Lone Elk Lake to Skytop Lakes

We woke up to a beautiful morning with nary a cloud in the sky. I was hoping we’d have a full day of sunshine but I had a feeling that we were stuck in a weather pattern much like we’d experienced in 2009 when we got precipitated upon almost every afternoon.

Morning at Lone Elk Lake

Having been to the Beartooths 4 of the past 5 years I formulated a theory that went something like this: The summer following a heavy previous winter’s snowpack, the weather would be gloriously sunny and dry. Conversely, the summers’ following below average snowpack would deliver afternoon showers and hail every afternoon, as if to make up for any deficiencies.

Winter of 2007/08: Lots of snow. July 2008: no rain
Winter of 2008-09: Low snow year July 2009: rain and hail daily
Winter of 2010/11: record snow year July 2011: no rain
Winter of 2011/12; low snow year July 2012: rain and hail daily

A little shout out to our buddy Ward who couldn't make it this time

Anyway, it was a gorgeous morning and I was anticipating today starting the best days of the trip. The few photos of the Skytop lakes area that I could find online looked spectacular, as did the route up following Skytop Creek.

The sunshine meant that our tents and sleeping bags would dry out quickly from last evenings rain/hail/condensation but we weren’t in any hurry as we only had a couple of miles to do.

While lazing about after breakfast a single mountain goat had come down from the slopes to our north and started checking us out. At one point he got close enough to Bob where Bob took a step back in sheer terror. But he was a harmless creature who just wanted to check us out and have his picture taken about 50 times.

We were finally hiking off trail when we started off along the west shore of Lone Elk Lake. The scenery was gorgeous and the hiking as easy as it comes in the Beartooths. Traveling mostly on grass we were soon at the Lone elk inlet stream as it cascading down from Rough Lake, about 40’ above.

The crossing of the stream was probably the toughest of the trip. While the current was not that strong, there was a deep channel cut below, approaching close to three feet in depth. Rock hopping wasn’t an option further downstream so it was either cross here or backtrack a half mile or more and go around Lone Elk on the east shore.

The inlet stream at the head of Rough Lake

I was having none of that and found the spot where I would cross. The water was still close to 3’ deep here but there was a nice rock sitting right in the middle of the channel I could use to step right across---if the rock didn’t move on me when I stepped upon it.

Luckily, my longer legs and superior athletic ability enabled me to scoot across the stream without a problem. Now I just had to wait for those other guys to figure it out. Eventually they decided on a longer crossing over multiple submerged rocks to get across. Utilizing teamwork for only the second time ever (the first being when Bob got stuck between a tree and a cliff face in 2011 INSERT LINK), the Geezers all got a cross with Brad playing Sherpa from the middle of the stream. Packs would be handed to Brad who would take a few steps and hand the pack to me which I’d shuttle the rest of the way across.

Hiking past Rough Lake, another beautiful alpine gem, we were able to walk on either snow or grass almost all the way to the head of the lake where we decided to take a lengthy break.

At this point we really had no idea which way we should access the Skytop Lakes. We could continue to follow the stream uphill through a narrow cut, hike above the stream and cut over some talus, or cut the corner altogether and climb a small ridge, hopefully finding an easy route down to the lakes on the other side.

Brad, Jeff and Bob betwen Rough Lake and the Skytops

After we ate some lunch Brad decided to check out the second option reported finding semblance of a trail higher up. That was fine with me though I wanted to go with option three despite not knowing what was on the other side of the ridge.

By this time, the sky to the west of us was starting to cloud up so we hastily threw on our packs and started off again.

The talus trail was not at all difficult and after climbing about 75’ got even easier. Grassy benches made for some easy hiking but soon gave way to a large, flat snowfield. We hiked on the snow for about 1/8 of a mile until we came to a small tarn at the foot of the Skytop basin.

By now the sky was completely clouded over and we could hear thunder off in the distance. Luckily we still had some time to find a spot to hunker down but we’d have to cross another stream to get there.

Once again I relied on my superior athletic ability to get across the stream without donning my water shoes, but this time my right foot slipped off a rock and I got a soaker for only the second time I could recall.

Having all gotten across we fanned out and found a good spot to ride out the oncoming storm. If this was anything like the one the day before we were going to get hailed on so I found a good, large rock to hide behind. Meanwhile, Brad put up his Wild Oasis on some relatively flat ground.

All we got out of the “storm” were a few drops of rain and a few gusts of wind---not worth wasting the 45 minutes we did.

Once we got going again the off trail travel became a little more sketchy for the older guys but I think Brad was having a ball. I knew I was. After hiking on what appeared to be a dried stream bed we had to climb up another large snow field. The angle was such that a slip would probably result in a long slide down to a frigid-looking tarn. I wasn’t too worried about myself as the snow was fairly soft and I was good on snow.

Hiking over snow fields on the way to the Skytop Lakes

I wasn’t so sure about Jeff and Bob, however. My feelings were confirmed when Bob asked if he should move up to the rocks and hike on them instead of the snow. Brad was having some fun, though. I managed to catch him on video “skiing” down one of the slopes.

At the top of the snowfield the terrain leveled off and the hiking became easier. I held up and waited for the others who informed me they were ready to set up camp. This was a little disappointing as we hadn’t travelled all that far during the day, maybe 2 miles as the crow flies, in fact. I’d wanted to get further into the basin to one of the uppermost tarns visible on Google Earth but we still had at least a mile and a half to get there over and through glacial moraines and other assorted mountain rubble.

Our camp at Skytop Lakes T12 593146 4997701 (10,481')

After about 30 minutes of looking for a suitable camp we literally stepped into what was likely a Granite Peak climbers bivy complete with a small wind break and a great view of the basin. This would do nicely.

Once we got camp set up it was decided that we’d definitely spend the next night right here. Not only was the lake extremely picturesque, but we also had stellar views of Granite Peak, Mt. Villard, Cairn Mountain and the "spires" as we came to call them. It was a great campsite, probably top-5 all-time. Not only were the views temendous but there was ample snow close by to keep the cheese cold and a stream for a handy water source.

Our idyllic campsite, however, was soon overrun by bad weather at around 6:30 and we were chased into our tents once again. The thunder echoing down the drainage was quite impressive as were the lightning strikes near the head of the basin. By the time the light rain had stopped it was already late enough that we just brushed our teeth and went back inside for the night. It was as scenic a day as Brad and I had experienced in the Beartooths.

Getting to sleep proved to be rather difficult that night. It seems as though we had camped at a favorite mountain goat haunt. Between the sound of hooves on the rocky slabs behind our tents and the little ones bleating their high pitched bleats we had managed to find one of the noisiest camps ever.

I could see a few seemingly looking into Brads tent for several minutes at a time before deciding he was no threat. I watched for about 15 minutes in the near darkness before trying to fall back to sleep.


Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, 2012
The Hikers and Special Invite
The Drive West
Island Lake CG
Trip Map
Skytop Creek
Lone Elk Lake
Skytop Lakes
Skytop Lakes
Oly Lake
Fossil Lake
Fox Lake
The Hike Out
The Drive Home
Final Thoughts
Trip Photos
Back to Backcountry Trips

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