Exploring Beartooth Glaciers, Montana

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14156A, Backpacking


  • Revel at beautiful, beguiling glacial valleys
  • Delight in alpine lakes spread like pearls across bare granite
  • Experience real wilderness in Montana, the “Last Great Place”


  • Tasty meals on the trail
  • One of our most experienced and enthusiastic leaders
  • Optional vanpool to remote trailhead


DatesAug 3–9, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffRoger Grissette

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Our trip is designed to have a dual focus on celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and on local impacts of climate change.

Our hikes, observations, and discussions will take place in a striking, dramatic area of glacial-carved valleys and rugged exposed granite northeast of Yellowstone. The Beartooths are alpine in character with vast treeless plateaus and 30 peaks over 12,000 feet. The plateaus fall off sharply into deep canyons. Many small lakes are tucked into high cirques. There’s a lot to see in the Beartooth Range: sparkling clear streams, hundreds of lakes, and sweeping tundra.

Rather than biting off more than we can chew, we’ll zoom in on one area on a relatively short route with a layover day that will give us access to explore the area unencumbered by full packs. We’ll have a full schedule.

On day hikes, we’ll attempt to access remnant glaciers, including the Beartooth Glacier, Grasshopper Glacier (which contains remains of now-extinct ice age grasshoppers), followed by Hopper or Sky Pilot glaciers. Next we’ll attempt to access a high hanging plateau with many jewel-like small lakes. Finally, if we have time, we’ll leave one of the most beautiful alpine valleys the leader has seen to make a short, but steep, move to camp by a lovely exposed lake just above treeline. From there we’ll cross a high saddle off-trail to join another exciting trail where our shuttle vehicle waits. Don’t forget your camera!

Most of our moves with full backpacks will be on maintained trails, except for late in the trip where there will be one day with a move of a mile or more off-trail over a dramatic saddle.

Scientists now predict that the retreat of glaciers throughout the northern Rockies is proceeding at an accelerated pace. Join us on what could be your last chance to see a living glacier. At the same time, you’ll celebrate one of our greatest environmental victories, the Wilderness Act.

What better place than Montana!


You’ll start your adventure at just over 7,000 feet, and your exit will be about 7,800 feet. The highest point with packs will be at Sundance Pass, about 10,925 feet. The highest altitudes gained without full packs will be about 10,400 feet elevation.

Day 1: We have an hour and a half drive from Billings. Our group will assemble at Lake Fork Creek, below Black Diamond Mountain. We’ll move west 6.5 miles on a popular trail, steadily gaining 2,200 feet elevation to reach Black Canyon Lake.

Day 2: Leaving our backpacks behind, we’ll try to reach and explore Grasshopper Glacier above Black Canyon Lake.

Day 3: We’ll move four miles west to First Rock Lake, located in the next parallel valley, where we’ll set up camp and then attempt to access Hopper Glacier through dense forest and spotty boulder fields.

Day 4: We’ll climb up to Sundance Pass and descend the seemingly endless switchbacks into dramatic and beautiful Quinnebaugh Meadows to a campsite. We’ll travel about 7.75 miles, gaining 2,000 feet elevation and losing 2,200 feet.

Day 5: In the morning we’ll dayhike to small lakes to our west, with beguiling names like Kookoo, Bowback, Ship, Marker, and Triangle. Returning to camp, we’ll move with now-lighter backpacks up the valley and climb from Quinnebaugh to Mary Lake; about a 1,200-foot climb and 4 miles hiking.

Day 6: We’ll climb to the saddle above Mary Lake and descend to our next camp near Crow Lake. It's off trail, but it's an easy move.

Day 7: We’ll take the access trail near Crow Lake, then hike 6.5 miles to the road to reach Red Lodge and our awaiting shuttle at Camp Senia.

Remember, our wilderness itineraries can change substantially due to weather, trail conditions, ability of the group, and unforeseen events.



Getting There

Our trip schedule is set up to accommodate your travel to and from Billings, Montana. Many will fly in on Saturday and return on the Sunday following your outing. For those interested, the leaders are willing to rent a fully insured vehicle on a shared-cost basis to transport you to and from Billings. This cost is estimated at an additional $150 per person. More details will be in pre-trip correspondence. Maps and directions to the trailhead near Red Lodge, Montana will also be provided. 

Accommodations and Food

Our first meal together will be a quick lunch on the trail. Our last will be breakfast on the final day. The trip leader hopes we’ll have time for a final group meal in Red Lodge.

