Fossil Lake to Fox Lake

Fizzle Lake

Today’s brilliant plan was to get as close to the trailhead as possible so that we could, hopefully, make it back to Cooke City in time for breakfast. As far as I knew Russell Lake was the last best spot to camp but didn’t know for sure since I’d never even considered the possibility of camping there. Tye (2009) had been through a couple years before and said it was a boring hike down to Cooke.

I did know that I didn’t want to camp at a lake (Russell) that was the catch all camp site for those hiking the Beaten Path from Cooke City.

After a leisurely breakfast we shouldered our packs and started back toward the trail. The other two parties camped at the lake still had their tents up so maybe we’d have a little solitude for a while yet.

Or not. We weren’t on the trail for 3 minutes when we encountered a large group who were bragging about being off trail on the Beartooth Plateau for a couple of days. Yeah, whatever…been there done that x3.

Meadows below Fizzle Lake

The rest of the hike around Fossil Lake was uneventful but for a marmot screeching at us from the rocks. After a short time we found ourselves at the trail’s high point overlooking the picturesque Fizzle Lake.

As most lakes at about 9800’ Fizzle was surrounded by grass and wildflowers. Further behind the lake I could see more grass heading up the drainage and I couldn’t help but comment out loud that it looked like an easy hike up.

A few weeks after I got home I received an email from a pal who said hiking up from Fizzle was his favorite part of his recently concluded trip. Great.

Anyway, we continued on until we found another nice meadow which begged for a sit down despite us having only been hiking for about 45 minutes.

We continued down the trail, losing elevation with every step, past Skull and Ouezel lakes. There appeared to be a lot of good campsites at Skull but not so many at Ouezel, which was down in the trees.

Shortly after rock hopping across a shallow stream we found another good spot to take a break on a rocky outcropping overlooking a small meadow about 150’ below.

Skull Lake

While there we got a good look at another large party making their way slowly up the trail. When they finally got up to our perch we could see that the group consisted of three generations. The oldsters were having a rougher time than the rest and were glad for the opportunity to have a brief chat with us.

Now in dense forest the trail’s grade was getting steeper with multiple switchbacks. I was glad we didn’t come in this way thanks to Tye’s comments in an email.

As we neared Russell Lake the sound of the stream was getting louder but still unseen to that point until arriving at a sturdy pack bridge. I waited a few minutes for Bob to catch up. His comment that “you know you’re close to civilization when you see a bridge” stung a little as we should’ve been somewhere above the tree line between Fizzle and Lone Elk Lake.

At this time I hadn’t seen Brad or Jeff since our last sit down so we decided to find a good spot to wait for them and grab something to eat.

Russell Creek

There were a few previously used camp sites just below the trail right on the lake so I started down, hollering to Bob to follow me---which he didn’t as I watched him continue down the trail. Par for the course with Bob.

Once I caught up with Bob we were almost at the foot of the lake so we grabbed a good spot and waited for the Canadians to arrive. Two separate groups of two hikers ambled on past us while we waited, bringing the total number of hikers seen that morning to near 20.

While eating we checked out the map and tried to figure out a good spot to spend the night. We settled on Fox Lake which was about 4 miles from the trailhead. I thought with an early start breakfast in Cooke just might be possible.

Since I was feeling good enough to hike out that afternoon I told the others I was going to go on a speed run and would see the others at camp. I made it less than 100 yards when I had to stop to take a few photos and video of the nice falls at the foot of the lake. From that point on I was in race mode as the trail descended through a narrow gorge along Russell Creek.

After about an hour of hiking through the trees with no views of the Creek I came across a lovely spot to refill my water bladder. 5 minutes turned into 10, 10 into 20, 20 into 30 as I enjoyed sitting on a log in the creek interrupted only by another pair of hikers making their way up the trail.

Russell Lake

After about 45 minutes I spied Bob’s imposing figure making his way down the trail to my location. He didn’t know how far ahead of the Canadian’s he was so we decided to keep moving.

We met a solo hiker, rather, a solo hiker caught up to us, a few minutes after we started off again which was how the genesis of the funniest story of the hike began.

