Skytop Lakes to Oly Lake

Morning reflections in the lower Skytop Lake

It was decided the night before that we'd try for an early start to beat the inevitable afternoon menu of rain and hail. The plan for the day was to at least get to Oly Lake. I’d seen some nice photos of Oly and thought it would be a worthy destination without having to put in too much work. Fossil Lake would be our goal if we were ambitious, but I don’t think anyone wanted to exceed 3 miles for the day.

By 8 AM we were re-tracing our steps back down to the lower basin over softening snow.

Without any kind of wind the lakes were calmer than calm which made for some stellar reflection photos and I stopped often to snap a few off as well as to get some video. I was already plotting to come back to this area next year and wanted to be able to utilize the video for route planning purposes.

With the snow aiding our progress, we quickly made our way out of the basin. The few streams we encountered were easily rock-hopped and the short, gentle descents were mostly skied down. Before long we were hiking on some grass at about 10,300’.

This didn’t last long, however as we continued to run into numerous snow fields and rocks while making our way down to Oly.

An unnamed tarn between the Skytop Lakes and Oly Lake

Having hiked with Bob on snow before, I knew he’d have some problems. Jeff, fresh off a knee surgery of his own was also having a difficult time but both managed to get through the toughest sections without face planting.

After about an hour of relatively easy hiking we came upon a large tarn filled by multiple sources at 10150’ and decided to take a break. We spent a good 45 minutes basking in the sunshine, refilling our water and snacking. It was here that I decided this was, by far, the best elevation in the Beartooths.

We started off again, past the large tarn and another before arriving at the head of a small, narrow gorge with the stream draining the Skytops. We were only about 150’ above the still unseen Oly Lake but this looked like it could be a bit problematic, though we were still too far away to know for sure.

Dorf walking the "V"

The west-facing slope of the gorge was smooth rock while its counterpart was shrewn with boulders and still packed with undercut snow.

We decided to look for an alternate route to the west, hoping we’d be able to find a less risky route downstream. After climbing a bit to the west of the stream Brad and I fanned out, each taking a peek.

I found a fairly easy 50-75’ descent that led to a shallow tarn but getting around it looked to be a tough on the old guys. The appliance-sized boulders could have been skirted around with some patience but I had no idea what lay around the corner or what the rest of the descent looked like. Once we were safely down it was clear I’d made the right call as we’d have been looking at a very steep 150’ descent though more boulders.

I gave the others my “thumbs down” as did Brad---too rocky.

“The best way” Brad said “is right down the chute on the rocks.”

After eyeballing a route down it looked doable. The boulders weren’t that large and were dry while the snow looked pretty deep---at least 3-4 feet from what I could see.

So we began, with me taking the point.

I made it over the first of the boulders and slowly worked my way over toward the snow, making sure to keep myself as far away from the stream side as I could without getting too close to the warm rocks on my right. My heart jumped a little bit when I postholed but quickly composed myself and continued downstream on the snow. The truth is I was having a ball.

Near the bottom of the snow I realized I had painted myself somewhat into a corner. The snow ended, predictably, at some more boulders but I had no idea how deep it was. I found out in a hurry when my last step on the snow punched through, luckily landing on a flat rock just a few inches down. Once I rock hopped back across the stream to the grassy bank I motioned for the others to make their way across and take the safer, rocky route.

Oly Lake, another Beartooth gem

Eventually we all made it through and found ourselves in the prettiest of meadows overlooking Oly Lake.

We found a nice grassy spot to take it all in. Ahead of us was tiny Oly Lake, with an abundance of campsites, fed by two different streams: one coming from the Skytops, the other from Cairn and Billy Lakes.

After eating some lunch and refilling our water bottles we decided we weren’t going to find a prettier place to camp and agreed to stop there for the night.

Stream coming down from Cairn Lake

It took us a while to decide upon many a spot to put up our tents but eventually figured it out. I’d miss the goats but the views behind us and of the massive rock walls behind Dewey Lake would make up for their absence.

The only drawback to our plan was the arrival of about 8 younger campers who’d probably made their way up from the East Rosebud Trail and were now fishing and swimming across Oly Lake. We saw no tents anywhere, and, in fact, they left after making noise for about an hour

The weather decided to cooperate with us the entire day and with no clouds in the sky and the hottest day so far it was the perfect opportunity to do some washing of clothes and body.

Canadian Dude found a nice pool in the Cairn Lake stream and went to town. I hadn’t really submerged myself in icy mountain water since my ill-fated attempt to cross Lower Jean Lake in the Winds back in ’07, but knew it was time for a thorough cleansing.

I slowly lowered myself into the frigid melt water, felt my testicles do a kamikaze swan dive back into my abdomen and proceeded to take a bath. I was able to remove a few layers of trail grime and enough oil and salt out of my hair to feel somewhat clean.

Our camp at Oly Lake 12T 596006 4995935 (9700')

Afterwards we alls at around camp, killing flies and watched the sun change the colors of the mountains around us until it was time to start dinner. I did happen to notice that the one stream coming down from the west, which likely originated from the tarn above, would have been a very sketchy descent had we decided to avoid the “V” by going that way.

I declared this a “Pizza Night” and started with the tedious prep work. I’d decided before even leaving for Montana that having a deluxe pizza wasn’t worth the effort of dehydrating and rehydrating different veggies so I settled for a couple of cheese & pepperoni. The highlight of this night was finally being able to get a good consistency with my dehydrated pizza sauce. Usually it comes out clumpy but not tonight. For whatever reason, I wasn’t that hungry and could only put down two “pies”.

The rest of the evening was spent sitting on rocks trying to eyeball the best route down to the East Rosebud Trail. We eventually thought it would be best to skirt along the lake and take the outlet stream down. It only looked like we’d have to drop less than 100’. Assured we had a good plan we retired for the evening.

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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