Mystic Lake Trail: another Montana hiking adventure

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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).

Where is Mystic Lake, Montana?

A lake nestled in a valley near mountains on the way to Mystic Lake, MT.
Emerald Lake near the trailhead to Mystic Lake

Tucked into Montana’s Yellowstone Country, 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.

Directions to Mystic Lake: Driving I-90 east of Bozeman or west of Billings, exit at Columbus, MT. Turn south on MT-78 N and follow this route to Nye Rd. (MT-419). After driving through Fishtail, turn left onto West Rosebud Road and the 17-mile drive to Mystic Lake.

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 past Emerald Lake campground to our third beautiful hike of this road trip.

Hiking Mystic Lake Trail

Hikers on a rocky trail near a river on the way to Mystic Lake.
You won’t be alone on the trail to Mystic Lake

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. Need to gear up? Check out our favorites at the My Itchy Travel Feet hiking gear shop.

Boomer hiker crosses a bridge while hiking the Mystic Lake Trail
Alan hikes across the bridge on the Mystic Lake 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.

So many hikes, so little time. Make the most of your visit to Big Sky Country by checking out our favorite Montana Hiking.

What did we miss at Mystic Lake?

Mountains and green evergreen trees accented by a blue sky.
A little more than half-way and our stopping point

If Alan and I had continued up the rocky switchbacks, we would have arrived at the deepest and longest lake in the Beartooth Mountains. Once at the shore, bring out your fishing pole to fish for rainbow trout. Hiking the 3-mile trail that encircles Mystic Lake is another option.

To fully appreciate a Mystic Lake hike, you need to begin early in the day because the boulder field heats up on a sunny day. I recommend hiking poles. Years ago, a young boy scout lost his footing on this part of the trail and fell to his death. You’ll also find snow banks early in the season so plan your hike for June or even later in the summer.

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’ purchased a copy as soon as we got home in anticipation of the next visit to Fishtail, Montana.

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.

Things to do near Mystic Lake, MT

You won’t be bored in Yellowstone Country. Here are a few of our favorite things to do:

Need information on Montana travel? Start with our Montana Travel Planner.

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Montana hiking tips for Mystic Lake Trail near Fishtail, MT.


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