Crowds, steep terrain don't spoil Sylvan Lake

Brett French / Billings Gazette /

There’s a price to be paid for seeking beauty.

In my case it wasn’t the cost of a tummy tuck of my coldpack abs. Instead, it was a steady uphill backpacking trip to Sylvan Lake in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains.

I’ve long given up on improving my physical form. Instead, I pursue beauty in the great outdoors. So when a wilderness ranger said that Sylvan Lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness was her favorite place in the Beartooth Mountains, I figured I had better check it out.

High lake

Sylvan Lake sets in a rocky bowl at an elevation of 9,165 feet, just to the north of the 11,000-foot East Rosebud Plateau. Stunted, weather-twisted pine trees cling to the west side of the lake. On the east, boulders shed from a massive battleship-gray buttress are scattered in stony defiance of hikers considering a rock-hopping hike for a view down the valley, or looking for a shortcut to nearby Crow Lake.

Campsites are scattered throughout the trees on both sides of the lake, testimony to the many people that visit. The weekend I was there five groups were camping on the small, 18-acre lake, including one father and son that didn’t mind setting up their tent only 10 yards from our campsite. Why people will hike miles to set up camp next to someone else I will never understand, but this is the second time it has happened to me. I was not pleased.

One reason so many people visit is that the lake contains golden trout, flashier cousins to the rainbow. These high-mountain fish that are native to California are the brood stock for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ golden trout stocking program.

Going up, up

The trail to Sylvan begins at the East Rosebud campground and steadily zigzags for about 4 miles up the Spread Creek drainage. There’s no shade on the slope because of the 1996 Shepherd Mountain fire that burned across much of the drainage. Without trees, though, the view of the valley and the trail up Phantom Creek across the valley are breathtaking, quite literally because of the elevation gain. I swear my heart was at maximum pumpage the entire way up.

It’s not until almost reaching the top of the drainage that mature trees dodged the fire. Not long after reaching the comfort of the shade, the trail detours about another mile around the mountain and into the Hellroaring Creek drainage, atop which sits Sylvan Lake.

As the trail climbs to the lake it gains more than 3,000 feet. Just out of curiosity, and since my calves were screaming in pain for three days afterward, I figured out that climbing 3,000 feet is roughly equal to climbing about 5,100 stairs, provided that the average stair is 7 inches high.

Nearby attractions

Sylvan Lake is only about 2 miles from Crow Lake, to the east. The trail to Crow also continues on to the West Fork Rock Creek drainage or down Red Lodge Creek, for those looking to extend their hikes.

Crow Lake sits in a much larger basin than Sylvan, towered over by 11,052-foot Grass Mountain to the southeast.

Crow offers a great way to extend a trip up to Sylvan and probably sees less traffic because of the additional distance. Since I was only backpacking for two days, I didn’t feel energetic enough to run over to Crow Lake.

By the time we stumbled back to the trailhead I was glad we hadn’t ventured over to Crow Lake. I was beat.

The trip had fulfilled my quest for scenic beauty, but all of that walking had emptied my stomach. To fill that physical craving we stopped at the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, Mont. — which conveniently sits along the road home — where a cold beverage and a juicy burger with fries satisfied that final yearning.

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