggle to get there. Elk Lake is the first puddle of water stumbled upon.


The trail meanders slowly through patches of rocky outcroppings and direct sunlight, or if you’re unlucky, horrendous thunder and lightening, which come up without warning. But the section south of Elk Lake en route to the next lake, Rimrock, has to be the most spectacular.


You climb for ninety percent of the trail to the pass, but the section before Rimrock Lake will decide the trip. The switchbacks, which can be seen going up the mountainside, question you’re physical ability and the logistics of whom constructed it. But the sheer granite walls on either side with a waterfall cascading from above certainly make for every break on the climb worth the steps. Once to the forested section atop the switchbacks, you wind through the trees until a brief clearing of forest. And like out of a movie, Rimrock Lake appears, with a view of the trail crossing above the waterfall just climbed. Camping along the lake is near impossible, with it being named quite literally. However the next body of water isn’t far, and certainly has options for cozier sleep with previously used tent areas.


Rainbow Lake is the next stop. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away, with of course some more climbing, the trail follows along the lakes western shore where it drops to water lever and meanders around each bay lined with pine and a patch of wildflowers, blending wonderfully to the azure blue hue of the lake. The Forest Service requires a minimum of 200 feet distance when camping from water. Besides Elk Lake, Rainbow is the first to offer such amenities. Patches of dirt areas have mixed large boulders and trees for coverage from weather.


For the most part, the lakes are relatively even in space between each other. With Lake At Falls being the next example. Like Rimrock, out of the trees and into a sweeping view, Lake At Falls might be the most aptly named lake on the entire trail.


Between Lake At Falls and the next lake, Duggan, the battle of the waterfalls is a good one. The waterfall at Lake At Falls is one that breaks the height barrier and beckons what is up where it is cascading, but the trail doesn’t meander in that direction. Where as Duggan breaks the volume barrier and once again hints at more water to come.


There are a few bodies of water in route to Dewey and finally the top, Fossil Lake. However, once a hiker has reached this point, the camping at Dewey and Fossil far exceed those previous. Dewey offers excellent camping and sweeping views of the very peak the lake is named after. Possibly the most popular spot for camping with large areas of grassy patches and forested for protection from the unwarned lightening strikes. Fossil has nothing but space for the hiker to set up camp with not a tree in sight at an elevation of 9,967 feet and the highest point on trail.


The peninsulas and bays of Fossil Lake offer solitude for anyone who wishes to set up a tent. Each one offers casting space for hungry cutthroat in this surprisingly large lake. Grasses and wildflowers blanket the shores inviting at the least, a picnic for the days hiking efforts. Once atop, the views and grandeur of the Beartooth Mountains take in the attention as the granite points skyward to unfathomable heights.


A gradual and soft hike in route to Cooke City now on the Clarks Fork Trail as you follow a creek meandering down from another off trail lake now blanketed with wildflowers even more spectacular than that of the north side of the range.


With the open grasses and wildflowers of altitude now fade slowly to forested, the next two lakes seem like a blink compared to the literal latter of lakes climbed previous. Dropping down further through more forest and old burned areas the highway and picnic area come faster than anticipated.


The trail is little more than a marathon, dissecting one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Some want to backpack it and take days on end to soak it all in, while others  challenge themselves and hike or run it all in a day. Whichever method, length of time, or direction you decide, the Beaten Path is worth every huff and puff and drop of sweat spent to get there.

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