The Beartooth Mountains are part of a large wilderness complex formed in 1978, formerly known as a “primitive area,” since known as the “Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness*,” or “AB.” It sits north and northeast of Yellowstone National Park, and for most of my life has been my preferred destination over the Park. It offers solitude, miles of trails, and often enough, a private lake for backpackers. (There are 944 lakes in the complex. Many have fish in them, not my concern, but an added attraction.)
For reference, the AB is the circled area in the Montana map to the left. From the image above you can grasp the enormity of the area, and the number of lakes. From a hiking standpoint, the Beartooth Mountains are an “uplift” forming a high ice plateau. This creates many drainages and basins in which lakes naturally form. While forested, it is not heavily so. Hikers only rarely get lost, as the landscape usually shows the way out – just follow a drainage. But trails are abundant. However, leaving a trial is not in any way dangerous, as the landscape usually offers a good sense of where you are.
A person could spend his whole life just exploring the AB. It offers many entrance points from both Wyoming and Montana. My favorite is Island Lake, circled in red above. I like it because the lake itself is beautiful, offers a campground, and rests at 9,000 feet elevation, meaning that a hiker starts high and has less climbing to do than from other access points.
When I met my wife in 1995, we instantly hit it off because we both loved the outdoors and hiking, true to this day. I took great joy in showing her the AB, and over the years we have made many trips there, including on our recent 25th anniversary trip. This post, however, has to do with what I regard as an amazing coincidence, and also a tribute to what a sharp eye my wife has.
In 1997 we entered the AB at Island lake, shown above, and carried packs to Albino lake, about six miles in from there. Albino sits near the base of Lonesome Mountain, the prominent peak seen in the photo above. (See the circle and the arrow on the very top map for orientation.) We set up camp, and then did day hike up and over a pass and down to and beyond Golden and Jasper lakes, onto what are called the Cloverleaf lakes. The map below is a scaled down look at the area. We were in the area right under the word “Beartooth” in lower center. We were in search of Arrowhead Lake for some reason, and I am not sure we ever found it.
As you can see, we were two days into this vast area, which is why I think what follows is an amazing coincidence.
I do not know what I am pointing at in this photo (what I think is Arrowhead?), but we are near the Cloverleafs. In the map above, I have drawn a green circle around the lake that I think we were near, which (on the map anyway) is unnamed. You can see the northern tip of it in the lower left of the photo. This was taken in July of 1997.
Weeks later my wife was leaving a grocery store and noticed that Montana Magazine was available on the news stand, dated September of 1997. She is very good at this stuff, and thought she recognized the place where the cover photo was taken.
Take a look at the ridge line in both photos, the one of me and the Montana Magazine cover. The photographers were standing in almost the same spot. You can see not only the ridge line, but the northern tip of the unnamed lake are the same. I have no idea when the Montana Magazine photo was taken, but the shape of the snow fields on the horizon suggest perhaps the same time, maybe even same year.
Given the vastness of the area and the fact that the site of the photos is a two-day journey into the complex, I think it an amazing coincidence that both photos were of the same place, and that my wife spotted it. No way would I have noticed.
[By the way, the photos show a stark landscape, no trees visible. That is because of the elevation – it is too high for trees to grow. Rest assured at lower elevations the AB offers forests and spectacular scenery. Image to the left, one of my favorite spots, nine miles in, name withheld.]
Anyway, if you are young and fit, or even just young at heart and fit, you could do worse than to head for the AB. I have described but a small scintilla of a massive complex. Take a look here too, a list of wilderness areas in our land. What a privilege to have had people before us who saw the need to preserve these areas. The AB, at 1,474 square miles, is exceeded in size (in the lower 48) only by the Bob Marshall complex, also in Montana, the Selway Bitterroot in Montana and Idaho and Death Valley in California.
There are not enough lifetimes to begin to explore all that is available to us. I’ve only described those areas in the lower 48. Alaska is off the charts.
*From the text of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the first of several: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”