Want to escape the summer crowds at Yellowstone National Park? North of Yellowstone and over the Beartooth Mountains into Montana are high-country hiking trails with more wildlife than people and mountain lakes where trout swim in the sky-blue waters that are scattered throughout the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

With over 700 miles of hiking trails, how do you choose the best ones when time is limited to a week or two? I recommend trails that include a scenic ride to reach the trailhead, ample parking, restroom facilities, a lake for cooling tired feet at the turnaround point and a restaurant conveniently located on the way back to the rental. After all, who wants to cook after a long day of hiking? Mystic Lake, Stillwater and East Rosebud Trails more than meet my criteria.

Why stay in the middle of nowhere?

Although the western-themed town of Red Lodge, Montana, offers more choices, renting a vacation home near Fishtail is closer to the hiking action. Plus browsing the shelves at Fishtail General Store, which has equipped visitors since 1900, is an adventure in itself. Fine wine, fresh baked cinnamon rolls and camping and fishing supplies compete for your attention in this eclectic shopping experience.

Vacation rentals range from luxurious to basic. Of course finding a spot in a campground near one of the trailheads is an option, but that will only put you at one hike’s doorstep and a fair distance away from the others. Since most trailheads are located 13 or 14 miles down a long and bumpy dirt road, finding a rental in the vicinity of West Rosebud Road, about 5 miles west of Fishtail, provides a centrally located hiking headquarters.

Mystic Lake Trail

If you’ve followed my advice on where to stay, Mystic Lake Trailhead is a 14-mile drive down West Rosebud Road from the intersection of Fiddler Creek Rd. and West Rosebud. The well-traveled dirt road offers views of fields, forests and mountains making the ride a scenic one.

It’s tempting to spend time at Emerald and West Rosebud Lakes, maybe even fish for a while, once you’ve parked at the trailhead. Instead, walk on by the hydroelectric dam to begin the 6-mile-round-trip hike to Mystic Lake. The journey travels into the Custer National Forest and eventually the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The trail climbs 1200 ft., crossing through a boulder field before Mystic Lake comes into view. This is a popular hike so expect to be accompanied by other hikers, many who’ll be caring poles for fishing in the lake.

When the hike is done, stop by your vacation rental to clean up then head into Fishtail for a meal at Cowboy Bar and Supper Club. Mingle with local ranchers and summer home seekers over a beer and a hearty Cowboy Burger.

Stillwater Trail

The journey to Stillwater Trailhead is interesting for a completely different reason. From West Rosebud Road, continue on Fiddler Creek Road until it ends. Turn left onto Nye Rd (#419) where mine tailings appear after passing the two buildings that comprise the town of Nye. It seems incongruous for The Stillwater Mining Company to be located in the middle of this wild, scenic countryside. But the mine is the only large-scale producer of platinum and palladium in the Western Hemisphere, necessary elements for the production of catalytic converters.

Soon the plant is behind you and the beauty of the Custer National Forest eases the memories of conveyor belts and mine tailings. You’re now traveling beside the swift flowing Stillwater River. And that’s the beauty of this hike, a portion of the trail travels through a gorge carved by the whitewater of the Stillwater River on the 6-mile-round-trip trail to Sioux Charley Lake. Don’t forget the bear spray and fishing poles.

Stop at Montana Jack’s in Dean, seven miles south of Nye, on the way back to West Rosebud Road. You’ll find gluten-free items, vegetarian choices and of course a thick, juicy steak. After all, this is cattle country. 

East Rosebud Trail 

And now for my favorite: from West Rosebud Road take Ingersoll Creek Road through undulating farmland where rolls of hay bales are tossed around like pieces to a giant game board. When the road ends at Roscoe, East Rosebud Road travels 14 miles, much of it washboard, to the trailhead at East Rosebud Lake in Alpine. You’ll see fire damage from a 1996 fire that burned much of the forest and all of the cabins at the lake. A look around and it soon becomes obvious why determined owners rebuilt their cabins. It’s as if you’re in Glacier National Park.

Elk Lake is a 7-mile-round-trip hike on East Rosebud Trail. Waterfalls, white water and views of Montana’s tallest mountain, Granite Peak, are the accompaniment, along with other hikers as this is another popular trail.

Talk over the events of the day with dinner at the funky Grizzly Bar and Restaurant in Roscoe. Order the prime rib. It’s that good.

Hiking to alpine lakes isn’t the only adventure available in Fishtail. Round out the trip with rock climbing, horseback riding, river rafting or a day of guided fly-fishing. And the best part—it’s an un-crowded experience on this side of the Beartooth Mountains.

If you go:

The closest airport is 64 miles northeast of Fishtail at Billings Logan International Airport in Billings, Montana.