One Family’s Experience Hiking Glacier Lake in the Beartooth Mountains

One in a Series on Traveling with our Family to the National Parks

Arriving at Glacier Lake Trail

After leaving Big Horn, WY, we drove the short two hours across the state line into Red Lodge, Montana which sits on the edge of the rugged Beartooth Wilderness Area. The Beartooth Mountains are located in south central Montana and northwest Wyoming, U.S. and are part of the 944,000 acres Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, within Custer, Gallatin and Shoshone National Forests. The Beartooth Mountains are home to the highest peaks in Montana as well as several dozen glacier lakes accessed on foot by hundreds of miles of backwoods trails. While most of our day hikes in Georgia range from 3 – 6 mile excursions, most of the lakes and significant sights in the Beartooth are situated at the 6 – 12 mile range. In this post, I’m going to tell you about our hike up to Glacier Lake by way of the Gracier Lake Trail head.

In researching this area for good day hikes, we used the All Trails app on our smart phones. 95% of the time, there is no cell service in the area so having a GPS system available to you is a good idea. You can also use an old fashioned forest service map. We used the All Trails map feature, Navigate, which enables you to navigate trails with basic detail offline. Getting to the trailhead took about an hour traversing dusty, deeply wash-boarded rocky roads. Our border collie endured the bumpy ride in the back of the suburban knowing freedom was waiting at the end of the ride. During our visit, fires were burning nearby so a smoky haze had settled over all the mountain vistas. This was our time here, so we pushed on through smoke and haze.

Hiking to Glacier Lake

Glacier Lake trail is a steep, rocky ascent of 1492 feet to a magnificent, blue-green crater lake. The trail was rife with upper elevation flora and formations. We saw tree skeletons from recent fires, incredible rock outcroppings, common sage brush stands, subalpine fir, Rubber Rabbitbrush, and Artic Gentian. Water was plentiful along the hike and our dog, Bella took advantage of several water breaks.

Approaching the Summit

At about the 2.1 mile point, there were two smaller kettle lakes for Bella to explore. Finally, we crested the top of the ridge at 9900 feet; the lake lay just beyond. The wild flowers near the top at the plateau were absolutely breathtaking and the afternoon winds were whipping up as we arrived. The lake, deep and sparkling, lived up to its name with thick glaciers clutching its black rocky ledges. A small island in the middle of the lake beckoned, but anyone with half a brain could tell that water was too cold for a leisurely swim. Gabe and Hunter took a self-inflicted single painful dive into the frigid waters and came out to a brisk 12 mph breeze. We warmed them up with a towel and a hug and then took bunches of photos at the water’s edge. The sun up here was intense and relentless, but my husband seemed to enjoy its warmth with a quick nap.

Wrapping up the Hike

The trip down was quick and enjoyable. We saw quite a few friendly hikers along the trail who stopped to chat and pet our dog. My legs were thoroughly worn out at the finish and I hobbled off the trail back to the truck. Everyone snacked and talked of the day’s adventure. With a hike this intense, we definitely earned a hearty meal and a beer at Red Lodge Brewing where we saw some fellow trail travelers doing the same.

This was one of my favorite hikes in the Beartooth area. It was absolutely one of the most challenging with the elevation gain and the direct sun. But the reward far outweighed the work and made for the most memorable of experiences.


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