Hiking the Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana is a journey into a rugged yet beautiful wilderness. The name doesn’t do this adventure justice. As you walk, the path follows the flow of the pine-laden creek while the destination is a set of gorgeous alpine lakes. The surprisingly large Pine Creek Lake sits in a bowl below the jagged peaks of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It looks up at the 10,310′ Mount McKnight and 10,941′ Black Mountain. The other lake, Jewel Lake sits directly below Pine Creek Lake and is even more beautiful with a small waterfall crashing into it. The journey to the lakes is a long one with a lot of elevation gain. However, there are no less than three massive waterfalls along with countless smaller falls leaving you awe-struck as you slog up the steep mountain valley. This is a tough but highly rewarding trek.
Like most alpine destinations this trail is best undertaken during the summer and fall after the snow melts. The Pine Creek Lake Trail is typically snow-free by early July and the snow doesn’t return until mid-September. I’ve read about hikers taking on the steep trail in winter with snowshoes but that is an incredibly long way to hike in snowshoes. I would not recommend it unless you are very experienced.
The Pine Creek Lake Trailhead is found 3-miles up on the single lane Luccock Park Road off of Montana Highway 540. The entire journey is on asphalt but the single lane road carries both directions of traffic so caution is needed. The parking area consists of three small sections behind the Pine Creek Campground. In the summer, the lot seems to fill up on weekends by noon so plan to arrive relatively early. However, if you wish to take on this trail in a single day you will want to arrive well before noon.
The Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana
Prior to hiking the Pine Creek Trail in Montana, I had read that the trail was longer than the 5-miles that the forestry service states. While we did find the trail to be closer to 5.25-miles (one way), that is a far cry from the 14-miles that some online trail reviewers are listing.
Trailhead to Pine Creek Falls
Leaving the parking area, the trail passes through a section of new growth where the fireweed plants stand high above the fallen logs. This gives way to an older dense forest that will be your companion for the next few miles. The path quickly crosses over Pine Creek via a solidly built bridge and then begins to follow the flow upstream. At 1.3 miles with just over 300′ in elevation gain, you will arrive at a thin bridge crossing over the creek directly below the first Pine Creek Waterfall.
Pine Creek Falls
This lower Pine Creek Waterfall drops roughly 170′ in two columns of water. The one on the left falls in a column and then fans out as it slides down a slab of rock on the lower half of the falls. The one on the right is initially out of sight but is easily spotted as the path turns, drops through a small gorge, and changes direction as it smashes into the hard rock walls. Both sides of the waterfall are equally beautiful and unique making this a great destination in and of itself. This is no secret and the waterfall is a very popular destination for day hikers.
Climb to the Top of the Falls
Once you leave the waterfall the trail immediately enters a steep ascent as it begins to switch back up to the top of the falls. This steep elevation gain will be the norm not the exception of the remainder of the trail. Most of the traffic found on the Pine Creek Lake Trail begins to fall off with only a handful of hikers continuing to the top of the waterfall and even fewer continuing beyond.
Onward & Upward
Once at the top of the waterfall (6,270′) the trail continues to climb through more switchbacks. Along the way, a second smaller waterfall can only be glimpsed through the trees but the sound is nearly overwhelming. At 2 miles on the trail, the path exits the switchbacks but continues the steep climb for an additional 1/4 a mile before entering into a brief moderate climb up the valley floor.
Log Creek Crossing
At 2.5 miles and 7,000′ (1,351′ above the parking lot) the trail cuts across the creek. There isn’t a well-engineered bridge located on this crossing. Hikers must make their way cautiously across fallen logs that have been jammed in this area of the flow. Bring your hiking poles to more easily keep your balance on the uneven logs.
Climbing the First Shelf
On the other side of the creek, the trail seemingly splinters in your first opportunity to lose the path. Up the creek, the water flows over a shelf cascading down the hillside. This is the first of three shelves that you will need to climb over before reaching Pine Creek Lake. Rather than tackling the shelf directly to the east, the correct path leads northwest away from the shelf in one long switchback through the trees before turning back east and climbing through a set of tight switchbacks to the top of the shelf.
One Waterfall after the Other
At about 3.5 miles and 7,900 feet, the path crosses over the first shelf and continues a slightly more moderate ascent along the edge of the creek. The next half-mile of the path is exceptionally beautiful as it hugs the creek through a long section of cascading waterfalls. One small waterfall is found after the other as they flow through a less dense section of forest with an immense abundance of wildflowers lining the creek. This was one of my favorite areas on the entire Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana.
Climbing the Second Shelf
Approaching 4 miles on the trail the path leads away from the creek as it approaches the second shelf. Much like the approach to the first shelf, the trail turns to the northwest in a long exposed switchback. The terrain is much rockier but with fewer switchbacks. This section does a few succinct switchbacks before climbing to the top of the shelf on a long rocky cliffside. The trail gains 300′ in just over a quarter of a mile.
The 335′ Upper Pine Creek Waterfall
At roughly 4.25-miles on the trail, hikers climb onto the top of the second shelf located at an elevation of 8,630 feet. Immediately you spot a massive waterfall plunging over the side of the third shelf. It is a beautiful sight with an overwhelming crash as it smashes into the rocks and cascades down the shelf into an unseen lake 335′ below. It is beautiful and simultaneously heartbreaking if you didn’t know there was yet another shelf to climb.
Climbing the Third Shelf
At 4.5 miles on the trail, the path starts the final ascent up the mountainside to the north of the waterfall. Over the next half mile, the path climbs 425′ through a section of tight switchbacks on its way to the Pine Creek Trails’ highest point. At 5 miles on the trail and 9,094 feet, the path climbs onto the third shelf and looks down on the gorgeous Jewel Lake with the jagged mountains of the Beartooth Wilderness rising above.
