Beartooth High Lakes Traverse

We attended a wedding in eastern Montana and at the advice of my oldest brother, John, we decided to join him and his son JC on a backpacking trip in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Wyoming and Montana. Over the years John has done over a dozen backpacking trips in the Beartooths and for years he has suggested I join him. It sounded like the perfect kid trip so we packed the baby backpack and 25 diapers and joined John and JC at the trailhead the week before July 4th.

The plan was to hike a 20-mile loop with a couple layover days to fish and climb surrounding peaks following a suggested route marked on the map (but sparsely marked in the backcountry).

It was a physically and challenging trips for a myriad of reasons – but mostly because doing anything with a loose itinerary is practically impossible with our 2 year old. Yvonne and I are not Erin and Hig and Isabelle’s idea of an exhausting day is to stand in the creek behind our house and net fish for a couple of hours interspersed with literally 5 hours per day in the highchair inhaling beans, beets, blueberries, carrots, corn, eggs, edamame, rice, raisins, salami, salmon and demanding ice cream while we question just how much a toddler can ingest before blowout occurs. And so the challenges added up: Pack Weight, Heat, Altitude, Bugs, Napping and Toys all became issues we had to deal with on a daily basis.

Any one of those challenges alone is hard enough. Tack all on top of each other and add in a 5 day cross-country boulder hop and an enjoyable backpacking trip, which would be a fun before-kids overnight, turns into a mini expedition.

In detail…

I. Pack Weight

Packing overnight gear, 25 diapers (5 per day), baby wipes and food and fuel for 3 into 2 packs is a daunting task. Even with the biggest baby backpack on the market (and a wife who can carry obscenely heavy loads without voicing her discomfort) our packs were stuffed to the gills. Worse… as the food depleted and I looked forward to lightened loads, the dirty diaper weight load grew so weight at the end of the trip were pretty much equal to weight at the beginning.

Hig and Erin have published detailed info on their packs and gear – but their weight cutting suggestion of washing dirty cloth diapers and burning liners isn’t feasible in high use areas. Toby Schwoerer gets around this issue by being insanely fast in that he is able to leisurely hike with his son and wife, drop a load and then sprint back and double carry a second load before his son wakes from a nap – but Toby also ran down Mt. Marathon in 12 minutes.

Packs were a non-issue until we got to stuff like this. If you zoom in you’ll note that Isabelle is yelling at her mother to be careful.

My approach was to cut gear. We carried 1 water bottle (which turned out not to be an issue due to snow melt), I cut two days of food (and made up for it by eating fish) and whittled our clothing down as best as we could. We could have further shaved weight by joining our sleeping bags and co-sleeping – but Isabelle has a tendency to sink her heels into my spine so I voted to carry the extra bag. Regardless the packs were still really heavy.

II. Heat

When you live in Alaska where 75 is an unbearably hot day it is easy to forget that there are places where 75 is considered comfortable. And so when the forecast called for excessive heat we knew we were in trouble. Despite sunscreen, sunshades, sunglasses and sun hats, the heat pretty much destroyed the three of us daily.

We attempted to mitigate the heat by trying to leave early, stop often etc. – but in reality there wasn’t much we could do. Heat destroys a toddler and Isabelle would sleep late, take a long nap and be ready for bed early. For Isabelle we packed a lightweight long sleeved capilene and a nice sun hat and she wore a cheap pair of cotton pants and we carried extra sun glasses. In the future I’ll consider Louis Sass’ advice and pack a sunshade of sorts. Integral Designs makes a number of sil-nylon tarps that weigh around a pound. That said – another item added to the pack leads you back to challenge #1.

Hat, sunglasses, long sleeve capilene and light cotton pants.

