Last week my brother and I completed a four day backpacking trip to the Aero Lakes area of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in southern Montana. We had wanted to do a trip in the Beartooths the past couple years, but had decided not to each year due to reports of lots of snow remaining. We finally decided to just give it a try this year. This is a blog post to share our experience and provide some details that hopefully will be useful to other people who make the trip in the future.
We started off from Cody, WY at around 7:30 A.M. and drove to the upper Lady of the Lake trailhead (marked with the green circle on the map). We arrived a little after 9 A.M. One of our maps showed the trailhead here, and it appears to be marked as the official trailhead. However, the map above shows the trail beginning at the blue circle. There appeared to be a parking area in the vicinity of the blue circle based on what we could see walking by, but I’m not sure about the feasibility of getting to that spot unless you have a high clearance vehicle since, based on the map, you have to cross the creek with your vehicle. In addition, it still appeared you had to cross some sort of creek/wet area without a bridge from the blue parking area. The green trailhead has a footbridge across the creek. However, the green trailhead adds about 1/4 to 1/2 mile to the hike. The dirt road to the trailhead (green circle) is a little rough, but it can be reached with a sedan as long as you take it easy and are careful.
The hike in was pretty straightforward until we reached the area where Star Creek and Zimmer Creek meet (yellow star on map above). As you approach this spot you will see a trail take off to the left (see picture below).
We went straight, following the better looking trail (red arrow in picture). Shortly thereafter we crossed the creek and continued on our hike. However, I quickly realized that we were following a creek going with the flow of water, which I knew wasn’t correct, so we subsequently backtracked, crossed the creek again, went back to the Y, and took the trail that goes off to the left (green arrow in picture), which ended up being the correct trail. The trail that we took initially (red arrow) follows Broadwater River briefly, and then Sky Top Creek until eventually dead ending (according to a guidebook I read), but it wasn’t marked on either of the maps I had. So if you do this hike, make sure you take the trail that goes to the left. If you have to cross a large creek at this point, you are taking the wrong trail. The correct trail crosses a creek, but a much smaller one. On the correct trail, you will be to the left of a creek, going against the flow of water.
The hike up Zimmer Creek was pretty straightforward. There is a cairn on the opposite side of the creek to indicate where to cross to head up to the Aero Lakes. I believe the map above shows the trail crossing Zimmer Creek earlier than we did (we crossed at the cairn). I have shown where I believe we crossed (pink dotted line). We were able to cross on boulders. The hike from this point up to Aero Lakes was brutal. It was a long, steep climb with loose rocks, boulders, and snow once we got near the top. The guidebook I read says it is referred to as Cardiac Hill, and climbs about 900 ft in roughly a mile.
Notice on the map above I show us not following the trail up to Lower Aero Lakes (our route shown in pink dotted line). We realized after coming back down that the route we took up was different, and I’m guessing we went up a ravine/canyon to the north of where the actual trail runs. We ended up at the same cairn by Zimmer Creek coming down, but the route we took was definitely different. We were obviously able to do it the different way going up, but it would have been easier to follow the actual trail. Still very difficult, but easier. So if you’re not following a trail, you’re probably going up the wrong ravine/canyon. We apparently just missed the trail, which starts a little ways away from the creek behind the cairn.
I believe it took us a little under 6 hours to reach Lower Aero Lake from the trailhead. After reaching Lower Aero, we found a camp spot on the point on the southern part of the lake, just to the southeast of where you reach Lower Aero. A few notes on this spot:
- It provides great shelter from the wind from every direction other than the north (which came in very handy one evening).
- You have a great view to the north, including Glacier Peak, Mount Villard, and The Spires.
- If you plan on hiking up to Upper Aero Lake, you will have to hike around the western/northwestern side of Lower Aero, which takes roughly an hour.
- Our two person tent was a very tight fit in this spot.
In my opinion, this is one of the best camp spots on the lake. However, had we camped at the NW part of the lake (yellow arrow), it would have knocked about 2 hours off each of our day hikes we did. So if you want to reduce hiking time towards Upper Aero, I would probably recommend camping somewhere along the western/northwestern side of the lake (which several people did while we were up there). Finally, if you camp up on the northwest side of Lower Aero (yellow arrow area), it may be a little noisy at night due to a couple waterfalls, so keep this in mind if you like it quiet when you sleep.
We spent the rest of the day hanging out at Lower Aero.
The goal for day 2 was to take a day hike to Upper Aero Lake and then over to Rough Lake and back. When we looked out the tent after getting up, we were surprised to see about 2/3 of the lake had a thin layer of ice over it. That was pretty cool to see. From our campsite, we weren’t quite sure how to get to Upper Aero, as it appeared there was a cliff that would prevent us from going the shortest/easiest way, but we saw a couple other backpackers camped near the cliff, so we figured we would see if they knew how to get there.
We hiked around the lake and eventually got to their camp. They said they hadn’t been able to figure out how to get to Upper Aero. As we were talking with them, a mountain goat wandered down into their camp, probably about 50 yards from us. The dog with the other backpackers saw the mountain goat, and subsequently took off after it chasing it off. Even though it was brief, it was cool to get to see the mountain goat. Shortly thereafter, a group of 4 other backpackers showed up, and they were able to figure out a way down the cliff (see picture below). Thankfully so, as our alternative routes would have been much harder and I’m not sure they would have even worked, so kudos to them.
