We cancelled climbing Cloud Peak in Wyoming due to too much snow in the mountains. Instead, we hiked into the Beartooth Mountains from East Rosebud Lake trailhead. This hike reaches elevations in the 9000’s, and having called ahead, I learned that snow would begin at 8000 to 8500 feet. I have zero regrets about changing plans to hike in the Beartooth Wilderness. Natural beauty and wildlife are plentiful here.
What I was most taken aback by on this first mountain hike was the awesome force of the water racing across the landscape. East Rosebud Creek ran along our entire hike. I have never in my life seen so much water running with such ferocity. The melting snow is sure to be the cause of this phenomenon. Typically, when I think of a creek, I think of a gentle flow of water embedded in the landscape. Not so in the Beartooths in early summer; here the water does not flow within the landscape, rather it flies across it like a horse galloping at full speed. It seems to run atop the ground rather than within it.
Even in my tent, far back in the trees, I can hear the ferocious roar of the East Rosebud. The abundance of water does not stop there. All along our hike, small tributaries of equally fast water flowed across our path. We spent the day hopping over (and sometimes through) up to 2 feet of water.
It seems that the land currently has more water than it knows what to do with. Water is flowing from all directions into the great creek or into the mountain lakes. I felt relief for all this fresh water, having come from the badlands where we had to carry all of our water in. The few water sources in the badlands had been dried up from the hot sun or were too full of sediment for filtration.
At the start of our hike through the Beartooths, I was both awestruck by the gorgeous snowy peaks and sweaty from the hot sun. I was eager to reach a lake and jump in it, giving myself a much needed bath. The first lake we reached was a small one called Elk Lake. I immediately tore off my shoes and socks and ran into the water with filter in hand. Alas, the mountain lake was as icy feeling as Lake Superior in the spring. No way would I swim here. My bath would have to wait.
After Elk Lake, the hike became much more of a challenge. The slope became more continuously uphill, and more and more difficult creek crossings arose. Snow patches became more frequent. At a certain point, I looked around speechlessly at our being completely surround by tall peaks. The only gaps between peaks seemed to be blocked by avalanches or East Rosebud Creek. However would we continue through this landscape?
The trail did not lead us astray, as the many switchbacks led us up and eventually over the creek by footbridge, where it flowed from a small lake. This was a fascinating sight indeed: right below the footbridge, the water swirled from the lake to the creek at a frightening magnitude.
We were quite exhausted at this point—not used to such continuous incline. We climbed over piles of snow. In one place, there was so much snow that we lost sight of the trail and had to get out the map. Despite all the troubles of the day, I was contented by the reward of constant beautiful views.
Finally, we reached Rainbow Lake—our home for the night. The lake was surrounded by snow topped peaks and impressive granite rock walls. We had to first walk across the long side of the lake before we reached lower ground. Here, many camps were established. We chose a place for our tent back in a wooded area, and then moved to an open area near the lake where we enjoyed dinner and a smoke. Though we had the large camp to ourselves, we passed out before nightfall, exhausted from the day’s hike.
In the morning, we explored the area around camp. Beyond our cooking area, many small creeks ran toward the lake, over land that was obviously not usually covered in water. In some places, we saw fire pits flowing with water.
After exploring the area, we decided to hike back to Elk Lake to camp for our second night. This would make our last hike out nice and easy. It was cold on Elk Lake that night, and it stormed on us all night as we slept in our tent.
The only disappointment of this hike was the amount of trash we found, particularly around camp. We collected most of it. We also found an unopened can of snus which I pocketed. I’m not a fan of the stuff, but maybe I’ll meet someone who is. I would like to choose more desolate hikes in the future, but this was a great first mountain backpacking trip for us. As much as I would like to believe I’m a great navigator in the wilderness, it is something that we can easily lose touch with by spending too much time around pavement and buildings. I’m taking it slow before I delve into more isolated hikes.
After being in Bozeman for two days, I missed the sound of constant flowing water in the Beartooths. It was invigorating being around so much clean, fresh water. Out of curiosity, I looked up where the East Rosebud Creek flows. I learned that it flows to the Stillwater River, which is a tributary of the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone River last had an oil spill in 2015. That’s pretty depressing. The clean mountain water didn’t make it too far before we managed to muck it up. Relying on freshwater sources in the wilderness helps me to not take fresh water for granted: I cherish it. After all, water is life.