Andrew, aka “Cuttfisher” on the backpacker.com message boards was as fit a 60-something I’d ever run into in the backcountry. He’d gotten permission from his wife to spend a little time fishing in the mountains alone and was hiking back to the trailhead. He sounded like an interesting guy so I asked if I could tagalong with him until we got to the Fox Lake cutoff trail.

Though Andrew set a blistering pace, I was able to keep up and even have a nice conversation with him between deep breaths. Our only break occurred when we came across a group of about 15 (pushing the total of hikers seen to nearly 40 for the day) girls from a private school in Virginia. Their counselor/guides were hoping to make it up to Wand Lake for the night but had no idea where the trail was. Andrew and I suspected that trail was at the bridge I'd cursed a few hours ago but couldn't confirm that. It's also possible the trail was a little further down and I missed it due to looking for a place to grab some lunch to my right.

Dorf showing off his Spam and other remaining food. I probably could have done another 2.5 days with what I had left over.

Having totally destroyed the girls' morale we started off again, still at a rapid pace. I was starting to wonder a little bit about the Fox Lake cutoff. According to the map it was only about 2.5 miles from Russell Lake and I KNEW I'd gone at least that far, but I put my faith in Andrew's knowledge of the trail. After what seemed like forever we saw the sign---for Rock Island Lake which was over a mile past the Fox Lake trail.

Great. Andrew was appologetic but I wasn't upset in the least. We stopped to figure out where we went wrong but I was of no help there. I was busy plotting the rest of my day.

Me: So if I hiked out with you, could you give me a lift to the Lady of the Lake trailhead?

Andrew: No problem, but won't your partners worry about you?

Me: They'll probably know I hiked out and got a ride and Bob knows you're planning on hiking out. Eh, I should probably go back (even though I could already taste the cheeseburger, fries and beer I could be feasting on in only a few hours time).

Andrew: I'll hike up with you...I want to see where we goofed up.

Me: Really, that's OK.

Andrew, however was insistent and, really, I was grateful for the company. After about a mile and a quarter we found the sign and trail. In fairness to each of us it was easy to miss. The sign was tacked to a tree but only visible if you were going the other way and the trail essentially doubled back up the way we were coming. Our hiking at warp speed was the final straw.

Even with the spur trail down to the lake now under my boots Andrew wanted to go down too, but after a few minutes decided climbing back up might be a pain so we parted ways. I continued down to the lake already dreading te hike out in the morning. There were obvious camp sites near the lake but there was a faint trail through the deep grass. I followed that for a few hundred years but still hadn't found the others. Finally, near the Russell Creek inlet I found the others' camp.

Our final nights camp at Fox Lake 12T 594109 4987476 (8,085')

I strolled into camp like the conquering hero I was definitely not and immediately asked for water. I'd run out about an hour earlier and didn't want a repeat of 2010's epic kidney stone episode. Brad had half a liter which I gratefully consumed. I'm not gonna lie: I was pretty beat after hiking an extra 2+ miles at that fast a pace.

Much to my surprise, Brad was pissed off at me. It seems he had lost a friendly wager with the others, quite sure I'd bailed and was on my way to relaxing at the Cooke City Super 8 and enjoying a nice dinner.

I told them all about my snafu and that I was very tempted to hike out and had a ride back to the trusty Rav4 but I wasn't going to leave my wingmen.

According to Bob, he had nearly hiked past the trail junction himself, but since he tended to hike at a far slower pace noticed the signage and decided to wait for Brad and Jeff so they didn't miss it. Descending to the lake together, they followed the faint path through the deep grass but couldn't find me camped anywhere. We all had a good laugh about my misadventures

As far as campsites went, this one would have been great if we were on horses but I had no problems finding a level spot to sleep and there were multiple food poles scattered around the perimeter. Russell Creek was right there for water but we were all a little concerned about the possibility of this being a favorite haunt of bears.

Before hitting the hay we worked out a plan that might enable us to hit breakfast the next morning. It was iffy, but we thought it could be done.

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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