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Montana Day Hikes: Mystic Lake

By Edited Sep 25, 2014 3 2
Mystic Lake Overview

Overview of Mystic Lake

Mystic Lake is a beautiful high mountain lake located approximately 70 miles southwest of Billings in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of south central Montana.  It is located at an elevation of about 7,600 ft and is a six mile round-trip hike from the trailhead, which is located at an elevation of 6,545 ft.  It is a natural feature on West Rosebud Creek, but was enlarged with a concrete arch dam in 1926[1].  In addition to being a beautiful day hike, the area has an interesting history.  In the early 20th century the Mystic Hydroelectric Project was undertaken to divert water from Mystic Lake down the mountain to a powerhouse.

Getting There

Leaving from Billings, Montana’s largest city, travel west on Interstate 90 to Columbus.  Then head south along Highway 78 past Absarokee and turn right at Nye Road.  Continue on through the tiny town of Fishtail, go around a curve to the left and then turn left onto West Rosebud Road before the next curve to the right.  There is a small sign for Mystic Lake that is visible only after turning onto West Rosebud Road.  After about 6 miles there is a left turn that is marked with signs.  The trailhead is another 14 miles at the end of this gravel road.  The road can be traveled in a passenger car, but can be rough in places.  There are occasional free range cows along the road as well.  The drive from Billings takes about 2.5 hours.

History

Prior to 1926, Mystic Lake was considerably smaller than it is today.  At the location of the current dam, there was a waterfall known as Mystic (or West Rosebud) Falls.  In 1924 dynamite was used to create a hole in the bottom of the lake and water was diverted through a tunnel into a flowline that runs horizontally along the north side of the valley for nearly two miles before reaching a surge tower and a penstock that drops steeply down the mountain to the powerhouse.  Along the length of the flowline and penstock pipes, a narrow gauge railway was constructed for workers to ascend and descend the very steep 1,100 feet in a railcar.  In 1926, the lake was enlarged with the construction of a concrete arch dam.  The powerhouse at the base of the mountain contains two turbines, which produce enough electricity to power 7,000 homes[1].

Mystic Lake Dam

Mystic Lake Dam and Flowline

Penstock

Penstock and Narrow Gauge Railway Descending from Surge Tower

Mystic Lake Powerhouse

Mystic Lake Powerhouse

The Hike

The trailhead for Mystic Lake is located at the end of West Rosebud road and consists of a small parking area, an outhouse and some informational signs.  The hike to Mystic Lake is moderately difficult, depending on your fitness level.  Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash.  This hike is popular, so there are usually quite a few people around.  The advantage of this is that it tends to keep bears away. 

Parking Area at Mystic Lake Trailhead

Parking Area at Mystic Lake Trailhead

From the parking lot, the trail passes through the grounds of the Mystic Lake powerhouse, where there are some houses and other buildings and a couple signs describing the history of the project.  The trail crosses a bridge over the penstock and railway and heads up the south side of the valley opposite of the pipe.  There is a second bridge over West Rosebud Creek.  The trail starts out relatively flat and smooth in the forested valley but later becomes very rocky when it emerges into a big open boulder field.  Here there are a series of switchbacks before the trail reaches its highest point where the beautiful Mystic Lake makes a stunning appearance below.  This is the perfect place to stop for photos before heading down a short series of switchbacks to the lake.

Mystic Lake Trail

Rocky Section of Mystic Lake Trail

Along the trail there are wild raspberries, big mushrooms, roaring creek rapids, aspen groves, distant patches of snow, lichen covered boulders, and expansive views of the valley below.  The lake contains rainbow trout and mountain whitefish and many people incorporate some fishing into their day hike[2].  Mystic Lake is also a launching point for people hiking to Froze-to-Death Plateau (elevation 10,000 ft), which overlooks the south side of the lake and leads to Granite Peak, Montana’s highest peak (elevation 12, 807 ft.).  These can be accessed using the Phantom Lake trail, which starts along the south side of Mystic Lake.  Many people camp at the Phantom Lake trailhead before going to Granite Peak.  There are also two additional lakes beyond Mystic named Island Lake and Silver Lake.

Scenes from Mystic Lake Trail

Scenes from Mystic Lake Trail: (Clockwise from top left) Wild Raspberry, Creek Rapids, Mushroom, Aspen Grove

Tips

  • Be sure to bring some extra clothes and a raincoat.  It is nearly always chilly at the lake, especially if you get sweaty during the hike.  When the trail emerges above the lake, there can sometimes be a blast of wind.  It is also common to have rain during the hiking season, usually in the form of an afternoon storm.
  • Plan to pack out everything you pack in.  The area gets a lot of traffic and there are some inconsiderate litterbugs in the world.  If you remove your garbage it will help protect the beauty of the place for everyone (bonus points for removing litter).  The last time I hiked to Mystic Lake, there was a forest ranger enforcing this rule.
  • Wear sensible shoes.  It is not a difficult hike, but it does get very rocky and this can make your feet sore and put you at risk for turning an ankle.
  • Turn your phone off or use airplane mode.  There is no service there and searching for service will just kill your battery.
  • There are campgrounds along the road to the Mystic Lake trailhead if you want to stay close by instead of driving in from a town.  Emerald Lake is another beautiful place to fish along this road and it is located near the campgrounds.
Mystic Lake

First View of Mystic Lake from Hiking Trail

Mystic Lake is one of the most popular day hikes in south central Montana.  The hike provides great exercise but is not too difficult.  That first overlook of the lake is a beautiful reward for covering the 3 miles uphill.  

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Comments

Oct 13, 2014 6:23am
Merrci
Montana is such a beautiful state, as your photos show! It looks like a great, varied hike. How long did it take to do do it? One of these days I would like to spend some time exploring your state!
Oct 13, 2014 8:21am
jbales1972
Thanks, Merrci. I agree it is a very beautiful place! It probably takes about 1.5 hours on the way up, allowing time to "take in the scenery" (which really means catching your breath ;-)) and about 1 hour on the way down.
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Bibliography

  1. Linda Halstead-Acharya " The Power of Place: History, Utility and Intrigue Blend at Mystic Lake Facility." Billings Gazette. 04/10/2009. 23/09/2014 <Web >
  2. John Pizzimenti and Ginger Gillin "Literature Review of Aquatic and Recreational Resources at Mystic Lake Hydropower Project No. 2301." PPL Montana Mystic Lake Project Coordination Site. 23/09/2014 <Web >

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