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Backpacking the Beaten Path

Late last summer, while most of Montana was on fire and views were nonexistent, I had an idea to escape it all without having to leave my home state. I called up my friend, Carrie, who lives in Tucson to see if she’d be interested in hiking the Beaten Path the 26 miles up and over the Beartooth Mountains. By the next day, she booked her flight and the date was set to hike the trail in the first week of September. Knowing full well we could have easily done the hike in two or three days, we decided to take the leisure route and do it in four. I would highly recommend giving yourself at least three or four days to hike the Beaten as it is easily one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever been on.

Carrie and myself at Ouzel Lake, Beartooth Mountains

Day 1 Cooke City to Russell Lake: The night before Carrie flew in from Tucson I headed off to East Rosebud to drop a car at the end of the hike, and then recruited my sister to drive us to the trailhead just outside of Cooke City, Montana. You can go either direction, but we chose to go west to east for a few reasons. The main reason is the East Rosebud side of the hike is without a doubt the most beautiful section, and we decided that saving the best for last would end on a high note.

Kersey Lake, the first lake along the Beaten Path

We got on the trail in the late afternoon as the smoke was heavy and I began to question if we made the right choice. As we hiked towards our first campsite of Russell Lake we started to notice the shift towards clear air. We hustled the six miles to Russell and made it as the sun began to set. We quickly set up camp and built a campfire, which not only warmed my toes but also my soul. For the past few months Montana had been in a strict fire ban and I spent many nights with my friends huddled around lanterns in the backcountry. Dinner was made and I was able to crack into the coveted bag of Mama Carol cookies that she was kind enough to provide.

Arriving at Russell Lake
Morning cup of MoAV coffee at Russell Lake

Day 2- Russell to Twin Outlet Lakes: The next morning was crisp, but a thick smoke had set in overnight to cover up the sunrise. We slowly packed up camp while jamming bluegrass and brewing my favorite MoAv coffee. After a leisure morning, we headed off to camp two, which we decided would be Twin Outlet Lakes 5.2 miles away but our biggest vertical day heading up and over the 10,000-foot elevation mark of the trail.


As we climbed up the trail the sun began to burn off the smoke and Carrie stopped to shed some layers. I pushed on as she’s a much faster and stronger hiker than I am, as I pushed up the hill I came across the small, but mighty Ouzel Lake. The warmth of that quick vertical gain had me sweaty, and I couldn’t help the desire to go for a swim. I stripped down to my skivvies and swam across the lake. A few minutes later I heard a laugh as Carrie had made it to the lake and was laughing at my foolishness to be swimming in pure snowmelt.

Swimming in Ouzel Lake
Trail along Fossil Lake at the highpoint in the Beaten Path

Pushing higher we made it to the high point of the whole beaten path as we stopped to have lunch at Windy Lake. There were some beautiful spots to camp along this lake, but the drawback is the year-round fire ban on this section of the trial due to lack of resources to burn. A few Mama Carol cookies later and we were off to pass by Fossil lake before dropping to Dewey Lake and eventually our campsite at Twin Outlet.


We could feel the temps dropping and a fire was going to be very welcomed for this night so we camped on the far side of Twin Outlet as the Beartooths Map has the fire ban line going directly down the middle of Twin. As we sit around the fire eating dinner it began to pour rain and thunderstorm. Quickly we retreated into the tent to the blissful sounds of a mountain thunderstorm, and within an hour the storm had blown over. Our fire was drenched but still smoking, and a few huffs and puffs and the fire was raging once more. More stories were told around the campfire before turning in for a chilly night of sleep.




Day 3 – Twin Outlet Lakes to Rimrock Lake: Rolling out of the tent in the morning we were treated to the most beautiful sight I could imagine, blue skies! The rain had knocked down the last of the smoke and I was looking at something most Montanans had not seen since early summer. We packed up camp and hit the trail again bound for the most beautiful section of the trail.

Sunrise at Twin Outlets Lake
Picking huckleberries along the Beaten Path

Over the next 6.8 miles, we hiked under perfect blue skies alongside equally as majestic blue mountain lakes. Past Duggan Lake, Big Park Lake, and Lake at Falls before finally arriving at Rainbow Lake. This section of the trail was lined with more huckleberries and wild raspberries than we could possibly eat. We picked and filled our coffee cups to put into breakfast our oatmeal the next morning before pushing on.


Having arrived at Rainbox Lake I had finally reached the point in the hike where I had camped twice before. But the best part of all of this, to this point in the hike we had only seen SIX other people. The Beaten Path got its name because it’s considered to be one of the most well-trafficked trails in the Beartooths, yet six people in three days sure feel like you’re as far away from civilization as one can be.




Approaching Rimrock Lake on the Beaten Path

The extra mile to Rimrock from Rainbow was worth it to find my secret camping spot that I had discovered a few years earlier while backpacking with my brother-in-law. We made it to Rimrock early in the afternoon and opted for a lazy afternoon watching the clouds roll by. Naps were welcomed in the sunlight, cookies were eaten, I pulled out my journal for some writing and the last of the microbrews we brought were cracked open. Afternoon storms rolled through and we embraced some while hiding in the tent from others. The storms cleared just enough that we could see a beautiful sunset was imminent, so we hiked the mile back to Rainbow Lake to take it there. After sunset, we retreated back to our hidden camp spot for our final campfire of the hike. Three days of disconnection from society and I was far from ready to return to the hustle and bustle of regular life.

Day 4 – Rimrock Lake to East Rosebud

The final push of the Beaten Path was a trail I knew well. From Rimrock we descended down to Elk Lake, a hike I’ve done countless times as a day hike, and one of my favorite sections of trail in all of Montana. Waterfalls cascade down from the jagged mountains and fall color began to pop through this section of trail. We made it back to the car by noon, and of course the biggest greasy cheeseburger and a glass of ice cold beer were calling my name.

When in doubt, just GO!

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Andy Austin

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