A Quick Hike to Slough Lake along the Phantom Creek Trail

The bacon was done sizzling.  The eggs were fried.  Orange juice was ready to wash it all down.  Father’s Day morning was well underway, but still not far enough along that the day was shot.  It’s the middle of June, the weather is great, and in the words of John Muir, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

The problem: it was 9:30 in the morning already, so a hike longer than just a couple of miles would mean getting home late, the same goes for a drive to the trailhead that’s over 2 hours.  These limitations narrowed the choices considerably, and made the destination an easy choice: Slough Lake in the East Rosebud Valley.

Phantom Creek Trail

Getting to Phantom Creek Trailhead

Some approaches are obscure, especially when you’re off to do some rock or ice climbing.  Other approaches are easy to find.  This hike, which I haven’t done since the early 2000’s, falls into the easy to find category.

From I-90 you exit the interstate at Columbus.  Zip through town and go south to Absarokee.  Continue on through Absarokee continuing south to the tiny town of Roscoe, MT (population: 15).  Turn into town, and pass the Grizzly Bar onto the East Rosebud Road.  Along the way you cut through the foothills following East Rosebud Creek.  This time of year it’s especially green and lush as the summer heat has not yet set in.  You see antelope down lower, mule deer in the hills, white tail deer along the creek, and plenty of birds including the awesome bald eagle.

As you enter the valley you pass by million dollar homes.  Not exactly the scenery desired with a trip to the wilderness; fortunately they are few and you’re quickly immersed in the woods.

Just as quickly, however, you’re out of the woods.  In 1996 the valley went up in flames.  Fire ripped through thousands of acres, devastating the forest.  It was devastating by our standards at least.  But these fires are necessary to revitalize the area, and now, 24 years later, the mountains are blanketed with 6 to 12 foot tall trees that have naturally come back.

As you approach East Rosebud Lake, there’s a small parking area clearly marked as Phantom Creek Trailhead.  It’s here where you head out on foot.

Trekking to Slough Lake

Not 100 yards into your hike, you enter the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.  It’s time to put away your chainsaws, motorized vehicles, and yes, even your drones.  One of the rules to protect these areas is a limitation on noise makers: such as anything with a motor (combustion or not).

Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Copywriter outdoor adventures

It’s a steady uphill hike the entire two miles.  But as you rise above the valley floor, every turn offers new and breathtaking views framed by multi-colored wildflowers, many of which offer an indescribable fragrance to the trail.

Hiking Phantom Creek Montana Wildflowers

Across the valley you start to make out another trail zig-zagging its way up the mountain.  Previous experience tells me that is the trail to Sylvan Lake, and, if you follow it long enough, you can eventually pass by Crow Lake, Mary Lake, into the Quinnebaugh Meadows, and finish up at along the West Fork of Rock Creek outside of Red Lodge, MT.  A phenomenal trek, but at almost 15 miles on difficult and steep terrain, that’s for another day.

Scottie Dog Wilderness Hiking Backpacking Montana

Glancing up the valley you get almost a bird’s eye view of East Rosebud Lake.  Cabins dotting the accessible shore means it’s almost impossible to recreate much along these waters unless you hike to the far end.  Despite the abundance of private land, it’s still a spectacular view of one of the larger bodies of water in these mountains.

East Rosebud Lake Montana

Down the valley you see The Ramp.  It’s a moderately well climbed protrusion made of pristine rocky mountain granite.  A single crack continues along the slab for several hundred feet making for an easy-ish climb that takes great gear and is one of the first that many beginning trad climbers should check off as they (literally) learn the ropes.

Backpacking in Montana

Eventually the trail levels out, and for the last half mile or so it’s a very low incline through thickening trees.  Soon, you turn the corner, and Slough Lake is before you.  Well, sort of.  It’s not really a lake, but rather a widening of Phantom Creek.  It’s never more than a couple of feet deep, and not 50 feet across.

Lower Slough Lake Phantom Creek Montana Adventure Writer

That’s not to say it’s a worthless hike though.

The Fishing Was

No, I’m not missing an adjective in that sentence.  It simply was.  Heading to Slough Lake don’t expect to catch many fish, and don’t expect to catch big fish.  While there we could only see a few swimming in the water, and reeled in one small brook trout.

Fishing Slough Lake East Rosebud Phantom Creek

But these adventures are not all about the fishing.  They’re about taking in the scenery.  Smelling the sweet and pungent scent of pine trees.  Hearing the wind come off the mountain pushing its way toward the valley floor.  These adventures are about scoping the mountainsides in hopes of spotting a bighorn sheep, mountain goat, or a grizzly bear (from a long, long ways away of course).  It’s all about sitting lakeside on giant granite boulders bigger than your car, casually eating lunch as the warmth of the sunlight pierces the cool mountain air.

Outdoors Writer Montana

When it’s time to leave, it’s bittersweet.  You wish you could stay longer, but night comes quickly in the mountains.  It’s not that animals come out at night that’s troubling, but rather the plummeting temperatures that accompany the darkness.  It’s also the fact that even though the hike is short, you have two miles to walk before you reach your vehicle.

Upper Slough Lake Phantom Creek Trail Montana

Stopping at Wildflower Kitchen for Dinner

Heading back to the car, you get even better views.  The sun, lowering itself in the West, paints the mountains in gold.  Facing downhill you get even more of these spectacular views.

The Ramp rock climbing east rosebud Montana

Packing up, it’s a quick drive back to Absarokee, especially now that you’re not following some slowpoke that is scared to drive over 20mph on the dirt roads.  But just before you get there, it’s time for a bite to eat at the Wildflower Kitchen.  This great little dining establishment just opened a few months ago, and is owned and operated by two British guys.  With a wide range of choices, from buffalo burger, to fish and chips, to chicken massala, and more, there is something for everyone.

Wild Flower Kitchen Absarokee Montana

Full bellies, legs that have been worked but not worn, and a good afternoon adventure in the majestic Beartooth Mountains on the short drive back to Billings.

There’s a force within many of us that tells us that when the mountains call, go.

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