Crazy Mountains

Swamp Lake

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Type

Day hike

Distance

5.8 miles

Difficulty

Moderate

  • Starting Elevation: 6100 ft.
  • Ending Elevation: 8800 ft.
  • Elevation Gain: 2700 ft.
  • Experience Date: Aug 6, 2016
  • Hike Time: 5-6 hrs.
  • Drive Time: 1 hr. 30 min.
  • Road Condition: First part is good. After gate it's a little bumpy and uneven but probably passable with any average clearance vehicle.
  • Parking: Couple spots by gate otherwise a larger parking lot at trailhead. Trail sees little traffic so parking shouldn't be an issue.
  • Fees: None.
  • Campsite Availability: Could camp anywhere along road. Plenty of flats spots by Swamp Lake and the unnamed lake to the north.
  • Private Property: The final section of road (3.6 miles) passes through private property and is gated. You must get permission and a combination from the owner to get through the gate. Contact the Yellowstone Ranger District for more information.
  • Trail Traffic: Moderate but this was due to the owner hosting a family reunion over the weekend. I'm sure it's usually very light.
  • Trail Condition: Well maintained. Possible spur trails leading to the unnamed lake to the north but it can easily be bushwhacked to.
  • Fire Restrictions: None posted.
  • Stream Crossings: None.
  • Water Sources: Lakes. Nothing reliable along trail.
  • Snow: Some small to large patches in the Swamp Lake basin.
  • Winter Access: Unknown.
  • Weather: 75-80. Surprisingly humid at the start. Very sporadic. Sunny to party cloudy to cloudy. Storms at night and rain the following day.
  • Bugs: None.
  • Wildlife Sighted: Mountain goats. Black bear.
  • Side Quests: Saddle to the west. Fairview Peak. Surrounding ridges look climbable. Unnamed lake to the north.

Swamp Lake

Posted by Aaron Schye on August 20, 2016


Swamp Lake is an elusive subalpline lake right at the southeastern corner of the Crazies that sees relatively little traffic since the road to the trailhead lies on private property. You must get permission from the owner to use the road which is gated at the edge of the property boundary (contact the Yellowstone Ranger District). From the gate it’s a 3.6 mile drive along a dirt road to the trailhead. The trail to Swamp Lake is fairly simple, covering only 2.2 miles over 1000′, but views are limited along the way. The views at the lake, however, are excellent and there are plenty of areas to pitch a tent although firewood is lacking. A saddle further west makes for a nice side hike and provides access to the surrounding ridges. An unnamed lake to the north can also be bushwhacked to and opens up a whole new world of adventurous opportunities.

Swamp Lake

Swamp Lake

Background

With my hiking partner Arlo gone in Sweden for five weeks I was desperate to get out on an adventure so when I saw an opportunity to participate in a mountain goat survey of the Crazy Mountains I couldn’t resist. The goal of the survey, which was organized by the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance, was to send small teams into the backcountry to document and classify every mountain goat sighting over the course of the weekend. The alliance is concerned that overpopulation of mountain goats in the area could trigger a mass die-off and they plan to use the information gathered to determine if more hunting should be permitted to keep the population stable. More information can be found here.

On the Friday before the survey volunteers met at the Stone Glacier headquarters in Bozeman to organize teams and choose destinations. I was absolutely stoked to be a part of this and hoped I’d get the chance to visit a location in the Crazies I hadn’t been to before. Two volunteers, Jared and Dan, had already been selected to scope out the Swamp Lake area, probably my number one choice, and they were happy to include me in their team. Both were experienced mountain goat hunters and I was excited about the prospect of gaining some insight into the world of mountain hunting.

Swamp Lake is an elusive subalpline lake right at the southeastern corner of the Crazies that sees relatively little traffic since the road to the trailhead lies on private property. You must get permission from the owner to use the road which is gated at the edge of the property boundary. The survey leader had already arranged our passage but made it sound like the owner is happy to allow most people through. I’m not sure how to get in contact with the owner directly but my Beartooth Publishing Map says to “contact the Yellowstone Ranger District for more info”. We were told that the section of road beyond the gate was in tough shape so we should hike the 3.6 miles to the trailhead. It’s another 2.2 miles of mainly uphill hiking from the trailhead to the lake.

Getting Started

Since mountain goats are more easily spotted on the ridges early in the morning the three of camped at the Otter Creek Fishing Access just outside Big Timber on Friday night to ensure an early start. There’s no fee to camp and there’s a nice wide open field for tents.

We were literally on the road by the crack of dawn the next day and even though I’d barely slept a wink the excitement was enough to keep me energized. Swamp Creek Road leads from Highway 191 to the gate where our journey would begin. It’s probably one of nicest Montana dirt roads I’ve been on and takes 15-20 minutes to get to the gate.