III. Altitude

When you live at 100′ anything above 5,000′ means you’re sucking wind. We spent 2 nights at 3K, a night at 7K and then hiked to 10K. On our first night, Yvonne, who is happy as a clam at 20,000′ wasn’t affected at all. On the other hand I had trouble eating and Isabelle had little appetite for food and water and slept fitfully. Ideally we would have eased into the altitude by spending another night at 7,000′ but another day in a campground didn’t seem so fun so here are some tricks that I’d suggest:

  • Drinking: We packed a small bag of Tang in the hopes that Isabelle would be more apt to drink. The bottle was kept next to her all day and night. However she wasn’t drinking enough and I starting worrying until we turned drinking into a game: I took a water bottle and taught her to take a swig and spray the water out of her mouth (we call this “watering the dog” because it’s how we water our dog when hiking). This pretty much instantly solved the hydration issue and Isabelle spent the rest of the trip well hydrated and spraying. (This was great idea until we sat down at a restaurant after the trip.)
  • Eating: Getting Isabelle to eat enough at high altitude was equally hard. She wasn’t interested in most of our foods. She did like snacks like energy chews / fruit snacks. While these are nothing but pure sugar, they are easily digestible at high altitude and better than nothing. In the future we’ll experiment with different freeze dried foods before leaving home so we know what she likes and doesn’t like.
  • Sleeping: Sleeping at high altitude is only a problem for the first night or two and many people had warned us to expect a restless the first night above 10K. The first night was terrible, but subsequent nights she slept well.

Watering the dog.

IV. Bugs

When I was packing for the trip I asked my brother how bad the bugs were and he responded “Oh I’ve never had a problem with bugs in the Beartooths.” I asked a couple other people, all who quickly said the bugs were horrendous, but for some reason I trusted my brother’s memory. I should know better.

At one camp bugs were so bad we wouldn’t let Isabelle outside. She protested by making pig faces against the screen. Note the bug shirt over the pack. Yvonne wading yet another mosquito infested creek. The trout here grow huge from all the bugs.

The bugs were horrendous. Isabelle was chewed to pieces and at our one camp below treeline the bugs were so bad we never let her out of the tent. We managed the bites by first applying bug spray (Deet – not the fake stuff) and then rubbing it in with sunscreen. This reduced bites on her legs, arms, hands and neck – but we were loath to apply it near eyes and mouth and subsequently her face was chewed. Later we put the bug shirt over the kid backpack while protected her while hiking – but she was still chewed at camp. I briefly considered a separate screen tent – but the Black Diamond model I have is too heavy. Integral Designs makes a lighter (floorless) version – but it’s still 1.5 lbs. At the very least before our next trip we’ll be purchasing a toddler bug shirt.

V. Napping

Until this trip our 2 year old had never missed a nap. We pushed her too far on the first day, went past her nap window and later paid for this mistake. After the first day we learned to hike fast for a couple hours in the morning, stop for couple hours and set up the tent for a long nap. After she woke and played for a while we’d hike for another hour or two. The stopping didn’t bother me too much because I’d pull our my fishing rod and catch trout for a couple hours, but my wife, who cannot sit still for more than 5 minutes, was restless. A toddler who demands a daily 2-hour nap requires that you plan ahead for the downtime. Pack a book or erect the tent next to a good fishing hole. Furthermore, don’t expect to him very long – between meals, napping and wanting to give our toddler a chance to run around, we hiked at most 4 hours per day.

VI. Toys

Aside from Paisley Bunny (a companion – not a toy) I deliberately chose not to pack toys for Isabelle. My reasoning was that by refusing to provide her with toys she would be forced to stimulate herself via natural surroundings. This was true to an extent; in camp she busied herself chasing marmots, playing with the fish we caught and killing mosquitoes (a favorite past time wherever she is). But when she was in the tent it quickly became apparent that she needed some sort of toy to focus upon – and by focusing on a toy she was able to wind down and sleep. So I had to improvise. She played with ear plugs pretty much every night and one day I carved her a crude fish out of a stick which she carried the rest of the trip and played with every night.

But apart from all the challenges the rewards stacked up – if we stepped back enough to see them. Freed from the focus of car shuttles and schedules, the focus turned to family and we spent the days watching bonds form between Isabelle and her cousin and uncle. She absolutely glowed with all the attention focused on her and, normally reticent, sought contact with her cousin every possible minute.

Isabelle with her new favorite cousin.

Finley family studio portrait. For once Isabelle is actually looking at the camera.