High-carbohydrate cereals, pasta, and dried fruit will make up the bulk of our trail meals, with cheese, nuts, and chicken adding a small amount of protein and fat. Most dinners will include hot soup and maybe a dessert -- and there will be fresh coffee or tea every morning.

Despite jokes about freeze-dried food, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good our food tastes. Everyone will take a turn on the cook/clean-up crew under the watchful eye of your leaders. The trip leader won’t allow any disasters -- he likes to eat, too!

You’ll be able to tell your friends how you enjoyed four-star wilderness dishes. A quantity of trail treats will be available for your selection before our time on-trail begins. If you have any special treats you can’t live without, feel free to bring those. Few dishes call for meat, so the trip will be able to accommodate vegetarians.

You’ll probably need to make reservations at a Billings motel as we may not return in time for a Saturday late-afternoon or evening departure. Sunday would be better.

Trip Difficulty

The first day on outings is often difficult because packs are fully loaded and you may not be fully acclimated to the altitude, starting at around 7,000 feet. The off-trail explorations we’ll undertake will be done without full packs, but we’ll have to proceed through challenging boulder fields, some steep inclines, and a fair amount of bushwacking. We’ll have to proceed carefully and progress will be hard-fought. Other than the two days off-trail, we’ll have a short, but steep, climb on an unmaintained trail up to Mary Lake, which gains altitude on switchbacks without a break until we reach the lake. The following day, we’ll proceed off-trail again to our next nearby camp, but compared to the earlier treks to view remnant glaciers, this will seem slow but reasonable.

Averaging out all days, the trip difficulty is a three out of five. But the first day, bushwacking and bouldering without packs will make those days seem harder than average. Total mileage with packs is about 28 miles.

Equipment and Clothing

The leader will provide a detailed backpacking checklist. As always, carefully review what you plan to bring and come with only the minimum. Remember the backpack’s axiom: “Ounces make pounds and pounds mean PAIN!” Yes, there is no shortage of clever and attractive gadgets to separate you from your money, but do you really need the latest gee-whiz? With fewer pieces of gear to manage, you’ll be better focused on the beautiful surroundings, a great group of hikers, and the experience of exploration itself.

A small day pack will be useful during the off-trail exploration.



  • Anderson, Bob, Beartooth Country - Montana's Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains. Montana Magazine, Box 5630, Helena, MT 59604.
  • Schneider, Bill, Hiking Montana. Falcon Press Publishing, Box 731 Helena, MT 59624.


The majority of our travel is planned on ‘Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains,’ a 15-minute waterproof topographic map from the Rocky Mountain Surveys, Box 21558, Billings, MT 59104-1558. The US Forest Service map covering the area is available for about $3.75 (covering Custer, Gallatin, and Shoshone National Forests). The USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps for our hike include:

  • Black Pyramid Mountain, MT
  • Bare Mountain, MT
  • Silver Run Peak, MT
  • Sylvan Peak, MT (You could get by with the latter two only)


Our adventure takes place in an area that was protected as Wilderness in 1978. We’ll celebrate this victory and discuss Wilderness50. Important wildlands and biological corridors in adjacent areas have no such legal protection. Broadening our focus, we’ll consider the health of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, its relation to the Yellowstone-to-Yukon movement, and perhaps topics like the “extinction vortex" facing flora and fauna in both Glacier and the over-loved Yellowstone National Park. Threats to the grizzly and reintroduction of the gray wolf to this area will give us more to discuss.

The effects of global climate change on the glaciers will also be fresh on our minds.

Each evening, we will try to allot time to discuss national and local environmental issues. You are encouraged to come prepared and introduce any topics of interest.

The areas we will visit are quite remote, but we'll still see evidence of earlier users. We'll have a magnificent setting to reflect on the question "How much wilderness is enough?"

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Custer National Forest.



Roger Grissette has led outings for many years in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as the Eastern Sierra, Utah, Mexico, and Hawaii. Leading four to five trips per year recently, he's thrilled to share these adventures and their sense of discovery with a diverse group of Sierra Club members. Discussing challenges that face the wild places his trips visit is always a highlight for him, as is the time he spends in the camp kitchen. "Sometimes I feel I'm preparing a dinner party," he says. When not backpacking, he spends his spare time playing traditional music with friends in a string band.

Assistant Leader:

David Brenner is a retired urological surgeon with many years of experience trekking, hiking, backpacking, and rafting. He is an avid international traveler and has participated on numerous Sierra Club national and international outings and recently completed training to become an outings leader. He has done volunteer medical work in Africa, Central America, and the Palestinian territories, including the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Lebanon. He loves the outdoors and spends as much time as possible hiking, biking, Nordic skiing and camping.

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