Backpacking the Absaroka-Beartooth

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 13-19, 1997
Backpacking the Absaroka-Beartooth
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Backpacking the Absaroka-Beartooth
Question: Am planning a fall trip to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana. Have not been there. But I am a very experienced backpacker. Any suggestions on trails? Climate? Bears? Thanks.

Dan Magnus
Portland, OR
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: I spoke to Frank up there in the Big Timber ranger district and he had a couple of good route suggestions. First, though, let me get this off my chest: The Absaroka-Beartooth is "occupied grizzly bear territory," which means you're required to either bring a bear-proof food cannister or hang your food at night--10 feet high and 4 feet out. Lest you get delirious with fear, bear in mind (sorry) that our man Frank has never seen one in the area. As for weather, it can snow pretty much any time, and with this season's massive snowfall, you could be waist-deep in the white stuff well into July. Thus, I recommend calling Frank at 406-932-5155 to check on trail conditions before heading out.

Route-wise, the 1-million-acre wilderness doesn't have much in the way of loops--it's mostly just through-trails--but there is a good 30-miler that starts from the Box Canyon Trailhead, about 50 miles south of Big Timber. Take the East Fork Trail (#27) to the Rainbow Creek Trail (#28). This will have you climbing a good 3,500 feet from your car to the Rainbow Lake Plateau at 9,000 feet. From there, take one of the many intersecting trails if you're looking to lengthen your hike (try the Fish Lake, Columbine Lake, or Wounded Man Lake trails) over the Continental Divide and into Custer National Forest, or simply hike out to your car--well, a half-mile up the road from your car--via the Upside Down Trail (#26). And don't forget the fleece--it can be pretty darn cold up there.

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