The Adventure Begins…

We made it to the gate at about 6:40 AM, just as the sun was beginning to rise, and after about 15 minutes of gear prep we were off. The road continues onward towards the trailhead, weaving through a spotty forest for about 3.6 miles with a steady uphill grade. The road itself is in much better shape than was expected and I think any car with decent clearance could handle it without too much trouble.

Jared and Dan came fully equipped with spotting scopes to aid with the search while I made use of my telephoto lens. As we approached the mountains we surveyed the nearby ridges for any mountain goat signs but every time we saw something promising it turned out to just be a goat-colored rock.

We started out hiking along the road to the trailhead. It turned out to be in pretty decent shape. There’re a few rough sections but I think most cars with decent clearance could make it.

We started out hiking along the road to the trailhead. It turned out to be in pretty decent shape. There’re a few rough sections but I think most cars with decent clearance could make it.

False alarm! There’s so many whitish rocks in the Crazies it was easy to mistake one for a goat.

False alarm! There’s so many whitish rocks in the Crazies it was easy to mistake one for a goat.

After about 3.6 miles of hiking we made it to the trailhead.

After about 3.6 miles of hiking we made it to the trailhead.

The mountain goat tally was still at zero by the time we made it to the official trailhead which has a large grassy parking lot and clearly sees little use. We continued on the trail which initially descends about 200′ of elevation before climbing an additional 1200′ up to the lake (about 2.2 miles) and remains mostly forested with limited views.

The first section is lined with huckleberries that were just beginning to ripen and Jared marked the location on his GPS so we could raid them on the way back.

Most of the trail is uphill but it’s not too difficult.

Most of the trail is uphill but it’s not too difficult.

Swamp Lake

After about 2 miles the forest transitions into a wide open field presenting views of the surrounding basin. A broad saddle lies another mile or so ahead and we agreed to hike up there in the evening so we could scope out the other side for goats. To the left is Fairview Peak (10,164′) and to the right is Swamp Lake. All the surrounding ridges looked climbable and I was dying to get to the top of one.

As you near the lake the forest opens leaving behind a beautiful landscape.

As you near the lake the forest opens leaving behind a beautiful landscape.

At about 11:00 AM we made it to camp which left us with a full afternoon to just hang out and relax while observing the ridges for goats. There’re plenty of flat spots to set up tents around the lake, which is crystal clear and just about overflowing with trout, but the firewood is definitely lacking.

Over the course of the afternoon several other parties visited the lake which we thought was unusual considering the logistical difficulty in getting there. As it turns out the owner of the ranch was hosting a family reunion which explained the overabundance of people; “normally we’re the only ones here” one party exclaimed.

Our site. Plenty of spots to pitch a tent but not much for firewood.

Our site. Plenty of spots to pitch a tent but not much for firewood.

Jared demonstrating how it’s done. The brook trout were hitting hard.

Jared demonstrating how it’s done. The brook trout were hitting hard.

Closeup of the permanent snow patch above Swamp Lake. The pinkish streaks are known as watermelon snow. It’s actually actually a green algae with a red pigment that thrives in freezing temperatures. Pretty cool!

Closeup of the permanent snow patch above Swamp Lake. The pinkish streaks are known as watermelon snow. It’s actually actually a green algae with a red pigment that thrives in freezing temperatures. Pretty cool!

Saddle Up!

As evening approached Dan and I prepared for our expedition up to the saddle which was another mile and 550′ of elevation. Jared was still feeling fatigued from the hike in the morning and was happy to comfortably observe the ridges from camp. We still had yet to observe a single goat but they’re more likely to be seen in the evening and I remained optimistic.

As evening approached Dan and I began trekking up the saddle hoping to glimpse some goats on the other side.

As evening approached Dan and I began trekking up the saddle hoping to glimpse some goats on the other side.

As we neared the top of the saddle Dan told me to get down and try to keep quiet in order to keep our presence unknown to any wildlife that might be lurking around on the other side. We slowly inched our way forward, took a peek over the edge and immediately spotted a group of burly elk in the basin beneath us. But our goal was mountain goats so we quickly and quietly continued to survey ridges for any signs when I heard Dan whisper “Hey, I see some over there”. I looked over in that direction but my amateur goat finding skills were no match for those of an experienced hunter and I was unable to make anything out. Then suddenly he saw another group, and then another. Carefully he pulled out his spotting scope in order to classify each one (billy, nanny, yearling, or baby). Meanwhile, I hastily recorded the information while trying at the same time to photograph a horrifically beautiful thunderstorm that that was quickly closing in on us from the west.

We’d been hoping to spend the evening up there and even climb the ridge to the north for some additional spotting opportunities but after only 15 minutes of observation the storm forced us to retreat back to the “safety” of our tents. In total we observed nine mountain goats and were able to classify most of them so I’d consider it a success considering the circumstances!

Right as we made it to the saddle we observed a group of bulls in the basin below us.

Right as we made it to the saddle we observed a group of bulls in the basin below us.

