The Cooke City to East Rosebud trip – AKA “The Beaten Path” – is the ultimate in backpacking in Montana. The 26 miles of trail crosses some of the most scenic and incredible country in North America. It also is home to awesome high altitude trout fishing. This is a hiking guide to allow for a 4-6 day trip with the best places to camp and fish along the incredible scenic route.
First Day: If you have a high clearance vehicle, you can take the 4×4 trail from the highway at Broadwater Lake, cross the Broadwater River and then get out and start the hike where the 4×4 road and the trial parallel each other for a time. However, this really doesn’t save you much walking. If you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, park at the trail head parking area across from the Chief Joseph camp ground, or better yet, have someone drop you off.
You will ascend and go along the edge of Kersey Lake and then come out at the edge of a giant, lush meadow. As you cross the meadow, (private land), make sure you stay on the trail (wooden plank) to keep from damaging the meadow and respect the private landowner’s property rights.
Six miles in you will hit Russell Lake. Great camp sites above the lake, lots of mosquitoes if it is warm, and we even saw a wolverine in 2009. The entire trek is bear country so keep a clean camp, but there are more bears on the south side (Cooke City) than there are on the East Rosebud side. This is a heavily used area and the firewood is hard to come by. If it isn’t chilly, just use your backpackers stove and save the firewood gathering effort for later.
Day two is the big elevation push, but it is not bad. Once you pass Bald Knob Lake, the trees start to run thin and finding a good campsite can be a challenge – especially if the weather is threatening. Twice now I have camped above Windy Lake (clue, huh?) and we have struggled to find firewood and a place that wasn’t a boulder field. This is the last place you can have a fire until you are below Impasse Falls.
If you have the energy, between Bald Knob Lake and Windy Lake, take a few minutes to go to Mermaid Lake or up the hill to Picasso Lake. I have never caught a fish from either, but Picasso has golden trout and the word is Mermaid Lake has gigantic cuts in it.
Day three takes you over the “hump” by Fossil Lake. Make sure you enjoy the scenery on the way – jaw dropping gorgeous. For fun, start counting the waterfalls along the trip. We counted 35 between Fossil and the East Rosebud that met our arbitrary criteria. We stopped below Dewey Lake and camped in the area between Dewey and Twin Outlets, but there are plenty of nice sites all around Dewey. By the way, I think Dewey Lake is the most beautiful place I have ever been – and I have done some traveling in my life. Just remember, no campfires in this area. Dewey is full of big fat cuts, but they are selective and hard to catch.
Day four’s camp site can either be Lake-at-the-Falls or further on down to Rainbow. Lake-at-the-Falls is appropriately named and you will see why. However, camp sites are tough as the country is steep and rocky. To meet the wilderness criteria of camping 200 feet from lakes is a real challenge here. Rainbow is easy though, although if it is a weekend, you may have to camp near another party. Lots of folks like to make a short weekend trip of going to Rainbow from East Rosebud.
Next you have a choice of going out (as we have done) or you can stop at Rimrock Lake for another night. Again, camp sites are limited at Rimrock due to the terrain, but not impossible. And there is plenty of dead wood left from a monstrous avalanche that occurred sometime between 1989 and 1997 (I think it happened in the winter of ’96/’97 based on our observations on the ’97 trip.)
I have been backpacking since I was 8 years old and I do have to say, the Beaten Path is the most incredible trip I have been on – and that is a pile of backpack trips over the 40 plus years I have been wearing boots out.