We headed towards Upper Aero, and took some time to get pictures of the two waterfalls between Upper Aero and Lower Aero. We crossed the creek between the two lakes, and made our way to the east side of Upper Aero. Our plan was to hike along the east side of Upper Aero, and then go over a pass to Rough Lake (pink route in map above). However, we only made it to the black “X”. It looked possible to keep going, but it appeared it would be slow going due to snow and boulder hopping. I believe it was around noon when me made it to this point, and it was already starting to look a little stormy, so we decided to call it off getting to Rough Lake and just spend some time at Upper Aero so my brother could get in some fishing at Upper Aero. We hung out at Upper Aero for a little while then headed back to camp, stopping on the NW part of Lower Aero so my brother could fish some in a different spot.
Later that evening we had a storm come through that kicked the wind up pretty good and had a little rain with it. I would say gusts around 30 mph. I was definitely thankful for our sheltered camp spot. It stayed windy for a while, but gradually calmed down, and was pretty calm by dark.
We had thought about heading towards the Goose Lake area on this day, but since we didn’t make it to Rough Lake on day 2, we decided to give it another shot on day 3 with an earlier start and a different route. We left shortly after 7:00 A.M. (vs. about 9:00 A.M. on day 2) and headed up towards Upper Aero again. We decided to go up and over a different pass this time. You can see the approximate route we took on the map above.
The climb up to the pass wasn’t too bad. Lots of boulder hopping and walking across snow. A portion of the climb down the other side was really steep, but not too long. I have no idea if we went the easiest way or not, but it got us where we were wanting to go. We made it down to Shelter Lake, then to Lone Elk Lake, and then to Rough Lake. It took us about 3 hours to get to Rough Lake from our camp spot, with about an hour of that just hiking around Lower Aero. The hike from Shelter Lake to Rough Lake wasn’t bad at all. We spent some time at Rough Lake, then spent some time at Lone Elk Lake on the way back out, and then headed back to camp.
Once again that evening we had a storm come through. This one looked a lot worse than the evening before as it approached. During the storm there was plenty of lightning approximately 1/2 to 1 mile away, but we only got moderate rain for a little while, and the wind really didn’t come up much with this storm. It wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be, thankfully. It cleared out a little before sunset, and we got treated to a pretty cool sunset with the storm clouds.
Day 4 was our day to hike back out. We took our time getting camp put up in the morning, and my brother got in some more fishing. We left around 9:30 A.M. As I mentioned earlier, we took a different route going down than we took coming up, and there was a trail pretty much the whole way down, which helped a lot. We somehow managed to overlook the boulder crossing we used for Zimmer Creek on the way in, and ended up crossing through the water little further downstream. The hike out was pretty uneventful. It took us about 4.5 hours to make it back to the trailhead.
Despite the difficult hike in, it was well worth it. It is a beautiful area, and it was really cool to see the huge mountain lakes. There was lots of boulder hopping and walking on snow once up to Lower Aero lake. There is a spotty trail around the west/northwest side of Lower Aero and up to the creek between Upper and Lower Aero, but other than that it is pretty much figure out which route you think is best. Along the entire route, there were plenty of muddy and marshy areas, likely due to both snow runoff and rainfall.
The mosquitos were definitely a nuisance up to and including Lower Aero. They weren’t nearly as bad at Upper Aero for some reason. Mosquitos were pretty bad at Lone Elk Lake as well.
There were plenty of wildflowers bloomed on our trip, although it would probably be better if you waited another week or two.
We saw a few smaller animals (rock chucks, pikas, etc.), but the mountain goat was the only large animal we saw during the trip. We saw plenty of hoof prints throughout the trip, but no bear tracks.
If you want to get away from people, this probably isn’t the hike for you. I believe there were roughly 15 other people we saw come through Lower Aero Lake while we were there, which I’m pretty sure is more than we have seen on our 3 Big Horn Mountain backpacking trips combined. However, it was by no means crowded. We met in person with only about half of those people.
All in all, it was a great trip with great scenery, and was definitely one of the smoother trips my brother and I have had.
Finally, just want to do a shout out to Dmitria and Kate. We ran into them several times during the course of our trip. It was pretty crazy how similar our trips were, and it was fun getting to share plans and what we each had done since last seeing each other. Hopefully my brother and I didn’t bug you two too bad.
Stay tuned to my Facebook page as I will post on there when I have pictures from the trip posted to my website, which will likely be late this week.
If you have any questions about this hike, don’t hesitate to send me a message using the contact page, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My brother did a lot of fishing while we were up there, so I figured I would provide a quick note on fishing during our trip.
- Lower Aero Lake: caught a lot of Brooke Trout out of this lake, with a few around 12 inches in length. My brother says he had one about 16 inches come off right at shore.
- Upper Aero Lake: probably spent about an hour fishing this lake, but never got any bites.
- Rough Lake: probably spent about an hour fishing this lake, but never got any bites.
- Lone Elk Lake: probably spent about 45 minutes fishing this lake, and caught a few very small Brooke Trout.
The picture above is the trash other people left behind that we packed out. With as popular as this area seemed to be, I’m actually surprised (and pleased) we didn’t see more. Regardless, please pick up after yourself if you are out hiking/backpacking, and if you see any trash left behind, please pick it up and pack it out.