Surrounded by dynamic lakes, waterways, forests, and mountain peaks in the Beartooth Mountains, Impasse Falls is a beloved member of the Carbon County family.
While these gorgeous falls may not be in Glacier National Park – much less Yellowstone National Park – they’ve got all the beauty without the crowds (We’ll toast to that!) And among the top four waterfalls in Carbon County, Impasse Falls has the greatest elevation and most powerful wow factor.
We recommend hiking the five miles from the exquisite Rainbow Lake – or any of the neighboring lakes like Duggan Lake, the wide lake basin below Impasse Falls.
If you need to stop and rest, this gem surrounded by lush forests is a great place to picnic before hiking further up into the falls. Luckily, the trail to the top of the falls is relatively easy – especially after a snack! – and comes with spectacular views all along the way.
But it does take a bit of traction to get to Impasse Falls on its own, exploring your way through the Beaten Path, a route that runs around 26 miles through the Beartooth Mountains.
Yes, you gathered correctly: the road to Impasse Falls is epic and certainly backpacking trip-worthy, but we have a hunch you don’t mind getting some dirt under your fingernails. Plus, the nearby Rosebud Creek is a refreshing and constant guide along your journey!
While the Crow Indians originally inhabited this beautiful landscape, using it to hunt game and shield themselves from harsh winters and curious European-Americans, they currently reside on the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana.
These days, the area is protected as part of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, but the Crow people remain an integral part of these mountains and valleys in spirit and name: “Absaroka” means “crow” in their language.
And circling back to Impasse Falls, we love this area specifically because it challenges the spirit and offers unique opportunities to explore nature with friends and family.
Read on for some of our favorite neighboring lakes, creeks, mountains, trails, campsites and fishing sites, and of course, cabin rentals and hotels.
Impasse Falls, Carbon County – A Complete Guide
Impasse Falls, Carbon County Stats
- Size and Scope: 9,009 ft Elevation
- Season: Year Round
- Hours: 24/7
- Number of Campsites: None
- Wheelchair Accessible: No
The Beartooth Wilderness certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to recreational activities. We use our time wisely whenever visiting, scouring the best hiking and biking trails, and staking our tents for the night.
Sometimes, you may even see backpackers with fishing poles just to take advantage of the area’s abundant rainbow trout and countless lakes. There’s so much to do here – let’s jump in!
Hiking & Biking
As we’ve mentioned, one of our favorite ways to get to Impasse Falls is via Rainbow Lake, just a bit northeast of the falls. It’s only a seven-mile hike from the East Rosebud Trailhead out to Rainbow Lake, although this portion of the trail can be heavily trafficked at times by humans on foot or horse.
If you’re lucky enough to visit in the summer, we recommend getting on-site early to beat the crowds, but once you pass Rainbow Lake and head into the wilderness, the crowds typically quiet down. (Turns out not everyone’s interested in a backpacking trip up to Granite Peak!)
Always be bear-aware once you hit Rainbow Lake because while they’re not interested in you or your bear spray, you don’t want to mark ‘Angry Bear’ off your Montana checklist.
Of course, if you don’t have the bandwidth or daylight to visit Rainbow Lake, Elk Lake is just as beautiful – albeit not as large – and makes for a great camping site (More on that later!).
For biking, we highly recommend swooping around the Beartooth Pass, a popular ride for two-wheeled explorers. If you head ever further into Red Lodge, we love their Face of the Mountain, Palisades, and Willow Creek biking trails. You’ll be flying down the trail in no time!
Swimming & Fishing
With great lakes comes great responsibility – to bring your fishing pole and bathing suit! We absolutely love Rainbow Lake and its neighbors for plentiful rainbow and cutthroat trout, but let’s not completely discount Duggan, Twin Outlets, Dewey, or Vogel Lake a bit further down the trail, either.
While we obviously love Duggan Lake and Impasse Falls, Montana, any of the neighboring lakes make a fantastic fly fishing story with friends and segue naturally into a night under the stars.
And can you swim at Impasse Falls? No, swimming the waterfall is not advised, although once back down the trail onto Duggan Lake, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping into the water, especially if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip, Duggan Lake is as refreshing as they come.
