This post contains our trip details plus a daily summary, camping location guide and links to our videos.
The Beaten Path Trail is a popular, multi-day thru hike from Cooke City to East Rosebud. As a thru hike it is over 26 miles and passes many lakes along the way. The hike is easier starting out from the Cooke City side with a lot less elevation gain. The tradeoff is that the views and scenery are much better coming in from the East Rosebud. The thru hike takes a little more planning as the end points are more than 2 hours drive apart. We decided not to deal with a through hike and juggling the vehicles or doing a key swap with a stranger. Our trip was an out and back starting at East Rosebud trailhead. The goal was to see Impasse Falls. Although I didn’t track our exact mileage, we estimated it was about the same or even longer than the thru hike.
As we set off on our backpacking excursion, we are both feeling only about 50% ourselves. Steve recently brought home a cold which I caught after a few days. So along with our normal gear, there were a couple flannel scraps to use as snot rags and extra tissues in my bag. It was gross but effective; and scrap flannel is really soft!
With the dog sitter booked and bags packed we headed out for our 4 nights. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Red Lodge to the trail head. We packed for 4 nights and 5 days. (5 days of food is heavy!). We knew the first day would be challenging with the most mileage and elevation gain.
Campsite #1 was up on a knoll overlooking Rimrock lake. This was a good find especially since it saved us another mile to hike in to the Rainbow Lake camping areas.
Our 2nd morning started with an easy hike down to Rainbow Lake. We filled up our water for the day and lollygagged before making the climb up to Lake at Falls. Even with the overcast skies, the temperature was comfortable. We enjoyed the nice mirror lake for the morning.
The hike proceeded past Lake at Falls and then Big Park Lake. We targeted a nice large camp area beyond Big Park Lake. We arrived, slashed around at tons of bugs and decided to keep moving further down the trail. Eventually we found an established camp just before the Granite Creek crossing.
Day Hike to Impasse Falls
With our good location of our 2nd campsite, we could easily do a morning hike to the falls, return to camp, pack up and carry the packa mostly downhill back to Rainbow Lake for our 4th night.
The plan worked great. After a rainy afternoon and night, our 3rd days weather was perfect. With just a lunch and water we set out for the falls.
Duggan Lake was quite different than the other 4 lakes we passed. Duggan is framed on one end with large rocks decorating the waters surface and the huge, crashing waterfall at the other. It was very beautiful.
We hiked up to the top, returned to the lake for lunch, then with our fill of scenery and food headed back to our campsite.
Heading back down we caught a few views of the valley below.
After we returned from the falls, we packed up camp. Fortunately everything had a chance to dry out! Then we returned back to Rainbow Lake for our 3rd night and planned to camp at Elk Lake for our 4th night.
While relaxing at Rainbow Lake, we had an entertaining evening watching the many crickets jump around and hang out in the water.
The next morning, we contained reversing our hike towards Elk Lake. We started off with a sunny day which slowly transformed to clouds and even thunder as we approached Elk Lake. We arrived at the Lake, took a short break and contemplated not pitching the tent. As the drizzle picked up, we decided to move on and hike out.
We ended up skipping a rainy 4th night in the tent. Another rainy evening trapped in a tent seemed worse than just bucking up and hiking out the remaining 3.5 miles.
This time of year, we ended up with very poor weather and air quality. Setting out from East Rosebud the air was smokey and visibility was not great.
Last years hike, I had very bad blisters occur as we came down the Sundance Pass. I made a couple adjustments this year which helped and I was able to hit the nearly 9 miles on our last day. But still blisters got me this trip. I’m currently already shopping for replacement boots.
Our Day by Day Trek
Day 1 Longest climbing day
- Starting elevation is 6280 ft
- Trailhead to Elk Lake 3.5 and about 800 ft elevation gain.
- Elk Lake is a popular day hike and lunch stop.
- Elk Lake to Rimrock is 3 miles and 900 ft elevation gain
- Rimrock to Rainbow Lake is 2 more miles and we hiked about 1 mile from Rimrock to find campsite #1 between the two lakes.
Day 2 – beyond Rainbow to Camp #2; around 3 miles
- Travel from camp to Rainbow Lake inlet 1 mile and since we already completed most of the climb it was mostly downhill. We filled up water and enjoyed a slow morning sitting on the lake shore.
- 2nd mile and 500 ft elevation gain and we get a good look at Lake at Falls. Aptly named with the two large falls cascading on the opposite side of the lake.
- From there you hike thru the forest and pass Big Park Lake.
- The inlet side has a large camp area which unfortunately was extremely buggy. Just past here is where we planned to camp for the 2nd night.
- We kept moving away from this lake looking for a camp area and luckily found a nice large camp area just before Granite Creek. That gave us a short 5 min walk down to the creek to fill up our water.
Day 3 – Day hike and return
- We broke day 3 up into a day hike to Impasse Falls which was about 5.6 miles round trip.
- Then we completed packing up our campsite and headed out to return to Rainbow Lake for our 3rd night of camping.
Day 4 – planned short hike to Elk Lake
- The 4.5 miles back to Elk Lake, our intended 4th night sleeping spot, went much easier than coming up
- Assessing feet and aches and the sky we decided to keep going the additional 3.5 miles to the trail head
- The skies were opening up and actually doused us really well for over 45 minutes. I’m sure I hiked much faster in that pouring rain. But once it turned into drizzle, my steam had slowed down and we took it slower.
With sore feet and just tired backs, we got back to our jeep, got comfortable in dry clothes, removed the boots, grabbed more water and snacks for the drive back to the camper.
We want to repeat this hike but as a thru hike starting from Cooke City. I’m sure that overall it’s be easier and we can do the full mileage in 3 nights. Pending weather and bugs that could change!
We really wanted the logistics to work so we could drop our gear and still complete a day hike to the falls. That presented a challenge when the area next to Big Park Lake was just too buggy. This was the only camp area we identified, both by map and a verbal confirmation from a local friend, between Rainbow Lake and the falls.
I definitely felt relieved that we spotted the campsite #2 just before the Granite Creek Bridge crossing. Otherwise it would’ve been another 2 miles min to keep hunting for somewhere to pitch the tent. Worse case would be past the falls to the Twin Outlets Lake area.
Next time we may just setup camp just at Rainbow and do a really long day hike instead of moving to the 2nd campsite. Doable, but we knew that would still be over our typical max mileage.
So for planning purposes here’s my observations on available camp areas:
- Elk Lake: numerous and large area on outlet end and along the trail.
- Rimrock Lake has just room for maybe 1-2 towards the inlet end of the lake.
- Rainbow has plenty of room. There are a few paths leading away from the main beach are back into the forest.
- Lake at the Falls we saw no camping but perhaps there’s 1-2 tucked away somewhere.
- Big Park Lake has a large open area for camping and access to a stream for water. This was the very buggy area.
- Duggan Lake has no camping or at least “legal” camping.
Keeping in mind the National Forest rule is 100′ from the trail and 200′ from water makes some of the camp spots we saw illegal. Just do your research, do the right thing and you’ll be ok.
Hope you enjoy the video of our trip. We saw many folks coming and going over our 4 days. It’s a popular trail.
Here’s last years trip video over the Sundance Pass:
We’re leaving Montana to go work on our new Idaho site. It’ll be a couple nights on the road and hopefully we’ll have a new camp review or two to share!
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