And Isabelle, even at the young age of 2, seemed to recognize the beauty of the places we visited. When hiking Isabelle sat in the pack wide eyed staring down at her mother’s feet as we traversed alpine fields of wildflowers and waded across shin deep rivers. During breaks she scrambled around on rocks while shouting at the fish she could see on the lakes edge. She spent the evenings helping me reel in fish and playing with the fish we planned on eating for dinner. At one camp fat marmots waddled into camp hoping to get into our food bags and Isabelle spent half the day yelling and chasing after them. Several times, when reaching a particularly scenic viewpoint, Isabelle would reach inside her pack where Paisley Bunny was safely tucked away and hold her out so she could take in the view.

Crossing the creek between Jasper and Golden Lakes. Note Isabelle looking intently down.

Yellow-bellied Marmot. These guys are not aptly named, they are bold as can be.

Isabelle learning how to use the fly rod. Playing with her food.
Showing Paisley Bunny the sights.

It was a 5 long days of toddler focus and a reminder to slow down and adapt to another lifestyle – something hard to do when we normally spend the weekends trading off so both parents can get a workout, mow the lawn and grocery shop for the week.

As for the trip… My brother had recommended this as the perfect kid trip – but it’s not really something I would recommend to the inexperienced backpacking parent. We spent 5 days and hiked around 25 miles (not counting all the meandering). 3 of those days were off trail and we found that above treeline the route finding required vigilance with the GPS and map lest you (easily) detour to a lake that looks like the one you’re trying to reach. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, the bugs were horrendous.

Our route first climbed to Albino Lake where we set up our tents near the lakeshore. West of camp was an easy route up the south ridge of Lonesome Mountain (11,399′) and we spent a layover day taking turns hiking up the south ridge for a great view of the high lakes region. We followed this up with a short move over a pass to Jasper Lake where we camped in-between Jasper and Golden lakes and scrambled up the south ridge of Spirit Mountain (12,283′). This in turn was followed by a long day across the high lakes plateau to a buggy camp at Renee Lake followed by a casual walk out a nice trail. The hiking was quite pleasant and the fishing was excellent.

All in all, it was the perfect toddler-backpacking trip for parents who are accustomed to the tribulations of difficult backpacking. Apart from the challenges I quickly found myself forgetting the times where we wanted to turn around and instead found myself scheming about our next trip.

Select photos are below. I left my DSLR at home and carried a Sony A6000 with the kit (16-50) lens on this trip. I missed my large camera and my beautiful 35mm 1.8 but I didn’t miss the bulk and weight.

Albino Lake

Albino Lake was our goal for the first night and we planned a layover night there. It took about 5 hours of hiking to get there and the trail was well maintained and traveled the entire way. The lake itself is spectacular; it sits just above treeline and it surrounded by high granite walls. It’s filled with cutthroat and the fishing is continuous and fun. Goats scamper around on the surrounding peaks and will come down into camp at night. My brother tells tales of how they used to come down into camp and stand around waiting for you to pee – but we didn’t see this and my guess is that human traffic has gotten too thick here and the goats are loath to come down when they see humans. We were awakened by a pretty big thunderstorm the first night – which made us reevaluate campsite placement at our subsequent camps. Thunderstorms can be a problem in the Beartooths; choose your camp wisely.

Day 1 on the way to Albino Lakes. Around 9K. John on the last hill before camp.

Sunset at Albino Lake.

Montana high alpine wildflowers. Next time I’m bringing a crash pad and shoes.

Neighbors stopping by camp to say hello.

Cutthroat for dinner.

West side of Albino Lake. Albino / Jasper Col.

Sunrise at Albino Lake.

Lonesome Mountain

We spent an extra day at Albino Lake and took turns hiking up Lonesome Mountain (11,399′). The route was straight forward – easy boulder hopping and ridge walking – and the elevation gain was only around 1500′ so round trp it took less than 2 hours. The view from the summit looking north towards the high lakes plateau was astounding. The hike is well worth the side trip – you could easily wake up and quickly hike the peak before breakfast and then continue along your way. Summitpost as a short write-up here.