Full shot of the basin. Unfortunately a storm was approaching fast. We managed to spot nine goats before we were forced to retreat.

Full shot of the basin. Unfortunately a storm was approaching fast. We managed to spot nine goats before we were forced to retreat.

Looking up the ridge to the north of the saddle. Looks like a fairly easy climb.

Looking up the ridge to the north of the saddle. Looks like a fairly easy climb.

The ridge to the south of the saddle. The middle high point is Fairview Peak. Also looks like an easy climb.

The ridge to the south of the saddle. The middle high point is Fairview Peak. Also looks like an easy climb.

After we retreated back to our site the storm really began to kick into gear but it didn’t stop Jared from getting in a few more casts.

After we retreated back to our site the storm really began to kick into gear but it didn’t stop Jared from getting in a few more casts.

Early Mornin’ Goat Search

By the time morning rolled around the storms had subsided and we awoke just as the sun was beginning to rise to resume our search. This time Dan and I planned to sidehill around the ridge to the north to scope out an unnamed lake on the other side while Jared would head up to the saddle. Just as we were leaving camp we spotted a group of four goats in the cirque above Swamp Lake; a great start to the day!

We potted four goats right when we got up (about 6:30 AM).

We potted four goats right when we got up (about 6:30 AM).

It was a brutal time sidehilling along the scree slopes. Nice shot of the drainage we came up.

It was a brutal time sidehilling along the scree slopes. Nice shot of the drainage we came up.

After an hour or so of scrambling we finally made it around the ridge and began climbing up towards the drainage towards the unnamed lake.

After an hour or so of scrambling we finally made it around the ridge and began climbing up towards the drainage towards the unnamed lake.

Hot on the trail! (or so we thought)

Hot on the trail! (or so we thought)

Beautiful waterfalls cascading from the lake above.

Beautiful waterfalls cascading from the lake above.

After about an hour of scrambling followed by some simple uphill hiking we arrived at the shores of the unnamed lake. There’re plenty of flat areas to camp but, like Swamp Lake, firewood is scarce. Aside from the bit of hair we found on the way up there weren’t any other signs of goats in the area so we continued passed the lake and up towards another saddle to the west.

The unnamed lake. Still no goat sightings. Hoping for more luck we decided to continue onward towards the saddle to the left to get a view of the other side.

The unnamed lake. Still no goat sightings. Hoping for more luck we decided to continue onward towards the saddle to the left to get a view of the other side.

More scree scrambling. Ominous clouds were blowing in.

More scree scrambling. Ominous clouds were blowing in.

View of the unnamed lake from the scree slopes.

View of the unnamed lake from the scree slopes.

We had grand plans to climb up to the ridge for a better vantage point but the weather just didn’t seem to want to cooperate with us. About half way up scree slope the sky darkened, the wind picked up, and a slight drizzle ensued and after some careful assessment we made the tough decision to turn around and head back to camp.

Sadly the weather forced us to turn around.

Sadly the weather forced us to turn around.

Rather than sidehill around the ridge again we chose to descend the drainage further and bushwhacked back up the hill towards Swamp. This was much easier. There were also some faint spur trails in the area suggesting that you can easily get to this unnamed lake from the Swamp Lake trail.

Rather than sidehill around the ridge again we chose to descend the drainage further and bushwhacked back up the hill towards Swamp. This was much easier. There were also some faint spur trails in the area suggesting that you can easily get to this unnamed lake from the Swamp Lake trail.

The Return

Back at camp we were greeted by Jared who had also been forced to return prematurely from his post due to the weather. We wanted to stick around a bit longer but the weather was behaving so sporadically we decided it’d be a better idea just to prepare for departure. So after collecting a water sample for Adventure Scientist’s Global Microplastics Initiative, an innerving tent escapade, and a distant black bear sighting we geared up and hit the trail.

This is not something you see everyday. Right as I de-staked my tent a gust of wind blew in at the perfect angle and sent my tent tumbling into the lake.

This is not something you see everyday. Right as I de-staked my tent a gust of wind blew in at the perfect angle and sent my tent tumbling into the lake.

Didn’t see any more goats but we spotted a baby black bear scrambling around on the ridge.

Didn’t see any more goats but we spotted a baby black bear scrambling around on the ridge.

Heading back.

Heading back.

Looking south towards the Absarokas.

Looking south towards the Absarokas.

On the way home we all stopped at Neptune’s Brewery in Livingston to finalize our findings over some grub and a couple of hard-earned beers. All in all we spotted 13 mountain goats: 1 billie, 3 nannies, 4 yearlings, and 5 unknown adults. An official summary of the results of the survey can be found here.

Adventuring to the backcountry with a mission is kind of my goal in life and this experience was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I met some great people, learned a thing or two about mountain hunting, helped out a local nonprofit, had plans ruined by weather, and generally had a great time; what more could you ask for in an outdoor experience?

…in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

-Chris McCandless