Although last week’s spring storms brought a foot of fresh snow to the Red Lodge area, winter is gradually losing ground in the battle over Lake Fork Trail in Custer National Forest. One of the most popular hikes in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the trail follows the Lake Fork of Rock Creek as it carves a narrow passage between Hellroaring Plateau and Silver Run Plateau up to Sundance Pass (elevation 11,037 feet). Day hikers, backpackers, anglers, and horseback riders frequent the trail during warmer months while cross-country skiers and snowshoers enjoy the trail during winter. Lake Fork Trail 1 provides access to several beautiful mountain lakes including Lost Lake, Keyser Brown Lake, and September Morn Lake. Sundance Pass usually isn’t snow-free until mid-July, but the lower stretches of the trail provide recreational opportunities year-round.
The Lake Fork Trailhead (elevation 7,185 feet) lays at the end of Lake Fork Road off of Hwy 212 about 9 miles southwest of Red Lodge. After crossing the Lake Fork of Rock Creek on a sturdy wooden bridge, turn right and begin the hike upstream along the southern shore of the creek. The trail closely follows the creek as it climbs toward the pass. Silver Falls plunges from Hellroaring Plateau on the left about 1.5 miles up the trail. After hiking 3.5 miles, a meadow full of rocks perfect for sitting provides an excellent resting spot overlooking Broadwater Lake, which is actually a wide, slow moving section of the creek. Continuing upstream, a trail diverges to the left bringing hikers on a short side-trip to Lost Lake (8,520 feet) about 5 miles up the trail. A short distance further, an unofficial trail cuts to the left en-route to Black Canyon Lake, a destination I have yet to reach, but it is high on my list. After crossing a second bridge, the trail becomes noticeably steeper, passing the cut-off to Keyser Brown Lake (8,720 feet) 6.5 miles up the trail, and September Morn Lake (9,696 feet) 8.5 miles up the trail. Hikers reach the summit of Lake Fork Trail at Sundance Pass (11,037 feet) about 11 miles from the trailhead. From here hikers may turn back or choose to continue forward, dropping down to the West Fork of Rock Creek and arriving at West Fork Trailhead after traveling a distance of 21 miles. (The total distance from Lake Fork to West Fork over Sundance Pass is 19 miles according to the forest service sign, but according to guidebooks and topographic maps, 21 miles is probably more accurate). Moose frequent the Lake Fork area, so keep your eyes peeled.
My first hiking experience in Montana was a backpacking trip along Lake Fork Trail to Keyser Brown Lake during the summer of 2003. This hiking experience strongly influenced my decision to move to Montana. Lake Fork continues to draw me back year after year, winter, spring, summer, and fall. The trail is just a short trip from Billings. But be warned. You may find yourself forever enchanted by the call of the Beartooths.