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BY ROBERT STONE
The Billings, Montana, area is rich with hiking opportunities, from trails along the Yellowstone River, to paths taking you above the city on the weather-sculpted cliffs known as the Rimrocks.
An hour outside of Billings sits the historic ski town Red Lodge, Montana, situated at the base of the Beartooth Mountains.
The 3 billion-year-old Beartooth Mountains are the highest range in the state and contain glaciers, deep canyons, streams, waterfalls, lush forests, abundant wildlife and more than 1,000 lakes. The Beartooth Plateau, shaped by alpine glaciers, is the largest continuous area above 10,000 feet and the largest alpine tundra region in North America.
I have been hiking in, and writing about, the Beartooths and the Billings area for decades. Here are a few of my favorite hikes.
Billings — Pictograph Cave State Park
Distance: 0.3-mile loop
Pictograph Cave State Park is a national historic landmark located 6 miles south of Billings. Nestled at the base of sandstone cliffs in the Bitter Creek Valley, the archaeological treasure is a prehistoric habitation site dating back 10,000 years. Three large caves are tucked into a semicircle of eroding cliffs with overhanging rocks. The caves served as a shelter for the ancient people who left their mark with over 30,000 pottery, tool, jewelry and weapon artifacts. More than 100 pictographs adorn the cave walls. Painted images were used to record spiritual topics and meaningful events, including animal images, human-like figures and shield-bearing warriors. A paved path with interpretive plaques loops around the base of the cliffs to Ghost Cave, Middle Cave and Pictograph Cave. Near the trailhead is a picnic area with box elder, Russian olive and cottonwood groves.
Driving directions: From Interstate 90 on the east side of Billings, exit on Lockwood (Exit 452). Head east, away from downtown Billings, and quickly turn right on Coburn Road. Drive 5 miles to the trailhead parking area on the left.
Billings — Swords Park Black Otter Trail to Yellowstone Kelly’s Grave and Boothill Cemetery
Distance: 6.5 miles round-trip
Sword Park is a long, narrow undeveloped park perched atop the distinctive Rimrocks near the airport. The Black Otter Trail, named for a Crow Indian chief buried atop the cliffs, snakes along the elevated sandstone skyline overlooking the Yellowstone Valley. Yellowstone Kelly’s grave sits on Kelly Mountain within the park. He was a scout, guide, explorer and trapper who was instrumental in the exploration of the Yellowstone River in the 1870s and 1880s. Skeleton Cliff (also in words Park) is a tree-dotted knoll overlooking East Billings and Coulson Park. Across from Skeleton Cliff is a maze of dirt paths winding through the rolling hills. Near the east end of the park is the historic Boot Hill Cemetery, dating back to the 1880s. The trail follows the edge of the rims and leads to Kelly Mountain, Skeleton Cliff and to Boot Hill Cemetery. The entire trail is 6.5 miles, but the magnificent vistas begin from the trailhead.
Driving directions: Swords Park is located along Airport Road (Highway 318) between North 27th Street and Main Street. From
the north end of North 27th Street, drive 0.2 mile to the parking lot
on the right.
Red Lodge — Ingles Creek-Silver Run Loop
Distance: 7 miles round-trip
The Ingles Creek drainage is a lush, forested draw between the West Fork of Rock Creek and the 10,000-foot- high Silver Run Plateau. This hike begins along the edge of the West Fork and follows the cascading creek for the first 1.5 miles. The trail then climbs up the Ingles Creek Canyon, crossing the creek seven times and passes three historic miner’s cabins. The 7-mile loop trail returns via the Silver Run drainage.
Driving directions: From the south end of Red Lodge, turn west on the West Fork Road, which heads to the Red Lodge Mountain Resort. At 2.8 miles, stay straight (left) on West Fork Road as Ski Run Road curves uphill to the right. Continue 1.6 miles to Silver Run Road and turn left. Drive 0.2 mile, crossing the West Fork of Rock Creek, and park in the Silver Run Ski Trails parking area on the left.
Red Lodge — Lake Fork Trail to Lost Lake
Distance: 10 miles round-trip
Located south of Red Lodge in Lake Fork Canyon, the Lake Fork Trail follows the beautiful mountain creek through a lodgepole pine forest to a series of lakes. The trail closely follows the raging whitewater of the Lake Fork of Rock Creek all the way up the canyon. Silver Falls, a long, thin waterfall, can be seen flowing down the mountain on the far left near the beginning of the trail. The trail leads 5 miles, passing small waterfalls and pools to Lost Lake, Black Canyon Lake and Keyser Brown Lake. This trail may be combined with the West Fork Trail for a 19-mile shuttle hike that crosses Sundance Pass between the two canyons.
Driving directions: From Red Lodge, drive 10 miles south on Highway 212 to mile marker 59. Turn right (west) at the signed Lake Fork Road. Drive 2 miles to the trailhead parking lot at the end of the road.
Beartooth Plateau — Beauty Lake and Crane Lake from Island Lake
Distance: 7.5 miles round-trip
Located in the high lakes area of the Beartooth Mountains, this extremely scenic hike follows the shores of both Island Lake and Night Lake. These alpine lakes sit at 9,500 feet, and are surrounded by snowy peaks. Beauty Lake sits in a bowl of forested rock cliffs. Majestic mountains, sloping alpine meadows, pockets of evergreens and several sandy beaches surround the sinuous 90-acre lake. Smaller Crane Lake is fed by Beauty Lake.
Driving directions: From Red Lodge, drive 38 miles south on Highway 212 to the Island Lake turnoff. Turn right and go 0.2 mile to the posted trailhead parking area on the right, by the Island Lake Campground. Turn right and continue 0.2 mile to the lot at the end of the road.
Beartooth Highway — Crazy Creek Falls
Distance: 1 mile round-trip
Crazy Creek, a tributary of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, is formed by a string of lakes that include Fox Lake, Widewater Lake, Big Moose Lake and Ivy Lake. Crazy Creek Falls, located near the confluence with the Clarks Fork, is a short 15-minute hike, but it is hard not to spend a few hours here. The falls are a showstopping, massive cascade, plunging over slabs of granite rock. Along the edge of the thunderous cascade are flat terraced rocks for exploring or sunbathing. Besides the cascades and waterfalls are cold soaking pools and even a bubble-filled “Jacuzzi.” This natural water park is a favorite spot for those who know about it. In the many times I have been there, I have only run into other people once. The hike follows the first section of the Crazy Lakes Trail, a pack route to Ivy Lake and Crazy Mountain.
Driving directions: The trailhead is located on Highway 212, 53 miles south from Red Lodge and 11 miles east from Cooke City. Pull into the parking turnout on the north, directly across from the Crazy Creek Campground. ♦
Tips for Montana hiking
- Remember altitude affects your stamina.
- Weather conditions change throughout the day. What may start out as a warm sunny day, can quickly change into a dangerous thunderstorm. Bring clothing layers, a hat and watch the sky when on the trail.
- Always be prepared. Wear good shoes and carry snacks, water and a basic first aid kit.
- This is bear country. Carry bear spray and hike in groups.
— Robert Stone is the author of “Day Hikes in the Beartooth Mountains,” as well as more than 20 other guide books with multiple editions. He started Day Hike Books in 1991. He summers in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and winters on the California Central Coast.