Updated 09.19.2018: On a boomer road trip to Fishtail, Montana, Alan and I discovered that the hiking opportunities in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness are some of the best we have ever experienced. And that’s especially true of Mystic Lake Trail (approximately 6 miles round trip).
Tucked into a region of Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park, hiking to Mystic Lake includes alpine scenery, a white-water filled river and rewarding vistas that provide plenty of photo opportunities. And you don’t have to hike the entire trail to enjoy the show.
From my perch on the deck of Mystic Rose Cabin near Fishtail (no longer for rent, start your lodging search here), I noticed an unusual amount of cars towing boats and camper traffic turning left onto West Rosebud Road.
It wasn’t long before I put the coffee cup down, took my bare feet off the railing, laced up the hiking shoes and convinced Alan to drive 14 miles down the dirt road to see where everyone was going. It turned out to be another scenic Montana road leading to a campground and our third beautiful hike of this road trip.
Hiking Mystic Lake Trail
The Mystic Lake Trailhead appeared to be a little more developed than the ones we experienced on the hike to Elk Lake or the Stillwater Trail. Perhaps it was the larger campground, two lakes for fishing—Emerald Lake and West Rosebud Lake—or the presence of a hydro-electric dam.
But it didn’t take long, maybe a half a mile or so, before we were walking through the Custer Gallatin National Forest, leaving signs of civilization behind us. I chattered away in an effort to scare off any bears that might be hiding in the undergrowth. But that was a needless worry.
The trail was well-traveled, much more so than our previous two hikes. Family groups, fishermen and a group of friends hiking with their dogs—all were headed for Mystic Lake or beyond. What we didn’t see were the deer, mountain goats, elk, moose, bear or bighorn sheep that call this part of the Stillwater drainage home.
Now that we are more experienced Montana hikers, Alan and I always carry bear spray on the trail.
Once the trail officially entered the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, it began to gain elevation—the trail gains 1200 ft. in all. After climbing out of the forest, we looked up to see a series of switchbacks that traversed a boulder field.
A view of Mystic Lake was just beyond that stony obstacle, so other hikers told us. We didn’t reach that rewarding scene because this is where we stopped—two-thirds of the way there.
One lesson that Alan and I have learned during our boomer adventures is to listen to our bodies, appreciate what we can do and know when to call it a day. So we sat on a rock overlooking the valley, enjoyed the effort it took to get there, chatted with passing hikers and lingered for some photography fun.
To fully appreciate this trail, hikers need to begin early in the day. On our next visit, I’ll skip the morning cup of coffee on the cabin deck so that we arrive at the trailhead sooner. Next time, I’ll be dipping my itchy travel feet in the cold waters of Mystic Lake.
We found a copy of Day Hikes in the Beartooth Mountains on the bookshelf at Mystic Rose Cabin. Written by Robert Stone, the book gives excellent description and advice on hiking Mystic Lake Trail as well as many other trails in the area. We’ll be buying our own copy for the next visit to Fishtail, Montana.
Want to read more about the Mystic Lake Trail?
And here’s a blog post from a couple who made it all the way to Mystic Lake.
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So many hikes, so little time. Make the most of your visit to Big Sky Country by checking out our Montana Hiking articles.