Mystic Lake is a natural body of water located deep within Montana’s Yellowstone Country, about 80 miles southwest of Billings. The lake is one of, if not the deepest in the region of the Beartooth Mountains, at approximately 300 feet.
It also has some sandy beaches along the 6-mile shoreline about as decent and also as long as you are likely to find anywhere in the state. Mystic Lake sits within the boundaries of the Custer National Forest, of which the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area covers over 900,000 acres, as well as stretches of the Gallatin National Forest and the Shoshone National Forest.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the storage capacity of this natural body of water was raised somewhat with the construction of a 400-feet long dam by the Montana Power Company. A landslide actually breached the dam in 1984 though, and it ended up being removed a year later.
The natural rugged appeal of the lake and the surrounding area has remained largely intact, aside from a pipeline running along the mountainside. Mystic Lake is pretty much the only place in the Beartooths where you get the unique opportunity to see a hydroelectric dam in action and enjoy the incredibly scenic surrounding wilderness at the same time.
The lake is easily one of the most popular day-use destinations in this region of Montana. Access to the lake is limited to a three-mile trail which also allows some impressive views of West Rosebud Valley and a few other lakes. The location of the lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, almost 7,000 feet above sea level, makes it one of the most scenic in the state.
The trail up to the lake is a tad steep in spots and may prove even more challenging in winter weather, but you’ll find it more than busy on warm summer weekends. There are actually a couple of different trailheads up to the lake but the Bear Canyon route is the shortest.
No vehicles are allowed on the trail these days and even horses are excluded. Bear in mind that the trail is open from May to October, although there may still be times when the road to the trailhead may not be in the best of shape.
This area is a popular destination with hikers and backpackers looking to stop off at one of the campgrounds in the lower valley. The tiny village of Fishtail can be found 20 miles back up the road from the lake, and the larger town of Absarokee is another five miles further on and has probably the best of the amenities in the region with various local shops, a few steakhouses, and a bunch of bar & restaurant-type establishments.
On top of that, you have plenty of options for lodgings if you fancy stopping over. Anyone heading to Mystic Lake from either Bozeman or Billings should take the I-90 east of Bozeman or west of Billings. Exit at Columbus, then turn south on MT-78 N, following the route until you reach Nye Rd.
Continue along this road until you drive through Fishtail, then take a left for West Rosebud Road which will take you all the way to the lake after another 15 or so miles.
Mystic Lake Stats
- 13-acre lake
- Elevations of approximately 6,500 feet
- 4 campgrounds
- Some parts open seasonally
Main Attractions at Mystic Lake
Certainly, many people are coming in just to do a spot of hiking up to and around the picturesque lake. Off-road biking is also on the cards here, as is fishing which comes highly rated by both locals and visitors alike. This is a great recreation area for either just a day or maybe a few.
Accommodation-wise the area is rich in options, depending on how near or far you want to be to the lake. There are ample campsites within walking distance of the lake, and you won’t find it difficult to locate other types of accommodation a bit further out – especially in Absarokee just up the road.
Things to do at Mystic Lake
Mystic Lake is widely regarded as an excellent trout fishing location, and anglers need to be licensed. With its deep and cold waters and its recesses and hidey-holes, it doesn’t prove too difficult for anglers to locate brook trout, rainbow trout, and cutthroat trout. The cutthroat seems to be the most common and they can reach a fair size somewhere in the 10-16 inch range, occasionally even larger.
The Rainbow Trout are a bit smaller, but the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks keeps the lake stocked with Rainbow Trout. Here it’s a case of fish from wherever is your own preference. Some anglers stay close to one of the several small islands just feet from the shore. Others position themselves closer to the inlet of the lake.
Mountain Biking at Mystic Lake
The trail is easy-access and fairly wide, and it follows Bozeman Creek along Sourdough Canyon Trail. This is a 20-mile, out and back trip that is also a way more accessible route to Mystic Lake than the others. There’s also a vault toilet in the parking lot.
