5.8 miles one way
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.