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Red Lodge, MT: Timberline Lakes Trail

Climb 3,000 feet in 4.3 miles to a trout-filled tarn nestled in a granite cirque.

Rating

Although November wouldn’t seem to be the most attractive time for hitting the Montana backcountry, it’s the month for outstanding wildlife watching if you know where to go.

According to Jeff Gildehaus, a 20-year veteran of the 587,000-acre Beartooth Ranger District, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and adjacent Custer National Forest provide prime opportunities to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, and even grizzlies as they move to lower elevations in the late fall. “Because the wolf population doesn’t hibernate, they’re killing elk year-round, and the bears steal their food,” he explains. “So the bears are going into hibernation later, or not at all, because they have a food source.” The region sees significantly less traffic than neighboring Yellowstone National Park, which means welcome solitude for warmly dressed, camera-toting hikers seeking that perfect wildlife shot.

The early morning and evening hours are best to see most animals, although bears can be active throughout the day. If it’s bears you seek, keep an eye out for tracks, scat, signs of digging, and scratch marks on trees; read BACKPACKER’s Bear Country Behavior ($13, falcon.com) to help avoid surprising a griz.

Because most trailheads are at higher elevations and thus snow-closed in November, your best bets will be the Basin Creek Lakes Trail and the Timberline Lake Trail in the West Fork of Rock Creek. After the winter gate on West Fork Road closes on December 1, set your sights on the open-year-round Silver Run National Recreational Trail. 

To Trailhead

From Red Lodge, go south on MT 212 1.2 miles. Turn right on Ski Run Rd/West Fork Rd/Forest Road 71. Park at trailhead in 11.1 miles.

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