It is a quick 100′ descent to the shore of Jewel Lake (8,975′). A small waterfall is located on the far side of the lake seemingly pouring off of the now unseen Pine Creek Lake above. The10,941′ Black Mountain rises above the lake just to the right. It is a magnificent scene worthy of the effort to get here but there is still another lake to be discovered beyond. You can also look down on the massive 335′ waterfall that was an ever-present companion on the last section of the trail.
Pine Creek Lake Loop
The final traverse to Pine Creek Lake is a loop but the route can be difficult to spot. You can head east to the lake from the north side of Jewel Lake but this path is less defined and harder as it climbs up the small cliff face on the far side. It isn’t overly difficult and is the most direct route to the lake above.
The south side of the loop crosses the flow of the run-off from Jewel Lake above the massive waterfall. There is no bridge here. It is narrow enough for some long-legged hikers to jump across but the safest option is to wade through. The path on the other side is well defined and easy to follow as it climbs over the rocky terrain directly to the south of Jewel Lake. Once atop the rocky hillside Pine Creek Lake will reveal itself once again to you and it is a quick descent down the slabs of rock lining the lakeshore.
Pine Creek Lake
Pine Creek Lake is surprisingly large as it fills a bowl at the base of several high peaks. There is yet another waterfall flowing down into the calm waters on the far side of the lake. This comes off of the snowpack on the north face of Black Mountain. If you are up for more time in the mountains, Black Mountain can be summited and we even saw a brave snowboarder descend the snowpack in early August. You can also round the east side of the lake and hike to the waterfall.
The Land Between the Lakes
To continue the loop, the trail rounds the northwest shore of the lake across slabs of stone. You will need to cross over two separate outflows from the lake. Once you are across the second the trail is easily picked up on the other side. It descends a small 15′ shelf to a thin meadow between the two lakes. Two small waterfalls drop off the lake into the meadow where they flow back into one another. The waterfall on the northside is especially beautiful and this was one of our favorite spots on the Pine Creek Lake Trail.
Return to Jewel Lake
The path then climbs back over a small hill before arriving on the south side of Jewel Lake. The cascading creek and waterfall is to the left and the path is to the right over the rocky 12′ cliff face. The descent is easier than it looks from the north side of the lake and before you know it you are at the end of the loop and back on the trail you initially came in on. Now all that is left is the steep 5.25-mile descent back to the Pine Creek Trailhead. I hope you brought your hiking poles as they will save your knees.
Hike or Backpack?
At first glance, a 10.5-mile round trip doesn’t sound like an overly intensive day hike but the Pine Creek Lake Trail is brutal. The 5.25 miles will take the average person 3 – 5 hours to climb and nearly as long to descend. The elevation gain after the first waterfall is steep and relentless. While the journey is easier as a day hike the secluded lake would make an excellent destination for those looking for a relaxing stay in the backcountry. However, this steep trail is obviously going to be all the more difficult with a heavy pack strapped to your back. This is not a trail I would recommend for beginner backpackers.
If you are new to backpacking and not sure where to start, check out our gear guide on what we carry and how to allocate your backpacking funds.
There are no designated campsites along the Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana. Try to camp in areas that have already been disturbed and follow leave no trace principles. The most popular area for camping on the trail is on the northeastern side of Pine Creek Lake. This is a very popular area and you will have to share it with lots of fellow backpackers. There is a very nice campsite at the base of the waterfall coming off of Jewel Lake. This is below the third and final shelf so the views aren’t as epic but it is a secluded spot. The crash of the waterfall permeates the space making for a very nice spot to spend the night.
Bears are the primary danger on the Pine Creek Lake Trail. Carry bear spray and if you choose to camp make sure you store your food appropriately in a bear canister or with a proper food hang. Beyond the wildlife, there is some steep exposure alongside the trail which if you tripped could mean a long fall. It isn’t overwhelming like some alpine trails and the trail is plenty wide so as long as you keep your wits about you, you will be fine.
Logistics for Hiking or Backpacking the Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana
Water is abundant on the trail as it tightly follows the flow of the creek. You will need a lot of water during the hot summer months. I recommend either carrying 4L/person for the entire hike or bringing a water filter. There is typically an area accessible to the creek every mile or so. A water filter will make it easier to carry less weight but still have access to plenty of fresh cold water.
I had read prior to hiking the Pine Creek Lake Trail that there was very little shade. This is not true. The trail is well shaded for a large portion but it does have a few areas where shade is limited and you will want to make sure you have sunscreen on.
Campfires are typically allowed in theAbsaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area but fire bans are also common during the summer months. Make sure you know what the current conditions are for the area. They are typically listed on the forestry website and are also normally posted at the trailheads.
The Old Saloon in the tiny town of Emigrant, Montana is one of the closest restaurants to the Pine Creek Lake Trail and it is still a 17-mile drive. That being said, the food is amazing and we can’t recommend it highly enough. It also has the added benefit of having a truly western vibe. If you are headed in the opposite direction towards Livingston, check out the authentic Los Pinos Mexican restaurant.
Guide to the Pine Creek Lake Trail in Montana
The Pine Creek Trail in Montana isn’t an easy stroll in the park. It is a relentlessly steep uphill slog. The path is surprisingly well-traveled but do not expect large crowds other than at the lower Pine Creek Falls and at the lake itself. Despite all this, the trail is one of our favorites in theAbsaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It has an immense amount of beauty especially for those searching for mountainous alpine lakes and numerous waterfalls.
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