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Bozeman, MT: Cave Lake

mt

Star Star Star Star Star

Distance: 8.0 miles


10,000-foot peaks, 14-inch trout, and few people make this nine-mile trek into the Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman a standout overnight.
  • Sweet Grass Creek Crossing
  • Scree Field
  • Nursery Pond
  • Cave Lake

Cave Lake is one of those special backcountry places, a pristine mountain lake, surrounded by rare alpine wildflowers, below a massive rocky peak. Rare golden trout rise on the shoulders of the day leaving concentric circles on the water’s emerald surface. Only a couple dozen backpackers make the trip each year, which involves climbing and traversing about 5 miles of steep sidehill scree.

Sign in at the guest ranch at the start of the trail, then follow the grassy ranch road to the right of the house, called Rein Road on old USGS maps. This is one of only a few public right-of-ways into the Crazy Mountains. At 1.8 miles, you’ll reach a gate in a fence, marking the boundary of public land. Until the wet crossing of Sweet Grass Creek, the route traverses grassy ranch-land sometimes on public and sometimes on private land.

At 3.6 miles, you’ll reach a stand of timber at the edge of “Eagle Park”, a clearing above Sweet Grass Creek. The path follows the creek, crossing it at 4.4 miles. Be prepared for a chilly wade. Do not attempt this crossing during periods of high water. If you get a late start, i.e., mid-morning or later, plan to camp by the creek, which is the end of the path. From here, it’s off trail and slow-going on rugged terrain.

A herd path continues through airy forest for the mile between Sweet Grass Creek and Milly Creek, which flows down the drainage from Cave Lake. Cross Milly Creek then follow the northwestern side of the drainage deeper into the canyon. The scree can be a little unnerving for the uninitiated as the entire mountainside feels as if its moving with each step. Look carefully across the landscape, the best route is marked by unofficial cairns which prior backpackers built to remember the way. This open rocky territory is breathtakingly beautiful. Though exposed and stark, it is far from barren. If you watch carefully, you might see a white mountain goats flit across the rocks on the other side of the ravine.

At 7.2 miles, the steep scree abates. After crossing a narrow streamlet surrounded by wild flowers, the perfect place to rest and refill water bottles, you’ll enter an alpine bog. The route bends west briefly, skirting a cliff, eventually arriving at the “nursery pond” below the main lake at 8.9 miles. The nursery pond is literally the nursery for golden trout fry. The main lake is just above at 9.0 miles. It’s a big effort to get there, but your reward will be an alpine nirvana all to yourself! Don’t forget your fly rod.

-Mapped by Lisa Densmore, Densmore Designs.com

TO TRAILHEAD: From US 191 and MT 371 (just east of Melville, MT), drive west on Melville Rd./MT 371. In 12.4 miles, stay left at a 3-way junction. In 1.6 miles, bear left at a fork in the road. In .4 mile, bear left. Go 3.6 miles and park on the left outside the gate around the ranch house. Sign in at the house before beginning your trip.

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