Mixing pleasure with work: day hikes near Billings

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Mixing pleasure with work: day hikes near Billings
Question: I have a day free on a business trip to Billings, Montana. Can you recommend some good day hikes in the Beartooth area or other location fairly close to Billings?

Bill Jayne
Fairfax, Virginia

Adventure Adviser: Not a bad destination for a business trip. From Billings, I’d head southwest on the Beartooth Highway (Route 212) to access the vast and beautiful Custer National Forest and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness regions. This pristine area is brimming with alpine lakes (1,000 to be exact), trout-filled streams, and the gentle Aspen-covered foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. More importantly, there’s also more than 700 miles of hiking trails. Before leaving Billings, pick up maps of both the Beartooth District and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Also, check in with the rangers at Custer National Forest for more info (406-248-9885).

Red Lodge is the wilderness area’s portal, and it’s an hour drive from Billings. You can be at a trailhead within another half-hour. Plan to spend a little time in Red Lodge, which warrants a special stop. Located at the base of Montana’s loftiest mountains (12,799-foot Granite Peak is nearby), this charming old mining town still shines from its booming days.

As for hikes, one of the most scenic options is the Glacier Lake Trail. Approximately 12 miles past Red Lodge, turn off of Highway 212 into the first campground area with access to Parkside, Limber Pine, and Greenough Campgrounds. Just past Limber Pine is Rock Creek Road, which leads to Glacier Lake. Follow this rough road 7 miles to the trailhead. Glacier Lake is a steep 2-mile climb, and I suggest heading out in the morning and picnicking at the lake.

The Basin Creek Lakes Trail is another good option (a National Recreation Trail, it’s also known as Trail #61). You’ll find the trailhead 6 miles from Red Lodge, on the left side of the road just past Wild Bill Lake. It’s about 2.5 miles up to lower Basin Creek Lake and another 1.5 miles to the upper lake, which lies in a stunning glacial cirque. An excellent day hike all around. A third option is the popular Lake Fork Trail. You can access the trailhead by turning right onto Road #346 (Lake Fork Road) from the Beartooth Highway. Five miles upstream from the trailhead, you’ll reach Lost Lake, and after another 1.5 miles, Keyser Brown Lake. Many of the trails in this region are out-and-back routes, so you can hike exactly as long and as far as you want.

Before heading back to Billings, consider driving further on the Beartooth Highway to take in the views from the dramatic switchbacks of this famed road. Just past the Wyoming state line is the glistening Twin Lakes and another nice hike if you’ve got the energy.

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