Discover the Magic of Mystic Lake
Way up the West Rosebud Valley lays the largest lake in the Beartooth Mountain Range. A short 3 mile hike from the trailhead will get you to one of the prettiest spots in the mountains, and a spot where I spent a lot of time while I was growing up. The drive is a mere two hours from Billings, just south of Absarokee. With 2 more hours of hiking you can find yourself taking in the wonders of Mystic Lake.
The lake became the largest in the Beartooths rather surreptitiously. In actuality, it is a reservoir. The dam and the power plant were built in the 1920’s. Since then they have been actively producing hydro-electricity (read more on the history on the Billings Gazette site). Following the West Rosebud Creek all the way up you will pass several smaller lakes (all of which you can spend hours enjoying) until the road dead ends at the trailhead. Starting at 6,500 feet, you will begin your trek at about double the elevation of Billings.
The hike is a relatively easy three miles. The beginning is on the road to the power plant. You actually walk right up the driveway of the plant operators. Following the creek for quite a ways you barely gain any elevation until the last mile of the hike. From there you will go sharply uphill through switchbacks in boulder fields. For those who are not in great hiking shape, just take your time, the view is incredible the entire way. You will know when you are close as the wind starts to howl through the pass, and coming over the ridge you will get a fantastic view of the lake and valley below. The hike is short enough that you can do it in a day, but I would recommend spending a few days up there in the middle of summer to get the full feel of the lake.
If you are going to go, take a fishing pole with you. Fishing at Mystic Lake is a lot of fun. You can try your luck in the deep water near the dam, or head further up the valley to where one of the creeks flow in. If you go all the way to the end of the lake you will add another mile on to your trip, but fishing where the water flows in from Island Lake is some of the best in the area. Depending on your technique, the fishing can be good no matter what part of the lake you are experiencing.
You can get to Mystic any time of the year. I personally enjoy it no matter what the season. There is a “beach” section at the front of the lake where you can lounge during the hot summer months, but I love to go there during the winter. There is something magical about the area when it is entirely frozen over. Getting there requires you to keep a watchful eye for the right roads. Go through Absarokee, and turn toward Fishtail at Ollie’s Corner. After passing through Fishtail keep an eye out for a turn on West Rosebud Road toward the mountains. After a few miles, the road will turn sharply to the left (continuing straight will take you onto Fiddler Creek Road). From here on out, it is unpaved. Continue several miles getting deeper and deeper into the valley; you will be at the trailhead when you can drive no further (here’s a map). This is mountainous bear country, so bring the proper equipment, food, and clothing. Take a lot of pictures and brag to your out of state friends that “this is less than two hours from home.”