Starting out from the parking lot at Sourdough Canyon Trailhead, follow the Sourdough Canyon Trail. After a few miles, it continues onto the Forest Service Road 979, which crosses over Bozeman Creek after about another four miles.
From this point, it’s time to lean into a steady yet continuous uphill 10-mile climb along a two-lane road. Eventually, you crest the hill at Mystic Lake, and the payoff for the climb is… a 10-mile downhill cruise!
Camping at Mystic Lake
If you want to spend a bit more than one day hiking around the area, camping is the way to go. Mystic Lake is a popular spot for camping, and you can bring your own tent and seek out one of the many campsites near the lake, or book a night at the Mystic Lake Cabin.
Seasoned visitors to the vicinity will tell you to pitch your tent after at least a half-mile from the lake outlet. This is because fewer people than you might think actually hike past the first half-mile of the trail, leaving the campsites there nicely available.
Dispersed camping is allowed around the lake, and reportedly the best spots lie along the southern wing. There are lots of campsites in and around the Custer Gallatin National Forest area, but the following four are the nearest and within 5 miles of the cabin. They are all close to Bozeman and a range of outdoor recreational activities.
Hood Creek Campground is located next to the scenic Hyalite Reservoir, in the Bozeman Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest. It is 17 miles south of Bozeman, and some of the highlights of the surrounding area include boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking and climbing.
Langohr Campground is located in scenic Hyalite Canyon in the Bozeman Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest. It is located just 12 miles south of Bozeman and is a popular access point to various outdoor recreational opportunities like fishing, hiking, and climbing.
Chisholm Campground is located next to the scenic Hyalite Reservoir in the Bozeman Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest, 18 miles south of Bozeman, and provides access to various boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, and climbing pursuits.
Lower Hyalite Group is located in scenic Hyalite Canyon in the Bozeman Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest. It is just nine miles south of Bozeman, and it offers many outdoor recreational opportunities, particularly fishing, hiking, and climbing.
All campground fees are around $20.00 per night
If you follow the Mystic Lake Trail eastwards instead of going down to the lake, you’ll find Mystic Lake Cabin within 5 miles or so of the previously mentioned campgrounds. It’s equipped with bunk beds and mattresses and sleeps up to four people.
Basic cooking and eating amenities exist, but no electricity or water. The cabin will suit anyone not wishing to camp out in a tent. Reservations need to be made beforehand.
Hiking Trails at Mystic Lake
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness encompasses most of the trail and surrounding area of the lake. This means views, scenery, and landscapes.
The Mystic Lake trail is fairly easy to get to, which means medium traffic. The trail starts out at the parking area along Bear Canyon Road.
This is a 3.5-mile hike along which you might just come across a mountain goat, a deer – maybe a bear. Once you reach the lake you can continue eastwards towards Island Lake and Silver Lake, or you might head down towards the lake and take a well-deserved break at the largest sandy beach in the entire region.
If you have the energy to spare you may decide to hike another couple of miles around the lake — or even set up camp. The trail is best used from May until October, and dogs are allowed on a leash.
The Mystic Lake Trailhead also gives access to the West Rosebud Trail, which is one of two trails that leads up to the highest peak in Montana, Granite Peak. West Rosebud Lake is another excellent spot for fishing, and the best time for this hike is in summer, between July and September.
This is a 5.7 mile-long trail ideal for day trips, complete with some impressive views of Mystic Lake. This is one of two popular routes providing access to the highest peak in Montana — Granite Peak.
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness boundary is close to the border of Mystic Lake. Visitors should be aware of where the boundary is and what is expected of them before entering the wilderness. The distance to the dam at the east end of the lake is just 3 miles from this spot, and you can reach the bridge at Huckleberry Creek in less than 6 miles.
Beyond Huckleberry Creek, you can get across a log jam and carry on into Island and Silver Lakes. Look out for the log jam being slippery there, and don’t expect too much along the lines of a maintained trail.