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One of the prettiest lakes in Montana's Yellowstone Country is Mystic Lake. This beautiful lake sits at 7,637 feet above sea level in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and can be reached only by a more-than three-mile trail. The trail is somewhat steep in spots, and can be dangerous in bad weather, but that doesn't keep it from being the equivalent of backwoods-busy on warm summer week-ends. Tucked into the Beartooth Range nearly within sight of Granite Peak, the highest in Montana, most people are amazed to discover that Mystic Lake is actually a storage reservoir for hydro-electric power generation downstream. The power generation area was later included in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area by an act of Congress.
Although originally a natural lake, a dam was built across the outlet to West Rosebud Creek in the early 1920s which enlarged Mystic Lake to hold up to 21,000 acre-feet of water. There is no official depth or size published for this mountain lake, but at least one person has attempted to determine the depth and reached a level of 205 feet. All materials to build the dam and its original wooden aqueduct were packed in by mule along the rudimentary trail created for the purpose. Today, that trail is used for hiking to the lake by nature lovers and trout fishermen. Only foot power is now allowed on the trail; horses are excluded. The trail is open from May to October, but the road to the trailhead may be in poor shape at times. (Check with the Forest Service about horse riding on other area trails.)
The trail to Mystic Lake begins at West Rosebud Road, about six miles from the village of Fishtail. The access road passes West Rosebud Lake and Emerald Lake before reaching the parking area for the Mystic Lake trailhead. The Emerald Lake Campground is a Forest Service campground with water and toilet facilities. A Ranger Station is located here with maps, information and a location to purchase passes and pay for camping permits. The trailhead itself is located near the power generating station; it is here that electricity is generated after being piped down the canyon. PPL Montana works hard to make sure that the ecology of the region is protected and recreational operations are optimized within the area of their operations. Downstream of the generating plant, spring whitewater rafting is popular on West Rosebud Creek, with water releases timed to provide optimal rafting opportunities; release times are posted on the PPL Montana website. The parking area at the trailhead can be crowded with rafters and trail hikers.
The trail climbs about 1,200 feet before reaching Mystic Lake and is quite steep in some places. The area is heavily wooded, interspersed with mountain meadows that display an astonishing variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer. Grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk and mule deer, smaller mammals and several species of birds inhabit the area, although the larger mammals are seldom seen due to the nearly constant presence of hikers. The snow-capped peaks surrounding the trail create an awe-inspiring vista, although Granite Peak can't be seen until after one passes Mystic Lake. The lake is not the end of the trail; other trails branch off the main trail, including a multi-day backpack hiking trail to Granite Peak. Immediately beyond Mystic Lake, Island Lake occupies another basin in the valley. The more hardy hikers enjoy continuing on toward Island Lake as the trail climbs to overlook Mystic Lake in all its glory. The area is prone to wind and rainstorms are not uncommon, so hikers need to be prepared for inclement weather. Mystic Lake can get downright choppy on any given day.
A great many fly fishermen take the trail to Mystic Lake because they know the lake is an excellent trout fishing location. The deep, cold waters hold brook trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, but the cutthroat appear most numerous and grow to good size. Most appear to be in the 10-16 inch range, but occasionally even larger fish are caught. The creel limit is five fish, and anglers must be properly licensed. Dispersed camping is permitted around the lake, although the best spots are on the south side. Because fire danger is often high, a backpack stove is recommended. A full list of regulations and recommendations can be obtained from the ranger station along with any necessary permits.
Located about 80 miles southwest of Billings, the Mystic Lake area lies within the Custer National Forest. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area covers over 900,000 acres within the Custer National Forest, Gallatin National Forest and Shoshone National Forest. This scenic area is a favorite of hikers and mountain backpackers, who can either find space at one of the two campgrounds in the lower valley or treat themselves to a soft bed and good breakfast at one of the lodges or bed & breakfasts located near the tiny village of Fishtail, 20 miles back up the road. The Town of Absarokee is another five miles beyond. Fishtail holds a quaint general store that has been in operation for over a century. Visitors can pick up a bite to eat or general supplies in Fishtail. Larger Absarokee holds a wider variety of services, quaint shops, several steakhouse/saloons and a listing of all of the forms of lodgings in the area, from private rentals to resort-style lodges and cabins.
Even bigger and particularly geared to tourism, Red Lodge is about 40 miles by road from the trailhead for Mystic Lake. As Red Lodge serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park via the Beartooth Highway, it has a wide variety of lodging choices and multiple locations to enjoy both summer and winter sports, bicycle tours, horseback riding, ATV riding, fishing and camping, along with nightlife and many dining choices.
Viewing the Beartooth Range from afar is an awe-inspiring sight. Seeing it up close from Mystic Lake, however, brings the immensity and majesty of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area into the realm of the personal. Visitors can feel the grandeur of these mountains when they see the hidden valleys and the lakes they hold. The perspective can be life-changing, humbling, and empowering. So, make the trek to Mystic Lake and gain the power within that comes from trekking amid the mountains piercing the clouds of the Big Sky Country.
*Some statistics are estimates.
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