Yvonne hiking to the start of Lonesome. JC nearing the top of Lonesome. John nearing the top of Lonesome.

John & JC on the summit of Lonesome (11,399′).

Looking across at Spirit Mountain (center) and down at Jasper (left) and Albino (right) Lakes.

Spirit Mountain

One day 3 we woke up early and hiked over the pass to Jasper lake and set up camp by mid morning. John, JC and I then scrambled up the South Ridge of Spirit Mountain (12,283′). The hike took about 4 hours round trip and was mostly tendious talus hopping. Once we reached 12,000′ we ascended a long monotonous plateau that climbed only a couple hundred feet over the course of a mile to a very non-descrip summit. The view from the summit looking south and down at the sudden 2500′ drop to the lakes below is amazing. Unfortunately we climbed this late in the day and I was uncomforatable with the cloud coverage so I jogged to the summit, snapped a couple photos and then ran downhill as fast as I could (which at 12,000′ isn’t too fast). The threatending storm never materialized but I’m super paranoid of lightening. Summitpost has a route write-up here.

John around 10.500′. Lonesome Mountain in the background. Traversing snow slopes around 11,000′.
Upper 12,000′ plateau. JC around 12,000′.

Looking south towards Hellroaring Plateau and the Beartooth Highway from the summit of Spirit Mountain.

Jasper Lake

Our camp between Jasper and Golden Lake was incredible. It was a full moon and the moon was so bright it woke me up when it finally crested the mountain in front of our camp. Golden lake, which is hard to navigate around, is a beautiful secluded spot. That said – due to large peaks surrounding us the winds were pretty weak and thus the bugs were relentless. There were better campsites closer to the lakes with more wind – but I was worried about camping close to open water after watching strike Jasper Lake a couple nights previous.

Sunset and looking at our campsite in-between Jasper and Golden Lakes. Behind our tent is Golden Lake and North face of Lonesome.

Isabelle above Jasper Lake. Family portrait.

Looking down at Jasper Lake and our campsite.

High Lakes Region

The traverse from Jasper Lakes to the High Lake trail is really something that you should take 2 or 3 days to do. We pushed through the entire region in a few hours and I felt cheated. You are above 10,000′ the entire time, the bugs weren’t bad, the fishing spectacular and you could easily spend a week running around and exploring the small lakes, peaks and valleys. That said – efficient travel in this region requires constantly running a GPS. I carried my iPhone and had the route programmed into Gaia but neglected to monitor our location and we got off track pretty much right away. Getting back on route required thigh deep wading and extensive boulder hopping. If you want to move quickly in this region, map out the route closely using Google earth and keep your eye on the map – else you’ll easily add mileage and elevation. That said, not monitoring the map and going up the wrong valley will at worst add a couple hours. Not something you really need to worry about (unless you’re on a toddler nap schedule).

Leaving Jasper Lake. Hiking north towards the high lakes plateau.

American Pipet Nest.

Yvonne on the high alpine (above 10,000′) plateau. It is really easy to get turned around in this area.

This little alpine valley is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever visited.

Final camp by Renee Lake. The bugs were so terrible we built a fire… … But the brook trout was tasty!

Beartooth High Lakes Trail

Our final day was on a wide and beaten trail. For the first couple of hours the trail went up and down and up and down – but it was nice to turn off the brain and just hike. We had to stop for Isabelle’s nap near the north end of Beartooth Butte, but it worked out because we were above treeline with a slight breeze so the bugs weren’t too bad. The final hike down Beartooth Butte back to the car was a stroll.

My beautiful wife and daughter.

The High lakes trail. Well maintained and traveled.

And that’s it; a wonderful trip in a spectacular wilderness area. Thanks to my brother John for the suggestion and trip planning. And thanks to my nephew JC for his attention to Isabelle (even though he repeatedly told me that watching her was good birth control).

We ended the trip in Red Lodge eating pizza and watching a great American 4th of July Parade. The perfect trip. Apparently I’ve already forgotten about the packs, the bugs, and the challenges of backpacking with a baby.