Thankfully, there are as many places to swim around here as there are to fish, so be sure to take advantage of the cool waters along the way. We love swimming in this area because, once you get past the crowds, it feels incredibly remote and surreal. Alpine forests and jagged rocks reflected off of inviting lakes? Yes, please!
Camping & Lodging
First things first: you can absolutely camp in the area surrounding Impasse Falls, but you must know that it’s as primitive as it gets: bring your own water and leave no traces. You know how it goes!
In fact, you’re welcome to pitch a tent all along the Beartooth Mountains, but we’d recommend finding a spot suitable for fire as the summer months move into autumn. Camping past the lakes we just mentioned (Duggan, Dewey, Twin Outlets) is doable, although you won’t find as much shelter along this stretch of the end-to-end trail.
With so many lakes, off-trails, and possibilities, you can find just about anywhere to set up a tent – but we like the areas near Fossil Lake and Fizzle Lake because, well, who doesn’t like camping near a lake?
The most important thing to recognize is that once you reach the Beartooth Plateau, weather conditions may become extreme, so we like to stick closer to Duggan Lake or Elk Lake for the night, if possible.
Looking for a more amenable campground, cabin, or hotel? You’ll find some solid campgrounds along Highway 212, including Greenough Lake Campground and M-K Campground.
If cabin rentals and hotels are more your thing, we suggest heading east into Red Lodge for something a bit more modern. We’re big fans of the Two Bears Inn Bed & Breakfast, which offers a comfortable stay, gorgeous surroundings, and, yes, a hot tub.
The neighboring Inn on the Beartooth is just as cozy and warm. The only downside is that, due to already being a full house, they don’t allow pets on the premises – so choose wisely!
Down in Cooke City, you’ll find the fantastic Elk Horn Lodge, the always accommodating Super 8 by Wyndham, and more.
East Rosebud Trail to Elk Lake
Length: 6.7 miles
Because of its popularity, we’re going to start with this trail which eventually leads down to Rainbow Lake. A lot of people say this hike is easier than they expected, which probably lends to its star power.
We’ve already mentioned this as a fantastic spot to camp – if you find safety and comfort in being around others – and the trek on the way is certainly breathtaking.
Wave to the mountain goats for us! And most importantly, be sure to check on conditions before visiting, because it can, at times, be washed out due to flooding and heavy rainfall. When clear, though, this is an absolutely thrilling hike!
Granite Peak Trail
Length: 22.6 miles
We’ll be explicitly honest: not an easy trail, or at least we wouldn’t recommend attempting this hike in one day. Why? The climb-up consists of a whole lot of rocks, meaning you may need to take consistent breaks.
In fact, we recommend coming up here with a guide if you’re not an experienced climber. We’re not saying this to scare you off from Granite Peak, either – it’s absolutely stunning!
But you’ll want to be prepared for the ascent of a lifetime. This may not be Mount Everest, but it’s no lake swim, either. Good luck!
Lost Lake Trail
Length: 9.8 miles
Let’s head back to a lake, shall we? This gradual incline trail is absolutely gorgeous, and at a little less than 10 miles, it’s perfectly doable for both you and your pup.
Depending on the time of year you arrive, you’ll want to stay aware of washed-out trails due to heavy rains, but the trails are typically still passable.
If you’re a fan of hiking in the snow, snowshoeing is a great option on this out-and-back trail. Even better? Bring a tent and camp out at Lost Lake, as it makes an ideal overnight camping trip.
That’s what we love about this area of Big Sky Country – so many places to sleep under the stars.
Length: 12.3 miles
Lastly, let’s head over to Rimrock Lake, another great hike. You’ll recognize Elk Lake along the path, but you’ll verge off towards Rimrock Lake, right before hitting Rainbow Lake. While the last mile or so up until the Rimrock Lake opening can be pretty steep, the views are absolutely worth it.
Hold on and push through the discomfort – it’ll be worth the lake swim. You’ll see some waterfalls and possibly even some mountain goats along the way, so keep your camera ready and your footing steady.
Have fun wherever you roam around Impasse Falls, and let us know how your great adventure goes!