Beartooth High Route
While hiking on the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, Andy and I caught wind of the Beartooth Range in Southern Montana. Admittedly, I had heard very little of the range, and knew next to nothing about it. However, after a bit of research, we found ourselves hitching out to Cooke City from Lamar Valley.
Below are the highlights of the route:
- Main Beartooth High Route Loop – roughly 66 Miles
- Approximately 48 Miles Off Trail
- 8 named Peaks (two optional side trips from loop)
- Highest Summit in Montana (Granite Peak, Optional 1.5 mile side trip)
- 33 Named Lakes
The Beartooth Mountains sit above the North East section of the popular Yellowstone National Park. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and spans 944,000 acres of Montana and Wyoming. Being in a designated wilderness area, the Beartooth Mountains are protected from development, leaving them untamed, remote, and scenic. Since the area is designated wilderness, there are also very few developed trails, when compared to national parks.
The range is pretty well confined between Cooke City and Red Lodge. There are several trailheads that allow a hiker access in and out of the range. There’s also a popular North/South trail called ‘the beaten path’. It’s a wonderful 24 mile hike from East Rosebud Lake (West of Red Lodge) south to Cooke City. This trail cuts the Beartooth High Route in half, and also provides alternative options depending on the amount of time a hiker has to spend in the range. If so inclined, a hiker could hike one half of the Beartooth High Route loop, and return to their car via The Beaten Path, skipping the second half of the High Route. I believe this is a huge positive, and gives people options to do half on trail, half off trail if time or weather get in the way of completing a full loop.
Route Planning and Development
Neither Andy nor I are from Montana. We hadn’t spent extensive time in the Beartooth Mountains, and we by no means claim to be experts on the mountain range. There may be other wild, and scenic areas that this route misses. That said, having hiked this route, I can tell you it is absolutely stunning. The high country in the Beartooth Wilderness is unlike any I’ve seen. It is a series of high plateaus and glaciated valleys. There are jagged peaks and amazingly large headwalls. Yet there is also an easily accessible off trail high country that is begging to be explored and enjoyed.
I have seen many routes become logistically challenging. The Beartooth High Route is not, nor should it ever become logistically challenging. It is a loop hike, and can easily be shortened by using the beaten path if need be. This allows maximum freedom based on time and weather. While planning the route, Andy and I wanted a challenge, often times taking more technical drainages, ascending Granite Peak, and summiting sub summits to mix things up. The high route has plenty to offer in this regard if you desire. It also has easier paths, as described below, which can keep the route to below a class 3 rating.
You must have a detailed map of the area for an excursion such as this. Do not rely solely on GPS or GAIA. Have a paper map, even if just for backup. Andy and I used paper maps exclusively in our trips to the Beartooth Mountains, marking our routes in pen. The best map I have found of the range, and the one we used, can be found here: http://www.beartoothpublishing.com/product/beartooth-mountains/
The Outline of the Beartooth High Route can be found with the following link: http://caltopo.com/m/0LLB
- Red – Beartooth High Route Loop
- Blue – Connector Trails from TH
- Green – Side excursions to Summits (optional)
- Orange – The Beaten Path
Here is the Map Set in PDF Format to download and print: beartooth-high-route-map-set
I am still in the process of developing a narrative to go with the map set. That will come in the next month as I have time.
There are two trailheads that are directly on the loop. The first is the East Rosebud Trailhead, on the northern part of the loop. This is a good option that will put you right on the trail. It is also the trailhead for the beaten path. These two features make this the most logical trailhead to use if you intend to do the full loop without adding miles.
The second trailhead is the camp Senia trailhead near Silver Run Plateau. This trailhead is on the East side of the loop, not far from East Rosebud, and just a short distance from Red Lodge.
There are also two trailheads in the south that can be used, however both require long approaches to the main loop. Despite adding miles, my suggestion is to use one of these approaches to the loop. In my opinion, the most scenic part of the Beartooth range is the southern section of the loop. By starting at Island Lake Trailhead in the Southeast, you’ll be able to explore much more of that southern section, adding many lakes and peaks to your time in the Beartooths. If you have the time, consider adding on this very scenic stretch!
I hope you go and enjoy the Beartooth Mountains. It’s an empty range outside of the beaten path. You can find days of high alpine solitude on this route. I encourage you to make it your own. Get off the trails, get into the high country, and experience the solitude and scenery that only the tallest mountains in Montana can offer!
Photos to get you totally pumped for the Beartooth Mountains: