Rip & Go: Wood Lake - Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, MT

Cross the Stillwater Plateau to trout-rich ponds at the foot of Montana's second highest peak.
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Cross the Stillwater Plateau to trout-rich ponds at the foot of Montana's second highest peak.

Do It
If you crave solitude, world class fly-fishing, and trekking off trail more than peakbagging, head for 12,618-foot Mt. Wood. Begin this 20-mile, two-night trip at the Golf Course (1), an open field at the crest of FS 2421, above the old Benbow Mine (about two hours southwest of Billings). Take the Stillwater Plateau Trail across a low ridge (2) through white pine and a carpet of whortleberries, a sweet red fruit that grows on ankle-high shrubs. After traversing a string of meadows–brightened with Indian paintbrush in summer–and gaining 400 feet on long switchbacks, you'll clear treeline (3) and begin traversing the massive Stillwater Plateau. Just beyond the wilderness boundary, at mile 3.1, the trail peters out atop the rim of a steep cirque (4). From here, the route is off-trail (flip page for navigation tips).

Head southwest across the 11,000-foot plateau, periodically crossing ribbons of talus (5). Green gentian and blue harebells peek from among the rocks and sedge. Four miles from the trailhead, Woodbine Lake appears to the west, nestled in a high notch. Veer south, staying on the exposed plateau. At 8.3 miles, arrive at a vast boulder slope (6) where the plateau piles up against the face of Mt. Wood. Descend .4 mile southeast to a grassy shelf 400 feet above Lake Wilderness (7). The next morning, hike an easy .3 mile west to cast for cutthroats. Then head southeast, up through scattered trees, to a rock perch above the lake for a killer view. Continue southeast .3 mile to Wood Lake (8) and more life-list fishing. Rather hike than cast? Bushwack from your campsite up the ridge on the left (east) side of the lakes, onto the massive shoulder of Mt. Wood (the climb to the peak is technical). Return the way you came.

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Trip Planner

Driving From Billings, head 41 miles west on I-90 to MT 78. Go 18 miles south to Nye Rd. Turn right and drive 14 miles to Dean. Turn left onto Benbow Rd. (becomes FR 2421 in two miles), and drive a rough road to the trailhead.

Conditions Beartooth Ranger Station: (406) 446-2103

Map USGS quad: Mount Wood ($8, store.usgs.gov)

Gear Up The Fishtail General Store in Fishtail has basic camping supplies, food, bear spray, maps, and fishing licenses. (406) 328-4260; fishtailgeneralstore.com

Key Skill: Off-Trail Navigation

Three-quarters of the Wood Lake hike is off-trail, but the topography, with visual cues to help keep you on course, offers good conditions for inexperienced navigators. Here's how to stay on route:

1) When the off-trail hiking starts at mile 3.1, orient the map so key landmarks match what's in front of you: West Fishtail Cirque on your left; Woodbine Lake straight ahead as you crest the plateau; Mt. Wood dead ahead as you pass the view of Woodbine Lake.

2) Adjust your compass to account for a declination of 14 degrees–the difference between magnetic north on your compass and true north on your map. Line up north on your compass with north on the map.

3) Note the direction you need to travel in relation to a landmark, and head cross-country, periodically checking your compass. The basics: Go southwest across Stillwater Plateau; when Woodbine Lake comes into view, veer due south; and when Mt. Wood crowns the end of the plateau, go south-southeast.

4) Got GPS, right? Set waypoints on the way in–at the end of the Stillwater Plateau Trail (4) and where the route bends south toward Mt. Wood (6). Then retrace them back to the trailhead on the way out.

See This: Golden-Mantled Squirrel

Look for these chubby-cheeked rodents while bushwacking down to Lake Wilderness. Few small mammals thrive in the cold Beartooth uplands, but these honey-colored ground-dwellers survive by scavenging whortleberries, seeds, and fungi to fatten up for winter. They look like oversize chipmunks; they often pause to check out hikers (and watch for errant gorp-droppings) before scurrying to the safety of shallow underground nests.

Camp Chat

In 2007, the last time the state released the results of its biannual angler survey, only 13 parties had cast flies into Lake Wilderness or Wood Lake, the two high-alpine tarns that are the centerpiece of this hike. Though the lakes are clear and cold, they do not have the food supply and spawning habitat necessary for a self-sustaining trout population, which is why the state stocks them annually. Lots of hungry fish and no anglers sounds pretty good, right? Discuss: Should state agencies stock bodies of water that would not naturally support fish for the pleasure of a few intrepid fishermen?

Locals Know
A microburst is a violent downdraft, with hurricane-force winds, that hits the ground and radiates outward, toppling mature trees like matchsticks. As you peer down from the rim into the West Fishtail Drainage, the pines lie flattened in piles due to a microburst in late November 2007. "This wind event reached speeds well in excess of 100 mph," explains Jeff Guildehaus, Outdoor Recreation Planner for the Beartooth Ranger District. "West Fishtail Drainage was one of the most concentrated areas of destruction." Microbursts of this magnitude typically occur only during the winter–when the wind blows down the canyons and the jet stream is lower to the ground. "But if the wind ramps up and blows to the southwest in the Beartooths," says Gildehaus, "be on guard, and don't camp near deadfall."

On The Menu

Lunch 1 & 2

Turkey and cheddar tortillas

Dinner 1

Stillwater Wild Rice

Breakfasts 1, 2, & 3

Oatmeal with dried fruit

Dinner 2

Beartooth Pesto and Trout

Snacks

Trail mix, string cheese, cookies,
summer sausage

Stillwater Wild Rice

A heart-healthy dinner

1 5-ounce pouch chicken

1 6-oz. box wild rice

1 small zucchini

1 small summer squash

Boil two cups of water. Add rice and cook as directed. Chop veggies. Two minutes before rice is finished, mix in chicken and veggies. Remove from heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

Beartooth Pesto and Trout

A perfect Montana pairing

1 trout, cleaned

8 ounces bowtie pasta

4 ounces pesto

6 ounces summer sausage

Cut sausage into chunks for an appetizer (or use in pasta if you didn't catch a fish). Boil water; cook pasta until al dente. Drain; add pesto. Wrap trout in foil with oil and lemon; lay on hot embers (no fires within 200 feet of lake). Cook six minutes per side for a two-pound trout.

The Grocery List (Aisle Number in Nearest Store Below)

12-oz. log summer
sausage (1)

1 pack tortillas (1)

1 box wild rice (3)

8 oz. bowtie
pasta (3)

4-oz. jar pesto (3)

4 oz. dried fruit (4)

1/2 lb. trail mix (4)

1 box oatmeal (8)

Aluminum foil (9)

Cookies (11)

3 string cheese
packs (back wall)

4 oz. turkey (meat)

4 oz. cheddar (meat)

1 zucchini (produce)

1 summer squash
(produce)

1 lemon (produce)

5-oz. pouch chicken
(right corner)

Nearest Grocery Store

Evergreen IGA

1540 13th Street West, Billings, MT; (406) 245-5138

Pit Stop

Hit the Cowboy Bar and Supper Club in Fishtail for half-pound Cowboy burgers topped with mushrooms, guacamole, and Swiss cheese. Pair with a cold Moose Drool–a mellow brown Montana ale. (406) 328-4288