Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Beyond the Caldera – Back to the Beartooths

In 2011, I spent barely 30 minutes crawling around a patch of outcrops on the road to Lulu Pass.
In 2012, I took eight hours to drive the 64 miles across it, stopping to take a picture approximately every 30 feet.
In 2013, I slept overnight in a dimly lit motel room on it, on top of the world.
In 2014, I drove across it again while following a geologic road log, then slept in my car in a rain–drenched rocky canyon.
Earlier this month I reconnoitered two of its high–country trails and told myself that I would be back before summer has faded to autumn.

Island Lake, Beartooth Plateau
Each summer I manage to spend incrementally more time overwhelmed by the high–country grandeur of the Beartooth Plateau. One of these days, I may go up there and just never leave.

Beartooth Plateau
Other plateaus in the Beartooth Mountains have tantalizing names like “Hellroaring” and “Froze to Death.” I expect that, somewhere in all this exquisite desolation, there may be an unmapped “Frozen in Hell” plateau, or perhaps “Hell Froze Over,” or even “No One Will Ever Find Me Here” plateau, but this is mere speculation on my part. We are in some seriously high, wide, and lonesome country where breathing 15% less oxygen than at sea level is an adventure in survival. The Beartooth Highway (US 212, “The most beautiful road in America” according to the late Charles Kuralt) is the only road (paved or otherwise) across the mountains. It winds and climbs its way along the southeastern edge of the mountains, from Cooke City to Red Lodge (both in Montana), reaching an ear–popping elevation of nearly 11,000 feet above sea level.

It takes about three hours to get from Grant Village in Yellowstone to the Island Lake campground (elevation 9815’) on the Beartooth Highway. I stop for a quick breakfast at the Roosevelt Lodge, but do not linger to watch for wildlife in Lamar Valley. I am on a mission. I have miles to drive, rocks to contemplate, and trails to reconnoiter.

My first choice of campsite is destined not to be my last. After arranging my nest for the afternoon, I watch in dismay as six people loudly announce their arrival in a monster diesel pickup truck, disgorging themselves with much enthusiasm into the adjacent campsite. Once my camping cone of silence is shattered, it does not take me long to relocate my seething self to another, less raucous side of the campground. 

A better choice of campsite
Cold, leaden skies and drizzling rain make me wish for a cute, cozy trailer. I am getting too old to be sleeping in the back of my car anymore! The site is sweet, though, next to an outcrop of 2.7–billion–year–old granitic gneiss, worn smooth by the passage of glaciers and time. There is no one else around except the birds to intrude the quiet.

When the rain stops (or at least lets up), I take myself on an easy afternoon walkabout. I consider that Island Lake is most likely a paternoster lake, like a bead on a glacially carved rosary, where small, connected lakes spill gently down from the higher elevations of the Beartooth Plateau. Knobby tufts of saturated grass edging the lake make me wonder if there is permafrost here, and how deep it might be. 

Paternoster lakes - and permafrost?


Clouds breaking up over the Beartooth Plateau
Early evening gathers slowly, and the skies clear just in time for dinner. I light a small fire to warm my toes and fix a cup of tea to warm my nose. As the sun dips down behind the tall trees, I watch a pair of juncos bustle about on low branches until it becomes too dark to see them. I stir the fading embers in the fire pit one last time, and then crawl into my nest for the night. 

Feet by the fire
When I drove across the Beartooth Highway in 2012, I stopped every 30 feet to take pictures. What makes me think 2015 would be any different? Within two minutes of leaving the campground the next morning, I lurch to a stop in the first pullout, gravel flying, camera in hand. Some people sure are suckers for scenery.

View along the Beartooth Highway
America's most beautiful road - the Beartooth Highway
The Beartooth Highway
Upper Rock Creek Canyon and Hellroaring Plateau

Wildflowers in bloom along the Beartooth Highway

After stopping every 30 feet again to snap photos (old habits die hard), I finally reach the trailhead for the ten–mile long Beartooth Loop National Recreation Trail at Gardner Lake, my first reconnoiter. 

I pile on multiple fleece layers against the chilly high elevation wind, pack a snack, camera, binocs, and bear spray (just in case some four–legged grizzled critter wanders out of the vegetation) and toodle on down the steep trail towards the far end of the lake. I do not intend to go very far on this exploratory venture – hiking alone in grizzly bear country creeps me out. To that end, I do not even make it to the far end of the lake – within 20 minutes I have plopped myself down on a boulder to merely sit and stare in silent wonder, not a little overwhelmed by the time and space of this ancient landscape. 

Gardner Lake
Gardner Lake is a tarn or glacial lake that occupies an ice–gouged basin or cirque within the high, steep mountains. The trailhead is around 10,500’ elevation – every step taken down the steep, rocky trail requires major effort on the return ascent. I pace myself, knowing that I will return within a few weeks to hike the full enchilada. All I need now is to convince my Yellowstone hiking friend that there are enough oxygen molecules up here for the both of us. 

Unnamed trail leads to Line Creek Plateau
My next reconnoiter is only a few miles away, at a spot where we had stopped briefly last summer. Here, just north of the Montana state line, is an unnamed trailhead leading east onto the Line Creek Plateau. Eroding from the hillsides are weathered exposures of Precambrian granitic gneiss. I amble down to the first unnamed lake (unnamed, at least, on my 1:100,000 scale map), past watermelon snow, trilling sparrows, and small, swift creeks deep with mid–summer snowmelt. 

Weathered exposures
Watermelon snow
Watermelon snow is pink from bacteria
Sparrow checks it out

Dark clouds arch their way across the sky once again, and I know I must head back to Yellowstone. I always regret having to leave the Beartooth Mountains. I could stay forever. These trails give me two good reasons to return.




  1. Nina, thanks again for another beautiful and fascinating travel adventure and for sharing flora, fauna and ancient land and rock formations. Watermelon snow, I was about to ask but you answered my question while my curiosity was peaking.
    You and your journeys are priceless. Glad you are my friend, my friend.

    1. You are very welcome, miz Judy. So glad you are along for the ride!

  2. Replies
    1. Glad you did, Hollis! I surely enjoyed taking them!

  3. Replies
    1. Ha Ha! Yeah...I did, almost 2 years ago. I should drive it to Minnesota one of these days!